Roots Watch: Brave, Specific Country Women and Timid, Generic Men?

Barry Mazor | April 5th, 2013

The impossible to miss excitement this spring, within country music and in the wider pop music world, too, around the strong, risk-taking, breath-of-fresh-air releases from Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe raises anew some longstanding questions about the relative effects on music makers of being relatively unnoticed. Okay; neither of them were in fact music business unknowns exactly a few years back; they were more recognized among at least some music makers then than some singer-songwriters will ever be, but given the general male dominance of recent country charts—a few obvious predecessors such as their friend and sometime co-worker Miranda Lambert and yes, also Taylor Swift aside—it’s been tempting to view the emerging work of these two markedly smart, original and fine-sounding singing songwriters as, in part at least, the result of under-detected years of practice, woodshedding, co-conspiring and mutual support by a generation of smart but marginalized country women.

The oncoming second Pistol Annies release (hint: strong again), and, I’d wager, the inevitable greater recognition for another cohort in the Annies-Musgraves clan, Brandy Clark, cowriter of a number of songs by the others and no slouch as a singer either, will further fuel the notion that we’re seeing the emergence of a generation of women born across the 1980s, who’ve been willing to take chances in lyric themes and recording sounds because they’d had little to lose—a situation known, at times, to be an excellent impetus from an artistic standpoint.

The chances taken are not just in the more obvious matters like mentioning whips and chains and smoking weed. We get actual stories from all of these new country women, stories that go places, “befores and afters,” including carefully chronicled consequences, instead of the now too-familiar pattern of “raising hot themes” while backing away from saying anything about them, like some chicken-hearted, exploitative made-for-TV movie with no more actual depth than the ad for itself.  We get new stories from the heart of the country audience’s experience; “Trading One Heartbreak for Another,” an Ashley Monroe-Angaleena Presley song on that upcoming Annies album about a young mother freed from a bad relationship (“I’m not damaged goods any more”) but hurting to find their child “devastated” by the break-up, is a great example. Instead of quick country connection by name-dropping or check-off, these young singer-songwriters have been reaching for and delivering the fresh, deceptively simple, glittering specifics that are the core of potentially lasting popular art, the stuff of lines like “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay, Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane; Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down,” or “Room spinnin’ round faster and faster, drownin’ in the midnight laughter, but nothin’ hits, nothing’ hurts, like the morning after.”  Lines like those right there reflect all that country music can be—especially when you hear them.

So maybe there’s sense to the theory that what we’ve been seeing is that “upstart,” even marginalized, smart young women have less to lose and can and do take more chances—though before we get carried away it’s useful (as with most generalities) to mention that, for instance, Shane McAnally, a known male American, had a hand in co-writing a number of this contingent’s songs, too, Kacey’s “Merry Go Round” and Ashley’s “Two Weeks Late” among them. Talent recognizes talent.

By comparison, this spring’s pre-appearance season releases by guys with histories of big-time chart, radio and seat-filling success—Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Kenney Chesney, Eric Church, even the relatively non risk-adverse Brad Paisley—seem less daring.  McGraw’s is a consistent, unified, pleasant listen and Paisley’s ambitious new “Wheelhouse” album, in particular, does venture into some thematic territory that challenges the audience and the programmers, as you will have heard already in his “Southern Comfort Zone,” though he tends to try to charm his way into walking back any zonal discomfort the listener may have even while he’s instigating it.

All of these performers, whether writers themselves or not so much,  have pushed a little envelope from time to time in subject or sound (something rarely admitted by those who don’t listen to them at all), but percentage-wise there’s much more formulaic expectation-meeting than mold-breaking by these stars with “things to lose,” too many songs written to tested formulas. For instance, Shelton’s “Boys Around Here,” even with the R&B sound and the knowingness typical of him, amounts to catchy chorus jokes stapled to yet another by-the-numbers list — four wheel drive, ice cold beer, red dirt roads, the man upstairs, keeping it country, don’t take no shit, etcetera, etcetera, courtesy of a trio of songwriters capable of stretching in more than language bleep-ready for radio. (Ice cold roads?  The red dirt upstairs? Keeping it semi-detached suburban? )

