Amazing Women Reclaim Country Music
“What kind of music do you like?” is a question that I’ve been asked many times in my life. Even as a white, southern boy, my response has almost always been something like, “Anything that’s not modern country music.” I like classic country music, I’ll tell them – Cash, Nelson, Cline, Hank, Dolly – but cannot abide country radio.
Country music, it seems to me, has been going through an identity crisis as the music has become less and less a reflection of the actual stories, lives and experiences of people living in rural areas. Instead, we get song lyrics that name-drop cultural components associated with the south, but which have very little of substance to share about why those cultural components are important or how they play a role in the lives of the people the music claims to represent.
Male artists are the worst. Turn on your local country radio station(s) at any time during the day, and you are guaranteed to hear a song like Jason Aldean’s She’s Country, which is basically a laundry list of words that he hopes you’ll think show just how country he is: “cowboy boots”, “prayers”, “born and raised”, “pickup truck”, “backwoods”, “homegrown”, etc.
Or for comparison, try on Blake Shelton’s Boys Round Here, which is essentially the same thing: “boots”, “prayer”, “southern”, “truck”, “backwoods”, “beer”, etc.
These two songs are representative of a large portion of today’s country radio. The few corporations marketing and distributing mainstream music have essentially packaged up the most superficial aesthetic and cultural components of country music/life and sold them back to the population as culturalist anthems. It’s like a deep south version of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.
To make matters worse, the arrangements and chord progressions of mainstream country have increasingly begun to resemble the overproduced rock music that you can purchase from your local Family Christian Store in the strip mall next to Applebee’s.
These are serious problems, and have been for some time.
ENTER THE WOMEN
Over the past year, three all-female country artists have broken through this cultural echo chamber with stunning success. I’m excited to tell you about them. Before I talk about them individually, there are two themes that span all of these albums, worthy of mention:
1) Religion – Two of these artists do not neglect the role of religion in their lives as southern women, and in fact portray its role in a much more realistic context than most artists who talk about their spirituality. No sappy preaching here. Only one of these three artists (Kasey Musgrave) seems to actually be questioning her faith, and this too is done tastefully. As a humanist, it can be hard for me to listen to music with religious references, but these albums never irked me once.
2) Marijuana – Finally, country is returning to its longstanding outspoken acceptance of marijuana as a worthy element in its cultural narratives. Every single album mentions marijuana use at least once, and never inappropriately. If we want to see the failed and destructive war on marijuana end in our lifetime, we need public figures normalizing responsible use with honest depictions of their lives.
Pistol Annies – Annie Up
I had my doubts. These gals sang backup on that Blake Shelton song I ragged on a moment ago, so I thought the odds were stacked against them. Emphatically not the case. This trio has crafted a country album that is not just listenable from beginning to end, but is both thoughtful and fun to boot.
Here are some women from the working class background that country music derives from, singing the virtues of working class men, marijuana and getting down. But don’t mistake this for a party album. Several songs on Annie Up are about complex personal and social issues, all of which are dealt with in a nuanced way.
The first lyrics to really perk up my ears came in Track 3, Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty, in which the band laments the soul-crushing difficulty of maintaining mainstream beauty standards:
Being pretty ain’t pretty, it takes all day long
You spend all your money just to wipe it all off
You spray on your perfume, you spray on your tan
Get up in the morning, do it over again
Being pretty ain’t pretty at all
The strongly reinforced feminine beauty standards that characterize southern culture make this voice no less than feminist, social counterspin. And I love it.
Trading One Heartbreak For Another might be one of the most poignant songs about divorce ever written, and to my knowledge, is the only one that frames it just so. The heartbreaks being traded are the kind that comes with a messy divorce, and the kind that comes from seeing a child needing his estranged father: “I’m finally alive, but it’s killin’ who I’m livin’ for”. The Annies deal with serious issues of guilt and relief and anxiety here, and deserve credit for writing a truly heartbreaking song.
Other notable songs include a personal struggle with alcoholism (Dear Sobriety) and the blue collar, girl-power track Girls Like Us (Make the World Go Round).
These well-crafted, often insightful songs stray from the country formulas in important ways. This is a must own for people interested in new country music.
Ashley Monroe – Like a Rose
What splendid use of traditional country stylings! What classic themes! And yet, Ashley manages to explore those themes with a meta-consciousness that speaks volumes: “So the man is gone / What a damn cliche”. This not only imbues the classic themes with new life, but reminds everyone that the themes (like breakup/heartbreak) are cliches because they are a universal experience.
At the same time, the lyrics seem to have been written in a time and place removed from the urban centers where large portions of the country music demographic now live. Whether songs are talking about taking “the phone off of the hook” (do YOU still have a landline?) or shooting Polaroids (as opposed to Instagraming), the listener has the impression that these songs could have been written any time since the early 70s.
I’m also a sucker for artists with multiple personas, and Ashley offers us one by the name of “Monroe Suede”, a nickname for herself in a possibly-true story about an incident of grand theft auto from her youth. Songwriting like this is perfectly suited to country music, and serves to boost her mystique both as a person and an artist.
There is no question that Ashley is also representing a working class ethic here, with songs about late rent payments and heavy drinking flanking fun-as-hell stompers like Weed Instead of Roses. Strongly recommended.
Kacey Musgrave – Same Trailer, Different Park
Of the three albums, this one diverges most from roots and country stylization, but only by a few degrees. Same Trailer, Different Park certainly has pop influence, but still relies on identifiable country instruments and lyrical elements.
But the thing that really sparks my interest in this woman is the way she actively calls into question the values of the culture that gave birth to her.
If you ain’t got two kids by 21, you’re probably going to die alone
At least that’s what tradition told you
And it don’t matter if you don’t believe
Come Sunday morning you best be there in the front row like you’re supposed to
Songs like these are not only a personal exploration, but also an encouragement for the listener to question for themselves. If I had a teenage daughter, this is exactly the sort of music I would give her to listen to. The range of empowering messages for young women on this album cannot be overestimated. Sometimes they are couched in stories of other working class women, like Blowing Smoke, while others are direct encouragements that reach outside of country’s typical value scheme, like in Follow Your Arrow:
Make lots of noise, Kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls, If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Keep Kacey Musgrave on your radar, and snag this album at the first opportunity.