Roots Watch: From Connie Smith to Taylor Swift
Two memorable shows in Nashville last week, both well thought out, highly planned and never lagging, but strikingly different from each other, spotlighted the evolving responses and tactics women in country music have used when stardom— however that was defined in their own generation—beckoned. Monday, September 12th at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s packed 200-seat Ford Theater, Connie Smith hosted the third of her three “Artist in Residence” shows, this one dedicated to the women of country music. On Friday September 16th at the packed 17,000-seat Bridgestone Arena, Taylor Swift brought her “Speak Now” World Tour extravaganza home.
In the annual Hall Residency shows, the host sets the format and guests for the series; Connie Smith was the first woman honored this way in the event’s eight years. She’d used the first show to feature her love of the steel guitar sound and rapport with masterful steel players, the second to highlight her connections to strong hard country songs and songwriters, and this one to place herself within the line of country star women who influenced her vocally and, later, were influenced by her. The performers she presented are seen here, trading verses on “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” in a salute to Kitty Wells.
Each of these female stars had dealt on arrival with the industry and country audience demands of the time—in their own ways—and made personal choices that affected their careers in the long run. Connie Smith loved and emphasized the singing first, though we should remember, in looking at the Smith to Swift continuum, that she exploded onto the top of the charts in 1964 at age 23, was a young contemporary-looking looker and the industry knew it, as she was pushed as “Cute ‘N Country” and right into the large-scale show business outlet called the movies—not something country women had much experienced. Ms. Smith made some decisions crucial to what happened after her first ten years on the charts, though—valuing her home life and raising her kids (three of whom, quite grown now, sang with her at the Hall show) over her career, and specifically not wanting the sort of celebrity and lifestyle that might have occurred if she’d, for instance, gone along with RCA Victor’s ideas about pairing her with Waylon Jennings, possibly right into tours of big arenas. This is a singer who loved RCA’s studio B over the more modern and equipped Studio A because it was smaller and more intimate. (And hold that thought.) She also never focused on writing songs, which she could always do, until she found time and collaborators (mainly, husband Marty Stuart) in this century.
Across that stage now: In the early ‘50s, Connie’s fellow Opry star Jean Shepard broke the mold; she was truly the first female country star to hit the road on her own, not as a real or fictional sister of anybody or somebody’s “girl singer” wife, and songwriters were soon writing for her more of the tough, often male-challenging songs she became known for. She sang them in the crystal clear, yet sometimes vibrating, Edith Piaf-like voice that would influence Connie. As times and sounds changed, Ms. Shepard became an outspoken supporter of sticking with hardcore traditional honky tonk, a choice, she acknowledges, that dampened enthusiasm for her and slowed recognition of her historic role along Music Row.
Through the ‘70s and for decades beyond, Tanya Tucker racked up hits strolling towards honky tonk musical material not so different from Jean’s at heart, though the rhythms kicked into higher rock-era gear–as did Tanya. Ms. Tucker fessed up on stage this night, with the zest and theatricality she brings to all things (“I stole everything from you!”) the Connie Smith influence many have detected in her phrasing, dramatic clipping of words at end of phrases, and more. Of course, Connie Smith’s personal life never became the stuff of endless headlines; Tanya’s life turns have sometimes made the terms “celebrity” or “a real character” come to mind faster than “great country singer,” which, all hoopla aside, she’s been. She’s talented as a songwriter but, like Connie, Ms. Tucker generally chose to put her songwriting on the back burner; there wasn’t time to focus on it.
Martina McBride’s ‘90’s story parallels Connie’s in some key ways, since home life and being a mother had taken personal precedence for and there was some similar basic shyness there; if her husband hadn’t pulled her out on the road to open for Garth Brooks, it’s possible we wouldn’t have heard her at all. As with Connie, the singing itself was a key attraction for her, and like Jean Shepard, she proved eager to sing “Independence Day” style songs that some of the men in charge found threatening. The ‘90s were not the ‘50s, though—and there was a now readily acknowledged, waiting female audience for Martina’s material. Step by step, across these women’s careers, it had become a more straightforward matter to account for that—to sing, dress, carry yourself, express yourself and to write, reflecting your own experiences, as much for women in the audience as for men.
Monday, Connie introduced new generation Texas swingsters the Quebe Sisters as “the future of traditional country music”—and with “traditional” in the description, there’s no doubt truth in that. With their instrumental chops, tight harmony singing and energetic showmanship, they’re as talented, special and promising an act as I’ve seen in years. But you don’t become icons of your era, as the legends on the stage Monday night each did, by going retro, and great 1940s sounds, however well we may wish it, are not likely to be filling the arenas and stadiums where mainstream country now chooses to live any time soon. Which brings us to—Friday night. And Taylor Swift.
The huge throng on hand was treated to a two and a half hour spectacle of Broadway proportions, with evolving, elaborate sets, a half dozen musicians, and as many versatile dancers, prone to flying up through trap doors onto the stage without notice, dangling as clappers from huge Liberty bells, and such, all precisely timed and rehearsed and also wildly more entertaining than I’d imagined any of it would be. In the midst of all that, but not quite dwarfed by it was Ms. Swift, in changing garb and sequences emphasizing her pop, county and singer-songwriter angles, all of that production clearly and ingeniously designed to keep variety, pacing and the current industry’s ever beloved “high energy” in the show.
Taylor Swift makes choices. Emphasizing the songwriting even while constantly touring is one of those. Fuzzing the country/pop line is another, one in which she’s hardly the first. What struck me is that Taylor Swift’s shaping circumstance, is different from her predecessors’ in that the sheer size of the targeted venues is a given for the successful now. Tanya and Martina have seen their share of huge halls, but this is a constant for Taylor, and some of her often commented-on “basking in the audience’s appreciation” voguing and moves, the facial and body indicators reminiscent of the pantomime of 1920s silent movie stars Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, are direct results of trying to communicate within that huge space. If huge venue shows make the intimacy, the direct musical/emotional response that I value most, difficult at best, and often impossible, Swift & Co. have made the most of that “given.” Hockey rinks would be a next-to-impossible places to truly experience performances of a Connie Smith, or Jean Shepard.
One more thing: That crowd may have been heavy on girls 7-16, there with mom or dad, and country music has traditionally been an adult music of banked experience, but when I was growing up, there was no female act, in pop or country, for young girls to relate to in such proportions and to throng to like this—even if these kids only got close when Taylor approached on a flying balcony. (Yeah, a flying balcony. There will be a DVD.) This is something new and the nature of this responding audience shapes what Taylor does as earlier audience expectations shaped Connie and the classic stars she presented. How that works as Ms. Swift gets older, we’ll see. For women in country music there are evolving opportunities, and choices to be made— but there are always new circumstances.
- Juli Thanki: That would definitely be better than Marvel's hilariously terrible Billy Ray Cyrus comic book, released in 1995. http://4thletter.net/2009/02/billy-ray-cyrus-the-marvel-comic-book-yes-really/
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