NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Loretta Lynn, Taylor Swift and the Secret Sisters

What Will Heightened Expectations Do to/for Women Artists?

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

The upcoming album paying tribute to Loretta Lynn’s 50th anniversary in country music is a potent reminder of the fierce talent of Lynn over past decades. It also serves as an occasion to ponder the future of women artists, especially singer-songwriters in today’s world and in tomorrow’s musical milieu.

If anything, today’s heightened expectations and tomorrow’s even higher bar are both exhilarating yet frightening. To be a country superstar, you must be an adorable, multi-talented Shirley Temple doll of a child prodigy, or else, you must be a shiny American Idol graduate with lungs of steel, like Carrie Underwood. In pop, Lady Gaga is pretty much the prototype these days. But, even beyond that, what lies ahead?

Loretta Lynn started out at the very bottom as a woman-child-mother, driving with her husband from radio station tower to radio station tower, knocking on the door and begging for a chance for a radio spin. She played the one-nighters, hit the honky-tonks for years on end, endured the taunts and the closed doors of the woman-haters in country music — and she persevered.

Taylor Swift herself started out as a child, hustling on the talent show circuit. As a very young teenager she persuaded her parents to move to Nashville, where she walked up and down Music Row, knocking on doors and asking for her songs to be heard. She would not be denied.

They both are living proof of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour maxim. In his book, Outliers, the British sociologist posited his 10,000-hour rule. Basically, he says no one succeeds in his or her craft until they have practiced and worked at it for at least 10,000 hours. Lynn and Swift put in their hours, and it shows.

They both also — as singer-songwriters — shattered ceilings on Music Row, and I’m not talking about the proverbial glass ceiling. But they succeeded by writing about and for their peer group sisters. Loretta forever changed the notion of what a country “girl singer” should or could be. She wrote about hitherto forbidden topics: Birth control! Female power! Self-determination! And she attracted a lifelong audience of women listeners who had never been directly addressed before by country music — either the music industry or the radio industry.

Taylor came along and did virtually the same thing for an audience that neither Music Row nor country radio knew existed: the vast numbers of teenage and pre-teen female listeners. She wrote songs to them and sang songs to them. Her songs of self-discovery and self-awareness and personal angst and joy were about the same things they were experiencing in their lives.

We’re about to see a completely different career launch. Whereas both Lynn and Swift spent many years getting to where they would be one day, now there’s a young duo that is pretty much starting out at the top. Perhaps this is a controlled experiment.

It’s the Secret Sisters. They’re from Muscle Shoals, Ala., and I love their music. But I will be closely watching their career. It wasn’t so long ago that they were singing for family and friends and church back home. Then they got discovered, with a capital D.

They’re making their national stage debut on T Bone Burnett’s Speaking Clock Revue, which has just opened with shows in Boston and New York City. They’re rubbing shoulders with Elton John and their two career godfathers — T Bone Burnett and Jack White (interesting that White also produced Lynn’s Grammy-winning album Van Lear Rose). Also on the Speaking Clock stage are John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, Gregg Allman, Leon Russell, Ralph Stanley, the Punch Brothers, Neko Case and Jeff Bridges.

How will the Secret Sisters be received? As I say, I love the sweetness of their music, the innocence of their family harmony singing, their devotion to the music’s past and their utter and unabashed charm. But I know people in music and media who are extremely skeptical of how the sisters will fare, who regard their music as boring. But I’ve also known classical music fans who look down their noses at the minimalist composer Arvo Part. They sneer at him for composing music that is sweet, spare and haunting and yet resonates emotionally. Those are the very qualities I value in Part’s music. And some of those basic musical elements live in the Secret Sisters’ work.

One early review, in the Boston Globe, was favorable and said, “They certainly did turn the crowd on its ear with their intertwined harmonies, never so beautiful as on a soaring rendition of Bill Monroe’s ’The One I Love Is Gone.'”

What if you, as a young artist, get caught up in the tar baby that is the TMZ/Perez Hilton/tabloid world? That’s a world, I might add, from which there is no escape, at least not on your own terms. Taylor is getting caught up in it. What will happen to her?

Taylor belonged only briefly to Nashville and to country music. She now belongs to the world, and the world will treat her accordingly. She’s only going to face more intense scrutiny and more vitriol than she has ever known before.

It’s getting scary when a middle-aged music commentator such as Bob Lefsetz writes a lengthy blog on why he is sure that he’s the subject of Taylor’s song “Mean.” (Note to Bob: I actually did have an artist write a similar song about me, but much nastier and much more graphic, and I didn’t tell the whole world about it at the time and I see no need to pontificate on it now.)

Getting back to Loretta Lynn. She has never given a damn about what anybody thought about her or her music. That attitude has worked well to deflect or neutralize any criticism.

Study some of the songs from the Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn album, such as her first single from 50 years ago, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” covered superbly here by Lee Ann Womack. Or “Rated X” or “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” In these and her many other songs, you can understand why and how she is such a true musical spirit, floating through and yet remaining above this material world.

An aside to Taylor: One thing Loretta has always had is a protective shield provided by the almost lion-like devotion of her audience. They will always protect her. Hang on to your fans. They’re precious to you and, once lost, are never regained.