We all know music has the power to change us. I sometimes indulge in a “Sliding Doors” reverie, wondering what path my life might have taken if I hadn’t heard the song that changed my life back when I was 17.
“Women have always looked at the complication of attractions, found story songs, leaned into writing about what work conflicts demand, as well as the dynamics of family life.”
Holly Gleason, the editor of a new book called “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women of Country Music Changed Our Lives,” decided to take that idea and run with it – with a feminist twist.
Gleason asked a wide-ranging group of women to write an essay about the female performer who changed her life. And she chose a genre that may not scream “I am woman, hear me roar”: country music.
“It seemed like the most subversive way to do it,” Gleason says. “Use country music to discuss female empowerment, coming of age or into one’s own, finding your way. But more importantly, to do it on your own power!”
The book is full of tremendous women: Loretta Lynn, whom writer Madison Vin argues was country music’s queen of the sexual revolution (“I chew on the possibility that if Loretta Lynn hadn’t spoken up, my mother might have been quieted, ignored—dulled.”); Rosanne Cash and her (step)mother, June Carter Cash; k.d. lang; Wanda Jackson; Lucinda Williams; and Dolly Parton.
The women are very different, but they all share the strength to be “phoenixes without the fire,” as Gleason puts it.
“To me, that’s the ultimate feminism: Be who you are, what you love, and be respected for it!” she says.
I talked to Gleason via email about free and strong women, and the book’s themes of clarity, resolution, conviction and passion. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity and flow.
This isn’t your usual anthology of profiles or musical criticism – this one is very personal, exploring how these women of country have actually changed the writers’ lives. Was that the idea behind the book, or did it evolve that way once you started talking to your contributors?
This was always conceived as how much women artists and country music impact lives. What or how did that one woman artist change your life? When I reached out to the writers, the opening question was, “Who was she?” Usually followed by, “What was it?” and “How did that she make a such a difference in your life?” I teach Music Criticism at MTSU, where I find a real disconnect between my students and what music means to them. And I’m not sure they feel it any less, but they have no recognition of how much it can mean – or the difference the right artist can make.
“What’s amazing about these women is the way they were phoenixes without the fire: They rose up because it was their music, their family, their way out.”
And of course all the essays are by women, about women. Did you always see this as a feminist book?
Always. It seemed like the most subversive way to do it, too. Use country music to discuss female empowerment, coming of age or into one’s own, finding your way. But more importantly, to do it on your own power!
From Caryn Rose’s Maybelle Carter essay, which finds country’s matriarch not asking for permission when A.P. dies, but just taking over, whether that meant booking the shows or driving the station wagon to get them to the next gig to “Access Hollywood” Senior Producer Nancy Harrison realizing as a young “satin pants wearing” Long Island teenager that girls can write their own stories through Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5;” then as she’s entering the work force, Nancy refuses to give up her makeup and pretty blouses to “look like a man,” which so many women in the corporate world were encouraged to do in the late ’80s.
To me, that’s the ultimate feminism: Be who you are, what you love, and be respected for it! This isn’t man-hating feminism, but more an acceptance of self as a celebration of whatever or whomever you’re supposed to be! What’s been so interesting is the number of men who’ve responded to this book. My smart aleck response is: It’s the playbook from behind enemy lines, but I think it’s actually giving men access and an invitation into emotions our culture doesn’t let them feel.
And you know from reading this book, these are not sylphlike “take care of me” women. You have Ronni Lundy learning what it means to be free and strong in the ’70s through Appalachian mountain musicians and activist Hazel Dickens. Ronni, at 71, just won the top James Beard Award for “Victuals,” a book about Appalachian foodways. She’s living that essay to the hilt.
You say this in the introduction: “Country music, defined as simple songs about real life, is in many ways women’s music.” Can you talk about that a bit?
