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CHAMPAIGN — Some of central Illinois’ best country music — including Alison Krauss and friends — is featured in “Illinois Country.”

It’s WILL-TV’s new documentary on the region’s role in the history of country music.

Admission is free for Friday’s preview at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign. At 6 p.m., the Virginia will close the street in front so attendees can enjoy the live music of Kathy Harden and Marvin Lee. Food trucks will be there. The show starts at 7 p.m.

Lisa Bralts of WILL, who had the idea and hired Edwards before moving on to another job, is the executive producer.

“She made it clear that it would be my main project. I’ve been working on it since last November,” Edwards said.

Most of the on-the-road production of the documentary was done by thedirector, producer and cinematographer D.J. Roach and freelance cinematographer Isaac Musgrave.

Shooting took a year.

“We’ve made six separate trips to Nashville and many trips across the state for interviews,” Edwards said. “By the end of the project, we will have shot between 23 and 25 interviews and logged hundreds of hours of footage.”

The broadcast date is still to be determined, said Edwards, who is hoping for November.

The documentary reintroduces viewers to Illinois natives Smiley Burnette, a Gene Autry sidekick, and singer Jenny Lou Carson.

Southern Illinois is the home of John Hartford and Belleville’s Uncle Tupelo, which often played in Champaign. Jerry Milam of Golden Voice Studios in Pekin is also interviewed.

The WILL crew went to “community hoedowns and local honky-tonks,” the director said, for interviews with local old-time country-music performers, including Marvin Lee Flessner. Big names include Alison Krauss, David Lee Murphy, Suzy Bogguss, Margo Price, Kendell Marvel and Robbie Fulks.

“Illinois Country” features "Backroads," an original song written, produced and recorded for the documentary by songwriter/producer John Pennell and five-time Grammy nominee Graham Edwards (Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber, Liz Phair).

Pennell has performed with numerous bluegrass bands, but also jazz, particularly at the late lamented Nature’s Table in Urbana.

Among his bluegrass ventures: working with Grammy-winning Vassar Clements.

Pennell formed an early version of Union Station featuring Alison Krauss, a prodigy on the fiddle — before she went solo. He’s written songs performed by her, including “Jacob’s Dream,” “Too Late To Cry,” “Foolish Heart,” “Dark Skies” and “Every Time You Say Goodbye.”

Krauss sings the high harmony on “Backroads.”

Pennell talks about songwriting in the documentary. He notes that in grad school here, “We didn’t write bluegrass songs, but I did write a marimba piece in Scott Wyatt’s class.”

He now lives in Nashville, Tenn., with wife Julie, also a musician, and won’t be able to make the premiere.

The song also features performers including Mo Pitney, Andrea Zonn, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas.

It will air on public television stations throughout Illinois starting this fall.

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Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).