Ken Burns explores the true roots of country music in new documentary

Ken Burns on the true roots of country music

Country music has never gotten the kind of comprehensive treatment that Ken Burns gives it in his latest documentary which traces its roots back to America's coming of age from the fiddlers and the banjo players to Jimmie Rodgers and his yodeling.

"I suddenly realized that this would be American history firing on all cylinders," Burns told CBS News' Jeff Glor.

Over the course of more than 16 hours and 8 days, Burns explores the highs and lows of country's history covering Gene Autry's singing cowboy, Dolly Parton's breakthrough, the meteoric rise of Garth Brooks and the legendary Carter family, who as he found, is at the heart of so many of these stories.

Instead of focusing on historians in this documentary, Burns went straight to country music legends like Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Marty Stuart – country music's unofficial record-keeper. Stuart's a man trained by the greats – Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe, Haggard and Cash – and served as the guide for Burns and his lead writer Dayton Duncan more than anyone else.

"He saved every scrap of paper, every telegram, every photograph, every uniform. He knows the history back and forth and he, in the course of it, has seen everything," Burns said.

ctm-saturday-clean-feed-20190914-cr470c-0700-0900-02-frame-39284.jpg
Ken Burns CBS News

We met Stuart in Nashville where his famous mandolin is its own piece of history.

"I didn't want to go to New York. I didn't want to go to L.A. I wanted to go to Nashville and play country music because those stories that I heard Johnny Cash sing me and Johnny Western sing me. It was like folk heroes talking to me," Stuart said.

Another theme the film touches on is the often ignored or misunderstood role African Americans played in the history of country music.

"Everything in America, every manifestation is never a one thing, because it's America. It's a many things. It's an alloy, stronger by that combination. So country music is itself born in as much African American history as it is in what we think is sort of white, rural southern history," Burns said.

ctm-saturday-clean-feed-20190914-cr470c-0700-0900-02-frame-38318.jpg
"CBS This Morning: Saturday" co-host Jeff Glor and Marty Stuart CBS News

One of the things Burns highlights is how many iconic country musicians had black mentors.

"Let's take the Mount Rushmore of early country music and say A.P. Carter of the Carter family, I'd put up there. Obviously, Hank Williams. Obviously, Bill Monroe, the inventor of bluegrass. Obviously, Johnny Cash. Now those four men all had African American mentors," Burns said.

Also covered, another sometimes sidelined part of country music history: the role of women in shaping the genre.

"You could never diminish that," Stuart said. "You pull out Loretta and Patsy and Connie and Dolly. There's a vast hole in the story of country music there. There's a vast void in the story of country music," he said.

"It's never been given the respect it deserves. And so, you know, we don't think it's got the same chops as jazz or blues or rhythm and blues or rock 'n' roll. But yet, in the mid-'60s Loretta Lynn is singing, 'don't come home a drinking with loving' on your mind.' Nobody in rock or folk is singing that. That's way ahead of anybody else," Burns said.