Church’s live, all blasting all the time set, revisits hits like  “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” but mentioning Haggard or Springsteen is an easy thing, evidencing the slightest digestion of the breadth and subtlety of what they’ve made except by quotation is another. The strongest stuff on Chesney’s oncoming Life on a Rock release turns out to be gently swinging, lighter than air acoustic stuff like the single-ready “Must Be Something I Missed;” its more personal, autobiographic material more often references experiences than delivers the imagery to let us share them. The set is as idiosyncratic as he suggests, though; Kenny’s  (Bob) “Marley” is a standard bearer of sweet, stoned background noise and love; the Marley I saw in New York in 1974, (in one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen), played to an audience of a thousand grooving, stomping, fist-pumping Jamaicans in “Burnin’ and Lootin’.” So it goes. A noticeable upside when performers have been in front of as many crowds and microphones as these fellas have, it shows; McGraw, Chesney and Shelton are singing with more authority, range of expression, and even occasional swing than at any point in their careers.

Look, folks—sane pro musicians who’ve had little or marginal success generally would like to become more familiar with what these guys’ level of acceptance would feel like. And while I wish nobody hungry years of obscurity, you have to wonder, might some time outside bouncing off each other below the radar get us more startling songs from a new generation of young men?

And by the way:  There’s a notable rise in songs of the “times are awful, my baby’s left me, and now all I can do is get drunk, pray, or play Lotto” variety coming from both established stars and the country newcomers discussed here, what those who don’t quite “get” country music (or the blues) often describe as genre “passivity.” But whether you’re a conservative dubious that other more collective action ought to be taken or can be, or a liberal responding “wake up; there’s a lot more we can do about your situation than those options,” the concrete depiction of how down home people are living and feeling about it right now is your necessary starting point. Exploring those specifics, in however many chords and hard-discovered truths, entertainingly when possible, is the job of all of these artists.

  1. Jewly H
    April 5, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Excellent, excellent column, Barry. It’s pretty striking to me to hear the contrast between female risk-takers and risk-averse males play out in how they’re each talking about small-town life. And thoughts on how Kimberly Perry and co. fit into all this?


  2. Barry Mazor
    April 5, 2013 at 10:25 am

    Just gave a first listen to the new Band Perry last night; I definitely liked the sound of it; haven’t sat down to scope out what all of the songs are saying yet, but there’s this sort of “80s roots pop, yet old time country, upbeat murder and death ballad” thing they have going that makes so little sense on the face of it that I like it a lot. Also, I’d definitely rate Kim Perry as among the best new voices that can sing put out there in the last few years..

  3. Jon
    April 5, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Strong one, Barry.

  4. dfwsnickers
    April 5, 2013 at 11:05 am

    Though I understand her polished sound doesn’t fit the orientation of this blog and she’s nowhere near as developed a songwriter as Ashley Monroe or Kacey Musgraves, I think Carrie Underwood probably deserves a mention in this column for the risks she took with singles “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs.” The 2 singles were noteworthy shifts towards the Gothic for a mainstream fixture, and their theatrical pop/rock sound was neither typical of mainstream country nor current pop.

    Those two singles were also at the front of a wave of menacing female songs at country radio. “Blown Away” was first, and then “Tornado,” “Better Dig Two,” and “Two Black Cadillacs” were all released within weeks of each other several months later. “Two Black Cadillacs” was already known prior to its release since it was the third single on an album released last May.

    Co-conspiracy is an interesting point. It shows up in lyrics (as in “Two Black Cadillacs”) and in practice, which you already pointed out in the connections between Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, and the fact that Kacey Musgraves cowrote Miranda’s current single with Brandy Clark (who cowrote The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two”). I’m eager to see Brandy Clark getting more spotlight time, and it’s starting to happen.

  5. Al P
    April 5, 2013 at 11:14 am

    I can’t help but think that the catalyst for this might have been Kellie Picklers’ 100 Proof. She took a business risk to forge an artistic vision in the mainstream country world.

  6. J.R. Journey
    April 5, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this. Great article, Mr. Mazor.

    With respect to both Carrie Underwood’s recent singles – which I think are her best works yet – and Kellie Pickler’s top-shelf album, I think the catalyst for women in country music moving to take more risks sonically and lyrically comes from being the underdog for generations. Mainstream country radio has made it clear they have limited space for female voices on the air. So with fewer spots for the ladies and a lesser chance of that big commercial breakthrough, I think they’re just more inclined to throw it to the wall and see what sticks.