Men tend to write about certain tropes. Trucks, getting drunk, seeing the girl/chasing the girl, getting the girl, losing the girl and working hard are pretty much it, with some nostalgia, family, military and patriotism thrown in. And I’ve covered the genre since I was writing for The Miami Herald in college, so I’ve seen wave after wave of boy singers. Women have always looked at the complication of attractions, found story songs, leaned into writing about what work conflicts demand, as well as the dynamics of family life. We still see the guy, sometimes marry the guy and, yes, lose the guy. But when you look at Mary Chapin Carpenter, she was considering the complications of dating as a girl trying to have a career in the ’90s, Wanda Jackson was blowing it up and being a sexy here’s-how-it-is feminist in the ’50s and ’60s, and Kacey Musgraves looks at equality and small-town dynamics right now. But also as I say in the introduction: Women lead lives, they get drunk, they go to church, they have children, they bury friends. All those things are in these essays. From Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin puncturing one woman’s paralyzing grief and settling another’s trauma incurred from – literally – running from the falling World Trade Center Towers on 9/11, you go to Rosanne Cash’s beacon helping a kid from working-class Cleveland outrun neighborhood expectations to get a college degree and a big journalism job, only to find out the real twist of the essay is, like Rosanne’s turn into American roots music, acceptance of who you really are is what matters.
And yet country music can be a fairly conservative genre, and fairly misogynistic too.
Maybe because that’s where country is different from other genres in that aspect, it does stick out. But Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” is about embracing whatever your sexuality or kick is, Loretta Lynn’s “Your Squaw Is On The Warpath” in the late ’60s told her no-good husband how it was gonna be, and Rosanne Cash had a song called “Rosie Strike Back” that took on domestic violence in the ’80s.
All towns are company towns, I think we’re learning that now. But I also think some of these women are so clear on where they’re headed, they used that to become lighthouses for each of these writers – and whole generations of women who loved them.
One of the essays is about Loretta. Writer Madison Vin argues she was country music’s queen of the sexual revolution. She writes, “I chew on the possibility that if Loretta Lynn hadn’t spoken up, my mother might have been quieted, ignored—dulled. My mother is effervescent. no matter the room, her aura fills it. But what if she wasn’t allowed to be? Would my sisters and myself have then, in turn, been taught to bite our (admittedly sharp) tongues? Would we have been saddled with a universe of gray?” Can you talk about that a bit, how these singers didn’t just change the writers’ lives, but women as a whole?
I think sexism was more out in the open in the ’60s and ’70s, with Phyllis Schlafly and the Real Woman Movement serving as a counter to Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. For Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Maybelle Carter, then Carlene Carter and Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless, as well Lacy J Dalton, Gail Davies, Reba McEntire and Martina McBride who aren’t in the book, regular working women could have this shiny artist who was putting her foot down, speaking up, saying “no” or “enough” or “I don’t think so.”
Remember, country singers weren’t movie stars. They were salt of the earth, just like we are. Loveless recorded Lucinda Williams’ “The Night’s Too Long” in 1988, because she knew what it was like to sling hash and yearn for more; she knew she could go out and get it because – as the essay explains — of Dolly and Loretta.
One of the more powerful essays is by Alice Randall, a rarity in the country music business: She’s a black, female country songwriter (in addition to being a novelist). She writes about another black female songwriter, Lil Hardin, who wrote (or co-wrote, if you believe some song credits) the Ray Charles standard “Just for the Thrill.” It was hard enough getting credit if you were a black performer or writer back then, but it must have been incredibly hard for a black woman. It’s so moving to read about how Hardin inspired Randall, and also prepared her for the treachery of the music business. What did you feel when you first read it?
Truthfully? Hell, YES! I remember when Alice was co-writing with Steve Earle, was starting to publish Garth Brooks and marveling at how – even though she was black – her skin was never an issue. Somehow in a town that at the time probably still dropped the N word far more than I’d want to believe, her race was never an issue…
Of course, she’s brilliant, and not willing to allow people to sink into their lower selves. But she’s had to fight her battles, stand her ground, and most likely get hit with that other “B” word for her efforts. But she was never bitter, probably because she knew, like Lil, she just needed to keep going.
Speaking of moving, you include Rosanne Cash’s eulogy for her stepmother, June Carter Cash – although she calls her simply, “a mother.” It includes this line about the love June and Johnny Cash shared: “Her love filled up every room he was in, lightened every park he walked, and her devotion created a sacred, exhilarating place for them to live out their married life.” I’ll never forget one photo of the two of them, and he’s holding on to her so fiercely, with such devotion in his face. It’s clear it was a totally reciprocal relationship. They both were strong, but both nurtured the other. Quite feminist, actually, no?
