From the very earliest days, women have had a hand in creating country music’s most enduring music — an honorable tradition that continues to this day. (The tradition is highlighted in CMT 40 Greatest Women of Country Music, premiering Friday (Aug. 30) at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)
In 1927, Mother Maybelle Carter introduced the “Carter Lick,” a unique guitar-picking style that helped the Carter Family sell thousands of records in the middle of the Great Depression. Patsy Montana turned “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” into a smash hit in 1935. Throughout the 1940s, Dale Evans reigned as the Queen of the West in music and films, while songwriter Cindy Walker crafted countless classics like “Cherokee Maiden” and “You Don’t Know Me.”
Meanwhile, back at the Grand Ole Opry, Minnie Pearl (“How-DEEE!“) and June Carter (Maybelle’s daughter) kept audiences in stitches, while Kitty Wells firmly announced in 1952 that “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.” Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee shook up the youth of America with rockabilly, before returning to country music. Despite her compelling voice, Patsy Cline fought for attention until “Walkin’ After Midnight” made her a national star in 1957. She joined the Opry in 1960, the same year Loretta Lynn first appeared on the charts with “Honky Tonk Girl.” Lynn became the first woman to be named the CMA’s entertainer of the year.
Connie Smith ’s 1964 signature hit “Once a Day” propelled her to stardom in the same year Dottie West won a Grammy for “Here Comes My Baby.” A few years later, Dolly Parton arrived in Nashville with songs about her Tennessee mountain home and Tammy Wynette established herself with love-gone-wrong classics like “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”
In 1970, Lynn Anderson planted “Rose Garden” into the country charts and Tanya Tucker debuted with “Delta Dawn” in 1972. As the decade closed, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash brought a certain grace to roots-oriented country music as glossy pop sounds found their way into the era’s biggest hits, like Crystal Gayle ’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and Anne Murray ’s “Snowbird.”
Barbara Mandrell proved that a country star can have it all — dazzling musical talent, huge hit songs, glitzy concerts, a family-friendly TV show and best-selling autobiographies. As a newcomer in the 1980s, Reba McEntire was certainly paying attention to Mandrell. Following two decades of hits, McEntire carried a hit Broadway musical and her own network sitcom.
A mother-daughter duo, The Judds harmonized their way into history, while K.T. Oslin defined the decade with “’80s Ladies” and Patty Loveless stayed true to her Kentucky roots. k.d. lang and Lucinda Williams stretched boundaries with their interpretation of country music, long before mainstream pop music awarded them for their talents.
With business booming in the 1990s, a variety of female singers made their mark — from Lorrie Morgan’s sass to Pam Tillis ’ twang, as well as Mary Chapin Carpenter ’s warmth and wisdom. Alison Krauss brought bluegrass back into the fold, and LeAnn Rimes harkened back to Patsy Cline with “Blue.”
In 2002, Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride continue to lend their amazing voices to the words and music of Nashville’s sharpest songwriters. Lee Ann Womack , Faith Hill and Shania Twain have parlayed their early country success into pop stardom, again glamorizing the image of a female country star.
In the meantime, the Dixie Chicks keep the banjo and fiddle intact, while endearing themselves to all ages with their bold personalities and respect for the history of the genre. Mother Maybelle would be proud.