Magazine Features Music

More Than A Cowboys Sweetheart

Originally Printed in Country Music Magazine June 2017

On 7 April 2017, 54 years after her untimely death, the doors to the Patsy Cline Museum opened in downtown Nashville.  Despite releasing only three albums before her death tragic in a plane accident at just 30 years of age, Patsy Cline’s songs, including Crazy and Walking After Midnight, have endured and are today widely known and loved by a cross section of music fans. Her musical longevity and ability to transcend generations of fans is testament to her unparalleled ability to tell a story through song. The museum opening came hot on the heels of a PBS documentary on Cline released back in March, documenting her life, death and lasting influence on musicians. Narrated by Rosanne Cash, the documentary included interviews with several country music stars from Reba McEntire to Margo Price, all hailing Cline for the inspiration on their music. “She was utterly authentic–completely Patsy.  She wasn’t afraid to be her full self. She was sexual without being vulgar, confident without being arrogant, emotive without being histrionic. She was just perfectly balanced. That voice contained multitudes,” says Cash when asked about Cline’s continued legacy.

The opening of the museum comes at a pivotal time for women in country music. It’s well documented that the last 20 years has witnessed a drought of successful female artists coming out of Nashville. The big ticket names like Keith Urban and Blake Shelton have dominated the country charts leaving a gaping hole where country stalwarts Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntyre once ruled the roost. The industry’s current preference for “Bro Country”, the genre Toby Keith inadvertently invented  in the 1990s with his songs about beer, trucks and whiskey swigging gals in tight jeans, has dominated the conversation about gender in country music for a number of years now. The discussion reached a peak in 2015 when radio station consultant Keith Hill commented in an interview with Country Aircheck

“The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component…. Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” 

Hill’s bizarre salad-based analogy appeared to endorse the stauts quo.

But, finally, the tide appears to be turning. 2016 saw Margo Price make history when her critically acclaimed debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, launched straight into the country album charts at number 10. This was the first time that a solo female singer had ranked in the top 10 with her debut album with no prior rankings on the Hot Country Songs charts. Meanwhile Grammy Award winner Kacey Musgraves has gone from strength to strength with her brand of back to basics country and UK sisters, Ward Thomas, last year became the first UK country band to top the UK album charts with their album Cartwheels. The officially made them the most successful UK country act in history. “They hardly played female country music. It was all what they call male country. “Bro Country” as we’ve heard it. However, I think over the last 2 or 3 years it’s been really turning around. Lots of artists such as Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Maren Morris etc, have been a big help with that over in the states. However, over here in the U.K. we’ve not really seen much of that for us personally,” the duo tell me when asked about the current state of play. Following in the steps of Patsy Cline, these women have achieved success beyond the traditional country music audience and crossed over to a more mainstream public, something their male contemporaries have struggled with.

Women in country music have a rich and storied history going back to the foundations of the genre in 1920’s USA. While Cline is undoubtedly one of Nashville’s most beloved and revered musicians, she wasn’t the first female artist to make her mark in Nashville. In the decades preceding her breakthrough, women had been nudging the door open, preparing the world of country for her arrival. Back in 1935 at just 18 years old, Rubye Blevins, under the stage name Patsy Montana, released her self-penned song I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart which made her the first female country recording artist to sell a million records. Montana known for her distinctive yodel, got her start on National Barn Dance, a national radio programme broadcast by Chicago’s WLS that was the precursor to The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. She had a series of records with string band the Prairie Ramblers, before writing the hit song that propelled her into the living rooms of country music audiences across America. Montana’s success was a key milestone. Not only had she performed the song, she had written its lyrics and music and arranged its composition.  What’s more, this yodeling paean’s lyrics portrayed a proto-feminist outlook. Don’t let the title fool you, in 1935, a woman proclaiming,  “I want to be a cowboy’s sweetheart, I want to learn to rope and ride, I want to ride o’er the plains and the desert “ wasakin to a feminist battle cry.  

The song, and indeed Montana’s significance, was further acknowledged when, in May 2012, it was chosen as one of 25 sound recordings added to the US National Recording Registry. Recordings are selected for inclusion on the basis of being “historically, culturally or aesthetically significant” and to date, only 450 recordings are listed. Of the twenty-seven country music songs included, six are by solo female musicians.

It was around this time that Maybelle Carter’s journey to become one of country music’s most beloved and influential musicians began.  Along with her brother in law Alvin Pleasant “A.P” Delaney Carter and his wife Sara Dougherty Carter, Maybelle formed The Carter Family band back in 1927. Sara Carter sang lead vocals with AJ singing backing vocals. Maybelle accompanied the group with her vocal harmonies and distinctive guitar sound. The trio’s career would last 14 years, through many ups and downs including Sara and A.P.’s divorce, when she left him for his first cousin Coy Bayes. Their success was rooted in their ability to transform the Appalachian region’s traditional folk and church music into recorded music. Their sound was entirely different to the classical or jazz songs that radio stations usually played. They would record over 250 songs, and grew famous with hits including Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Keep On the Sunny Side, and Wildwood Flower, which would become standards. 

