Once asked what initially drew her to country music, Taylor Swift replied: “I was infatuated with the sound, with the storytelling”. Even if the acoustic guitars and pedal steel are long gone in her latest album 1989, Swift’s ability to weave a compelling narrative remains the last vestige of her country roots.
This is the main reason why country music fascinates me: look past the Southern small-town clichés, and country songs are, at heart, all about real life experiences. Often what makes the lyrics so powerful are their autobiographical undertones – Miranda Lambert’s despairing plea “Dear Sobriety/Please come back to me” becomes more vivid in the light of her publicised drinking problems. Gretchen Peters’ latest album, Blackbirds, is a heart-breaking muse on death as the celebrated singer-songwriter approaches her 60s. Even mundanities can have autobiographical purpose, as Angaleena Presley captures the oft-dashed but still fragile hope of the queue in the grocery store – the “aisles of the American dream” – from her own observations as a Walmart cashier.
These female songwriters tell the stories of ordinary girls and women. The kind of girls in the Pistol Annies’ paean to womanhood: “Girls like us/We don’t mess around/We don’t tie you up/Just to let you down/Don’t girls like us make the world go round and round?” This same band, who until their “indefinite break” featured the astonishingly talented line-up of Lambert, Presley and Ashley Monroe, also confronted the bitter reality of a wife stuck in a loveless marriage in their song ‘Unhappily Married’. The lines “We’ll both play our part in this disaster/I’ll be the bitch and you’ll be the bastard” perfectly convey an atmosphere of resigned acrimony. Another talent to watch is Brandy Clark, who, on her debut album 12 Stories, records the struggles of domestic life, from infidelity (‘What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven’), prescription drug addiction (‘Take a Little Pill’) and alcoholic husbands (‘Hungover’).
The women that emerge from these accounts are far from the passive objects of so many recent “bro-country” songs. (Bro country: a phrase coined by music journalist Jody Rosen to describe the hit single ‘Cruise’ by Florida-Georgia Line. Stereotypically, the songs feature country boys driving big trucks with obliging females in tow. See also Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Sam Hunt.) Recently, female duo Maddie & Tae ridiculed these stereotypes in their hit single ‘Girl in a Country Song’. But their light-hearted satire hides a more insidious reality.
The broadcaster Keith Hill provoked outrage this year when he told a country magazine that country radio needed to “take women out”. He continued “they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
Female singers have long spoken out about gender discrimination on the country music airwaves, which is evident from any cursory glance at the Billboard charts. A track by a solo female or written by female songwriters was on top of the Billboard chart for only 17 weeks this year. This is all despite the fact that the talent of female singers and songwriters is at an incredible high: eminent artist, producer and Nashville grandee Vince Gill has praised female singer-songwriters for “making much more… interesting records… saying more things I’d prefer to hear, lyrically and song-wise”.
Right through country music history, female artists have written songs about ordinary life – witness Dolly Parton’s classic ‘9 to 5’ or Loretta Lynn’s ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’. Perhaps it’s now time for female artists to take country back to its roots.