Ken Burns taps Bill Malone for new country music doc

Eight-episode series starts airing Sept. 15 on PBS
Ken Burns taps Bill Malone for new country music doc
Sharon Vanorny
Bill Malone

Being the wise sage in a new documentary by the celebrated filmmaker Ken Burns is, it’s tempting to say, a fitting capstone to the career of Madison country music historian Bill Malone.

The thing is, I’ve been capping Malone’s career for more than a decade now, and he just keeps going.

Certainly the premiere this month on PBS of the epic Burns documentary, “Country Music” — 16 hours over eight episodes, debuting Sept. 15 — is a big deal.

Rolling Stone recently said the film “might well be the most ambitious, culturally resonant music documentary ever made.” The same story called Malone, whose 1968 book, “Country Music, USA,” served as an outline for Burns and his team, “an estimable historian.”

He is that. I’ve been writing about Malone for more than two decades now, since he arrived in Madison in the late ’90s when Bobbie — his talented wife — got a job at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Bill soon began hosting a weekly music program, “Back to the Country,” on WORT-FM.

I think I first capped his career when Malone received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of American Music. That was in 2008. I capped it again in 2017 when he celebrated 20 years of his “Back to the Country” show, and again a year later on the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Country Music, USA,” which elicited a new edition of that seminal work.

I’d cap it again now with the Burns documentary, except that next spring Bill and Bobbie are publishing a new volume, their first collaboration (at least on a book), “Nashville’s Songwriting Sweethearts: The Boudleaux and Felice Bryant Story,” a biography of the songwriting team that produced numerous hits for the Everly Brothers, among others.

Malone himself regards the Burns documentary, and his participation in it, as a career highlight. He told me so when I caught up with him last week, as he and Bobbie prepared to fly to Austin for a public television event tied to the “Country Music” premiere. (Austin was a homecoming for Bill, a native Texan. His dissertation at the University of Texas eventually became “Country Music, USA.”)

“Ken Burns himself is such an iconic figure in American culture,” Bill says, “and knowing how much he loves and respects American culture, to have country music part of that I consider not only a validation of the culture — my culture, the culture I grew up in — but a validation of my lifelong work.”

Malone first heard about the project back in 2014. He got a phone call from Dayton Duncan, a close colleague of Burns who serves as writer-producer on the new film. (Burns is director-producer, and there’s a third producer, Julie Dunfey.)

“They wanted us to come to New Hampshire” where Burns lives and has a production facility, Bill recalls. Instead, they hooked up in New York City — where Bill was celebrating the birth of a grandchild — and there ensued a three-hour interview.

“It was exhausting,” Bill says. “I finally had to cut it short.”

That willingness to keep digging is something that sets the Burns team apart. “The research is amazing,” Bill says. “The stuff they came up with — home videos and photographs. They’ve really done their work.”

He and Bobbie did travel to New Hampshire in October 2017 with other consultants on the film to watch rough cuts of all eight episodes of “Country Music.” After each, Burns would go around the room asking for comment. Bill had been critiquing scripts throughout. In New Hampshire, the filmmakers were concerned about keeping it an appropriate length for public television.

“I wasn’t much help there,” Bill says. “I always wanted to add something.”

On Sept. 15, the evening of the documentary’s premiere, I will be interviewing Bill at the Stoughton Opera House prior to the broadcast. It’s a WORT-FM fundraiser billed as “a tribute to Bill Malone” and it sold out soon after it was announced.

It sounds like the entire 16 hours of the documentary will be well worth watching. But Bill once summed up the music for me — leave it to him — in one lovely phrase: “It’s a beautifully eclectic music, drawing on many sources, none of them pure.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.