Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns talks about how he was inspired to direct ‘Country Music’
Modesto plays a notable role in “Country Music,” the latest film by Ken Burns, debuting on PBS on Sunday, September 15.
The eight-part series mentions early on a band called the Maddox Brothers and Rose. It formed in Modesto in 1937 and toured and recorded for two decades.
And the film has lengthy commentary from the late Merle Haggard. He spent part of his boyhood in the Modesto area and went on to become one of the genre’s giants.
KVIE, Channel 6, will show the two-hour episodes at 8 p.m. September 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24 and 25. Each will be re-run three times.
The Burns team says on its website, “We will trace its origins in minstrel music, ballads, hymns and the blues, and its early years when it was called hillbilly music played across the airwaves on radio station barn dances.”
The Maddox group featured four brothers and their sister Rose, who launched her singing career at 11. They started out on KTRB, a local radio station, and went on to national acclaim.
The Burns team interviewed the last surviving member, fiddler Don Maddox, in 2013. He was 90 at the time and living near Ashland, Oregon. A week later, he returned home to accept a Modesto Area Music Award.
Maddox talked about all this at the time with Modesto Bee columnist Jeff Jardine.
“I didn’t think we were legends,” Maddox told Jardine. “Now, people do. If they want to believe that, let ’em.”
Burns has released only brief clips of the film, so it’s hard to say how much it devotes to the Maddox family. The group has two songs on the soundtrack, already out on CD: “Mule Skinner Blues” and “Step It Up and Go.”
Haggard was born near Bakersfield but spent many summers with an aunt and uncle in Riverbank. He worked as a boy milking cows, bucking hay and picking fruit.
Burns mentioned in a recent TV Insider interview that Haggard was influenced by the Maddox Brothers and Rose. The Bee reported on this nearly 20 years ago.
“They were billed as the most colorful band in the world,” Haggard told reporter Roger Hoskins. “They dressed so outlandish, flashy and sequins and all. It was more like rock ’n’ roll than country.”
No word yet on whether the new film explores another intriguing idea: That the Maddox Brothers and Rose were the first to play the rockabilly beat that would evolve into 1950’s rock ’n’ roll.
Burns went on a 30-city tour to publicize the film. One stop was in the San Joaquin Valley city that gave birth to country’s Bakersfield Sound, a rough-edged answer to polished Nashville recordings. Another was in Fresno, where the filmmaker summed up the whole project:
“There is a country song, as Charley Pride says in our film, for every mood, and it might make you cry, but you’ll feel better for crying.”
Burns has made dozens of historical films on topics such as baseball, jazz, Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, the national parks and three of America’s wars.
The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.