Woman Walk the Line:
How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives
Edited by Holly Gleason
The University of Texas Press
By Richard Skanse
As both a music journalist and during her turns on the “other side” of the industry as a publicist and consultant, Holly Gleason has never shied away from wearing her passion on her sleeve. Like most of us, she may well have taken on the odd assignment here and there throughout her long career just to pay the bills (all writers gotta eat), but far more often than not, when Gleason commits her time and words into an artist, you can tell her heart’s fully invested, too. In a churn-n-burn, click-driven culture increasingly geared more to detached snark than the sincere engagement of a deeply considered listen, she writes against the grain with unabashed subjectivity, eloquently conveying not just why an artist, album or song merits attention, but the intangibles of how the music can actually make you feel.
Although Gleason herself wrote just two of the essays in Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives (one of them under the “Lady Goodman” pen name she adopted — with Cameron Crowe’s blessing — for her forays into songwriting), the intriguing premise that lends the entire collection its appealingly disarming, first-person intimacy is unmistakably hers through and through. From Maybelle Carter, Wanda Jackson and Hazel Dickens to Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, and Rhiannon Giddens, all of the artists covered within its pages would warrant inclusion in a more conventional tome on the role of women in shaping the history and modern landscape of country and Americana music, and if that book hasn’t already been written, odds are it will be. But Woman Walk the Line, as hinted at by its full title, is something else entirely, eschewing the rote encyclopedic or fussy academic approach in favor of something more akin to memoir. In her editor’s introduction, Gleason posits that for every music fan — from the casual to the professional to the obsessive fanatic — there is always that one special artist, “the one whose music they can go on and on about, the one who transfixed them with what her persona or voice represented … the one who stopped them in their tracks, who slowly got under their skin. No matter how it happened, the listener was never the same after being exposed.” And that’s the rubric at work here, with Gleason and her fellow co-contributors (all of them women) each taking a turn to wax poetic about the profound impact that their personal favorite female country artist has had on their lives. That many of the essays consequently reveal as much (if not more) about the writers’ own journeys as they do about the artists’ themselves is both by design and what truly makes Woman Walk the Line sing. Sticklers for details on every turn of say, Loretta Lynn’s storied career might want to look elsewhere (perhaps Coal Miner’s Daughter or even Wikipedia, for starters); but to glean an insightful understanding of how a song like 1975’s “The Pill” can still speak to and inspire a millennial woman in 2017, walk this way.
To be clear, there is a great deal to be learned here about many of these artists, in particular the ones that, however important their contributions to the genre, might not ring quite as familiar to the average country fan as Dolly, Emmylou, or Shania. The chapter written by Alice Randall — a best-selling novelist, university professor and country songwriter herself — is an early highlight, making a compelling case for Memphis-born songwriter Lil Hardin deserving credit for being far more than just the wife and manager of jazz icon Louis Armstrong. “People forget her contributions to country music,” writes Randall, who was hip to Hardin from a young age thanks to her upbringing in a music-loving Detroit household. “Or maybe it’s worse than forgetting — maybe they just don’t know about them in the first place.” Among those contributions? It was Hardin who played piano on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9.” “What this means to me,” Randall continues, “is that we, black women, have been present in country since almost the very beginning, at least since 1931.” Further on in the book, rock critic-turned-performing songwriter Kandia Crazy Horse finds a similar kindred spirit — both musically and via their shared Native American heritage — and fount of inspiration in another often over-looked (at least these days) hero, Rita Coolidge, one of the “red-brown sisters” (along with Buffy Saint-Marie and Karen Dalton) whom she “saw reflected back to me, as a little, rustic-identified, very creative girl of color trying to make sense of a chaotic western civilization in general and America, during the 1960s hangover, in particular.”
