Despite being the genre that created and extolled the archetypes of “Mama” and “Little Darlin’,” country music has never quite given women their due. Even today — 93 years after the fabled Bristol Sessions that launched country music as a commercial art form — a battle rages over giving women equal time on radio and equal opportunity to be respected, heard and taken seriously as they seek places in this highly competitive industry.
Indicative of just how excluded and overlooked women have been is the fact that none were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame from its inception in 1961 until 1970, when the Carter Family was tardily admitted.
Even so, women performers and songwriters have been in the thick of country music since the start. When Ralph Peer came to the border town of Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia in 1927 looking for new talent to record, one of the first acts to impress him was the Carter Family, a trio made up of A. P. Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter. A. P. excelled as a song collector and adapter, while Sara and Maybelle provided the vocal harmonies and Maybelle’s thumb-picking guitar style gave their recordings their distinctive beat and thrust. Sara excelled on the autoharp.
During their 1927-1941 recording career, the Carters turned out dozens of songs that have since become country standards, among them “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Wildwood Flower,” “Worried Man Blues,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.” After the Carters disbanded, Maybelle went on the road and performed with her daughters June, Anita and Helen. She helped turn country back toward its traditional roots in 1971 via her pivotal importance in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark anthology album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Patsy Montana secured her place in country music history with her 1935 hit, “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” In doing so, she both continued and cashed in on America’s fascination with the (imagined) cowboy life. Starting in 1933, she worked as a vocalist for the Prairie Ramblers on the National Barn Dance in Chicago. She was instrumental in establishing the yodeling cowgirl persona and would remain a fixture on the Barn Dance for years. After that, she appeared on such other high-profile broadcasts as the Louisiana Hayride and the Ozark Jubilee. In all, she had spent six decades as a performer by the time she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.
Born dirt poor (her family hitchhiked from Alabama to California in 1933) Rose Maddox was only 11 years old when she went on Modesto radio in an act that was soon named the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Their stage show, which they enhanced with fancy Western-themed costumes by Nathan Turk, was a combination of loud, brassy honky-tonk music, magic tricks, jokes and other audience-engaging business. She came into her own as a solo recording act in the late 1950s and early ’60s with such hits as “Sing a Little Song of Heartache,” as well as a series of duets with Buck Owens.
The Andrews Sisters, a leading pop group of the 1940s, routinely dipped their toes into the country music stream. In 1944, the trio scored a No. 1 country tune accompanying Bing Crosby on the raucous “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” Five years later, they scored big again with Grand Ole Opry star Ernest Tubb on “I’m Bitin’ My Fingernails and Thinking of You” (No. 2) and “Don’t Rob Another Man’s Castle” (No. 6).
Minnie Pearl, who came from a prominent family and was well-educated, perfected her guise as a hick, boy-crazy naif in the late 1930s and joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1940, where she became an instant hit. She would remain an Opry mainstay almost to the time of her death in 1996. With her price-tag adorned hat, her screeching “Howdeeee! I’m just so proud to be here!” and comic tales of her rustic hometown of Grinder’s Switch, Minnie gave country music a style and continuity that still endures. She entered the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1975.
Cindy Walker was an ace songwriter from the very beginning of her music career in the early 1940s, getting one of her songs recorded by Bing Crosby on her first pitch. But she was also intermittently a recording artist while she was writing, with one Top 5 country hit to her credit (“When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again” in 1944) and an album (Words & Music, 1964). The hits she wrote are voluminous and long-lived, including “You Don’t Know Me,” “I Don’t Care,” “Bubbles in My Beer,” “Sugar Moon,” “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream),” “In the Misty Moonlight” and “The Gold Rush Is Over.” She was in the first class inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and was named to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997.
MORE HITMAKERS AND HOT SHOTS
Lulu Belle: She was the flashy and high-spirited half of the husband-and-wife team Lulu Belle & Scotty, who starred on the National Barn Dance for 25 years. Lulu Belle Wiseman was voted the most popular woman in radio in 1936 by the readers of Radio Guide magazine. Her music ranged from Appalachian folk songs to gospel tunes to popular hits of the day. Besides their radio fame, the two also appeared with their music in seven movies.
The Girls of the Golden West: This sister duet joined the National Barn Dance in 1933 and quickly distinguished themselves with their uncannily close harmonies and yodeling. Among their most popular records were “There’s a Silver Moon on the Golden Gate,” “Will There Be Any Yodeling in Heaven,” “Cowboy Jack” and “My Love Is a Rider. Country music scholar Charles Wolfe credited them as forerunners of such close harmony female acts as the Judds and Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
Judy Canova: A hillbilly comedienne, she began her career in New York in the early 1930s as part of a family act. They later played Broadway in Calling All Stars. In 1939, the Canovas became one of the first country acts to appear on television. As a solo act, Canova was featured in a series of feature films — still casting herself as a hillbilly — and eventually became Republic studio’s most profitable female star. Her national radio show during the 1940s was among the country’s most popular broadcasts.
Coon Creek Girls: This was the first all-woman stringband in country music. Led by Lily May Ledford and featuring two of her sisters, the group — at the invitation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt — performed at the White House in 1939 for the Roosevelts and the king and queen of England. They were regulars on such seminal radio shows as the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the Old Dominion Barn Dance. Lily May’s son, J. P. Pennington, is a founding member of the pop-country band, Exile.
Margaret Whiting: Although best known as a pop singer, Whiting paired with country crooner Jimmy Wakely in 1949 for the massive country hit, “Slipping Around,” which stayed at No. 1 for 17 weeks.
Rachel Veach: Banjo player and comedienne in Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys band from 1939 to 1946. Touring with the propriety-sensitive Acuff while she was still a young unmarried woman, Veach was presented as the sister of band member Bashful Brother Oswald. She also recorded with Acuff on such classics as “Fireball Mail” and “She’s My Curly Headed Baby.”
Sally Ann Forrester: A singer and accordion-playing member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys from 1943 to 1946, she was married to Howard Forrester who would later become famous as a fiddler in Acuff’s band. Often called “the first woman of bluegrass,” she was honored in 2019 by the International Bluegrass Music Association through a college scholarship offered in her name.
In the next post for Women’s History Month, CMT.com will spotlight Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, and many more legendary figures from the 1950s and 1960s.
Pictured (L-R): Minnie Pearl, Maybelle Carter, Sara Carter, Rose Maddox, Patsy Montana