Andrew Billen - Good ol' girls

Television - The men aren't so easy to stand by in a revealing documentary, writes Andrew Billen

Perhaps to persuade us that our politicians aren't so bad, BBC1 pushed into prime time on the Monday night a mediocre documentary about Genghis Khan, the purpose of which, curiously enough, seemed to be to persuade us that he wasn't so bad, either.

The real revisionism on offer came later, after the news. Queens of Country convinced me that country music was a lot better than I thought it was, even when belted out by women with big hair and cowboy hats.

You couldn't exactly call Jill Nicholls's documentary an important piece of work. Its tone was so glib that if it ends up on the Biography Channel it won't seem out of place. But its stories of six country and western singers were gripping.

They sang from the heart about what they knew, and if you thought their songs were melodramatic, you ought to have tried living their lives.

The footage, mostly from long-forgotten country music shows (mostly American, but one of them, The Bobbie Gentry Show, among the first BBC2 shows to be made in colour), proved extraordinarily evocative of two lost eras, the 1950s and 1970s. Things were cheered up further by contributions from present-day fans, including Elvis Costello, Billy Connolly, k d lang, LeAnn Rimes and even the artist Sam Taylor-Wood - although, to be fair, it was really her daughter who had the hots for Dolly Parton. "Tell me what she looks like again, Mummy." "Well, she has very big hair and really enormous boobies." Parton is the biggest Barbie doll in the world, although not built to scale.

Actually, that is just the sort of judgement the programme was keen for us to desist from. Costello said Parton was underappreciated as a songwriter, while, in a marvellously cutting line, a record company president named Tony Brown proclaimed her "as deep as John Lennon ever tried to be". Parton - who, like so many of the ladies in this documentary, came from the sort of poverty always associated with the word "dirt" - is now bigger than country music itself, everyone agreed, but from the start she eclipsed everyone she got near. Clips of her, her hair so tall it was in danger of hitting the sound boom, effortlessly dominating The Porter Wagoner Show, made you feel sorry for toothy, ginger-haired Porter, even though he kept her on his show for seven long years, way after her star had eclipsed his.

Parton, of all the women, was the one who kept control of her career. Her secret, according to this programme, was that she had no children and no "demanding husband". (Unsure if this meant she had never married, I googled the words Par-ton and husband and was rewarded with this quotation: "My husband said 'show me your boobs' and I had to pull up my skirt . . . so it was time to get them done!" The lucky man is Carl Dean who, according to another fan site, "stays in the background and lets her get on with her life".)

You could certainly see why the programme might conclude that men were the last thing a country music singer would want to stand by. The trailblazer, Patsy Cline, owner of the bushiest eyebrows I've ever seen on a woman, was a toughie, but had reputedly been sexually abused by her father. "Crazy" was not only her most famous song, but her considered judgement on falling in love with men. She married twice before her death in a plane crash aged 30. Poor Loretta Lynn, meanwhile, had fallen for the local bad boy when she was 13 and he was 21, and by the time she was 18 had already had four children - and did stand by him. No wonder, in 1974, she wrote a song in praise of the Pill.

For marrying the wrong men, how- ever, Tammy Wynette held the all comers' record, married five times and a mother of three by the age of 20. "I'm a firm believer in marriage," she told Michael Parkinson. "You obviously are," he quipped. In this programme's summary, her story was one of "drink, pills, husbands, ex-husbands, violence and illness".

Wynette's greatness, it suggested, was that she sang about it all, and not always so cravenly as in "Stand By Your Man".

If a villain emerged it was a he, and his name was Glen Campbell. I didn't like him from the start, when he was being interviewed about his tours with the mysteriously retired Bobbie Gentry.

"They liked her more in Mississippi than they liked me," he said grinning, before quickly pulling himself together in order to add: "I'm kidding."

He turned up again in the story of Tanya Tucker, the "tabloid queen wild child" who flaunted her sex appeal on stage at an even younger age than Charlotte Church. Amazingly, despite a 23-year age gap, they became an item, and sang the American national anthem in duet at the 1980 Rep-ublican convention, while in a condition "higher than the notes they were hitting".

For their split-up, she blamed his substance abuse and violence. He blamed her infidelity. "She lied so much she had to hire someone to call the dog," he confided uncharmingly. Fortunately, Tucker seems to find the whole thing, or perhaps just Campbell, a bit of a joke: "He was bigger than me so I had to hit him when he wasn't looking." Even if they'd never sung a note, there would be a programme in these good ol' girls. I lie. There'd be a series.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Could the future be yellow?