Ken Burns likes to imagine Loretta Lynn undressing in the backseat of a car. But in a purely historical context.
Before she became a country-music icon, the Kentucky-born Lynn spent time in Washington state where her husband, Doo, had found work on a farm. She sang in taverns at night and, during the day, drove from one radio station to another, changing in the parking lot, then going in with a demo record and asking for airplay.
“I love that image of her shoving off her blue jeans in the back of the car,” Burns said, “putting on her black dress, going in to the record guy, playing the demo, then coming back into the car, carefully taking her dress off, putting her jeans on and driving to the next place.
“It seems improbable that there was a coal miner’s daughter in Custer, Washington,” Burns said. “But there she was.”
The story is part of Burns’ new eight-part, 16-hour documentary, “Country Music,” which premieres on KCTS on Sunday. The film tracks the genre from the southern Appalachian songs of the Carter Family to the stadium strut of Garth Brooks. It is Burns’ 32nd completed film, something he took on because he wanted to learn more.
“We don’t do stuff we know about,” Burns said on a recent stop in Seattle to promote the new film. “I mean, I did [1994’s] ‘Baseball,’ but I found out instantaneously that I knew nothing. Same thing with [2017’s] ‘The Vietnam War.’ I thought, ‘I know about this.’ Nope. Nothing.”
In working with writer and producer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunfey — who created “The Civil War” and “Lewis & Clark,” among others — Burns heard stories that even die-hard country-music fans were clueless about. And those on staff who didn’t like country music were turned completely around.
“I think there’s an entry point for everyone here,” Burns said of the documentary, which took eight years of research and features interviews with more than 100 people, including 40 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart and the late Merle Haggard among them.
They weren’t interested in telling their own stories, Dunfey said. They wanted to talk about those who came before them: Ernest Tubbs or Bob Wills. Haggard went on and on about Jimmie Rogers.
“It was kind of wonderful to see that connection to where they came from,” Dunfey said, “where they know their history and where they came from.”
In viewing the film, Dunfey said, someone who doesn’t like country music is likely to find a song or an artist “who goes straight to their heart.”
“I happened to me,” she said. “It was Merle Haggard. That interview was a revelation. His intelligence, his compassion. The twinkle in his eye.”
“Country Music” also includes more than 600 pieces of music — songs of struggle, heartbreak, addiction and faith. Not to mention love and loss, which Burns called “the two four-letter words” of country music.
“For me, the most staggering part of it is that I didn’t expect, coming off the Vietnam thing, how emotionally powerful it would be,” Burns said. “There’s not millions of people dying here. But people are dying of broken hearts and accidents. Mostly it’s about these elemental human forces that every one of us go through.”
While some believe country music was born and raised in the South, Loretta Lynn’s travels through Washington state illustrate the genre’s wide embrace — not just geographically, but emotionally.
“What it’s really about is the joy of birth and the sadness of death and falling in love and falling out of love and losing somebody and being lonely and seeking redemption,” Burns said. “That is the stuff that everybody goes through whether you’re a country fan or not. If people are open to it, it will touch everybody.
“It’s just telling stories. You see how complicated and vast we are.”
Burns points to Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry.” (“It’s stunning. But it’s so simple.”)
Or how about Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”?
“I go out to a party and look for a little fun,” Burns recited. “But I find a darkened corner. ‘Cause I still miss someone.”
“Who doesn’t get that?”