Belmont University and PBS are teaming up to teach students the story of Nashville's most famous industry, with a new curriculum to go along with an upcoming eight-part documentary on country music.
Developers say the lessons include some surprising subjects.
Country music is an art form, but it's also about places, says documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. The churches of Appalachia. The plains of Texas. The farms of central California.
All of which feature prominently in his 16-hour epic, Country Music.
"It's a geographical film that celebrates where the music sprung up," he says.
The surprising role that geography played in making Nashville the epicenter of country music is one of the lessons Burns hopes to convey. The sound, he says, developed on "barn dance" radio programs popular in countless cities — Chicago, Dallas and Charlotte to name two. But only Nashville had the central location needed to draw the top talent.
"It was possible for the performers to be there on Saturday night and then scatter to the winds for a week," he says. "And people began to gravitate to Nashville."
Burns bases findings such as this on documents, archival footage and interviews with more than 100 artists. And PBS plans to put much of his source materials online, free of charge.
It's not an unusual decision. PBS has done this for Burns' other projects, including his documentaries on the Civil War, Vietnam and the National Park Service. But Sara Shapiro, PBS's vice president for education, says music opens new avenues.
"Some of the themes that we're really excited about include the musical, cultural and historical origins of country music," she says. "Comedy in country music. Songwriting and feminism."
Country Music also delves into the workings of the industry, what makes country music unique and how it evolved from blues and hillbilly music to the modern, genre-crossing sound.
Belmont professors provided expertise on those topics for the documentary and will help develop the curriculum, which will be aimed at 5th- through 12th-graders.