NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There’s an ongoing discussion among music writers, musicians and music fans about how female artists are treated compared with their male counterparts. Some common examples include referring to a “songstress” or an “all-female band,” or focusing more on a woman’s appearance, weight, marital status or children.
In Nashville, Tennessee, that debate is front and center as country radio is dominated by male voices and women are being shut out of major country music awards. But a new collection of personal essays on the transformative impact of women in country music aims to change the narrative. Edited by music critic and consultant Holly Gleason, “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives,” published by the University of Texas Press, isn’t like one of those “women in music” special editions of a magazine. Nor is it a history book.
Each of the 27 essays focuses on the experience of when music was a savior, an inspiration or an acknowledgement of a deep and personal truth. A 17-year-old Taylor Swift recognized the shining light inside another child star, Brenda Lee. Rosanne Cash delivered a heartbreaking eulogy to her stepmother, June Carter Cash. Author and songwriter Alice Randall learned about theft and racism in the music business from Lil Hardin.
“Women artists take more chances,” Gleason said. “I think they tend to dig deeper with their content. I think they are more concerned with the depth of the human condition and also the nuances of it. To me, the badge of being a woman artist is almost like a ‘Hell, yeah!'”
In Swift’s essay, she recalls watching a video of Brenda Lee singing “Someone Loves You” from 1983. “She is theatrical. And she is beautiful, in a sparkling gown that matches the twinkle in her eye. Lights, camera, action. She starts to sing. That’s when you hear the gold, and you watch her as she holds the crowd in the palm of her hand,” Swift writes.
Gleason pulled together writers from all backgrounds, including other musicians, journalists, poets and culinary writers. Their topics range from country music matriarchs Maybelle Carter, Hazel Dickens and Loretta Lynn to superstars like Dolly Parton and Shania Twain. Gleason learns about the power of sexuality after listening to Tanya Tucker.
Country singer Aubrie Sellers spent her formative years running around backstage at the Grand Ole Opry watching both her dad play and her mom sing, but it was the reinvention of Alison Krauss on her album with Robert Plant that challenged her notions of what country music, or bluegrass could sound like.
“Listening to ‘Raising Sand’ was one of those turning points in my life that really made something click in my brain,” said Sellers, whose debut album, “New City Blues,” infuses garage rock with country songwriting.
Caroline Randall Williams, a poet, cookbook author and young adult novelist, writes about her experience meeting singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens on a movie set and being awed by her ability to make music that “defies limitations of genre, race or even time.”
“I have had a unique position of growing up in a country music space as a young woman of color in Nashville and knowing that was something that always existed, but always finding that other people didn’t know,” Williams said. “My first thought was ‘How do I shine a light on that truth?'”
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