It is. The notion of loving or being loved completely is maybe the most revolutionary thing one can do. And the beauty of true equals, no one has to dominate the other to be consumed with love. I can’t think of many people who embodied the beauty of romantic love more or better, yet they both not only maintained their autonomy, they made the other more!
I was talking to a promoter who did many of Cash’s final shows. He was laughing about how thrilled Johnny was about having acts like Social Distortion on his bills, but then marveling at how it was June who drew the line, and said, “No” to some of the other acts. As the promoter said, “June wanted to Johnny to be happy, but she also knew where the line was. Her ‘No’ meant no.”
We should all be so lucky to have that kind of love. Because to me, feminism doesn’t mean checking out of romance, it means finding someone who sees you for what you are, embraces and lifts you up. It’s hard to find, but gorgeous in action.
“To me, that’s the ultimate feminism: Be who you are, what you love, and be respected for it! This isn’t man-hating feminism, but more an acceptance of self as a celebration of whatever or whomever you’re supposed to be! “
Talk about the decision to include the essay a 17-year-old Taylor Swift wrote to one of her role models Brenda Lee. It was the most unexpected piece in the anthology.
I’d asked Taylor to do something else, and her people came back, saying, “We may have something that suits what you’re doing even better.” She’s incredibly smart and understands things on a granular level, so I said, “Send it over.”
I was thrilled reading it. There is really only one person on the planet who could have written this, because it’s a 17-year-old girl who’s had a few hit records, but she’s not arrived at ubiquity, let alone world domination. You can feel a bit of awe, a sense of “this is a star to steer by.” It’s a tremendous moment that might not exist anywhere else. If you want to talk about empowerment? Look at her, and look what happened.
You chose Tanya Tucker for your essay. Can you talk a little here about how she opened your eyes to a different world?
Tanya Tucker taught me how dangerous labels are, and judgment inherent to those tags. In spite of really creepy marketing of her huge country albums when she was a kid, her emancipation album “TNT” didn’t sound any different than Rachel Sweet from Akron, Ohio’s “Fool Around” on Britain’s punk label STIFF Records. In life, you miss a lot by labeling people to make assessment easier, or to “know.”
That essay also talks about the wages of gossip, bad behavior, scandal – she in the tabloids, my parents through a particularly ugly divorce. She came back from Glen Campbell and rock & roll to make a great country record, get her career back and win the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Award, because she knew talent was what mattered. As my life was getting tossed around pretty badly, that was a good star for me to steer by.
I like a theme that runs through many of the pieces: These women gave the writers strength, when they had doubts, or were struggling (for example, Kelly McCartney on k.d. lang, and coming out of the closet). Did you see that as a theme too?
I’d hoped going in that yes, through the book the themes of clarity, resolution, conviction, passion and getting it done would emerge. So many people get caught up in the why-nots and people who don’t believe in them, or worse, the things they fear. I love how funny Kelly is talking about something we’ve been watching kids brutally tormented about, even committing suicide over – and seeing her as the embodiment of the LGBTQ promise to teenagers, “It gets better.”
Right now we’re in the middle of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It’s strange: Out of this completely disempowering moment for so many women, other women are being empowered to finally speak out about sexual abuse and harassment. It’s almost like the women of country, who have had to fight misogyny to become powerful voices for women, no?
What’s amazing about these women is the way they were phoenixes without the fire: They rose up because it was their music, their family, their way out. I think almost every woman written about has had those moments where they had to face demons as they created such deeply personal music; but they all got there.
Look at Rhiannon Giddens. An almost archivist musician from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she was just awarded a MacArthur Grant! And the essay by Fisk University Poet in Residence Caroline Randall Williams shows Williams seeing her own destiny in Giddens when they’re both on the set of a Denzel Washington film in Louisiana. What we see, we can believe and model ourselves after.
Having examples or role models is a big deal. Look at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Shelby Morrison, who was tending bar in Lubbock, Texas; she took the rules she learned on “The Barbara Mandrell Show” and used them to get not only a job at the Buddy Holly Museum, but find the gumption to move to Cleveland, Ohio, and take a job at one of pop culture’s ultimate destinations. I have a friend who asked me, “Is it a fight if you’re passionate?” I laughed, because they were right. No matter what you run into, if the emotion runs deep enough, it’s own kind of fuel.