It’s impossible to overstate Maybelle Carter’s influence on music. Her skills as a guitarist were remarkable and she revolutionised the instrument’s use. Before Maybelle, guitar was primarily a rhythm instrument.  Her technique, which came to be known as the Carter scratch, was characterised by playing the melody notes on the bass strings and rhythmic fills on the treble strings. The result was that the guitar performed as both a lead instrument and rhythm instrument at the same time. She took the guitar from the back of the band and brought it to the forefront. Not only did she lay down the foundations of country music, but also rock and roll. Her impact can be heard in the recordings of Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins, both of whom would go on to perform in her band. Following the breakup of the original Carter family, Maybelle began to perform with her daughters June, Helen and Anita, originally as The Carter Sisters, before adopting The Carter family name once again in the 60s.

In the aftermath of World War 2, a new wave of female country stars arrived. The war had given birth to a social revolution and had given many women their first taste of independence when they worked the enlisted men’s jobs. Kitty Well’s 1952 smash hit “It wasn’t God That Made Honky Tonk Angels” edged the door a little further open. The song defied the traditional stereotype of women being submissive and instead blamed unfaithful men for creating unfaithful women. When the brash and brassy Patsy Cline came along a few years later, she succeeded in reaching not only the traditional country music fan base, but fans of contemporary pop music too. Released in 1957, Walkin’ After Midnight reached No. 2 on the country chart and No. 16 on the pop chart, making Cline one of the first country singers to have a crossover hit. Her success and influence weren’t confined to her recordings. Known for her assertiveness, she refused to perform until she was paid and often wore men’s pants, much to the chagrin of Opry officials when she became a member in 1960. She also also became a mentor to other aspiring female artists and her success and tenacity in pursuing her career inspired a new generation of women country singers to pick up the baton. The 1960s and 1970s were the golden age of women in country with artists including Loretta Lynn Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton storming their charts with tales of domestic life and heartache. Not only did their songs top the country charts, their cross over appeal introduced country music to a new, urbane audience. They were to find, however, that the fame that accompanied their success opened up their songs and indeed their live to the public and they would be scrutinised and questioned at every turn.

Loretta Lynn was unapologetic in her willingness to write about controversial topics that spoke to women. As a songwriter, Lynn felt no topic was off limits and wasn’t influenced by what radio stations would or wouldn’t play. She is viewed by many as the ultimate feminist. She had as many as 14 of her songs banned from radio at one time or another, usually as a result of their controversial lyrics dealing with sex, birth control and women’s rights, or lack thereof. Her 1973 single Rated X dealt with the stigma faced by divorced women during the early 1970s. The forthright language challenged a social norm about women and divorce and was met with outrage from male radio programmers and their traditional conservative audience.  Nonetheless, Lynn still reached number one, buoyed by a powerful female audience 

Rated ‘X'” became Lynn’s sixth number one country single as a solo artist and spent  a total of fourteen weeks on the charts. 

Undeterred by the mainstream country media’s backlash, Lynn two years later released her most controversial song to date. Banned by more than 60 radio stations across America, The Pill was also the subject of angry sermons in churches as preachers denounced the song from their pulpits. This was a woman singing about sex and birth control in 1970s America. The ban effectively kept Lynn from the number one spot, the song stalling at number five. Nonetheless, the controversy resulted in press coverage for Lynn from a more mainstream media and the song reached number 70 in the pop charts. What’s more, the song has been credited with highlighting the availability of birth control in many rural areas where it was previously a taboo subject that many women were reluctant to approach. 

While Loretta Lynn was derided for her outspoken feminist lyrics, her friend and fellow star Tammy Wynette was being castigated for the opposite reason. Ironically, for a woman who broke down so many barriers for women in music, Wynette was vilified for what was seen as an anti feminist anthem, Stand By Your Man. Wynette quipped in interviews that the song took just 15 minutes to write and a lifetime to defend. Released in 1968, at a time when the women’s movement in America was taking hold, Stand By Your Man met with considerable backlash from a growing feminist female population. Still, just like Loretta Lyn would discover with The Pill seven years later, the controversy and resulting media coverage pushed the song higher up the charts. It reached number one on the Billboard country charts and crossed over, becoming a top 20 pop hit. Today, the song is probably the most recognisable country hit in history. It reached number one in countries across Europe including the UK when it was finally released here in 1975, the first country song ever to do so. And, like I Want To Be a Cowboys Sweetheart, the song

 was selected by the Library of Congress for addition to the National Recording Registry.

