Feminism & Country Music--A Primer
August 8, 2014 3:36 PM   Subscribe

The internet and Metafilter are abuzz over Maddie & Tae, the teenage country duo whose first single strikes back against the pervasive and much-maligned trend of "bro country" sweeping the country charts. But Maddie & Tae are hardly the first female country singers to bring a decidedly feminist message to the genre. Here are some highlights, in chronological order, for your listening pleasure.

1927--The Carter Family, "Single Girl, Married Girl" Challenging myths about marriage, family and fulfillment...in 1927! Hot damn.
1935--Patsy Montana, "I Wanna Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart," It sounds like what she really wants is to be a cowboy herself. Bonus points for yodeling.
1951--Maddox Brothers & Rose, "I Wish I Was A Single Girl Again," expanding on the same themes brought up by The Carter Family
1952--Kitty Wells, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," the first number one Billboard country hit for a solo female artist was a response song to Hank Thompson's slut-shaming "The Wild Side Of Life."
1957--Jean Shepard, "Act Like A Married Man," condemning the sexism of a would-be adulterer
1967--Norma Jean, "Heaven Help The Working Girl" Here is your pink-collar solidarity anthem.
1968--Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley PTA," The only crossover country superhit against suburban slut shaming you'll ever need.
1968--Dolly Parton, "Just Because I'm A Woman," another classic anti-slut-shaming anthem.
1969--Bobbie Gentry, "Fancy" Made famous by Reba McEntire but originally from the fabulous Bobbie Gentry, this complex and weird song nonetheless humanizes sex workers and their difficult decisions.
1969--Dolly Parton, "Down From Dover" A super-depressing picture of how the burdens of pregnancy fall disproportionately on women.
1969--Wanda Jackson, "My Big Iron Skillet," Combines two evergreen themes on this list, the revenge fantasy and disillusionment with domestic roles.
1973--Hazel Dickens, "Don't Put Her Down (You Put Her There)" Another anthem on sex workers and the men who disparage them.
1975--Loretta Lynn, "The Pill" Loretta Lynn is country music's biggest badass. Here she celebrates reproductive choice & freedom. Hearts.
1978--Tammy Wynette, "Womanhood" On the tension between frank sexual desire and Christian faith
1994--Martina McBride, "Independence Day," In addition to being yet another awesome revenge against abuse song, it also co-opts patriotic language and imagery for its own glorious purposes.
1996--Iris DeMent, "Letter To Mom," one of several contenders for the title of "saddest song on this list," it still contains empowering messages to survivors of victimization
2000--Dixie Chicks, "Goodbye Earl," Oh, but this list would not be complete without the ultimate "revenge against your abuser" song. And the video features Jenna Maroney!
2002--Neko Case, "Pretty Girls," An ode to women seeking abortions and the many forces aligned against them.
2006--Dixie Chicks, "Not Ready To Make Nice," A nice big fuck you from Natalie, Emily and Martie on the subject of whether or not it's okay for female artists to have political opinions.
2008--Miranda Lambert, "Gunpowder and Lead," Lambert's entry into the popular "revenge against an abuser" genre
2014--Kira Isabella, ""Quarterback"," easily the catchiest song about rape culture this year.

What am I forgetting? Any suggestions for the un-represented, backlash-tainted 80s?
posted by zeusianfog (51 comments total) 143 users marked this as a favorite
Quarterback gobsmacked me the first time I heard it; I thought about making an FPP about it, but couldn't find a hook. Great post, thanks!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 4:05 PM on August 8, 2014

Wonderful post -- thank you, zeusianfog!

From 1993: Women of Country. Several of the names above appear as part of a massive rendition of Mary Chapin Carpenter's "The Hard Way."
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:14 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Michelle Shocked's "Prodigal Daughter" from 1992 would deserve a spot on this playlist if there was a YouTube video for it. It's a slow bluegrass number that pits Jesus's parable of the Prodigal Son against the slut shaming of women.
posted by ardgedee at 4:22 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've been listening to a lot of Nikki Lane lately, who sounds plenty feminist to my ears.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:22 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Incidentally, what's with the big hole where the 1980s would go? Was the Reagan era that bereft of feminist country numbers?
posted by ardgedee at 4:23 PM on August 8, 2014

For the 80s, I'd include Patti Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Roseanne Cash, and KT Oslin as very talented writers and performers who made solid music and had songs with a feminist influence. If I wasn't on mobile, I'd round up some links.

At the problematic end of the spectrum, there's Holly Dunn's Maybe I Mean Maybe (Or Maybe I Mean Yes), which pretty much sank her career.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 4:29 PM on August 8, 2014

Holy shit, that Quarterback song is incredible.
posted by graventy at 4:31 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Incidentally, what's with the big hole where the 1980s would go?

