Ken Burns may be the smartest person I’ve ever met but it’s not like we’re super good friends. We shook hands. He couldn’t pick me out of a one-person lineup, but I could him, even if he were flanked by Rhodes Scholars and astrophysicists.

Most of us struggle to complete sentences, Burns, who was in town Friday to preview his new eight-part, 16-hour series called “Country Music,” speaks in paragraphs bound securely to other paragraphs that flow into chapters, volumes and then circles home again, neatly tying his pretty ideas together with a literary flourish. 

After Burns finishes making these tortuously hard documentaries — “Country Music” took eight years to complete — he could make the world more beautiful by teaching America to speak. 

The Fox was about half full, maybe 800 people, which I thought was good for July and 107 degrees. How good, I’m not sure. People may have come because this is Bakersfield and they love country music or they may have stumbled in, half crazed, because they thought the Fox was a cooling station.

I saw some familiar faces. That happens when you live in a town for awhile.  You might not be able to put a name to a face but the faces are friendly so everybody nods. 

Susan and Dan Peeler were there. They fall in that generous group of Bakersfield’s finest. Dan was a powerhouse in the Fruitvale School District and a force in History Day performances for years. Susan was a force period. They are bright, engaging, good listeners and have six grandchildren.

They were holding “Grover Cleveland, Again!,” a book by Burns they were hoping he would sign later, which he did. Burns is like Roger Federer, he’ll shake hands and sign autographs until they dim the lights, close the curtains and shut down the popcorn machine. 

Kristen Beall, president and CEO of Kern Community Foundation and a past board member of Valley PBS, started the program. She spoke beautifully too, as if Burns was giving elocution lessons in the green room. 

Beall was followed by some talented, young Bakersfield musicians who had been chosen to play— Josiah and Magdalena Herrmann, a brother and sister fiddle team, 12-year-old Lauren Kaff who belted out “Anyway,” (there is nothing sweeter than a young voice) and then Brayden Madden, 16, who sang “Folsom Prison Blues” and would have made Johnny Cash dance a jig. 

Burns came on stage looking like a teenager. When you do the math on the number of years he’s spent on these projects — “The Dust Bowl,” “The War,” “Baseball,” “Lewis & Clark,” (there’s more), he must have started making films shortly after learning to walk. 

Burns played about an hour’s worth of clips from the eight episodes. Before doing so, he threatened to have the ushers lock the doors and roll all 16 hours of the film. The audience laughed but I suspect some might have bunked down for the superb air conditioning. 

Bob Price did a magnificent job at the end, during the question and answer period with Burns, writer and producer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunfey. I’m surprised Burns didn’t hire Price on the spot. 

A bunch of people were there, including me, to see what part Bakersfield played in the documentary. We are starved for attention, love and reassurance because we’re frightfully insecure. The Bakersfield Sound is all over this film, with one entire episode mostly devoted to it, but the film also has a generous sprinkling of Buck and Merle throughout the other 14 hours. 

There are some great interviews with Merle where he talks about the things that are true but that we cannot see, and I totally butchered that.

One of the film’s central themes is summed up by Louis Armstrong when he says, “There are only two kinds of music— good music and bad music.”

Country music gets a bad rap but listen to Bob Wills, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, the Bakersfield boys and a million others, and all of life is there. If you let it, the music “will sing you back home again.”

***

Ken Burns' documentary series "Country Music" debuts on on PBS Sept. 15. 

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or (661) 395-7279.

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