However, to remember Wynette solely for Stand By Your Man is simply reductive. Throughout her career she placed 64 singles on the US country chart, 20 of which reached number one on the Billboard Country Charts. Her duets with husband and collaborator George Jones are remembered as his best work, with songs like the 1976 smash Golden Ring, a romantic tragedy, all the more authentic for its similarity to their own troubled relationship on which the media liked to comment with ill conceived joy. Wynette had married Jones at the height of her career in 1969.  The pair became known as “Mr. & Mrs. Country Music” in the early 1970s and scored several big hits as a duet as well as a number of solo recordings. The relationship was, however, doomed. Jones was a violent alcoholic who would disappear for days on end. Shortly after the birth of their only child, Jones was straitjacketed and committed to a padded cell to dry out. Still Wynette stayed with him for five years until, finally, she could take it no more. Underlying her success was a home life fraught with fear and violence. 

Tammy Wynette wasn’t the only female star in an uneasy partnership In 1970s Nashville. Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner were one of country music’s most legendary pairings. Wagoner had discovered Parton back in 1967 and offered her a slot on his weekly television programme, The Porter Wagoner Show. He convinced his label, RCA Victor to sign Dolly who went on to have several solo hits as well as her well received duets with Wagoner. For six years the pair had almost uninterrupted top-ten singles in the charts. Yet despite their playful banter on his show and their successful duets, it wasn’t a meeting of equals. “I don’t mean this in a bad way … but he was very much a male chauvinist pig,” Dolly Parton told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. How one could be a male chauvinist pig in a good way, she didn’t elaborate on. Wagoner was also stubborn minded and controlling. In early 1974 Parton’s solo single Jolene reached the top of the country charts. Parton, who’d always eventually planned a solo career, made the decision to leave Wagoner and his TV show. Her career had begun to eclipse the man who had discovered her. An embittered Wagoner was deeply unhappy to lose his partner and protégé. In 1979 he filed a lawsuit for breach of contract. Although it finally settled out of court, it left an indelible stain on their legacy. Parton was to write one of her most well known songs, I Will Always Love You, about her professional break from Wagoner. She played the song for him as her way of saying goodbye. Her subsequent success, not only as an artist but as a shrewd businesswoman, has been well documented. Today Dolly is revered across multiple genres, as evidenced by her headlining show at Glastonbury Festival in 2014.

The success of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and, of course, Dolly Parton, continue today to inspire a new generation of contemporary artists. As well as the Dixie Chicks and Miranda Lambert, Ward Thomas confirm it’s the women from the Golden Age of Country who they look up to Our grandmother used to sing a lot of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. Especially Patsy. So we have always been exposed to the country world. Dolly will always be a big inspiration from the golden age.”

While many of the issues faced by Loretta, Tammy and the earlier stars can be attributed to their time and place (history does not recall mid-century Tennessee for its progressive nature), the same issues continued in later decades. As the 70s gave way to the 80s a new era of female dominated country music arrived. Rosanne Cash released a string of successful albums in the early 80s but it was her fifth studio album, Rhythm & Romance, released in 1985, that cemented Rosanne as a powerful and influential artist in her own right, and not just the daughter of icon Johnny Cash.  The album left an enduring mark on the industry and paved the way for so many modern day country singers who incorporate rock and other genres into their music. Still, life was no bed of roses for women in the 80s. Cash is candid when asked if gender was a barrier to her success  “I refused to think of myself as a victim in even a marginal way. I was tough-spirited. I encountered a lot of sexism, but I became good at brushing it off so I could do what I wanted to do. Having said that, when I started, they wouldn’t play two women back to back on the radio. Most commercial country radio stations had a rule about that. I asked a programmer once why that was, and he said that they thought it was ‘disrespectful’ to the women artists. (Insert eye roll.)….. But I’m fortunate, and any ‘barrier’ didn’t make me bitter.”

Cash’s stance is admirable and this kind of attitude has lead the way for today’s artists. Had Loretta Lynn not released The Pill, it’s unlikely that songs like Kacey Musgraves’ 2013 single Follow Your Arrow, co-written with Brandy Clarke and Shane McAnally, which deals with same sex relationships and smoking marijuana, would ever have been released. Though it is notable that despite being released in the 21st century, the song was banned on a number of more conservative radio stations with some calling it an “attack on Christian values”. Interestingly, neither Blake Shelton’s 2011 release Ready to Roll nor Eric Church’s Smoke a Little Smoke met with with half as much media coverage or controversy, highlighting the double standards still playing out in country music radio and just how unforgiving the Nashville establishment have been to women in recent years.“I think that we’ve all experienced some barriers because of our gender. For some reason, I think that radio is a little hesitant to play female artists at the same rotation as the male artists.” says Brandy Clarke on the topic of gender, echoing Cash’s words. 

Traditional country music stations may be reluctant to play female artists but it’s not slowing these women down. Inspired by the rule breakers that have gone before them, the new generation of talented songwriters including Clarke, Musgraves and Ward Thomas, are breaking records and reaching their audience regardless. While different sub genres of country music come and go, the art of songwriting and story telling will never go out of fashion, and, as history as shown us, it’s these stories that will stand the test of time. 

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