1980's # 1 country hits. You know what to do.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:33 PM on August 8, 2014

Hooray!! I have a "feminist country music" playlist on Spotify that includes some but not all of these. Definitely going to flesh it out this evening. Thank you!
posted by librarina at 4:37 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can someone in the US tell me if Miranda Lambert got the same kind of right-wing ranting that the Dixie Chicks did?
posted by Leon at 4:47 PM on August 8, 2014

Came in ready to complain about lack of Honky Tonk Angels, WAS PLEASANTLY SURPRISED to find zeusianfog already included my favorite "screw you sexist jerks" feminist country song.
It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song
Too many times married men think they're still single
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong

It's a shame that all the blame is on us women
It's not true that only you men feel the same
From the start most every heart that's ever broken
Was because there always was a man to blame
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:50 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Came in ready to complain about lack of Honky Tonk Angels, WAS PLEASANTLY SURPRISED to find zeusianfog already included my favorite "screw you sexist jerks" feminist country song.

Side note - this song was actually written by a man, Jay Miller. Even so, it's still a great song with something important to say!
posted by Arbac at 5:05 PM on August 8, 2014

1980's # 1 country hits. You know what to do.

*listens to a few, although i didn't find any that fit this post*

damn - i used to like country music and then it all went to hell
posted by pyramid termite at 5:06 PM on August 8, 2014

I see that "9 to 5" came out in 1981, for starters.

From this year, I submit this piece on Kacey Musgraves from the Toast, relevant YouTube link included.
posted by clavicle at 5:06 PM on August 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Really lots of Loretta Lynn. "Hey Loretta" … "instead of lovin' just one man, I'm a-gonna love 'em all." Incendiary stuff for 1975. And if a male nominee is permitted, mine is Collin Raye for "I Think About You."
posted by texorama at 5:07 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

well, i'm gonna hire a wino to decorate our home is pretty sarcastic, even though it was sung by a man
posted by pyramid termite at 5:10 PM on August 8, 2014

It's interesting (if you go to the wikipedia pages) how many of these were banned from radio play for being too raunchy -- Honky Tonk Angels and The Pill, for starters!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:10 PM on August 8, 2014

Am I the only one who's amused at "Wild Side of Life"/"Honky Tonk Angels" having ripped the melody from the religious "Great Speckled Bird" (WTF?!?!?!) and carried on in TVZ's "Heavenly Houseboat Blues"?
posted by notsnot at 5:13 PM on August 8, 2014

I know Lucinda Williams considered herself a feminist, but I'm only familiar with a few of her albums and can't point to a standout topical song. Here's Greenville where she tells a no-good lover to get out of town.
posted by Squeak Attack at 5:15 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Am I the only one who's amused at "Wild Side of Life"/"Honky Tonk Angels" having ripped the melody from the religious "Great Speckled Bird"

it's as amusing as the remarkable similarity between "blue eyes crying in the rain" and "silver threads among the gold", which i knew as "at the boarding house where i lived", thanks to my mother

lot of that going around in country music
posted by pyramid termite at 5:25 PM on August 8, 2014

(also known as "while the organ peeled potatoes", again, thanks to mom)
posted by pyramid termite at 5:27 PM on August 8, 2014

Iris Dement is amazing.

Freakwater's out of print first album on Amoeba was released in 1989. They had some pretty excellent feminist-y cuts
posted by batfish at 5:31 PM on August 8, 2014

Also: Mary Chapin Carpenter (from show mentioned above), "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" (lyrics), from 1993.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:33 PM on August 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

I love "Goodbye Earl" (I'm seeing that it was also written by a guy, though). I will buy the hell out of this Maddie & Tae jam. More of this, gals.
posted by limeonaire at 5:59 PM on August 8, 2014

Seconding last year's Kacey Musgreaves album, which was really, really good. Miranda Lambert has a new one that sounds better every time I listen to it, too. Her side project Pistol Annies isn't bad either — I can't pick out any songs with explicitly feminist lyrics off the top of my head, but I think the music and attitude make the point on their own.
posted by Mothlight at 6:18 PM on August 8, 2014

It is to squee!
posted by Sublimity at 6:37 PM on August 8, 2014

If you like Goodbye Earl and Miranda Lambert, you need "Whiskey and a gun". I always hear the Maggie Rose version on Pandora, but Margaret Durant really kills it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_UgymwGrgI
posted by libraryhead at 7:15 PM on August 8, 2014

Love this! Here are some favorites of mine (which might be edge cases as feminist songs, but have held a lot of meaning for me as a feminist):

Lucinda Williams, Passionate Kisses, I Lost It, Those Three Days
Dolly Parton, Dumb Blonde
Emmylou Harris, Red Dirt Girl
Iris DeMent, God May Forgive You (But I Won't)
Kacey Musgraves, Follow Your Arrow
posted by sallybrown at 8:14 PM on August 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

So many good songs mentioned so far...

