I'm the product of a mixed marriage. My father was pure Connecticut Yankee, from the roots of his gingery hair to the tips of his Sperry Topsiders®. Mom was born in Oklahoma.
Dad didn't approve of country music, which he referred to as "that gawdawful yodeling," and wouldn't have it on the radio. But when Dad was out of the house, Mom would tune in to the country station. She loved to sing along and I'd harmonize, singing soprano to her deep alto. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Patti Page (Mom's cousin, who she'd sung with as a child), Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton were the female country singers whose songs I learned. Mom loved the songs, even if she sometimes shook her head at the lyrics.
The songs all seemed to be about broken-hearted women, each suffering because of some man's bad behavior. Jeanne Pruett slept on satin sheets, abandoned by the rich husband who paid for them. Tammy Wynette stood by her man, forgiving his good timing ways and Dolly Parton wasted her tears. Patsy Cline fell to pieces, went crazy and was left with only mementos of her lost love.
In the words of Tammy Wynette, sometimes it's hard to be a woman.
No More Victims - Revenge Rules the Country Airwaves
If, at least according to the songs, it's still hard to be a woman, today's women of country have risen to the occasion. Oh, the men continue to cheat and lie and abandon and abuse, but the female country stars burning up the charts (and the 2014 summer concert tour circuit) are mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more.
Miranda Lambert has been on the country charts for ten years, and this year she's finally headlining shows on the Country Megaticket roster. Although she's recorded her share of country laments, she's a regular on the "revenge song" list. Her 2008 hit, "Gunpowder and Lead," portrays a woman waiting in the dark with a shotgun and a six-pack for her abuser to turn up. His fist is big but my gun's bigger. He'll find out when I pull the trigger...
Her 2014 CMA Awards® Single of the Year, "Mama's Broken Heart," admits that breakups hurt, but makes delightfully mean fun of the old-fashioned notion that a woman needs to be stoic about her pain.
Source: YouTube Miranda Lambert - Mama's Broken Heart 2014
Taking up a shotgun isn't the only way today's women of country mete out justice. Methods include a baseball bat (Carrie Underwood - "Before He Cheats"), black-eyed peas laced with poison (Dixie Chicks - "Earl Must Die"), arson (Martina McBride - "Independence Day" and Miranda Lambert - "Kerosene"), and a dose of turnabout as fair play (Miranda Lambert - "White Liar"). Gentlemen, I'd think twice before I pissed off any of these ladies.
We Write the Songs
One tradition that I'm glad is still around is the female country songwriter. Dolly Parton claims to have written over five thousand songs and has, in fact, published more than three thousand. It's nice to peruse the song lists from new artists' releases and see that they wrote most of the tunes they're recording. Kacey Musgraves is not only one of the co-writers of Lambert's "Mama's Broken Heart," but is credited as a writer for every single song on her 2013 No. 1 album, Same Trailer, Different Park. The release is chock-full of traditional country tunes, with ample banjos and and steel guitars to please a country purist, but enough attitude to get the attention of pop diva Katy Perry, who invited Musgraves to join her for several stops on her Prismatic World Tour. The unlikely pair teamed up on CMT's Crossroads and critics can't decide whether it was more fun to hear Perry joining on Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow" or when the tables were turned for "Roar" and an oddly melancholy version of Perry's "Firework."
Source: YouTube Katy Perry & Kacey Musgraves - "Firework" at CMT Crossroads 2014
It's Not Always About the Pain...
Lady Antebellum is another act that's moved from second billing to first on the country tour, and Hilary Scott's lead vocals are a big reason why. But the songs I love best are when she harmonizes with co-frontman Charles Kelley. The feel-good anthem "Compass" is a song I can't imagine hearing on the country station Mom tuned in on the transistor radio that sat on our breakfast table in the 1970's. The video for Sugarland's "All I Want to Do" starts off looking more like a Beach Boys classic and is at least as happy. How can you not love a lyric like "Give me a kiss...from that Elvis lip..."? Sugarland's lead singer, Jennifer Nettles, is in the middle on her first solo tour, playing fairly small venues--for now.
Source: YouTube Sugarland - "All I Want to Do" 2013
And the Hits Keep Coming
Don't just watch for the mega-stars you know, like Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and record-breaking ticket seller Taylor Swift. Keep an eye on the singers who are showing up as "special guests" on the big tours this summer--they'll probably be headlining themselves in a year or two. Gloriana is touring with Rascal Flatts (and a newly countrified Sheryl Crow), The Voice winner Cassadee Pope is hanging out with Tim McGraw, newcomer Leah Turner appears with Brad Paisley, and Brandy Clark, another prodigious songwriter, is touring with Eric Church.
It's not your Mama's country music -- it's better!