We can't discuss construction of femininity in country music without talking about alt country. Alt country (short for "alternative country") music very often traffics in a narrative sub-genre called Southern Gothic, which generally includes a plethora of dark, down and out characters: prisoners, murderers, executioners, addicts, drunks, and sinners. These are tales of horror and survival. They are often punctuated by pleas for supernatural intervention—well, either that or a sense that the characters are bound for hell and have been abandoned by god. And ghosts. So-called "fallen women" and "women done wrong" often figure prominently in this music, offset by abusive and/or addicted men.
The Drive-By Truckers have always explored such themes. "The Fireplace Poker," a track from their 2011 release, Go-Go Boots, has a particularly fascinating take on these them. It's the story of an evangelical preacher who "had his wife done in/By a guy I knew in high school" (Here's live audio plus lyrics.). Here's songwriter Patterson Hood's take on it. He says, "In another life, I might've been one of those people who write noir books...or direct noir movies, but instead I play in a noir band."
I'll get into music that pushes against some of the stereotypes in a future post, but first I want to be clear that alt country, like commercial country, has its own share of tropes about women. It's just that they happen to be different than those upheld by major label country artists like Miranda Lambert.
I'm from North Carolina; it's hard to grow up here and not get the impression that this is the stuff of everyday life. As a pastor, my dad counted "Black Widow" serial killer Blanche Taylor Moore as an acquaintance; they met through her last husband, a fellow pastor.
But the abuse and murder of women is more common. A number of high-profile cases of women killed at the hands of their husbands have rocked the state in recent years. And "The Fireplace Poker" is based on an Alabama murder, but this very same thing happened to the preacher's wife in a church that one of my friends grew up in.
I am not sure what this says about me, but I love the dark themes that infuse Southern Gothic narratives. Alt country is one of my favorite genres, at least in part because it explores the most frightening vestiges of the human soul (I also like the pedal steel). In my defense, "Deep Red Bells" was my favorite Neko Case song before I learned that it was about the Green River murders* (lyrics):
Then there's addiction. Though major label music tends to explore alcoholism within the "white trash" framework of country music tropes, it is much more devastating in Southern Gothic music, often involving domestic violence and premature death. Former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell frequently explores these themes, as in his 2007 ballad, "Razor Town" (lyrics):
Or his more recent "Codeine" (lyrics):
The first is about a heterosexual relationship in which a woman is in recovery from past abuse: "You know I've heard her say/That you're the only reason she's alive today." And "Codeine" is the first person account of a co-dependent, addictive relationship on the outs.
Tales of addiction and co-dependency permeate much of this music, as do first-person accounts about the inaccessibility of redemption. Mary Gautheir captures all of these without relying on tropes or stereotypes. This is partly because she writes autobiographically. So, as a lesbian, she's not covering romantic fallings-out with men who "done her wrong." And as a recovering addict and native of New Orleans, she perhaps knows these familiar themes more intimately than some. But I think it's mostly because she's a beautiful poet.
"Same Road" captures it all: addiction, lost love, the unattainability of redemption. "When you flirt with the shadows/Darkness snakes under your skin...I know you see it in my eyes/I know you know where I've been/The same road that brought me to you/Is gonna carry me away."
And here's "Can't Find the Way," which I think is about the loss of homes both material and spiritual. It's about looking for redemption by going back home, except that home isn't there anymore. It's a New Orleans-specific take on a Southern Gothic theme that has been intrinsic to the genre since novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can't Go Home Again:
It's hard to hear the plaintive cry, "I wanna go home/But I can't find the way," without actually weeping. And then there's "Mama Here, Mama Gone," from Gauthier's most recent LP. It covers a sad sense of rootlessness that comes with the loss of a mother: "Bassinets and babies, St. Vincent's infant home/Orphaned in limbo, helpless and alone/Paradise receding, paradise withdrawn/A tiny heart is beating/Mama here, mama gone":
The themes I've discussed here are, for better or worse, the heart and soul of alt country music. Murder, death, addiction, spiritual struggle, hard knocks, and basic survival. And I guess I have a dark soul too, 'cause I find this—and the blues—the most spiritually satisfying of any genre. Some of it echoes very old songs about the murder of women. Sometimes, as in the music of the Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell, women are tragic and desperate. And I hear something true at least to my Southern experience in the work of songwriters like Mary Gauthier and a dozen others I could name. I hate it when people generalize about the South, but if I had to pick one generalization, I'd tell you this: Surival, whether material or spiritual, looms large in the popular imagination.
*The Green River Killer operated around the Seattle area. Case, however, is an alt country artist, and one need not tell a story located in the South to explore Southern Gothic themes.