Sunday, November 9, 2008

Feminism in Country Music

Sorry for the lack of regular and relevant posts; I have been working hard on my thesis and finishing up my last year of course work.

But today I want to take a break from Kurt Cobain and write about a topic that has only recently caught my attention: women in country music.

My mother loves country music so I heard a lot of it as a youngster. And, like most things my mother liked, I rebelled strongly against it. I have never been a fan of country music in fact I used to put it on my list of most hated music. Recently, in homesick moments, I really enjoy a nice bluesy country tune. Nothing is better for heartache than country music. No, really. I even think that some female country music singers advocate feminism in their lyrics and lifestyles.

I decided to look up the lyrics of a few tunes that I have been thinking about lately. Each one of these songs has a complicated message about gender roles. I am reminded again of Melissa McEwan's blog post, "Feminism 101: How are we Supposed to Take Feminist Bloggers Seriously if they Post About Shoes?" in which she writes:
"Making the personal public and political is serious business. Because women's stories aren't told, it's incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect. It's our obligation to create a cacophony with our personal narratives, until there is a constant din that translates into equality, into balance."
This is the basis of standpoint feminist epistemology. Women's lives are not written into the dominant culture the way that men's are, especially women whose oppression is intersectional and complex. This makes some women's narratives feminist action. I don't mean to imply that just because a woman is speaking she is a feminist but I have noticed some distinctly feminist standpoints in country music.

Below are lyrics from several noteworthy tunes followed by my analysis. Enjoy.

"Well I was born a coal miner's daughter in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler.
We were poor but we had love
That's the one thing that daddy made sure of
He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar.

My daddy worked all night in the van lier coal mines
All day long in a field of whole and corn
Mommy rocked the babies at night and read the bible by the coal lore light
And everything would start all over come break of morning
Daddy loved and raised the kids on a miner's pay
Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a washboard everyday
While I seen her fingers bleed to complain there was no need
She'd smile in mommy's understanding way...
Yeah, I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter."

"Coal Miner's Daughter" Loretta Lynn
A theme I noticed across this genre is the struggle of the working class and the working poor. This is one of the older songs on my list but Loretta Lynn is a classic country feminist. Here she writes about living in poverty. There isn't much political insight and she does identify herself in terms of her relationship to a man (her father). However, she identifies with his struggles and respects both of her parents for doing the best they could with limited resources. Gender is only one site of oppression, class seems to be more visceral here.
"Well you thought I'd be waitin' up when you came home last night
You'd been out with all the boys and you ended up half tight
But liquor and love that just don't mix leave a bottle or me behind
And don't come home a drinkin' with lovin' on your mind
Just stay out there on the town and see what you can find
Cause if you want that kind of love well you don't need none of mine
So don't come home a drinkin' with lovin' on your mind."

"Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'" Loretta Lynn

"All these years I`ve stayed at home while you had all your fun
And every year that`s gone by another baby`s come
There`s gonna be some changes made right here on Nursery Hill
This old maternity dress I`ve got is going in the garbage
The clothes I`m wearing from now on won`t take up so much yardage
Miniskirts hotpants and a few little fancy frills
Yeah I`m making up for all those years since I've got the pill."

"The Pill" Loretta Lynn
In these two songs Lynn takes on issues of gender. In "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'" Lynn's lyrics conjure images of domestic violence and sexual assault. Still this song does not paint Lynn as a victim, she uses her voice and her music to tell him that she won't stand for the abuse. Then in "The Pill" Lynn sings about, you guessed it, the pill. I don't know about you, but I haven't heard many songs about birth control. Lynn speaks about how access to birth control empowered her to be more sexually adventurous and less restricted by monogamy. Many of Lynn's songs are about difficult topics like poverty and abuse yet she never seems victimized by these positions but rather uses them to empower herself through her art.
"Daddy said, 'Now come girl, we're headin' down the road to Augusta.'
And faintly through his clenched teeth, he called Mama's name, and then he cussed her
He said, 'Girl, you're young, but some dude has come along and stole your mother.
Ah, but you can't steal a willin' mind 'cause mama's always lookin' for a lover.'

With dusty teardrops on his face, my daddy cried an' big steps he was takin'
And halfway runnin' to keep up, my shorter legs were so tired and shakin.'
'Where did I go wrong, girl? Why would she leave us both this way?'
At times like these, a child of ten never knows exactly what to say

We searched in every bar room, and honky-tonk as well
And finally Daddy found them, and Lord, you know, the rest is hard to tell
He sent me out to wait, but scared, I looked back through the door
And Daddy left them both soakin' up the sawdust on the floor."

