Playing Favorites – Country Music Part 3: I’ll Do It Myself, Thanks

“You don’t like strong women because they are hip top your trip” – Joni Mitchell You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio

Note: This write up is about MAINSTREAM country music and country radio so you don’t need to chime in with “those comments”.  We’re on the same page.

I had written most of this about 3-4 years before Beyoncé dropped her country songs. So if you want my thoughts on that go here.

And I am sad to report outside of the anomaly that is Beyoncé… this post is still relevant. Also having been written a few years ago it does repeat some stuff from parts 1 and 2 but go with it.

Since I totally botched sending out my WHM sampler on classical music (from four years ago now) that hasn’t stopped me from sending out this year’s WHM treat! And if this were in CD format it would be a three disc set! And if you see some familiar names from the other sets in this series… that should tell you something.

Also last year I streamed everyday in March for WHM playing only female acts and found that it was fun but ultimately meaningless in terms of social forces at play and the like. I am pretty sure all those live streams fixed no societal issues for women. But that wasn’t the point. You can read about that here.

But maybe more importantly to me personally, I celebrate women all year and quite emphatically so. So Women’s History Month feels like tokenism to me personally. And honestly we make note of WHM on social media or in the news but once March is over do people immediately forget women exist? I think not.

So I said last year I felt no need to celebrate WHM in such a specific way anymore.

However, country music… One of my favorite genres…. Has a HUGE female problem, still. And this is about ten years on.

Quick- how many female country/bluegrass singers, banjoists, guitarists, songwriters can you name compared with the number of men you can name? Dolly Parton probably comes to mind or MAYBE Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn. Unfortunately for some of you Shania Twain and Taylor Swift probably also come to mind and while those two may have had hints of country and hits on the country charts they really lean towards pop-country or straight up pop. And while pop-country has been around before- for example in the 50s folks thought Patsy Cline was not country sounding enough, John Denver stormed the country scene in the seventies with his AOR sound, and Ms. Parton gave us disco with the hit “9 to 5” in the 80s.

But it was Shania Twain who turned pop-country it into a blockbuster force that practically killed “real” country from radio airplay, releasing a pop version and a country version of the same album with the pop version VASTLY out selling the country version. I believe this led labels to go, “Why are we even selling country records if people will buy a pop record and still think it’s country? The pop version makes us WAY more money?”

And between you and me, side by side they were not that different, proving just how pop Shania Twain already was.

This is a tactic fairly common in Latin music circles with; pop, banda, merengue, bachata, salsa versions of hit songs. And it is that mindset that led to Taylor Swift using country as a stepping stone to pop and also ultimately led to bro-country which removed 99% of what makes country music country and became an assembly line product and cancer that country fans have railed against for some time.

To be fair this is a battle going on in music circles in almost every genre, the fight to bring back authenticity to a genre, to respect the roots of the genre and its sound, and take it from the clutches of the aforementioned mono genre and big music businesses and return the music to being about authenticity and not money and clichés and streams or hits.

Also during this period Music Row and mainstream country radio summarily gave the boot to all female artists in the genre, on radio, on the charts, and at awards shows. But again, many genres have issues with female representation not just country music.

*Waves at heavy metal, rap, reggae, and DJ EDM festivals*

But I am not versed enough in the other genres in their modern eras to comment on them other than to say those genres didn’t start with lots of female representation and then punt them out for no reason. Those genres never started with much female rep to begin with. Country music since the 50s has had pretty decent female participation despite some other entrenched issues around that participation.

And since I know country music I can assure you it still has a MAJOR problem with getting women on radio and celebrating them in the mainstream since the backward step- nay backwards LEAP it took when bro-country started.

The kind of BS Dolly, Dottie, Loretta railed against in the 60s/70s/80s.

Maybe 2-3 hits in over all these years were by a female act. And none of them were major hits that stormed the charts.

And since they shunned most of the females making country music they had nobody to nominate at awards shows except for Swift and ultimately Miranda Lambert. And so guess which two ladies got most of the awards in female categories?  Fun Fact: Because of this low female ratio Miranda Lambert is the most awarded female country star of all time by the CMAs.  Yes, beating out Dolly, Loretta, Reba, Tanya, & Tammy.

Another reason I think females got the boot is more and more females in music overall are giving the finger to the system, largely run by men that have historically ignored them anyways, and taking control of their own careers and how it manifests in what they want to record and say.

Females writing and singing their own lyrics, until the era of Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, and The [Dixie ]Chicks in the 90s was pretty uncommon despite two of the queens Loretta and Dolly doing just that.  And labels like to be able to control their artists and country music especially likes to control what females can and cannot express in a song.

But they also locked out a lot of STELLAR male acts also doing it their own way too.

Still, make no mistake keeping the females out was ON PURPOSE for many reasons.  One of the big reasons I think is these ladies are upending all the old stereotypes and BS cliches of a females role in country music and in broader society.  And in some ways giving the finger to whole, “Stand by your man” mindset prominent in country music in the last century.

You might not think so but a song like, “My Give A Damn’s Busted” was kind revolutionary for a female country star to record and put out if you know anything about what women in country music were allowed to sing if they wanted to get promoted or have a hit.

