(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I think the advent of the Pentecostal Rural Tart look and sound might well be another shift in the look of country music. Lord knows there is little else new being developed, and we could use a little shift.
There is a serious argument to be made that the major identifiable and significant movements in country music in recent years have been:
1. Taylor Swift’s discovery of a new audience and a new music for that teenage girl country audience.
2. Jamey Johnson’s re-imagining the majestic grit and glory of country’s traditional sound.
3. The Depression-era string band sound that became a huge seller with the platinum-selling soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou, which is now being rediscovered and mined with the successful acoustic music of such groups as the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and the Civil Wars.
In their stead today has come a general miasma of Music Row cubicle-co-written ditties about a whole grocery store shopping list encompassing pickup trucks, small towns, farms, dirt roads, back roads, backwoods, beer, honky-tonks, hot babes, blue jeans and anything else that country mainstream radio focus groups find is working.
All these ditties are being sung by an indistinguishable cast of handsome young dudes with serviceable voices and good teeth and shiny hair and impressive pecs and smart management firms and record labels.
But the indomitable female will to stand up and speak out has been a constant, if not-often heard, thread throughout country — from Kitty Wells’ 1952 “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” to Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” to Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” As any husband will testify, a woman scorned or ignored or ill-treated is a women to be feared.
Miranda Lambert forecast this with “Kerosene,” and Carrie Underwood did so equally forcefully in “Before He Cheats.” Their song characters were good girls at heart who liked to go a little far but would turn deadly if they were crossed. Both Lambert and Underwood have since moved on to more decorous themes, including their happy marriages. A key, though, is that Lambert has launched the powerful trio Pistol Annies and kept her deadly rebellion option viable.
I love the concept of Pentecostal Rural Tarts. The term is wonderful, but I didn’t originate it. I wish I had. But it comes courtesy of DJ Joe Pareres at Third Coast Music Network at KSYM in San Antonio. And I am indebted to Joe for spotting and naming a true trend.
Of course, a large part of the PRT movement was instigated by Lambert when she formed the Pistol Annies with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Even though she’s now a sort-of settled-down married woman, I sense that Lambert still likes to be able to stir up a little musical trouble now and then.
I think many people overlooked the significance of the fact that Pistol Annies’ debut album charted No. 1 its first week out solely on the strength of Internet download sales. It was not available on CD, so there were no sales in local retail stores. That had never been done before by a country album, and it was largely accomplished by word-of-mouth.
If you never saw the epochal Silk Purse album cover of the young and very nubile Linda Ronstadt — wearing very short cut-off jeans and an abbreviated top — sitting barefoot and looking very innocent yet sultry in the middle of a pig pen, complete with pigs — well, you need to find it online. Totally wholesome but a little inviting. That was the true forerunner of this PRT look. It was not quite Daisy Duke — more like Elly May Clampett.
But the sound today lays out the agenda and is feisty and proud. The Pistol Annies’ very song titles forecast the mission statement: “Hell on Heels,” “Takin’ Pills” and “Housewife’s Prayer.”
You can hear that sense of defiant independence in music coming from the likes of Sunny Sweeney, Matraca Berg, Elizabeth Cook, Caitlin Rose, Ashton Shepherd, New England singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, Lucy Angel, the McClymonts from Australia and many more.
Women were held back for so many decades in country music by the patriarchal publishers, record labels, radio stations, managers, booking agents and institutions such as the barn dance shows and radio programs.
The best way for women to gain an equal footing (and gain a little much-needed revenge) in videos has been to smash the guys’ cars and trucks and light up some kerosene. But in reality, the way to win is to sell those music downloads, move those CDs, sell concert tickets and get all over social media. Beat ’em at their own game.