Discover more from Nightcap with Tift Merritt
Why Women in Country Music?
Some Say The Heart Is Just Like the Wheel
When I was asked this summer to do a concert in collaboration with the Grammy Museum and NC History Museum’s exhibit, The Power of Women in Country Music, I knew exactly what I wanted to do – not a concert of my own music but a concert celebrating foremothers. I’d been trying to talk Robert Ellis into doing a set like this at our annual family gig at the Trans-Pecos Festival in Marfa for several years. A summer trip west to Montana gave me a little extra time and a beautiful space on a ridge in Butte to start listening for a set list. However unreasonable in the modern world, I’m a stubborn completist. I stared out the window, cooked and went running to all of Kitty Wells’ records. All of Jean Shepard’s. All of Tammy’s. All of Bobbie Gentry’s. All of Skeeter Davis’s. I read about each woman, struck again and again by their incredible accomplishments, and how their work married a personal life with a cultural moment. However different their experiences, the work of these women was contextualized almost entirely, if not entirely, by men — DJ’s, record executives, musicians, publishers, festival bookers, critics. Despite that, each transcended the limits their framing offered and pushed the story forward for people like me.
When I started thinking about music with my own dreams in tow, I wasn’t thinking about anything like music as public history. I was thinking about how Quarter Moon In a Ten Cent Town, Heart Like a Wheel and Streetlights on repeat made me feel connected to the very heart of things. Those records – those women who never knew me – were my mentors in spirit. They appeared to have kindred longings and dreams; I wasn’t alone singing along with them. A road opened where I could lay all my hopes at their harmony and find solace for whatever might be ahead in their refrains. I listened over and over again to their early records looking for how to begin. I practiced chord shapes and sang lyrics again and again until there was a little bit of pitch and music in my voice and my guitar playing was tied right with the kick drum. Who were they listening to? Who were they covering? I went to look for them. It was a wonderful mystery, the beginning of a research project that never ends, and revisiting where I started twenty-however-many years later is no less humbling and exhilarating. What a gorgeous, resilient and unique swath of storytelling history these women and their songs have gifted us. Fancy, The Pill, Coat of Many Colors. My setlist turned into a “To Listen To Again” list numbering into the hundreds; weeks and months of records to play along with and get chills to still remain. At what point do we cease learning from the spare, supple story telling of Patsy Cline or Cindy Walker? Probably never.
Women folklorists, archivists, journalists and musical memory keepers have taken notes and raised up women musicians throughout history and women have carried their musical traditions forward every day. I wish, however, their lives were better documented from a woman’s point of view, especially the ones just out of reach of the celebrity, where the experiences of women making music are centered, rather than the musical transaction. I read Skeeter Davis’ autobiography (more on this incredible story) and began looking for all the other autobiographies of women singers I could find. I can’t resist thinking about their day-to-day lives – their children, their managers, their schedules. Were they happy? Were they aware of what they were accomplishing? Were they made to feel shame for their ambitions, their bodies, their show business lives? How can we even begin to imagine what it was like for Billie Holiday to tour in the segregated south? I long to know what my foremothers would like from those of us on the path. How can I best show up for them on this very day? I wish I could make a big pot of soup and fill the house with the sound of their stories. I put on vinyl and close my eyes.
Thinking about the hundreds of records and stories of foremothers to be explored, of course, speaks to music today and how we listen, usually, on passive auto-pilot without context. Credits – who is singing, who wrote the song, who was in the room when it was recorded, where and when it was recorded, the stories I basically live for– are relegated down the food chain as really not that important. Context is obscured, as is a working wage for the streaming use.
I hate thinking that authorship has become even harder to trace. The recording industry has a long history of forcing music into spaces separated by race, sex, denomination and genre – none of these divisions are implicit to music. They are not musical devices. The power of music and the women’s voices who have touched us again and again is making clear how much we share and how very little we don’t share. When you get that good feeling, if you want to highlight the significant contributions of women speaking for themselves and foregrounding the strength and grit of women in music, find out who is singing and what they are singing about.
At a band practice this week, we’ve been jokingly admitting to each other about tearing up listening to songs, trying to play them. In the end, the set list is a menu of my points of origin; those northern stars are still so nourishing, so rich. I love Bobbie Gentry’s low cadence and strange and jangly rhythmic strum. I still resist spectacle; my version of truth remains somewhat self-effacing. Growing up in the age of early MTV, I remember looking to my musical foremothers as models of not only how to sing but how to be in the world – fully alive, rooted, and not objectified. I still do. It’s not a huge secret that I’ve been searching for a new place in music since becoming a mother, a place that upholds my values and also my desire to be the mother of a rooted person to come. No doubt the answers are somewhere in that long line of women who made the road I’m on and filled me with that first impulse to strum.
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