My parents aren’t musical, but I grew up in a house full of music. It was mostly country music and occasionally ’80s pop/rock (thanks to my mom). A story my parents love to tell is that for about a year, I couldn’t go to sleep without hearing Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” on the little boombox I had in my room. And it wasn’t just that song; no, I had to listen to that whole album up until that song ended, and then I would fall asleep.
Country music was the first genre I learned to appreciate. I’m not sure if that's because that’s all my family listened to or because my earliest memories are of Texas (where my father was stationed shortly after my birth) and Tennessee (where both sides of my family are from), two of the biggest markets for country music. Maybe it was both.
Growing up, I knew George Strait’s ’90s catalog perfectly, like any good young Texan should. I also knew Merle Haggard and had heard enough Johnny Cash to know that he had an unmistakable timbre in his voice, and that there was some edge to him as well. (My dad had gotten into trouble in elementary school trying to take his family copy of “Live at Folsom Prison” to show-and-tell.) Alison Krauss, Bill Monroe and other bluegrass acts were also prominently featured.
I believe I was 7 or 8 years old when I first heard the Dixie Chicks. I don’t remember which song I heard first. All I know is that one day we didn’t own “Wide Open Spaces,” and the next day we did. I didn’t pay much attention to them at first, except that I knew they played their own instruments, and when Natalie Maines sang, you listened.
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It wasn’t until “Goodbye Earl,” from “Fly,” when I fully realized at that young age just how subversive the Dixie Chicks were. At that point the only murder ballads I had heard were from Johnny Cash and other male artists. Here was a trio of women who had just gotten away with a murder ballad and made it a Top 20 hit (I didn’t pay attention to the charts back then, but to a military brat living in Virginia and then Kansas and then Alaska while the song was at the peak of its popularity, it was inescapable wherever I went).
Then came the infamous George W. Bush remark. You know the one. Natalie Maines stood up in front of a crowd overseas and said that she was ashamed the 43rd president of the United States was from her home state of Texas.
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Looking back, it’s plain to see how the backlash that followed shaped me as a journalist and as a believer in the First Amendment. While everyone else was back-hoeing and tractor-driving over copies of “Fly,” “Home” and “Spaces” in protest, my family kept the albums. We still listened. While I watched former fans turn on a band they loved because of an on-stage remark, it taught me not only that words have power (and consequences), but that the right to say those words was even more powerful. And even thought my father vehemently disagreed with Maines’ remarks, he respected her right to say them; after all, what good was it to serve his country if that country wasn’t free?
Now, listening to the Chicks’ earlier albums and their last studio album, “Taking the Long Way,” I see how much of that quiet (and then outright) rebellious spirit was always there. “Wide Open Spaces”? “Sin Wagon”? “White Trash Wedding”? “Lubbock Or Leave It”? All of those came from these three people who were firm in their convictions, weathering death threats and fear of lost contracts for their beliefs. If they could do that, then surely I could express my own views, too.
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I mention all of this to say that the Chicks and their confluence of music and politics shaped me as a writer and as a journalist. And I never really stopped to think about that until I read Holly Gleason’s “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives.”
Gleason’s essay anthology, out now from the University of Texas Press, is a book of 27 essays about female country artists, written by women. As the title suggests, the book isn’t a book of straight criticism as it is a book about the artists that have impacted the writers’ lives the most.
“The requirement was that I wanted the artist that changed your life, not necessarily your favorite one,” Gleason told me in a phone interview. She wanted essays on the artist that spoke to the writer, relayed in a way that only the writer could. “Something that I think we all put too much empahsis on is external validation. Instead of looking at our hearts and asking ourselves, ‘Who can write like this?’ ... Every essay in this book is singular. There are no bands mentioned in there, it’s all very singular and they repreent a very singular thing.”
For country music critic/writer/artist development consultant Gleason, who wrote two of the essays (one under her pseudonymn Lady Goodman, the same name she used to write Kenny Chesney’s hit “Better As A Memory”), one of the “singular things” she wanted to accomplish with the book was to highlight female writers who might not have had an outlet otherwise.
“I kept thinking about Roseanne Cash’s eulogy for June Carter Cash as I was reading and doing all these papers for my master’s degree, and then my mind wandered to all these women that I know, who have lives and everything outside of writing, just these really great writers who got caught up in real life and weren’t in a place where they could consistenly write longform. And I wanted to showcase those talents, and I wanted it to be about country music.”
The essay subejcts run the gamut: Taylor Swift, k.d. lang, Kacey Musgraves, Lil Hardin, Shania Twain, Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker, Terri Clark, Rhiannon Giddens, among others. And the writers are as diverse as their subjects: a 17-year-old Taylor Swift, a James Beard Award winner (Ronni Lundy), a former Desert Storm reporter turned Country Music Association vice president (Wendy Pearl), the current editor of No Depression (Kim Ruehl), a farm-to-table advocate (Ali Berlow). Roseane Cash’s eulogy for her stepmother is also printed in the book, and Cash is also highlighted in an essay by Deborah Sprague.
The essays presented here are intensely personal yet widely accessible. Everyone knows what it’s like to have a piece of music alter your life forever, whether you’re Taylor Swift encountering a Brenda Lee performance for the first time or you’re a small-town Texas girl who learned from Terri Clark that it was OK to be mad for a little while, and to be “wholly authentic.” And every woman knows what it’s like to navigate a world on rules that have largely been determined by men — especially in the music industry.
“The state of women in country music right now is the state of women everywhere,” Gleason said. “You have to really do the work and not just act like a boss. You have to actually be the boss. You have to figure out what you’re willing to sacrifice, you have to figure out, ‘This is what I am, this is what I have to say.’”
This gleeful, poignant and boisterous collection on the power of song might help readers look into their artistic taste to find out what they have to say, too. If anything, it helped me examine why I latch on to the particular music I do. And Gleason said that’s the ultimate point of the book.
“As women, I think we make more diverse music, morso than men, as a rule, and deal in subtlety more often,” she said. “And what I hope people take from this is, I want people to appreciate things more in life, like, ‘Oh, I never noticed that tree,’ or ‘Gee, I wonder why that secretary looks really tired, I wonder what her day has been like.’ And that way of looking at music and internalizing it and applying it to your own life, I think will make you more introspective, and will help you know yourself better.”
“Woman Walk the Line” is available now, and can be ordered online.