There's a script for women in commercial country music that doesn't necessarily coincide with more mainstream stereotypes and assumptions about women. If you've ever heard Carrie Underwood's ubiquitous 2007 single, "Before He Cheats" (lyrics), you'll recognize the tropes.
Of course there are exceptions, but the ideal country woman is often blond (and white), feisty, world-wise, and hot. She is deeply possessive of her man, and aims to squelch competitors for his affection. She gives the appearance of working-class roots even if she didn't grow up working class, and she's equally comfortable talking about guns (Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead"), Jesus (Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel"), and heterosexual romantic relationships (Dixie Chicks' "Cowboy Take Me Away").
One of the newer variations on these themes is the girl group Pistol Annies (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley). Check out the first single of their August LP, Hell on Heels (lyrics):
But the ideal country woman was not always thus. What has emerged as stereotype was innovative and fresh when Loretta Lynn began experimenting with these themes in the early 1960s. Her hit, "Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)," gave audiences a strong woman who could stand up to a rotten man. "You Ain't Woman Enough (to Take My Man)" introduced conflict with other women over the affections of a man.
At times, she even transcended these themes, as in "Rated X," an almost proto-feminist anthem that laments the double standards that constrain women's sexuality. As the song ends, she says in frustration, "No matter what you do, they're gonna talk about you." A woman might see divorce as "the key to being loose and free," but people are only concerned with her past. "Women all look at you like you're bad," she croons, and "the men all hope you are/But if you go too far/You're gonna wear the scar/Of a woman rated X."
Like the newer country women, Lynn also remained steeped in the traditions of Southern Baptist style revival music. From "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" to Amazing Grace," she tended to stress a softer side of Baptist spirituality. That is, she abandoned hellfire and brimstone talk and stressed the image of god as friend and helper in times of trouble.
For me, that older music is more interesting than that of Lynn's many contemporary heirs. The Pistol Annies' new album is not unpleasant as commercial country goes, but its themes give the listener the impression of a country woman typology—a list of ideals that comprise "women in country," boxes checked and all neatly in place.
"Bad Example" is the obligatory ode to working-class values and female country feistiness. "Somebody had to set a bad example," the chorus goes, "Teach all the prim and propers just what to do." Then "Those swanky big brick houses don't amuse me/I live in a trailer but I drive a Cadillac/I ain't never tried to impress nobody/With my 'honk if you're horny' sticker on the back."
"Lemon Drop" and "Housewife's Prayer" combine working-class woes, spirituality, and frustration with inept men. The title track, "Hell on Heels" is all about being a country-fried maneater: "I'm hell on heels. Sugar daddy, I'm comin' for you." "Boys from the South," in its turn, asserts the heterosexuality of country music, complete with a romanticized take on said (white-coded) "boys from the South."
But what happens when an artist cannot really live up to the ideals of the genre? When the Dixie Chicks famously critiqued the Iraq War, they rebelled against the expected allegiance to "God and country." Though they released another album, they lost their standing as the superstars of women in country.
So did Chely Wright, when she came out as a lesbian. And boy did she try to live up to what was expected, at least in public. Just check out her music video on an earlier single called "Single White Female" (lyrics):
Wright's 2010 release, Lifted off the Ground, was a new kind of record. At a recent protest against an anti-gay constitutional amendment proposed in North Carolina, Wright spoke about how painful the disconnect between public persona and actual self had been. She knew about the genre's compulsory heterosexuality. Hiding ultimately became so painful that she wound up with a gun pointed at her head. She spoke of the freedom that finally came in reconciling spirituality, sexuality and music.
Many of the tropes about women in country have stayed the same over the past several decades, and the most successful women in the genre often play into them in spades. But some women, like Wright, are pushing against the stereotypes to write and perform more honest music. Though these women are limited in number and often face career setbacks, women and men in alt country music have been rebelling against the tropes for far longer. I'm excited about unpacking some of these artists in the next post!