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Illinois Public Media’s feature film Illinois Country wins two Mid-America EMMY® Awards

44th Mid-America Regional EMMY® Awards, Winners DOCUMENTARY - CULTURAL
Illinois Country

Illinois Country's original song – “Backroads”

Illinois Public Media's feature film Illinois Country—telling the story of Illinois’ singular role in the history of country music in the United States—has received two Mid-America EMMY® Awards.  

The 2020 National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Mid-America Regional Chapter EMMY® Awards has honored the Illinois Country team with outstanding work in “Documentary - Cultural” for the film as a whole and “Musical Composition/Arrangement” for its original song "Backroads." 

"The goal of local public media is to bring about a sense of place for our communities within the national conversation. When Ken Burns announced his film Country Music, we wanted to find out what role Illinois might have played in that history. Turns out, our team uncovered this important, and often overlooked, statewide impact on the genre,” said Moss Bresnahan, CEO of Illinois Public Media. “And for Illinois Country to be the winner of not one but two EMMY® awards is just icing on the cake.”  

At the heart of it, the film is really a travelogue, each stop introducing us to another person or entity who made remarkable contributions to the genre, sometimes changing it in controversial ways. It traces the progression of the genre throughout Illinois, from early gathering halls and small-town hoedowns up and down the state, to game-changing events like The National Barn Dance in Chicago and Farm Aid in Champaign, and on to today’s Illinois-bred Grammy winners.  

Illinois Country was a real first for me in my career, in that everything really worked out beautifully from start to finish. We interviewed everyone we wanted to interview,” said Sarah Edwards, producer and director of the film. “You don’t encounter that level of smooth-sailing often as a documentary filmmaker. So, this EMMY® is a true reflection of Illinois Public Media’s wonderful staff and commitment to making high-quality, meaningful work.” 

The film covers Illinois natives such as Gene Autry's sidekick Smiley Burnette and singer Jenny Lou Carson, who were both instrumental in making Illinois the first "capital of country music." Then Illinois Country travels to southern Illinois to hear the stories of John Hartford and Uncle Tupelo and back to central Illinois to learn more about the recording pioneer Jerry Milam of Golden Voice Studios and the founders of Bloodshot Records.  

Shot over the course of a year, the film also features an original score and an original song made exclusively for the film. “I wasn’t sure how documenting the making of a song would play out in the film, but I knew I wanted to do it. Now, I think it's the storyline that ties it all together,” said Edwards. “And to know that that little idea resulted in an EMMY®-winning bluegrass song written by top songwriters and performed by a ‘who’s who’ of Nashville stars is more than I could have imagined.”  

And it’s true, one of Illinois Country’s shining stars is the making of the film’s original song, “Backroads” — written, produced, and recorded by five-time Grammy nominee Graham Edwards (Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber, Liz Phair) and renowned songwriter/producer John Pennell (Alison Krauss, Alan Jackson, Eva Cassidy).   

“Graham and I hit it off right away, and the telling of the story—the right story—was always paramount. And I know we both regard having the making of our song documented in Illinois Country, as a centerpiece to the history of Country Music in Illinois, one of the great thrills of our lives,” said Pennell.  

As he explains it, the song tells the story of discovery and love for the country and bluegrass music of an Illinois youth. Beckoned by the sound of a lonesome fiddle, that discovery was never lost nor diminished by the many travels and years away from the Land of Lincoln. In the end, “Backroads” was brought to life through the vocals of Mo Pitney and supported by some of the best musicians in Nashville: Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Andrea Zonn, Blake Pitney, Chris Brown, and Alison Krauss. 

“The entire process was a genuine labor of love for both of us. From our initial meeting and lay out of a rough draft of the song, through to its completion and recording by Curb Records recording artist Mo Pitney, was an experience beyond just about any, in terms of joy and artistic satisfaction,” Pennell continued.  

A very special congratulations to our exceptional Illinois Country team members Director and Producer Sarah Edwards, Producer DJ Roach, Executive Producer Lisa Bralts, Cinematographer Isaac Musgrave, Director of Operations Lillie Duncanson, and Art Director Kurt Bielema, along with partners Graham Edwards and John Pennell. To learn more about this Regional EMMY® award-winning documentary, visit will.illinois.edu/illinoiscountryIllinois Country is also available to stream on the PBS Video App with your WILL Passport.