How Will Knoxville Fit Into Ken Burns’ Upcoming Country Music Documentary?

In Movies & TV, Music Stories, Program Notes by Matthew Everettleave a COMMENT

Fifteen years after his landmark 10-part PBS documentary Jazz, Ken Burns and his team of filmmakers, writers, and editors are preparing to tackle America’s other great original music form in a documentary series titled, with Burns’ typical flourish, Country Music.

Country Music will chronicle the history of a uniquely American art form, rising from the experiences of remarkable people in distinctive regions of our nation,” reads the synopsis at “From southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking western swing of Texas, from California honky tonks to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, we will follow the evolution of country music over the course of the twentieth century, as it eventually emerged to become America’s music.”

Knoxville’s contributions—the 1929-30 recording sessions at the St. James Hotel, Arthur Q. Smith’s semitragic songwriting career, WNOX and the Mid-Day Merry Go Round, and the early careers of Dolly Parton, Chet Atkins, and Roy Acuff, among many others—are essential to the development of country music as an art form and an industry. But they’re often overlooked in general histories that focus on Nashville and Bristol.

But Knoxville will almost assuredly get some screen time in Country Music. One of the documentary’s producers, Julie Dunfey—also a producer and consultant on some of Burns’ biggest projects, like Jazz, The Civil War, and The National Parks: America’s Best Idea—visited the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound earlier this month and got an introduction to the often-overlooked Knoxville chapters of country music’s storied history—and a hard drive full of home-video footage from the archives.

“We mainly looked at film and video,” says TAMIS audio-visual archivist Eric Dawson (who is also a Mercury contributor). “The photograph and stills team will probably come at a later date to go through photos and pieces of ephemera. We’re fortunate to have several home movies featuring WNOX stars, some of whom later went on to larger success in Nashville, including what might be the earliest film footage of Chet Atkins. She was primarily interested in what we had on Dolly Parton, and we do have a few home moves with her, as well as an appearance on Cas Walker’s show.” Dawson and Dunfey also looked through home movies from Carl and Pearl Butler, who were stars on the Mid-Day Merry Go Round in the 1950s and topped the country singles chart with “Don’t Let Me Cross Over” in 1962. Dawson took Dunfey to visit Carl Butler’s brother, who still lives in Knoxville, and also took her to East Side soul-food emporium Jackie’s Dream—“which she loved,” he says.

Country Music is scheduled to air on PBS in 2019. According to, the series will focus on Nashville, Bakersfield, Calif., and Texas, with profiles of the Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Garth Brooks. At an expected 16 hours, it will rank alongside Burns’ major documentaries: The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, and The National Parks.

East Tennessee played a part in another recent Burns’ documentary series, though The National Parks, from 2009, shortchanged some significant local contributions to the origins of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to Jack Neely, director of the Knoxville History Project (and a Mercury contributor). The documentary, Neely contends, focused too much attention on North Carolina writer and early Great Smoky Mountain National Park advocate Horace Kephart and overlooked several more interesting characters from around Knoxville, like Willis and Annie Davis, Harvey Broome, Jim Thompson, and David Chapman, among others.

“Some of this is maybe our own fault, for being shyer about promoting our own side of the history than our Asheville neighbors are,” Neely wrote in a 2009 Metro Pulse blog post. “If you look up the Wikipedia entry for the history of the Great Smokies, at least as of this morning, you’ll see mentions of Kephart and Masa as founders, but not one thing about Chapman, the Davises, Campbell, Broome, Thompson, or the others who appear in the standard histories of the Smokies, and who are heroic to generations who grew up with the Smokies, hearing the extraordinary stories of the founding of the park. … It makes you want to make your own documentary.”

Let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen with Country Music.

Senior Editor Matthew Everett manages the Knoxville Mercury's arts & entertainment section, including the comprehensive calendar section—Knoxville’s go-to guide for everything worth doing in the area. You can reach Matthew at

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