  7. Jon
    April 5, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    “… I think the catalyst for women in country music moving to take more risks sonically and lyrically comes from being the underdog for generations.”

    For generations? In country music? 15 years ago, everyone was wondering where all the men in country music had gotten to.

  8. bob
    April 5, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Very interesting article. Maybe some day the ladies will rule the charts? Just bought the new Band Perry and Maggie Rose albums this week.

    Every time I hear “Merry Go Round” I think of the Tracy Lawrence song, “Time Marches On”, written by Bobby Bradock. The second verse:

    “Sister’s using rouge and clear complection soap.
    Brother’s wearin beads and he smokes alot of dope.
    Mama is depressed barely makes a sound.
    Daddy’s got a girlfriend in another town.”

  9. Leeann Ward
    April 5, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    As usual, fascinating article, Barry. And, I agree with your initial observations regarding the new Band Perry album. I’ve only given it one listen so far, but I’m drawn in by the sound of it, but I haven’t given the lyrical content much attention yet.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to hear a promo of a Brandy Clark album that’s waiting in the wings and I’m quite impressed. I hope she can gain some traction so that the album can be released sometime soon.

    Jon, I don’t remember wondering such a thing about the men 15 years ago, but my memory isn’t all that reliable at times.

  10. nm
    April 5, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    It’s almost as if the young women being discussed here have decided that someone had to take responsibility (for the narratives, for writing songs with believable and incisive details, for accepting that there are always results of their own actions and choices, whatever). And since the men aren’t doing that with their music, the women stepped up.

  11. Barry Mazor
    April 5, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    Interestingly, this “someone has to step up–and it’s apparently up to the women” theme nm is detecting can be heard outright in songs on that oncoming Pistol Annie’s release..

  12. Luckyoldsun
    April 5, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    Is it that women are recording lyrically adventurous music and men are not?–Or is is that lyrically adventurous recordings by women–like Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe–are getting attention and those by men are not?

    I’m not up on all the latest, but in recent years I’ve bought a few records by men like Chris Knight and David Serby that were lyrically compelling and adventurous…and sank without a trace.

  13. Barry Mazor
    April 5, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    Well, LuckyOl, this time I’ve been talking about artists d marketed to mainstream country audience and seeking to be… Chris is certainly known in Americana circles, for instance, but I doubt he or anybody he ever recorded for saw him getting far on an outright country chart..

    The rest of the “getting attention” question needs to be “getting attention by who-um”, and to what scope? I wasn’t laking about the entire universe of performers, or singing songwriters. I was talking about mainstream, potentially charting country artists backed by labels with clout to help do that..

  14. Jon
    April 6, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    “Jon, I don’t remember wondering such a thing about the men 15 years ago…”

    OK, everyone but you, Leeann ;-). But really, the country music, and music, and to some extent even general presses were chewing it over at length in the late 90s/early 00s. You can ask Barry.

  15. Barry Mazor
    April 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    It’s certainly true that women were dominating the charts in the Shania-Faith era to the point people were commonly cogitating on where the guys went. The guys came back. Given that country radio had made its “country needed to be for moms” demographic call, they did it by doing a lot of “Now that I do everything exactly as you tell me, I’m a better man than I’ve ever been” songs, which reflected a sentence never uttered by actual guys in human history..

    Three chords and a wish fulfillment stuck again. And worked as usual.

  16. nm
    April 6, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    This is a case where Jon and Leeann are both right. There was a huge amount of hand-wringing about where all the cowboys had gone. But that took place in a context in which male artists were expected to be the big sellers, with the women occupying a less-salable place lower on the charts. And the huge sellers of the later ’90s were, instead, women: Twain and Hill and the Dixie Chicks starting to come on, while Garth Brooks (the male artist most recently responsible for that expectation) was first fading and then in retirement. There were still plenty of men on the charts, but they weren’t as dominant as male-country-artists-taken-as-a-group had been five years earlier. So we got a lot of the “women are taking over” meme.

