Women’s Month: The Women Who Built Country
In the century since the dawn of country music in the mountains of east Tennessee, the women of the industry have taken stride after stride. In an industry notorious for being a boys’ club, female country performers have gone above and beyond to prove they’re deserving of their success and stature.
From creating their own sub-genres to redefining which subjects are appropriate for country, women have made dramatic contributions to the story of country music. For International Women’s Month, here are the most influential women of the country music of the present, past and future.
No list of country music performers is complete without one Patsy Cline. While Kitty Wells had already made a name for herself in honky tonk country music, Cline spearheaded generations of performers with her distinctive style of Nashville Sound country music. Those low vibratos accompanied by the vibratos of the Jordanaires on tracks like “Crazy” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” remain vital to American jukebox classics.
With a number of pop-country crossover hits, Cline was one of the first mainstream female performers in the male-dominated industry; even more, she did it with an undeniable talent and sparkling wit.
On March 5, 1963, the world lost Patsy Cline – aged only 29 – at the height of her fame to a tragic plane crash in Camden, Tennessee. She’s since been honored with a slew of posthumous awards including three Grammys. In 1973, Cline became the first woman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“From a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler” hails none other than Loretta Lynn, country music’s favorite rags-to-riches story. Married at 16, a mother of six (four of them born before she was 20) and brought up poor in rural east Kentucky, Lynn represents the working class audience she sings to as a country performer. Songs such as “One’s On The Way” reflect the woes of motherhood, where “You Ain’t Woman Enough” tells us the tale of a woman who has her eyes on Lynn’s man.
In 1974, Lynn caused a stir in the industry with “The Pill,” a women’s liberation anthem about a hot new commodity: birth control. Lynn sings about her newfound freedom on the pill, leading a number of radio stations in the South to ban the song. “The Pill” is still regarded as one of the greatest American protest songs.
At 88 years old, the Coal Miner’s Daughter is still gracing country airwaves; just last month, Lynn released her 23rd studio album “Still Woman Enough.” In 2020, Lynn released “Me & Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust,” a tell-all book on her friendship with fellow trailblazer Patsy Cline.
Good golly, Miss Dolly. Where would we be without America’s sweetheart? Long before her $1 million donation to Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine studies, Dolly Parton’s southern sunny disposition has united country and pop audiences for decades.
Her catalogue of classics is endless: “9 to 5.” “Jolene.” “Here You Come Again.” Since arriving on the scene in Nashville 50 years ago, Parton’s camp and kindness have brought a certain comfort and freshness to country.
Reba McEntire is the queen of ballads, and perfectly exemplifies the narrative structure tradition of country music. Be it the tale of murder and infidelity in “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” or that of a young sex worker rising above the odds in “Fancy,” McEntire has it all.
That Oklahoma drawl shines brightly in each of her records, and perhaps brightest in her six-year run on her self-titles sitcom “Reba.” McEntire has made a killing on songs about strong women and female empowerment, and has earned a rightful spot on this list.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks) dominated country airwaves. From honky tonk to bluegrass to country-rock hybrid stylings, the Chicks were one of the first mainstream all-female country group acts. At its peak, the band was one of the best-selling country acts of all time.
Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire have set a number of precedents and examples for their industry. With 1999’s “Goodbye Earl,” the band set in motion one of country’s favorite sub-genres: the stories of women who murder their husbands. The band became some of the first to be “canceled” when Maines spoke out against President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although they were betrayed by a chunk of their mostly conservative fanbase and industry – banned from radio stations all over the country and sparking fears of becoming “Dixie Chicked” – they also became champions of free speech.
Three years after the Bush incident, the Chicks released their fourth studio album “Taking The Long Way” – that which told the story of struggles with infertility, frustration with the betrayal and their history as a band – won Album of the Year at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards.
Let’s go, girls. Between “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” and “Any Man of Mine,” Shania Twain is country’s representation of women who know what they want. Twain is an enthusiastic force in country and isn’t afraid to have fun with her art.
Power anthems aren’t Twain’s only area of expertise. She’s also made a killing on ballads and love songs, demonstrated most beautifully in 1997’s “You’re Still The One.”
Taylor Swift said it best when she said “players gonna play play play play play.” Swift is quite the player herself, proving herself worthy of all praise in both country and pop circles. In the 2000s and early 2010s, Swift released a number of crossover hits while reconnecting young audiences to country music. She won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for 2008’s “Fearless,” and would go on to win that award two more times.
Swift has earned a great deal of respect for her songwriting artistry and its reflectivity of her personal life in songs such as “Teardrops on My Guitar,” “Love Story” and “Mean.” After releasing three exclusively pop albums in a row, 2020’s “folklore” and “evermore” featured a few subtle returns to Swift’s country roots – see “betty” and “no body, no crime (feat. HAIM).”
From Golden, Texas, Kacey Mugraves’ small-town charm and spunk is on full display in her take on country music. Where her first two records “Same Trailer Different Park” and “Pageant Material” take on a classic country sound, 2018’s “Golden Hour” is far more experimental. Those country influences are still clear, but they’re intertwined with pop-disco elements for a sonic dreamscape. The Recording Academy agreed: “Golden Hour” won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2019.
In 2013, Musgraves turned heads for her defense of same-sex couples in “Follow Your Arrow:” “Make lots of noise, kiss lots of boys or kiss lots of girls if that’s somethin’ you’re into,” Musgraves sings.