By Chick Jacobs
Country music, it is said, has eternally been a haven for songs about troubles.
That includes female troubles.
Beneath the Barbie-in-boots, glamour-gal world of modern country music beats the heart of a woman who can either stand by her man or D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
“Country music, perhaps more than any other genre, offers a window into the heart of American culture at the time,” said music historian Jocelyn Neal. “What the women of country music sang reflected the time.”
Neal, who teaches the history of country music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will discuss feminism in the music this evening at the Cumberland County Library. The discussion will delve into more than honky-tonk angels and coal miners’ daughters.
“Some of the song-writing for its time was very radical,” Neal said. “Those who see country music as reflecting very conservative opinions in this country might be surprised at how progressive some of the songs and artists were.”
And as you flip through the hits of country music, it’s clear that not everyone was the happiest girl in the whole U.S.A.
“There’s an interesting diversity in perspective in country music,” Neal said. “It’s not limited to country, but it is more pronounced there. Country music addressed societal issues more.”
Like members of a family, “country music is aware of its past,” she added. “It knows where it came from.”
Women, she said, have always been an important part of the music. Society simply wasn’t ready to give them the spotlight. The few female singers had to battle cultural expectations that a woman should be handling a frying pan, not a guitar.
“Remember that life on the road in the ’20s and ’30s was much tougher,” Neal said. “The prevailing attitude was that it was no place for a woman.
“As a result, many talented women chose a less public role. They became songwriters or stayed in the background as musicians. If they sang, it was in a group, like the Girls of the Golden West, or in the sheltering protection of their spouse, such as North Carolina native Lulu Belle and husband Scotty Weisman.
“Rachael Veach played banjo for Roy Acuff. Maybelle Carter was a tremendous talent, but people think of the Carter Family, not the women themselves.”
This “need for a man” in country music may well have led to the rich tradition of duets in country — which in turn gave women a chance to address cultural issues.
“Those duets allowed singers to address two sides of a story,” Neal noted. “With the man telling his side and the woman her’s, everyone had a say.”
Women finally had their own say in the ’50s, when Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline proved a strong voice and solid song could be enough for a woman. Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” — a saucy response to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life” — showed that women could be accepted as country acts on their own. It also gave them a modest platform in a male-dominated industry to speak their minds.
Soon, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton were addressing issues such as birth control and domestic abuse (though in a much more playful tone than the topics might suggest). While Tammy Wynette’s submissive opus “Stand By Your Man” played to the more traditional realm of country, new voices and new issues were creeping in.
It was as close to the cultural upheaval of the times as country would get, but it was a change. A decade later, Countrypolitan music was in vogue, and the strong female voices of the era were deceased, retired or swallowed in mainstream syrup.
“That pop trend actually helped with the rise of alternative country,” Neal said. “It can be fascinating for my students as they see how country artists progress and change reflecting the changes of the industry.
As an example, she cites two big names of country: The Dixie Chicks and Dolly Parton. The Chicks moved from a small label to major stardom, and their image changed along the way. Eventually they became alienated from their country fan base.
Parton, on the other hand, has branched into pop, movies, business enterprises — all without ever distancing herself from her roots.
“Dolly says, ‘I am country, it’s at my core, but I’m not just country,’” Neal said. “It’s a tremendous move. Country will always welcome her home, because she embraces it.”
Nowadays, it’s a little tougher to tell where country ends and pop begins. Female country artists have had limited crossover success for a generation, from Reba McIntyre, Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter to the platinum success of Faith Hill and Shania Twain
“These women, especially Shania, have redefined the role of women in country music,” Neal said. Traditionalists may hate that, but it’s true.
“Each generation has its own favorites, and each person has their own favorite song. There’s no perfect song, because we’re all individual. There’s that one song we danced to, or cried to, or spent all our baby-sitting money to buy.
“Each generation may be different, but there’s music that speaks to each of us.”
Staff writer Chick Jacobs can be reached at 486-3515 or firstname.lastname@example.org