Howdy! Who here would admit they like Country music? Well, I love it! Country has rarely gotten the kudos it deserves outside of its own fandom, usually defined by its own stereotypes and clichés. But Country music comes from a rich tradition of working-class storytelling and gritty realism and was really THE genre that spoke of the lives of the rural poor in America. I wrote about the similarities between early Country music and punk in terms of the origins and ethos for an article in Vive Le Rock earlier this year. In that article, I touched on the incredibly inspirational cohort of female Country artists who have pioneered every aspect of the music industry- first recording artists; first touring artists; songs about female liberation, experience and sexuality. In this blog, I am going to focus on my top 5 most influential female Country artists with some song recommendations to initiate you:
So, with Wanda Jackson, if you want to be an absolute purist then you would say that she is the Mother of Rockabilly and early rock n roll and certainly she is most widely associated with those genres. However, she was undoubtedly influenced by the Country scene and in turn, has influenced legions of female Country artists since. Jackson grew up in Oklahoma and signed a record deal with Decca Records in 1954 after being turned down by Capitol after being told female artists did not sell records (she did eventually sign with Capitol a few years after achieving success). She toured with Elvis Presley and was influenced by this early style of rock n roll and began to branch out with her singing style and stage persona. She caused a stir by wearing very glamorous outfits on stage in a break from traditional female Country artist attire of the time. Her singles in the 1960s oscillated between outright Country-sounding tracks and more gritty rock n roll singles. Her distinctive, gravelly voice and up-tempo sound led to a Grammy nomination for her album Two Sides of Wanda which included a cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis song Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On. In the late 1960s/ early 1970s, rockabilly had started to decline in popularity, so Jackson focused on her Country output. The 1990s rockabilly revival led to Wanda Jackson being quite in demand as an early pioneer of the genre. Jackson has never really stopped recording and performing- she has a whopping 45 studio albums to her name as well as numerous other compilations, live albums and other appearances.
Recommended listening: Shakin’ All Over; Let’s Have a Party; In the Middle of a Heartache; You Know I’m No Good.
Carter Sisters: The Carter Sisters was the second incarnation of the Carter Family recording group but this time consisting of Maybelle Carter and her three daughters- June, Helen, and Anita. The matriarch of the group- Maybelle- had been performing with her family (under the name Carter Family) since the 1920s where she sang and played guitar. When they disbanded, she started a new group with her three daughters who were aged 16, 14, and 10 at the time. Between the four of them, they could play an impressive array of instruments- guitar, banjo, ukulele, accordion and fiddle (to name a few). They got their breaks by heavy radio play and began touring around the United States as their popularity grew. In 1950 they were offered a performing slot at the Grand Ole Opry and for the next 10 years they regularly performed there, often sharing the stage with acts such as Elvis and Johnny Cash (who would later go on to marry June Carter from the band). These performances were considered the pinnacle of their career and seminal examples of live Country performances. The Carter Sisters continued to perform until the late 1980s, although Maybelle Carter passed away in 1978 at the age of 69. The Carter Family were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988.
Recommended listening: Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree; Wildwood Flower; Last Thing on My Mind.
Taylor Swift: We can’t really talk about female Country music stars without talking about one of the biggest stars in the world at the moment- Taylor Swift. I have written about Taylor Swift before- not as a particular fan of her tracks but as a fan of her general Swift-ian prowess. I am sure there are probably corners of the internet who will argue tooth and nail that Swift is not a Country artist in the strictest sense of the word but it is churlish not to acknowledge that the beginning of her career was textbook for the genre. Swift was inspired to pursue Country music by listening to Shania Twain and even travelled to Nashville to pass out demo tapes of her singing Country covers. After learning to play guitar, she started writing songs at an early age and even moved with her family to Tennessee to focus on her desire for a Country music career. The rest, as we know, is history. Whilst you could potentially argue that Swift’s later sounds have gradually drifted from what we would traditionally recognise as Country and more into general pop, she has retained the Country tradition of storytelling and exposing and examining the events and impacts of romantic trysts at various stages of fruition. In the same vein as Parton or Wynette, Swift documents the life and times of a female in America the same way her Country godmothers did.
Recommended listening: Tim McGraw; Love Story; White Horse; I Knew You Were Trouble.
Dolly Parton: Like Swift, Parton is essential in any discussion about female Country artists. Parton has had phenomenal career longevity and garnered a cult following of admirers and devotees. Combining heartfelt and empathic sentiments with exaggerated and kitschy aesthetics, Parton has stolen the hearts of millions of fans as she sings poignant songs about the breaking of her own. Parton grew up in Tennessee and her early experiences of poverty are well known, documented in songs such as Coat of Many Colours and In the Good OId Days (When Times Were Bad). It is perhaps these early experiences of financial struggle that has motivated Parton’s famous philanthropy- through her Dollywood Foundation she has funded many child literacy programmes as well as creating numerous jobs in financially depressed areas. She has donated money to various diverse causes including HIV/AIDS charities and wildlife conservation efforts. Parton has been performing since she was a child and moved to Nashville the day after she left school. She found initial success as a songwriter, penning songs that were recorded by the likes of Kitty Wells, Skeeter Davis and Bill Phillips. Parton recorded her first single Just Because I’m A Woman in 1968 and since then, has had 25 number 1 singles and sold over 160 million albums in a career spanning over 50 years. She has branched out into acting (9 to 5 anyone?) and even has her own theme park- Dollywood- in her beloved home state of Tennessee. Parton’s talent; tenacity; versatility; heart and wit have made her a living legend for anyone with even a passing interest of music, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have the utmost respect for this incredible artist.
Recommended listening: Jolene; Islands in the Stream; Tennessee Homesick Blues; We Got Tonight.
Kitty Wells: Kitty Wells was a Country superstar with a career that broke down barriers both in terms of lyrical content and scale of mainstream success for a female Country artist. Wells grew up in a working-class household in Tennessee in the 1920s and learned to sing and play guitar from an early age. She began touring and performing with her husband whom she married when she was 18. Her breakthrough hit was the classic It Wasn’t God who Made Honky Tonk Angels which she recorded in 1952 at a time when she felt her career prospects were faltering. The song was a response to a song by Hank Thompson called The Wild Side of Life which, according to music historian Paul Kingsbury, was a song that appealed to those that “thought the world was going to hell and that faithless women deserved a good deal of the blame.” “…..Honky Tonk Angels” was a retort to this and challenged the notion that women were to blame for men’s moral lapses. The single was controversial- it was banned from many radio stations for being too risqué and temporarily banned from the Grand Ole Opry– a weekly Country music showcase performed onstage in Nashville. Despite these attempts to thwart its success, it became a hit and sold more than 800,000 copies on its release. Her follow up singles- Paying for That Back Street Affair; Hey Joe and Cheatin’s a Sin– were also chart successes. Wells proved that women could be commercially successful which made record companies less reluctant to sign female artists. Her career reached dozens of important milestones for female artists in general and Country artists in particular. She was the first female artist to sell 1 million records; first woman to headline a major tour; first solo female country artist to have a number 1 record in the charts and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976.
Recommended listening: It Wasn’t God who Made Honky Tonk Angels; Making Believe; Heartbreak USA; I Can’t Stop Loving You.
If you like your singers badass and your songs to run the full gamut of the human experience then you might be surprised at how many gems you will find if you have a rummage through the illustrious history of the Country music genre.