Ken Burns came to the San Quentin chapel and delivered an exclusive prison screening of his latest American gospel, Country Music.
The July 24 visit brought prisoners up close and personal with the legendary filmmaker and two of his Florentine Films teammates, writer and co-producers Julie Dunfey and Dayton Duncan.
“I feel like I’ve met almost everyone here in this room,” said Burns to the roughly 150 inmates and staff. “This has been one of the greatest hours of my life.”
Burns uses the scope of Country Music to explore themes of America’s cultural identity, as he has done in his other documentaries.
“You don’t ever get an answer. You just deepen the question,” Burns told SQNews. “We’re a very complicated people.”
“Americans tend to be very tribal—in spite of that whole ‘melting pot’ ideology we like to talk about.
“Country Music shows legends like Hank Williams getting tutored early on by guys like Jimmy Rogers, so we see the impact of these African American mentors—and how so many country musicians got their chops from somewhere else.”
“I’m not surprised by your emotion. “I’m honored by it”
The SQ event marked the first time Burns has been back inside a penal facility since he was 19, when he worked as a tutor within the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Concord.
“I taught a guy my age English and writing,” said Burns about that 1972 summer experience. His upcoming production, College Behind Bars, took another Florentine collaborator, Lynn Novick, inside New York’s Bard Prison Initiative, where she filmed prisoners working to achieve college degrees.
“If you spend time with incarcerated men and women—and see them learning, you realize that if they were on the outside, they’d easily be getting their Masters and Ph.Ds,” said Burns. “I hope this film can help unite all those prison university projects around the country.
“When we look at the growing shift toward prison reform right now, it seems like a perfectly propitious time to get all those reforms on the same page.”
Haggard served time at SQ in the fifties and was in the prison audience during Cash’s first concert here on New Year’s Day 1959.
“Johnny Cash came to the prison to tell them ‘You are a human being,’” said Burns. “It was extremely important for him to come inside and be able to deliver that message.
“You know, when we live in our gated communities out there, we don’t recognize the ‘other.’ You hear the words ‘inmate’ or ‘incarcerated,’ and right away that closes the door.
“To truly begin to under- stand ourselves and forgive ourselves—as well as the ‘other’—that’s much harder for humanity to bear.”
Cash’s performances at SQ left an indelible impression on him, which later fueled the desire to record his landmark concert album at Folsom State Prison.
“You can’t contain him in any one story,” Burns said of Cash. “He was one of those artists that could grapple with two opposing ideas at the same time—those binary contradictions.
“Haggard had all this anxiety about people finding out about his prison past. It was Cash that convinced him to get up on stage and be open about it.
“Lifting that immense burden off of him was a wonderful moment—an incredible gift Cash gave to Merle.”
Country Music’s entire 16 hour run is slated to begin airing on PBS in September. Before previewing about 30 minutes of selected clips, Burns spoke to the audience.
“Country music, its fairness and authenticity enables it to address human beings— wherever they might be, and whatever they may look like,” he said.
Burns later discussed the profound way country artists stay deeply rooted to their fan base. “Because so many came from abject poverty, they never lose their connection,” he said. “There is no ‘being above’ the fans for the artists in Country Music. They look each other in the eye.”
The first screened segment focused on Haggard and his upbringing within a family of Oklahomans migrating to Bakersfield, California. Because “Okies” faced extreme prejudice—being “talked down to” and “looked down upon” by mainstream society—the film reveals Haggard’s empathy toward the Black experience in America.
During his outlaw career, Haggard escaped 17 times from various California correctional facilities, his first escape being from a juvenile detention center at the age of 16.
“Somebody was always after me,” said Haggard in Country Music. “I was only doing time when they’d catch me.”
Haggard credited Cash and that New Year’s Day concert at SQ for inspiring him “to someday be a star.” He also wondered what path his life might have taken “if music hadn’t saved me.”
Incarcerated old-timer Curly Ray Martin—a veteran country musician himself who walked the SQ yard with Haggard in the ’50s—sat right be- side Duncan during the chapel screening.
Afterwards, eyes watering with emotion, Duncan pointed out Martin to the audience as “one of the great stories in country music.”
“Curly Ray was at Folsom when Cash made his concert there,” said the choked-up Duncan. “What an honor to be able to show you that in person.”
Martin turned 80 in June and has spent the last 52 years serving a seven-to-life sentence for murder. At his most recent hearing in April, the Board of Paroles denied him again—for the 24th time.
“They said they felt I was still dangerous,” Martin told SQNews.
Although he knew about the screening that day, “I was just gonna wait for it to come on PBS,” he said. “I had to be at work, but then my boss called me up to the desk and said, ‘Here’s a pass to go up to the chapel.’
“I got Lt. Sam Robinson to thank for that. ’Else I would have missed out.”
“I was shocked,” Martin said about all the attention paid to him by Burns and team. “I felt kinda honored and proud.
“I think Merle would’ve liked it. For both of us, I’m sure, watching it took us to places where we didn’t necessarily want to go—some bad, some good—labor camps, prison yards. It was all a part of us.”
Martin dispelled the recent myth that Haggard and he were once cellmates.
“I don’t know where they came up with that. When I was here, Merle lived in North Block. I was housed in South,” Martin said. “The only thing we shared was the yard and Glen Sherley. They started me writing.
“Merle and Glen ran together constantly, and then I came along. Merle taught me to play bass. “When I was
here in ’58, I didn’t know noth- in’ about music— except I liked it.”
Between then and starting this prison term in 1967, Martin achieved his own success in the music industry— playing with the likes of Eddy Arnold, Waylon Jennings, Haggard, Rose Maddux, Tammy Wynette and many others.
“I know I’m here because I was too hard headed to appreciate what I had,” Martin said. He rarely ever pulls his guitar out anymore after surgery for cancer ended his singing. “That tore my vocal cords all to hell.”
Setting up a brief Q & A after the preview, Burns helped the chapel’s sound engineer, Steve Pascascio, carry a table up onto the stage area.
“He wanted to help out,” Pascascio later said. “When people saw him about to pitch in, they tried to stop him— but he told them, ‘No, I want to do this.’”
Richie Morris used the Q & A microphone to tell Burns and the entire audience how he’d cried while watching the scenes of Haggard. “I grew up with the children of Rose Maddux. I’ve been locked up for the last 34 years, but there’s men here who’ve been locked up far longer,” he said. “Your film gets straight to the heart of me.”
“I’m not surprised by your emotion,” responded Burns. “I’m honored by it.”
D. Ernest Sotero also shared his own background and thanked Burns, Dunfey and Duncan for “taking the time out of your day for us lowly prisoners here.”
“What a kind story,” said Burns. “I’d take away one adjective in there, however— lowly.”
Dunfey, responding to a question, explained how perhaps the most challenging aspect of making this film in- volved capturing the resonant power of the featured songs’ lyrics. Burns generally uses instrumentals to set his intended tone.
“Country music is more than 50% about the lyrics, so the viewer needs to hear those words,” said Dunfey. “I have to credit our editors for getting that right.
“Country Music deals heavily with the question of who we are as Americans— and you can tap your toe and cry to it.”