(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
One of the great personal pleasures of my job, among many others, has been experiencing the wide scope and sweep of the entirety of country music. And especially the history of women in country music, a particularly complicated and rich saga.
I just realized this evening that I have had the opportunity to get to know women singers ranging from Mother Maybelle Carter — the matriarch of country music — down through Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn and all the way up to Taylor Swift. That covers roughly the entire recorded history of country music, from the Carter Family’s first 1927 Bristol recording sessions right up to Taylor Swift’s latest. I also had the great good fortune to sing background vocals on an album with Mother Maybelle. Got a gold record for it, too.
But I must say there has been no stronger recent story in music than the remarkable sustainability of Taylor Swift’s career. And there is no arguing with that.
I don’t think anyone, myself included, thought her career would still be on a steep upward slope as 2011 begins. But, as sales figures from the Nielsen SoundScan report from Dec. 29 show, Swift continues to dominate both the Billboard 200 chart and the country albums chart. This last week, sales of her Speak Now CD totaled 276,000 copies to take its figure to almost 3 million just nine weeks after its debut.
That’s especially important when you consider the progress of women in country has been difficult over the decades. Women — referred to for many years as “girl singers” — have had to overcome open hostility, overt discrimination, sexual harassment — and worse — in a profession dominated by men.
The great Patsy Clinewas forbidden to wear any sort of trousers on the Grand Ole Opry, as were all other female artists. Even if it was a Nudie the Rodeo Tailor’s custom-designed outfit costing thousands of dollars. Kitty Wells’ landmark single “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” was banned by the NBC radio network, as well as by the Grand Ole Opry, for being too risque. The Opry’s Roy Acuff warned Wells’ husband Johnny Wright not to try to bill Wells as a star on tour, even after that song’s huge success. As quoted in the book Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, Acuff told him, “Don’t ever headline a show with a woman. It won’t ever work because people just don’t go for women.”
But today, women continue to build on the contributions made by those who preceded them. It’s becoming plainly obvious that, led by Swift’s example over the past few years, there is an increasing wave of independently-minded women singers trying to make it in country music. Along with Swift’s debut single “Tim McGraw” in 2006, Miranda Lambert burned through with “Kerosene” and Carrie Underwood knocked out the truck headlights in “Before He Cheats.” And more keep following.
Two of my favorite singer-songwriters will have new albums out in 2011 that I especially look forward to.
Lori McKenna is a stay-at-home mom in Stoughton, Mass., and the laconic Alabamian Ashton Shepherd also pretty much stays at home in Leroy, Ala. They write and sing about what life is really like for a wife and a mother in the music game. And they hold back no secrets.
And I can hear maverick voices coming in from places as disparate as American Idol. I especially like Crystal Bowersox’s rootsy “Farmer’s Daughter” (decidedly not the Rodney Atkins song of the same name). It’s an intense emotional jolt that carries an unexpected thematic twist. How often do you hear a daughter rail against her abusive mother in a song?
And harking back to discrimination, Texas singers and Nashville have long had a tortured relationship, going back to rock pioneer Buddy Holly’s initial recording sessions in Music City in 1956, when the influential Nashville producer Owen Bradley tried to remake Holly into a standard Nashville singer. It didn’t take. It still doesn’t take today. Texas is Texas. Nashville is Nashville. Seldom the twain shall meet. But one of my favorite singers, the irrepressible Texan Sunny Sweeney, is giving it a gallant try. I hope it works for her.
Other women whom we shall hear from this next year are those in groups, including Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, The Band Perry’s Kimberly Perry and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman. And there will be those whom we have yet to hear from or hear about. Which is part of the joy of music.