Now to define country music is like trying to define what a chair is. It is a futile task. Country music breeds with blues, bluegrass, rock, Cajun, swing, rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, tejano, Irish folk, and even jazz if you take into account the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin improvisation that has been going on for decades. But most would say country music is defined by that “twang” provided by a pedal steel guitar or dobro. It is also largely defined by it’s storytelling aesthetic more so than other genres; “Devil Went Down To Georgia”, “Pancho And Lefty”, “Fancy”, “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, “Ghostriders In The Sky”, El Paso, “Long Black Veil”, “Coat Of Many Colors” all classic story telling songs… This is of course true and not true.

Either way traditional country fans know what country music is (or more likely know what it isn’t) and from what I’ve been reading they know that radio ain’t been playin’ it much in recent years and many young people today have likely never heard it. Certainly not on radio.

And truth be told, I find most people who hate country have only heard the top 40 in the last several years or Shania Twain and maybe that Carrie Underwood song or maybe some Garth Brooks if they were over five years old in the 90s.

Though today in 2024 country is actually kind of hip in the mainstream what with Morgan Wallen on the charts and Luke Combs reviving “Fast Car”. And sure a few more pop leaning hits have slipped over to the mainstream charts over the decades as well with songs like “Breathe” by Faith Hill or “Need You Now” by Lady A. But those two examples are well over ten years old.

Nothing recent by a female has crossed over that was country or pop-country except the aforementioned Beyonce and MAYBE Kacey Musgraves. And that’s a shame because country music, for my money is delivering some of the best music and lyrics going these days outclassing every other genre and artists in those genres.

Country music has a long tradition of duets and duet teams, Loretta & Conway, Porter & Dolly, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper so expect SOME men on these samplers. And frankly men are a part of women’s history and women are a part of men’s history. So when you hear some male vocals on these songs… take that! Also, that kind of thinking when it comes to music most often whittles women down to the role of singer. And in these samplers you will have women pickin’ and banging drums or on backing vocals. So just because you don’t hear a female vocal doesn’t mean there is no female present.

WELL DUH!  Why say that at all because, isn’t the reverse true.  Yes, but…

“Anything a man says once a woman has to say five times.” – Björk

Not to belabor a gripe but just on a pure whim as I was posting this, I came across this in my research.

One emphatically tells you it is WOMEN Country artists the other more subtly let’s you know country is a man’s world and the one on the right is more ambiguous visually.  One has 18 songs, one has 10, and one has a whopping 40!  However, the one with 40 songs has a total of FOUR songs by a female act.  FOUR!

The point is women have always been sidelined in subtle ways in the music business.  They had to tell you the one of the left was all women because, well, somebody might just assume there were some men on that CD and when they found out their wasn’t they might throw a fit.

But what if the only change made to the cover on the left was the name and you called it, Super Hits Country?  Keeping all the pictures of the women intact?  And what if with that cover of all ladies, we added men to the track list?  Would people still avoid because they assume it’s all women.  Or would they check to make sure some males are present they same way I check anthologies to make sure female are present?

Or let’s call it, “40 Ultimate Super Hits Country” and keep the same album cover but have only female acts on it.

Now the CD boon is more or less over so this may not matter as much anymore except… algorithms, pandora, spotify station, itunes are all showing it still matters and that the labels and executives are all still pigeonholing women in anything other than pop and club vocal club music.

But that’s old hat and old news at this point.  For me, the most important story in all of this exclusion of females is the fact that many new female acts (and many new male acts) have decided if they are not being let in the club… “Fuck ’em I’ll do it myself”.

So despite being ignored or outright shunned by mainstream music row many phenomenal acts continue to make music anyway for the love and devotion to country music, performing, and having something to say. They continued to write their own songs. Continued to tour shite dive bars and county fairs (something Beyoncé never had to do to top the country charts). Continued, show by show to gather followings and fans. Most of this done without ANY major label support, just working the trenches one show at a time owning their publishing and copyrights. Adding further proof to the notion that major labels are becoming less and less important year by year (thank god).

And all this reminds me a story from fiery blues singer Janiva Magness, and that story inspired this song about her experiences with label executives when she was IN HER TWENTIES!

The screaming I have done in my apartment about all this….

So with that I present to you what I think is GREAT country music, for all people, by SOME of the women of country music who blazed the original trails, some who are keeping the traditions alive, and some who are taking the traditions off in new ways while respecting the roots. Many of these women are not just singers but stellar pickers, pianists, fiddlers, guitarists, and songwriters as well. Again I emphasize the song-writing because it is actually somewhat fairly recent that most country singers, especially females were writing their own songs at all.

Consider this and the other samplers in this series, your gateway drug to a new realm of music you may have overlooked. And yeah we take detours into bluegrass, blues, folk, rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll because that is what any great musical genre and sampler does. It is never one exact thing because music is always in conversation with the world around it, it never resides in a bubble. Even if the anal gatekeepers wish it did.

And frankly without country music, we wouldn’t have ever had had rock ‘n’ roll or rock or anything that came from the 1950s onward. And that means I never would’ve have heard two of my favorite guitarists ever, Brian Setzer or Duane Eddy.  People always site the blues, gospel, and jazz as the origins of rock music but country and bluegrass were right there as well starting the new revolution in music too.

So between these samplers and the others in this series I guarantee you will find some country music you like or I’ll keep digging for stuff until you do. Enjoy!  And I’ll have the last word in part four, with yes, more country music.

1. The History Lesson

2. The Acoustic Session

3. The Friday Night Confession

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