NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Martina Hits Her Stride

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Since I am not a woman, I’m not going to make any grand pronouncements or judgments about women in country music, but if I may be permitted a little leeway, I think women have taken it on the chin from the country music establishment for the last few years. Apart from the missing-in-action Dixie Chicks, songs by women have been few and far between lately on the country charts and in the country consciousness. Even though women consumers aged 25-49 are the target audience, the music thrown at them is not necessarily women’s music.

Women in country seems to have been a subject that’s all but disappeared in the wave of the recent cojones-powered, buff-bodied, flag-waving testosterone-country and with cute little crossovers like Shania and Faith. But women — and I do mean women — have always been there. From Maybelle Carter to Texas Ruby to Kitty Wells to Patsy Montana to Patsy Cline to Tammy and Dolly and Emmylou and Trisha, strong women have been essential, fundamental underpinnings of country music.

Pre-World War II country music — especially pre-WWII country music by women — is throwing fresh light and insight on today’s country. In listening to Martina McBride’s new album Martina, I was immediately reminded of some of the songs I’ve been listening to on a new German anthology CD of pre-WWII women country artists.

If anyone is holding up the side for country women these days, it’s for sure McBride, whose songs addressing women and championing women almost stand alone in these slim chart days for women in country music. She has never been afraid to tackle social issues in music, especially the matter of domestic abuse with such powerful songs and videos as “Independence Day.”

With her first new studio album since 1999’s Emotion, McBride continues her musical growth. As a song interpreter, she depends on the strength of her material and, in this case, she’s selected a remarkably strong body of songs. Themes, as ever with McBride, run the gamut of emotions but always come back to the personal and the inspirational. “This One’s for the Girls” (from the pens of Chris Lindsey, Hillary Lindsey and Aimee Mayo) is a surefire anthem for young girls of all ages, with its stirring empathy. “God’s Will” (by Tom Douglas and Barry Dean) draws parables from the saga of a crippled child.

“Wearing White,” written by Lisa Drew and Tommy Lee James, is a rousing tale of whether or not this one bride in particular should or should not be wearing white at her wedding. “Reluctant Daughter,” written by Sally Barris and Jon Vezner (with a lovely acoustic arrangement by Ricky Skaggs), is an especially revealing spiritual window on the power of redemption. The other songs, ranging from the relationship conflict presented in Jamie O’Neal, Shaye Smith and Ed Hill’s “How Far” to James Slater’s powerful “In My Daughter’s Eyes,” share McBride’s predilection for songs of genuine emotional substance.

The album’s coda, a live version of E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen’s wonderful “Over the Rainbow,” sounds here like it was written with McBride’s vocal prowess in mind. Martina as a body of work is an eloquent statement on the human condition circa 2003.

And McBride has strong musical precursors in the many women artists who had to chart their own paths in the absence of any historical precedents. This was even before Nashville started calling women artists “girl singers” in the 1950s and 1960s, so they were still considered women. The German anthology CD Flowers in the Wildwood: Women in Early Country Music (Trikont) contains 25 cuts that encompass much of early country history.

There’s a lot of lost country history — the stuff that we don’t get in the usual quick surveys of country — and this album reveals some of it. And this is by and large music that stems from deep emotion, whether it’s the cry of separation or the anguish of heartache or the joy of hope. Women have long been the caretakers of country music. Sometime, go back and read some autobiographies of women country artists such as Loretta Lynn — in particular — and think about the sacrifices they had to make and the prejudices they faced every day and the fight they fought to become who they were.

This Trokont collection encompasses pioneering women in early country from the now-familiar, solemn majesty of the Carter Family to the fabulous harmonies of the Girls of the Golden West to the forgotten and amazing Dezurik Sisters with their ethereal, forest-nymph harmonies to the tough women’s blues of Aunt Molly Jackson and the syncopated blues of Louisiana Lou.

What impresses me most from this collection is the spirit of those early artists, their spunk in tackling any and all subjects and their fearlessness in forging ahead into the unknown. And that’s what strikes me about Martina. I think McBride has finally hit her stride with a true career album.