Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ 16-hour examination of country is airing this week on PBS, and one artist featured in the series hopes it will help reframe the conversation about the genre’s origins.
African American musician Rhiannon Giddens spoke in the series’s first episode, which focused on the roots of country music.
It didn’t shy away from the role of blackface, poor shaming and other cultural complexities. Giddens said in a recent interview with WPLN that she believes Burns is trying to change the perception of who helped create country music.
“It’s a hard needle to move. It really is. The narrative of where people think country music comes from has been really reinforced in very strong ways for very specific reasons,” Giddens says. “But if anybody can challenge it, it’s Ken Burns.”
Burns’ career as a documentary filmmaker goes back decades. His 1990 series, “The Civil War,” won two Emmys and two Grammys, helping to cement his reputation with mass audiences.
Giddens is a recent recipient of the so-called “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation and has spent her career spotlighting the legacy of African American folk music. She’s also been a vocal supporter of representation in white-dominated genres like Americana, bluegrass and country.
The part-time Nashville resident says she’s seen first-hand the impact visibility can make.
“It does matter. It does matter,” she says. “I’ve had many people come up to me and say, ‘Seeing you play the banjo made me interested in this music.'”