"Blood Red and Going Down" Tanya Tucker
I included this tune because I love Tanya Tucker. She also frequently writes about domestic violence and in this tune she implies (though never explicitly says) that her father murdered her mother. What is so interesting is that country music is frequently chastized for being backwards and anti-intellectual. Still, according to, "Women are much more likely than men to be killed by an intimate partner. In 2000, intimate partner homicides accounted for 33.5 percent of the murders of women and less than four percent of the murders of men." Domestic abuse seems to cut across class and race differences. There are, of course, differences but the difference between country music and so-called 'high brow' art is that female country artists speak much more freely about the reality of their private lives. I have included here several more country songs that contain narratives of sexual and domestic violence.
"Well she seemed all right by dawn's early light
Though she looked a little worried and weak
She tried to pretend he wasn't drinkin' again
But daddy left the proof on her cheek
and I was only eight years old that summer
And I always seemed to be in the way
So I took myself down to the fair in town
On Independence Day

Well word gets a round in a small, small town
They said he was a dangerous man
Mama was proud and she stood her ground
But she knew she was on the losin' end
Some folks whispered and some folks talked
But everybody looked the other way
And when time ran out there was no one about
On Independence Day...

Well she lit up the sky that fourth of July
By the time that the firemen come
They just put out the flames
and took down some names
And send me to the county home
Now I ain't sayin' it's right or it's wrong
But maybe it's the only way."

"Independence Day" Martina McBride
Several decades after Loretta Lynn and Tanya Tucker sang about domestic abuse, Martina McBride added her own narrative to the country music archive. "Independence Day" is about the day that the narrator's mother leaves her abusive father which happens to be American Independence Day. I especially love that anti-choice, conservative republican, Sarah Palin's, team used this as her campaign song. Martina McBride went along with it and, in turn, donated all of the royalties to Planned Parenthood. While it is clearly a liberal (as opposed to radical) move, McBride seems like a feminist to me. Another of her tunes, "This One's for the Girls," is a great feminist anthem.
"You've got a thing or two to learn about me baby
'Cause I ain't taking it no more and I don't mean maybe
You don't know right from wrong
Well the love we had is gone
So blame it on your lying, cheating, cold deadbeating,
Two-timing, double dealing
Mean mistreating, loving heart."

"Blame on your Heart" Patty Loveless
I like this song because it demonstrates the complexity of country music. While plenty of women sing about violence and abuse at the hands of their fathers and/or lovers they also sing about desire and pleasure. I think it is important to recognize that pleasure and danger co-exist.
"I didn't know my own strength
'Till I had to pick myself up
And carry on without your love
Oh,I'm gettin' back on my feet
It's been a long hard fall
But I'll make it after all."
"I Didn't Know my Own Strength" Lorrie Morgan
This song has gotten me through some tough times. The message of empowerment through self-reliance seems overtly feminist, though not without problem, to me.
"Phone rings baby cries TV diet guru lies
Good morning honey
Go to work make up try to keep the balance up
Between love and money
She used to tie her hair up in ribbons and bows
Sign her letters with X's and O's
Got a picture of her mama in heels and pearls
She's tryin' to make it in her daddy's world
She's an American girl."

"XXX's and OOO's (An American Girl)" Trisha Yearwood

"Well, I ain't never been the Barbie doll type
No, I can't swig that sweet Champagne, I'd rather drink beer all night
In a tavern or in a honky tonk or on a four-wheel drive tailgate
I've got posters on my wall of Skynyrd, Kid and Strait

Some people look down on me, but I don't give a rip
I'll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip
'Cause I'm a redneck woman
I ain't no high class broad
I'm just a product of my raising
I say, 'hey ya'll' and 'yee-haw'
And I keep my Christmas lights on
On my front porch all year long
And I know all the words to every [Tanya Tucker] song
So here's to all my sisters out there keeping it country."

"Redneck Woman" Gretchen Wilson
Another theme, in these more recent tunes, is that of pride. With all of its problems and complications, being a country women seems to be a source of culture, heritage and pride. Of course, that pride has been interpreted as racist, homophobic and, perhaps, ignorant it is still a unique and valid standpoint. These women seem to have in common an experience of femininity and duty, pleasure and danger, pride and survival.

This is by no means a complete list, these are just some songs I like with some themes I noticed. I think that this would make an interesting study. Perhaps a future research project.

All lyrics from Cowboy Lyrics.


Kitty said...