My Dolly candidate (of MANY) would be: Just Because I'm a Woman (1968)
KT Oslin, 80s Ladies (1987)
Oslin was neither young nor country-cute, and it was a bit of surprise to Nashville when this song took off. Very 80s.
Reba McIntyre, Is There Life Out There? (1992)
The video is essentially a little movie; in fact, they might have made a TV movie of it.
Trisha Yearwood, American Girl (XXXs and OOOs) (1994)
Elizabeth Cook, Sometimes it Takes Balls to Be a Woman (2007)

Man, I wish I could find video of Gail Davies covering John Prine's Unwed Fathers.

and Lari White, Because I'm a Woman
she veered dramatically from country into soul with this album, and seems to have decided to leave genres behind when performing, so it's not country, but dang she nails it.
posted by julen at 8:15 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

You forgot Samantha Bumgarner, , arguably the first female solo recording artist in hillbilly music. Certainly the first billed as a solo instrumentalist.

Easy to overlook. Other great women artists who weren't singers include Madge Suttee, whose distinctive piano style defined and distinguished the early Jim Beck-produced sessions for Lefty Frizzell, and Elsie McWilliams, Jimmie Rodgers' sister in law, who co-wrote a bunch of his best stuff and played on his sessions.

Freaking great post on a favorite subject. Thanks!
posted by spitbull at 9:25 PM on August 8, 2014

Here's a little Madge Suttee.
posted by spitbull at 9:30 PM on August 8, 2014

Also, if you want to hear Natalie Maines sing actual country music (I love NRTMN, but it's a rock song), she gives one of the best vocal performances of her recording career on her duet with Charlie Robison on ""The Wedding Song" (which is a harsh take on marriage that savages both male and female motivations).

It's a great song too, but she just cuts the Robison male character to shreds with the Tammy Wynette-style knowingness and projection and the knife-sharp Tanya Tucker-style dynamics and vocal timbre. In other words, Natalie Maines is a real country singer.

Tanya Tucker is sort of due some reappreciation too, now that I think about it.
posted by spitbull at 9:40 PM on August 8, 2014

Can't link from the phone right now, but I've always liked Trick Pony's "The Bride," as in glad to not be one
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:58 PM on August 8, 2014

Wow, a Carter Family song I didn't know!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:27 PM on August 8, 2014

The Wanda Jackson song is showing up as a repeat of the Dolly Parton one for me. I think it should go here.

I adore this list. Thank you for putting it together! I've been frequently called on to defend my love of Tammy Wynette and country music because people really misjudge her/it. I often feel like country songs are able to say exactly what sucks and what hurts about being a woman in this world. I'm excited to explore more from these boss country music ladies!
posted by MsDaniB at 12:28 AM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

librarina, can you share your Spotify list?
posted by miche11e at 2:04 AM on August 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Why people who have not committed any punishable offense listen to country and western music is absolutely beyond me."
– John Cleese

(His countrymen who comprised The Beatles knew why.)
posted by bryon at 5:55 AM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow, trigger warning for Quarterback. I started sobbing while watching that.
posted by chaiminda at 2:02 PM on August 9, 2014

Neko Case previously (video)

Here's a few other Neko Case songs, a couple are even relevant-
Man, lyrics, a song about gender

, lyrics, about regret for young marriage

Star Witness previously, lyrics, about a murder
posted by sandswipe at 7:30 PM on August 9, 2014

librarina, can you share your Spotify list?

Basically came to say just this.

Love-love-loving this list: keep it coming, y'all!

...that is not a sarcastic or false y'all, I really do use it as the plural you, I swear...
posted by RainyJay at 7:36 PM on August 9, 2014

I will try to figure out how to share it! I haven't updated it yet but I think there's a way for me to let y'all submit stuff, too ...
posted by librarina at 9:30 PM on August 11, 2014

Does this work?
posted by librarina at 9:34 PM on August 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I went ahead and made a Spotify playlist too*, Feminist Country Music. It's collaborative, so please feel free to add appropriate tracks.

*I like making Spotify playlists out of Ask/MetaFilter threads; see profile for others.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:56 AM on August 12, 2014

Got it, librarina -- thanks! Listening now...
posted by katrielalex at 5:23 AM on August 12, 2014

Oops, sorry Librarina! I didn't see that you had already made one, and posted it too! My bad.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:24 AM on August 12, 2014

iamkimiam, no big! Perhaps we can merge them somehow ... In any case this led me to find all your awesome playlists, so that's a good thing!
posted by librarina at 7:12 PM on August 12, 2014

Also I posted it to facebook asking in particular for anything queer or otherwise not focused on relationships with men and/or motherhood, so I'd love it if anyone has anything like that. Also male writers and singers are not forbidden.
posted by librarina at 7:13 PM on August 12, 2014

Two by Loretta Lynn beg inclusion: "The Pill" and "Rated X."
posted by kensington314 at 8:21 PM on August 12, 2014

On review "The Pill" already made the list. Whoops!
posted by kensington314 at 8:23 PM on August 12, 2014

librarina, Follow Your Arrow (as mentioned by sallybrown above) by Kacey Musgraves has the line, "Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls if that's something you're into."
posted by Night_owl at 6:46 AM on August 13, 2014

I forgot about this great thing I found clicking around the links in this post! Mary Chapin Carpenter has a song called Girls With Guitars. Here she is introducing and playing it.
posted by clavicle at 7:45 AM on August 14, 2014

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