  17. Jon
    April 6, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    “And the huge sellers of the later ’90s were, instead, women: Twain and Hill and the Dixie Chicks starting to come on…”

    Which was my point; I was responding to J.R.’s statement about what catalyzed the current blah blah blah. He said the catalyst is women having been commercial “underdogs” for generations. And being the huge sellers isn’t being underdogs, at least, not commercially.

  18. bob
    April 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Question: Has there ever been a weekly country top 40 from mediabase, billboard or any other chart organization in which female artists outnumbered male artists? My guess would be NO.

  19. nm
    April 6, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    Jon, I’m agreeing with your point. I’m also noting that if Leeann doesn’t remember the men disappearing, it’s because they didn’t actually disappear — their slide in relative importance was enough to get everyone all het up.

  20. Luckyoldsun
    April 6, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    I don’t think anyone ever claimed that the men “disappeared.” But there was a lot of published commentary along the lines of “All-the-music-that’s-worth-anything-or-that-has-something to-say-is-coming-from-women-artists.–The-male- country-artists-are-interchangeable-and-putting-out-inconsequential–fodder.”

  21. Barry Mazor
    April 7, 2013 at 1:03 am

    things come around..that’s for sure. And as long as guys have a radio advantage, it will be so–and they still do; there are programmers who believe they have “scientific evidence” that there are just so many women a female audience will listen to per hour, let alone the less important male audience–quite exaggerated if you look at the sort of data this is “derived” from. When women do et somewhere, as in the period we’re raising now, it can be viewed as a disquieting novelty. Of course, as with Taylor Swift, a lot of jobs may depend on that “novelty” success.

  22. Luckyoldsun
    April 7, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Well, I’ve been listening to country radio a bit for the first time in over a decade–because my “town” just got a country station–something called “Nash FM” after many years without one. I can say I understand what Rick is talking about in his nickname for it. The audio is tuned or mixed to create a non-stop beat that gives you a headache, there are no D.J.’s, they never identify the songs, and two-thirds of the songs by male artists say “I’m from a small town/ I’m from the sticks/I’m from the Boondocks//I like Cash/ Hank Jr./Skynyrd//…and I drive a truck.”

  23. Barry Mazor
    April 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    I believe I was pointing that out. There’s short playlist radio, and there’s the sweep of country music–and they’re not, most places, the same thing. We have the extremely unusual benefit of the extremely unusually good WSM here (and you can hear it online, as well as much country besides what the one station may arrow itself down to, right?

    I lived in New York back in the WHN era, and that was a station that broadened to meet country interests of its region–very well. I suspect, and also hope, that all broadcast radio will eventually get the sensible, potentially life-saving concept that localization is good, live local DJ’ing and some live music are good–and that playing exactly the same 12 tunes as 4000 other station, when those tunes can be heard online anyway, doesn’t look like a very sustainable business model.

  24. Ken Morton, Jr.
    April 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Barry, do you think the narrow playlists of (most) current FM country stations will continue as long as they’re owned by a select few corporations? Trends tend to be circular, but I just can’t imagine diversity (musical, not ethnical)coming back while decisions are being made by a very small group of individuals.

  25. Barry Mazor
    April 7, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    I’ve got no more inside handle on when/how those sorts of decisions will get made, Ken; it just strikes me that plain business logic (the only sort they have ) will lead to a realization that having thousands of stations compete with a few national ones doing the same thing isn’t economical and competitive unless they differentiate themselves– local differences, supported by local ads, being a known way.

  26. Luckyoldsun
    April 7, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    I would have thought that in an environment where everything is available everywhere on demand via the Internet, that the way for a “terrestrial” radio station to distinguish itself and add value would be to actually have a live person–a.k.a. a d.j.–making spontaneous small talk between the songs, commenting on the artists and referencing what’s going on in the vicinity–the weather, the traffic, the news of the day, etc.

    But apparently, the owners of the radio stations do not see it that way. The station that I’ve been listening to on occasion during the past month has never once broadcast even a second of anything that appeared to be live or even specifically intended to be played at that particular time. I mean, the hour played from 1 to 2 pm on a Saturday afternoon could have been a rebroadcast of what was played from 1 to 2 am, three nights before, for all any listener would know.

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