It’s a bit surprising that it took Ken Burns this long to make a documentary about country music. The two seem like natural bedfellows, twin pillars of a very specific type of American storytelling, one both obsessed with and in service of this country. It makes sense that the guy who built his career on dissecting explicitly American topics like baseball, Vietnam and the Roosevelt family would want to want to explore country music, one of America’s most emblematic and divisive art forms (and maybe its best). 

I caught a preview showing of “Country Music” at the Ellen Theatre on Tuesday, Sept. 10. Presented by Montana PBS, the preview showed about 50 minutes of the documentary, with featurettes focusing on Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, George Jones and Vince Gill, among a few others. 

“Country Music” is a massive project, compiled from over 90 interviews and countless hours of archival footage. At a staggering 16 hours, “Country Music” is one of Burns’ longest pieces, and this is the same guy who made a series about The Civil War that is somehow longer than the war itself. 

The documentary begins in 1923, the year country music was first recorded, follows the genre into modern times. Stylistically, it is nearly identical to the form Burns has always worked in, with lots of ambient music and sweeping, slow pans over static images. Thankfully, he has an almost 100 years of recorded music to pull from, which alleviates the occasional repetitive nature of Burns’ music choices. His “Baseball” documentary runs almost 19 hours with different versions of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” playing in the background. 

Burns’ list of guest narrators and interview subjects have never been more impressive, ranging from the giants of country music (Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson) to lesser known students of the genre (Rodney Crowell, who, prior to his long career as a singer-songwriter, saw Hank Williams second to last performance) and even dearly departed legends (Merle Haggard). 

The story of country music has always been best told by the artists themselves. It’s almost impossible to gain a footing as a country singer or songwriter without a encyclopedic knowledge of those who came before.

“Country Music” is both a document of those who came before, and a love letter to the genre that produces songs that Dolly Parton notes you can “dance to, cry to, make love to, and play at a funeral.”

It would be easy to parade out a bunch of classic songs and photos and call it a documentary. Burns’ greatest strength is his ability to cover big topics and enliven them with little details and images that make them stick. He’s never done that better than in “Country Music.”

Those little moments Burns focuses on are just indelible. He highlights Hank Williams, who, despite being unable to either read or write music, was so full of songs he wrote them on anything he could find, including the cardboard inserts that came in his pressed shirts. Willie Nelson remembers being so sure that “Crazy” was going to be a hit that he woke Patsy Cline up in the middle of the night to play it for her. There’s a great feature on the monumental recording sessions that birthed George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a song so achingly sad the singer famously thought no one would buy it (it became his biggest hit). Jack White, rocking a pompadour so big it can’t stay in the frame, unpacks the layers of metaphor Loretta Lynn packs into every line. “These songs are just life,” Lynn says. She’s right. Ken Burns’ “Country Music” is proof that that life is still worth living.

In addition to a treasure trove of vital information, “Country Music” serves as a reminder to support the station it will broadcast on. Next month, Montana PBS will celebrate its 35th birthday, a huge milestone for a station that first broadcast from the Hedges dormitory at Montana State University. Public Broadcasting remains a vital element of a functioning society, one that takes care of its artists and gives them a platform to share their work. If you’re not already among Montana PBS’s 16,000 members, “Country Music” should give you motivation to sign up.

If you want to check out “Country Music” for yourself (and you should) the first episode of the eight part series will air on Montana PBS Sunday, Sept. 15 at 7p.m. Subsequent episodes will then run Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and the following Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It will also stream on PBS Passport.