Roots Watch: Country Women Now, Books and Christmas

Barry Mazor | November 30th, 2011

2011 has not been a huge year for new music by many women on the country music charts, a situation that’s been much noted, often with understandable dismay. The most-heard hits by female vocalists have tended either to have come from the mixed male/female group arena or to be yet another single pulled from older CDs. That’s more than likely explained as cyclical, in this era when it just take so long for albums to surface, and new singles to enter charts, then have some impact. Not that long ago there were similar comments about how women were dominating the same charts and airwaves. It has also, no doubt, been a period when country radio has been notably reluctant to take risks.

There’s some evidence emerging, though, that we could be hearing some benefits from that situation—the sort of experimentation that happens (occasionally, at least) when artists find there may be more to gain than lose with mood and tone-breaking change-ups. Martina McBride is looking like a canary in this mine with  “Teenage Daughters” last Spring; the addressing of the mothers of those daughters was relatively predictable, but like it or not (and I did.) the move away from the soaring voice-centric sound she’s most known for to something more, talkative counts as a large change-up in today’s country’s terms, That a cut that was least like the more typical rest of the Eleven CD was culled for a single is all the more interesting. Since then, we’ve seen CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Miranda Lambert step up to taking a lead in changing the sound of what’s next in both her own varied CD and the daring Pistol Annies side project. And between you and me, the Kellie Pickler CD 100 Proof, to be released in January, is going to be another major surprise to some people.  The single out so far, “Tough,” may not be that far removed from the pop sounds of her last album, but, for the most part, this new CD marks a substantial turn for her towards more traditional down home country in lyrics and sound alike.  Some expected this sort of move from her at some point all along, but that Ms. Pickler’s taken the flying leap now, and nailed the landing, will be news. Let’s hope this all bodes well for strong new sounds from countrywomen in the new year—sounds that get heard.

• Four books to note:  Tis the season to give some country fans books that apply to their favor of choice, so here are four recommendations from across the twang spectrum: The late Marty Godbey has told well a story much in need of telling in Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe. How the bluegrass banjo giant came to be one, led such an innovative band as an instrumentalist, and lived that “music life” are all brought home.  There have been less sweeping looks at rockabilly form back in the day, through today, than you might imagine, a new revealing and entertaining one, with writing from the likes of Peter Guralnick, Luc Sante, and Robert Gordon, along with a terrific collection of photos and artifacts, is Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ‘Round the World.  Dolly Parton’s songs and songwriting, and particularly her own renditions of those songs over the decades on record, are the focus of Nancy Cardwell’s The Words and Music of Dolly Parton: Getting to Know Country’s “Iron Butterfly.” Neither an exploitation of Dolly’s public face or exactly a book of music criticism, it’s about what Parton songs are, where they’ve come from, and where to find them.  Since Nancy’s an excellent interviewer, her included talks with producers, co-workers and musicians involved with making her records add much to the detailing [check out a review from the Engine 145 archives]. Lastly, for those interested in how taking stock of country music history ever became a serious study, Sean Burns’ Archie Green: The Making of a Working-Class Hero is an important biography that fills in many blanks. Labor historian and union official Green worked and fought to include the commercial hillbilly music and music makers academic intellectuals so often dismissed in looking at American music, setting the stage for virtually all of the country chroniclers who’ve followed.

• Country Christmas music doesn’t get that much coverage, mainly because print editors tend to figure that Buying Time (Again) will be over as soon as the report or review comes out.  (That they often get to Christmas records immediately before the holiday, if they do at all, doesn’t help, timing-wise!) So here, just after Thanksgiving with time to spare, is some country of the season worth noting.  In a second year return, Mandy Barnett ‘s Winter Wonderland CD on Rounder offers up classic Nashville pop style Christmas party and ballad themes like “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”  More rural, more traditional and spiritually inclined are two Appalachian oriented collections new this year.  The one-off CD The Gathering puts together the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens, Mike Compton, Joe Newberry and others in a sweet string band for an affectingly laid back, acoustic mix.  Fiddler extraordinaire Marc O’Connor ‘s An Appalachian Christmas, with guests Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Alison Krauss, James Taylor, opera’s Renee Fleming and several full orchestras features lush cold night’s turns on everything from “Appalachia Waltz” to “What Child Is This.”  Also, watch for an RFD-TV broadcast of Joey + Rory’s A Farmhouse Christmas on Friday, December 2. Here’s a preview. And CMA’s Country Christmas, with the fore-mentioned Ms. Pickler and Ms. McBride, Little Big Town, Brad Paisley, and a rare Vince Gill-Miss Piggy duet, airs Thursday night December 1.

  1. Leeann Ward
    November 30, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I’m quite interested to hear the new Kellie Pickler album now. Of course, we’ve been hearing her say that she was planning to go more traditional and true to her roots, so it’s nice to know that “Tough” isn’t the example of that.

  2. nm
    November 30, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Leeann, I’ve also heard the coming Pickler album, and there are several songs on it that I think would be considered rootsy country by anyone. I’m not saying it’s the whole album or anything….

  3. Rick
    December 1, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Its sad when a well turned out authentic country music album like the Pistol Annie’s “Hell on Heels” is considered “daring” for a Top 40 country mainstay like Miranda Lambert. On the other hand the new Kellie Pickler album sounds interesting. I hope Kellie isn’t relying on Top 40 Country radio playing any of the more traditional songs off the album. In AirHead Country Radio Land non-conforming artistic integrity is the fast track to career suicide! Good luck Kellie.

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