NASHVILLE SKYLINE: From Maybelle Carter to Taylor Swift: A Long, Hard Road

What's the State of Women in Country Music?

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

Every couple of years, someone wakes up and says, “Hey! Did anyone notice? There’s a lot of women on the radio and making new records. Women singers rule.”

Then they go back to sleep. But it’s hard to find irrefutable evidence that there’s been real progress made for “girl singers” — as women artists were referred to not so long ago.

Ten years ago, in 2000, there were five No. 1 country hits by female singers (or duos or groups containing one or more women). Twenty years ago, in 1990, there were five. Thirty years ago, in 1980, there were 10. Forty years ago, in 1970, there were five. Fifty years ago, in 1960, there were none.

Thus far this year, there have been six — two by Carrie Underwood, two by Lady Antebellum and one each from Miranda Lambert and Reba McEntire.

If you look at this week’s Billboard country songs chart, you’ll see there are 17 songs by females or female/groups out of the 60 songs on the chart.

As you can see, throughout the music’s history, women singers have largely been under-represented. This is an industry that has had a longstanding bias against women who do not know their place, as it were.

The one common trait all successful women country singers share is strength. They would never have gotten to where they are without an incredible reserve of inner resolve and toughness. Sheer talent is not enough. From Sara Carter down through Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton to Reba and Shania Twain and Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, they have had remarkable ambition and drive and determination.

The obstacles they have overcome have been formidable. Some of the things that some of the prominent women singers have told me — and some of the things I have witnessed and overheard on tour buses and backstage and in motels and hotels — are things that really should not be repeated, unless in a courtroom.

The mold from which all future country women singers have emerged since was cast by the Carters in the late 1920s.

Sara Carter was one of the first two country music women stars, along with her sister-in-law Maybelle Carter. She was also the first country woman star to divorce her husband. He was A.P. Carter, the third member of their group, the Carter Family. They were the commercial groundbreakers in selling records. They toured on primitive roads in primitive cars and played where they could, making do as best they could on the road. Road maps? Laundry? Food? Do what you can do, long before big tour buses and interstate highways and fast food and Laundromats made travel a little more bearable.

As Mary Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann point out in their groundbreaking book, Finding Her Voice: The Illustrated History of Women in Country Music, the Carter Family was actually a female duo, with the moody A.P. singing bass — when he felt like it. To give him credit, though, he actually did find the old Appalachian, Scotch, Irish and British songs that made up the bulk of the Carters’ large repertoire.

As Finding Her Voice notes, Sara and Maybelle may as well have toured on their own because they didn’t actually need A.P. for their performances. But societal mores and attitudes at the time would not have allowed two women to travel and perform by themselves.

But that divorce, coming in 1939, 12 years after the Carters first recorded, was very unusual for the times — both in conservative and religious Appalachia, socially, and in the music world, professionally. Their handlers had for years kept the long Sara/A.P. separation a secret. They knew the Carter Family fans wouldn’t tolerate their not being an actual family. Apparently, few, if any, of the Carter family’s many fans ever knew about the family discord.

There are also many fascinating, if sometimes minor, women singers in history, as I discover with each rereading of Finding Her Voice. Such gems as Dorothy Shay. She was from Jacksonville, Fla., and worked hard to purge the Southern out of her drawl and headed north for fame and fortune. She ended up scoring in Manhattan clubs with such hillbilly novelties as “Uncle Fud.” Decked out in expensive gowns and evening gloves, she was booked as “The Park Avenue Hillbillie” and churned out similar cornball fare and even acted in the Abbott & Costello hillbilly-wacko flick Comin’ ’Round the Mountain and performed at President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 inaugural ball. Sara and Maybelle Carter made the world safe for Dorothy.

And then there was Betty Lou, who recorded with the North Carolina band Hartman’s Heart Breakers in 1936 and 1937. Some of her songs were “Let Me Play With It,” “Feels So Good,” “Give It to Me, Daddy” and “My Southern Movements.”

Maybelle and Sara Carter broke down barriers so that all women could sing and be allowed an opportunity. Such pretenders to the throne as Jessica Simpson were allowed their chance and were found sadly wanting, especially in the determination department. More power to the ones who make it.