You're wrong about "Independence Day" in that the mother in the song didn't leave the abusive father at all; it's right in the lyrics you posted:

"Well she lit up the sky that fourth of July
By the time that the firemen come
They just put out the flames
and took down some names
And send me to the county home"

The mother burned down the house, presumably with herself inside, and the daughter was shuttled off to foster care.

Cortney said...

Right, thanks Kitty. I had intended to write more on that but I must have forgotten to go back.

I wonder whether the lyrics imply that the mother burned herself in the house or her husband or just the house. I am not sure that the lyrics are clear on it but I do like that the proceeding lines are:
"Now I ain't sayin' it's right or it's wrong/But maybe it's the only way."

I think that that lyric really speaks to the complexity of situations where leaving isn't always the best or even an available option. I guess it is speculative but I really think that the song speaks to the complexity of experience. Especially considering it is called "Independence Day."

Thanks again for the clarification!

Emmy & Boyfriend said...

I love this! I'm a Master's student in History in Boone, North Carolina and I'm currently writing a paper on feminism in country music using almost every one of the songs you mentioned. I'm going a bit further back also to Kitty Wells and the women of the Carter Family. I love your analysis of the songs themselves. It's sad that so many people equate women in country music with anti-feminism when that is so far from the truth.

Cortney said...

Thanks Emmy! I am so glad to hear that you are writing about this for your Master's Degree. It is a topic that I considered but I passed because I didn't think that I knew enough about the music.
It is such a great project! You might also enjoy this blog post over at Feministe:

Angelia Sparrow said...

Lorrie Morgan's song was written after the death of her husband, singer Keith Whitley.

She did have to pick herself up and carry on without him, as women do every day.

I listen to a lot fo the older country music (the new stuff all sounds so overproduced)

Dolly Parton is an amazing songwriter. "Coat of Many Colors" is about absolute poverty (and the truth of her life at 10), and "Time for me to fly" has been covered by REO Speedwagon. But her "PMS Blues" is some of the frankest women's music you'll hear.

The Dixie Chicks... Love their work. They've taken the worst that jingoists and Big Media can throw and they're still recording.

On the more dated side, KT Oslin's "Eighties Ladies" chronicles my mother's generation:
We were the girls of the 50's.
Stoned rock and rollers in the 60's.
And more than our names got changed
As the 70's slipped on by.
Now we're 80's ladies.
There ain't been much these ladies ain't tried.

We've been educated.
We got liberated.
And had complicating matters with men.
Oh, we've said "I do"
And we've signed "I don't"
And we've sworn we'd never do that again.
Oh, we burned our bras,
And we burned our dinners
And we burned our candles at both ends.
And we've had some children
Who look just like the way we did back then.

And yes, "Independence day" both song and video strongly suggest the mother burned herself along with the house.

Erin said...

Thanks so much for writing this! I get really frustrated with the assumptions of people who've never listened to country music that country music must be sexist. That assumption is based on NOTHING.

I think country music is the most feminist of any of the mainstream music genres (I'm not big into music so I can't expand that claim to cover indie genres that don't make it onto the radio or into pop culture). That even goes for the songs of male country singers. Though songs' of male country singers are more likely to reflect gender stereotypes than songs' of female country singers, the majority of male country singers at least sing about women with respect. Contrast that w/ a quite a bit of mainstream rap music... There are definitely no bitches or hos in country music.

And I always thought that in "Independence Day," the mother burned down the house with the father in it. Then the daughter was an orphan not because both parents died, but because the mother didn't stick around to be charged with murder.

me said...

Independence Day was written by Gretchen Peters - and she is the one who donated the royalties to Planned Parenthood after Sarah Palin's team misused the song.

Peters is a feminist/humanist it seems. Also it seems that most music genres are not into feminism, including country but to country music's credit - it definitely has some strong voices/opinions in its history.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone. Just ran across this blog tonight...great ideas on feminism and country music. A colleague and I are writing a manuscript about the Dixie Chicks and Indigo Girls, their political activism, etc. Would be interested in posters' take on the two groups. PS we are sociologists and political scientists/

Anonymous said...

I love it, feminism and country music is my current fascination. but i would dispute Loretta Lynns feminist credentials? "you aint woman enough to take my man" is probably one of the most unfeminist songs i have heard.. for obvious reasons

Anonymous said...

I really wish this post had included a segment on modern country music which is highly anti-feminist. For example I just heard a song this morning about how one simply needs to 'put a girl in it' to improve any situation. I'm no country music expert, but I know for damned certain it isn't all pro-feminist, especially if written by men, as much of country music is.