Ken Burns was on a panel to discuss his new PBS project Country Music Sept. 19. The event, at the Bank of America Tower in New York, celebrated the role of women in country music.
Bank of America underwrites Burns’ documentaries on PBS. “No one is going to give us 10 ½ years to make Vietnam, or 8 ½ years to make Country Music,” Burns said of his sponsor’s dedication to his films.
Susan Spencer, editor in chief of Woman’s Day, moderated the panel. Besides Burns, the director and producer of Country Music, the panelists were country artists Kathy Mattea and Sara Evans, Country Music producer Julie Dunfey and Live Nation president of Nashville Music Sally Williams.
The panelists spoke at length about the state of country radio, which several noted is reluctant to play women’s artists. Streaming audio platforms, the panelists said, have the same issue. One mentioned how a person in their 20s might have only heard “bro-country” on the radio throughout their life, songs about trucks and beer and pretty women.
The Burns film looks into the role several female artists, including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris, have played in shaping country. Lynn, Burns said, “was way ahead of rock ‘n roll and folk” in terms of examining social issues in her music, such as “The Pill” and “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Loving on Your Mind).”
As the panel concluded, the panelists were asked to name a country song by a female artist they could listen to every day for the rest of their lives. For Burns, it was Parton’s “Jolene.”
Featuring eight parts, Country Music premiered on PBS Sept. 15. In an interview with Multichannel News recently, Burns spoke about how country is hardly the domain of white rural America, as many believe.
“Who would’ve thought that this music that conventional wisdom suggests is white and conservative is, in fact, all about race and class and strong women?” he said. “This was a wonderful revelation for all of us.”
Burns mentioned in the panel how all of his films, including The Vietnam War, Baseball and Prohibition, are “solely about the US—capital U, capital S.”