But the fan/artist connections here aren’t always of that mirror-image variety; for many of the writers, their first exposure to the music was more like discovering a doorway into a whole new way of looking at the world — or a whole new world, period. And as recounted in some of the Woman Walk the Line‘s most enjoyable essays, the process of discovery itself — especially in the pre-Internet, download and even CD-reissue dark ages — was more than half the reward (and fun). As an insatiably curious young girl, Caryn Rose spent countless hours trying to learn everything she could about Maybelle Carter; like a private detective chasing leads, she recalls pouring over liner notes and listening through headphones to every record she could get her hands on with the help of bemused librarians. Meredith Ochs would hold a cassette recorder up to her parents’ stereo speaker to catch Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” off of an oldies radio station, then play the song over and over again trying to untangle its myriad mysteries: not just about the song and the elusive Gentry herself, but also the question of why both could so transfix a girl growing up in the New York metropolitan area. By contrast, a blooming obsession with Wanda Jackson was right in Holly George-Warren’s wheelhouse as a “punk rocker with a penchant for hillbilly music” when she moved from her native North Carolina to New York City in 1980 — but there was still the giddy thrill of the hunt in finding one used LP or 45 at a time in East Village record shops, long before she finally got the chance see Wanda in concert and later came to know her as a friend. Then there’s Gleason’s chapter on Tanya Tucker, recounting the fateful day a teenaged golf prodigy and nascent rock snob walked into a Cleveland record store looking for her next “gateway drug,” only to do a double-take at a life-sized cut-out of a sassed-out, barely-older girl suggestively holding a stick of dynamite — and somehow leave with a copy of Tucker’s TNT. Not everything on the country starlet’s overt pop crossover bid necessarily clicked, but there was definitely something about that voice and especially that attitude that helped quicken Gleason’s own crossover from Catholic schoolgirl into independent womanhood. A decade later, Lucinda Williams’ fearlessly assertive and emotionally forthcoming third album would have an even bigger impact on Gleason as a hungry young writer living in Los Angeles. “Suddenly I didn’t feel so isolated in failure, so urgent in needing to have the answers,” she writes (as Lady Goodman). “And listening to ‘Passionate Kisses’ … I knew it was the most empowering feminist anthem ever.”
Even if you already know that Williams album by heart, odds are you’ll be spinning it again halfway through that chapter. Or scrambling to find a copy of it online to hear it for the first time. In fact, it’s a good thing most all of these artists’ music is a lot easier to come by (and instantly, no less) these days, because pretty much every chapter here triggers that gotta-hear-this-now impulse, whether it leads to binging on a whole catalog or even just a quick dip and sample. That’s a hallmark of all great music writing, and Woman Walk the Line offers it in spades. That’s part of the reason why, like most anthologies, it’s a collection best digested in short sittings, giving the reader time to maybe explore the artist in question a little more on their own while also giving each essay room to breathe. Which they all need, frankly, because apart from a few notable exceptions — like Rosanne Cash’s moving eulogy for her mother, June Carter Cash, and Ali Berlow’s account of how Emmylou Harris’ 2000 album Red Dirt Girl helped her cope with the death of a dear friend — regardless of the consistent high quality of the writing and the variety of different voices at work here, a handful of recurring patterns inevitably pop up just enough to blur the finer points of one woman’s Dolly Parton awakening with another woman’s Patty Loveless, Barbara Mandrell, Terri Clark, or Mary Chapin Carpenter epiphany. And that’s the case even when the woman writing the essay happens to be someone like jam rocker Grace Potter or Americana up-and-comer Aubrie Sellars, who contribute terrific chapters on Linda Ronstadt and Alison Krauss, respectively; both may be accomplished performers in their own right, but as music fans first and foremost, their formative experiences are very much in line with everyone else’s here. Ditto Taylor Swift, who contributes a tribute to Brenda Lee — albeit one written, it should be noted, back when she was 18 years old. (It’s also by far the shortest essay in the book at a mere two pages long.)
Swift’s name on the cover is no tease, though, because she’s also the subject of Elysa Gardner’s chapter, arguably one of the book’s absolute best. Gardner, a renowned music critic who throughout her long career has written for USA Today, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times and dozens of other publications of note, may be several years Swift’s senior, but her admiration for the younger woman — as a songwriter, recording artist, strong female role model, and yes, even as one of the biggest pop stars in modern music — comes across as sincere as her own tween-age daughter’s (born a year before Swift’s second album, Fearless, which Gardner notes blew her away from the first listen.) Tens of thousands of words have been written about Swift’s career over the last decade — in cover stories, think pieces, tabloid gossip pieces, and lord knows how many Taylor-hater screeds and snarky tweets. But Gardner’s “Dancing on Her Own” essay, as rousing but unshakably on-point a celebration and defense of an artist as you’re ever likely to read, is truly in a class of its own. Which can also be said about Woman Walk the Line as a whole. Inevitably, some quibblers gonna quibble, at the very least about some of the many notable women country artists inexplicably missing here (Allow me to start: Where in the hell are the Dixie Chicks?). But maybe that’s really a blessing in disguise. Because if any music book deserves a sequel, it’s this one.