(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Where is Lee Ann Womack? Those of you who retain at least 11 years of memory cells will surely recall her epochal song, “I Hope You Dance.” Has there been a more elegant song in all of popular music since then? Where are the Dixie Chicks? Remember “Cowboy Take Me Away” ? Where is Shania Twain? Surely you can still hear “The Woman in Me.” Who knew that such strong women artists would suddenly become obsolete and — worse — irreplaceable? Who could have foreseen that? Certainly not the record labels.
Look at the Billboard country songs chart today. Look at the Nielsen SoundScan album chart today. Where are the women? On the country songs chart, there are two solo women artists represented in the Top 30 — Taylor Swift (at No. 16) and Miranda Lambert (at No. 17).
On the country album chart, the news is a little better. The new female trio made up of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley — the Pistol Annies — debuted at No. 1. Although their first-week sales total of 42,000 is not stellar. Sunny Sweeney debuted at No. 7, with first-week sales of 14,500 copies. There are three other women represented in the Top 30. Taylor Swift is at No. 10, American Idol finalist Lauren Alaina is at No. 26 and Sara Evans rests at No. 28. Interestingly, the Pistol Annies are not represented on the Billboard country songs chart’s 60 titles at all.
Men, young men, are everywhere on those charts. A lot of them are boys. Actually, many of them. We have a crop of perfectly-sculptured and coiffed and tailored young narcissists as the core of the present-day lineup of contemporary male country singers, as presented by the Nashville establishment. Musically, as well as personally, what they’re offering mainly consists solely of image and attitude. Not much musical sustenance.
What we are missing is some down-to-earth women who bring their strong feelings and emotions to their music. Carrie Underwood is here, sure. And Taylor Swift and Reba McEntire and Martina McBride and the rest of our meager female catalog. But country music’s eternal bias against women artists continues.
I’ve already written about Matraca Berg’s brave and groundbreaking recent album The Dreaming Fields, which has — unfortunately — absolutely no chance of commercial success (although her co-written song with Deana Carter “You and Tequila” has become a hit for Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter). And I equally love Ashton Shepherd’s Where Country Grows, which also, sadly, does not face a rosy forecast in the music marketplace. The literary equivalent today would be trying to sell a book of poetry. Country radio does not read — or listen to — poetry anymore. Now it listens to jingles.
I find three recent musical releases very heartening. New albums from Sunny Sweeney, the Pistol Annies and Connie Smith demonstrate the music is being both preserved and energized and moved into country’s future.
Smith has been a strong music force for years. She first charted in 1964 with a No. 1 hit, “Once a Day.” Her musical purity and integrity are undeniable, and her pure voice is irresistible. Along the way, she began questioning the trappings of stardom and turned to gospel and Christian music, along with country music. Her new album Long Line of Heartaches is pure bedrock country. If you’ve never really paid close attention to good, solid traditional country music, do yourself a favor and sit down and listen to Connie Smith.
Sweeney shows with her songwriting and singing skills why strong Texas artists should never be ruled out of the country music equation — which Nashville often does. But there’s no stronger backbone than a Texas backbone. Ignore Texas music at your own peril.
Besides, I have been charmed by Sweeney ever since her 2007 debut album Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. Her new CD Concrete continues the Sweeney spell.
Don’t forget that Miranda Lambert is another strong Texas woman. I find her new project, the Pistol Annies’ new CD, Hell on Heels, a must-listen. The qualities that make all three of these women completely credible solo artists combine to forge a new group identity and sound. This is not more of Miranda’s “Gunpowder & Lead” swaggering. It’s women’s storytelling time. Whether it’s the “burn the house down” sentiment of “Housewife’s Prayer” or the domestic diary of “Trailer for Rent,” these are real-life tales. And they’re told by believable voices.