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: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.
"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."
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.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.
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
"Well you thought I'd be waitin' up when you came home last nightIn 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.
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
"Daddy said, 'Now come girl, we're headin' down the road to Augusta.'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 endabuse.org, "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.
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
"Well she seemed all right by dawn's early lightSeveral 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.
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
"You've got a thing or two to learn about me babyI 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.
'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 didn't know my own strengthThis song has gotten me through some tough times. The message of empowerment through self-reliance seems overtly feminist, though not without problem, to me.
'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
"Phone rings baby cries TV diet guru liesAnother 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.
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
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.