I’m not even close to being first to note the wave of Nashville-first, resolutely forthright female artists crossing over to the alt crowd right now: kerosene-toting Miranda Lambert first and then Ashley Monroe and Casey Musgraves (plus Lambert and Monroe together with Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies) within an inner circle that expands somewhat but not exponentially. Let’s face it, Taylor Swift tilts instead toward the Madonna/Michael Jackson axis and there are some great singles but no boules femmes among the Band Perry and Sugarland. Joey Daniewicz calls what I’m talking about “country grrl” music, although the directionality is critical—Neko Case and Tift Merritt can sing purty and avoid the authenticity trap, but neither takes a whack at Southern social conservatism because neither stake their careers within that broad milieu (unlike Elizabeth Cook, another country grrl who genuinely walks the walk). The grrls may be pot-smokin’, selfie-shootin’, girlie-snugglin’ biker chicks, but when Miranda Lambert says she’s also a gun-totin’ mama, it’s not that she’s touting her bona fides to the red-meat country core—she’s telling the alt-audience they have to take her on terms they are unlikely to be totally comfortable with.
It’s not that this hasn’t happened before. Starting with 1967’s first new #1 “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)”, Loretta Lynn, then Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton (and, let’s admit it, Lynn Anderson) ascended the Billboard country charts one after another over the next decade. And though each of these authentically rural artists excepting Anderson had their own unique voice, they collectively (and craftily) subverted the existing stipulations of the country music social contract. Pro-pill, D-I-V-O-R-C-E, lovin’ trumps liquor, they promoted social change using arguments that avoided intellectualism and thus for the most part eluded the hippy-dippy types (who, in turn, just got made fun of by the country types—see “Okie From Muskogee”). The feminism of these original Dixie chicks manifests from many directions— from Dolly Parton’s smart-sassy voice announcing itself louder than any racket the guys can make to Loretta Lynn’s sharp, wickedly direct lyrical turns to Tammy Wynette’s fragile, reticent asides (we forget her sharpest, in the otherwise notorious “Stand By Your Man”—“after all, he’s just a man”).
I’d like to think that there is a lesson here to be learned about cultural change in a socially conservative climate like the one I grew up in—that it can occur and even quickly, but that these changes must respect deep social norms regarding family and individualism. “Now I’ve Got the Pill” would never have worked as a let-it-all-hang-out trope, but Lynn got her message across with the remarkably stark images in couplets like “This incubator is overused/Because you’ve kept it filled”. Somehow, now as then, female artists seem either better positioned or more willing to be the voices in country music for these cultural changes, and these days at least the men have next to nothing to say about anything that isn’t teeing up their next macho-beat single. Whether you approve or not, at least George and Merle had something to defend back in the day; guys on country music radio now are either Mighty Mouse cartoon figures (F.U.T.K.) or weak-kneed willies scared of what Loretta and Dolly wrought (think Blake Shelton’s “Oh baby that sounds tempting but I just can’t stay” when Ashley Monroe asks him to “have your way”). I’m looking forward to best-ofs by Kenny Chesney and Shelton, but I’m not expecting major works from either.
Musgraves has written her way from one end of Nashville to another, and her debut Same Trailer Different Park joins Monroe’s Like A Rose and the Pistol Annies’ slightly lesser sophomore effort Annie Up as the best country music LPs of 2013 so far. You probably know about the Annies’ semi-salacious debut Hell on Heels and Lambert’s solo work (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and especially the expanded version of Four the Record the high points in a rock-solid career), but don’t overlook Monroe’s download-only 2006 debut LP Satisfied, which stands proudly with any of these records, as does Elizabeth Cook’s wickedly sly Welder.
For the old gals, you have my permission to skip Lynn Anderson’s saccharine crossover attempts and head directly to the real stuff. Dolly Parton is easy: 2009’s four-CD Dolly (Sony) captures all her insistent insouciance in one package and tells a great story to boot. If you know her from her two near-perfect greatest hits releases in the early 70s, you’ll be surprised by the first nine songs, which find Parsons largely in girl group mode, but with that big finger-wagging voice you know cutting through the crap. When she hits Nashville proper (the Bill Phillips duet “Put It Off Until Tomorrow”) you feel it, and what follows is track after track of glorious Appalachian-gone-pop. Tellingly, this set doesn’t even get to the 1973 classic seduction tale “Jolene” until after the halfway point. The last disc catches big hits and big swings spanning two decades, and while I regret the omission of the remorselessy excrescent “Stairway to Heaven”, otherwise I’m all in.
Tammy Wynette is a tougher case. Her original 11-song greatest hits is still available on Epic, and it captures so many high points that the three-CD Tears of Fire compilation is a letdown. Plus, so many of Wynette’s inspired duets, mostly with her one-time husband George Jones, are not included—both volumes of their Greatest Hits are still available on Epic, as is a reasonable distillation in the Playlist series from Sony Legacy. Within this enclosed world, you’ll hear the most sheerly frightened vocals ever—Wynette took the tentative anxiety of the spoken word intro of “Leader of the Pack” and expanded it in broad swaths across a psychosexual Southern ranch-style suburban nightmare. David Lynch stuff. Don’t expect resolution.
And Loretta Lynn is an endless fountain—she’s the only Nashville Sound artist who stands up to George Jones as an original, and at its best her songwriting matches Hank Williams simple truth-for-simple truth, sez I. Let’s face it, Elizabeth Cook’s spunky “When You Say Yes to Beer (You Say No To Booty)” is just a Loretta Lynn tribute/rewrite. There’s not a bum shot among the 70 songs on MCA’s Honky Tonk Girl: The Loretta Lynn Collection, so lesser comps may leave you wanting more. And yet her regular-release albums keep on giving. I’m partial to two 1965 releases, Blue Kentucky Girl, which goes song-for-song with Rubber Soul, and Hymns, the best country-gospel album of all time (sorry Elvis, and I don’t want to dissuade you from checking out Ms. Cook’s velvety Gospel Plow). It’s telling that 2004’s Jack White collaboration Van Lear Rose only got so far; she’s not that kind of girl (come on Jack, go whole hog and ring up Dolly, who’ll knock you on your tush). Loretta Lynn is foundational because she’s traditional, and that’s a compliment.