Editor’s Note: LoneStarMusicMagazine.com is honored to present the following excerpt from Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, edited by Holly Gleason and published by the University of Texas Press (officially due out Sept. 20 but available via Amazon here.) Gleason, an award-winning music journalist and critic (and frequent contributor to our own pages), describes the book as a collection of essays celebrating not just the contributions of 27 different iconic women artists to the country music cannon and landscape, but the profoundly personal impact each of them had on the lives and careers of the respective essay writers, all of them women themselves. As Gleason writes in the introduction, “It matters less when, where, why or how it happened; the point is that every last one of the women celebrated in these essays stirred the writers, in many ways changing their lives forever.”
In her own essay, Gleason writes about how her introduction to the firebrand Tanya Tucker via 1978’s TNT — released when Tucker was 20 years old, only a few years older than Gleason herself at the time — helped light the fuse of her own blast into young adulthood and career in the music industry. Other artists spotlighted in Woman Walk the Line range from living legends like Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Lucinda Williams to such next-generation guiding lights as Kacy Musgraves, Rhiannon Giddens, and Taylor Swift, with their respective essays penned by an equally impressive array of poets, critics, novelists, academics, and even a handful of acclaimed recording artists in their own right: Swift herself writes about Brenda Lee; Rosanne Cash about her stepmother, June Carter Cash; Grace Potter about Linda Ronstadt; and rising Americana star Aubrie Sellers (daughter of country songwriters Lee Ann Womack and son Jason Sellers) about the great Alison Krauss. It’s Sellers’ Krauss essay, “Draw Your Own Map,” that is featured in its entirety below, shared with permission from Gleason, Sellers, and the University of Texas Press.
“Draw Your Own Map”
By Aubrie Sellers
Excerpted from Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives edited by Holly Gleason, © 2017, published with permission from the University of Texas Press
When I was five years old, I heard a voice that swirled with sweet familiarity: a voice that felt honest to an introverted child of musicians who was beginning to discern between the real and the fake. “Baby, now that I’ve found you / I won’t let you go / I built my world around you.” Alison Krauss sounded like someone I knew and something I had never heard at the same time.
Growing up with a dad who played with Ricky Skaggs and a mom who vocally juggled sugar and twang, I knew bluegrass and I knew female country voices. Alison was both of these, and all her own. Her voice is as timeless as her records. It transcends genres as so few can, because it’s so real, in the way that only singing with your actual unaffected voice can be. You get lost for a second when you hear her, not able to distinguish what era it is and not able to tell if everyone else has already discovered this or if you are the lone person in the world listening.
Of course, I had no idea that Alison was already a Grammy winner, and had been playing music since she was the same age I was when I heard her for the first time. I only knew what I felt when I heard her, and that feeling belonged in my world: running around backstage at the opry listening to my dad, Ricky, and the Whites pluck and tune their instruments while I tried to follow the scent of popcorn to its source. Hearing my mom sing classic country songs around the house that she grew up listening to on my grandfather’s radio show. Sitting in my uncle’s green dodge truck and listening to my eight-year-old cousin sing harmony with the songs on the stereo. Music was more than a hobby and more than a profession for the people I was surrounded by: it was ingrained in us.
My dad and uncle grew up on a bus, homeschooled by my grandmother, singing gospel music at churches, and perfecting the art form of family singing. I grew up the same way: on the run, independent, mostly spending time around people much older than me, not fazed by our alternative lifestyle because I didn’t know any different.
Alison started young, too. She was born in Decatur, Illinois, in 1971. It only took five years for her to pick up the violin, and to turn it into a bluegrass fiddle shortly after that. She started young, like everyone I knew, and grew into music as she grew into life. She could have plateaued after winning contest after contest, but her talent only expanded and evolved over the years. Putting the time in helped her develop her chops, but so much of what makes Alison magnetic is something that cannot be taught: it’s an essence that no one else in the world has, and that she was both born with and grew into over the years, as you can hear in her voice unfolding throughout her recordings.
I devoured movies from an early age, loved acting as a form of expression, and, considering my affinity for music, loved the marriage of both things. So, it’s not a surprise that the second wave of Alison Krauss in my life hit hard with the arrival of the soundtrack for the Coen brothers’ masterpiece O Brother, Where Art Thou? Alison’s voice drifting along with those of Emmylou Harris and Gillian welch, and floating over the congregation in “Down to the River to Pray,” lent so much to the film, both rooting it and giving it the wings it needed to soar. Bluegrass lovers and those not familiar with bluegrass alike were overwhelmed by the raw, real soul the soundtrack granted the movie, which provided the perfect opportunity for Alison to shine to an even wider audience.
Honest voices move people and transcend art. Alison’s career is laudable because she has never strayed from her core, and has been able to branch out into different projects without compromising those components that make her who she is. It’s an encouraging story for young women who are unsure whether being themselves is the best option in a world where so much fraud—masquerading as “authenticity”—exists in what we are exposed to every day.
On her debut album, Alison sounds unbuttoned, backed up by raw banjo and lively harmonies, unleashing years of feeling. Two years later on Two Highways — her first record officially featuring Union Station — you can already hear her vocal command tightening, rounding out her spirit with that ethereal quality that is so often the focus of any conversation surrounding her.
But she is so much more than that.
She is sweet and sharp at the same time. There is an intensity behind her gentle voice that pushes further than you expect. She’s a musician and a singer who understands music beyond the immediate world of bluegrass that she grew up in. Her discipline is heard in the quality of her music, and it has brought her twenty-seven Grammy awards. She earned a good chunk of these for a record that came into the world at the perfect time for me to latch on to it, a time when I was truly considering my own place in the world and music; it solidified her spot on my list of all-time favorite artists.
There I was, a sixteen-year-old girl in my all-white shabby chic bedroom, more concerned with procrastinating until the weekend when my friends were out of school than doing anything constructive. The familiar distant noise of someone rustling around downstairs in the kitchen was vibrating through the house, and the October air was drifting in through the windows from the small oasis of our west Nashville backyard. I had a freshly burned distraction in my hand, and I was thinking I would listen to this unexpected record once before forcing myself to attack the huge pile of dirty clothes in my closet. What would one more hour hurt? I popped the CD into my unremarkable but glossy supermarket stereo; what came out glued me to the floor for several listens. My laundry didn’t get done that night.
Raising Sand took a well-established rock legend, Robert Plant, and a record-setting bluegrass songstress/musician, Alison Krauss, and combined their worlds into something completely fresh. At the time, I was coming into my own, barely able to drive a car, and it collided with my evolving sense of self and growing awareness of how vast music can be. Having grown up on Alison, and having recently started devouring Led Zeppelin records, I encountered this: a masterpiece from an unlikely pair that was so clear and so right, and that landed at the perfect moment for where I was in my life. Hitting play and hearing “Rich Woman” come out of the speakers, I was immediately aware of Alison’s willingness to expand and experiment. The record also fluidly demonstrated that her knowledge of music reached far beyond mountain standards and fiddle tunes.
She and Robert made harmonies magical again, in an entirely different way from the Alison already familiar to the world. Every single song on the album — from the raw honesty of “Killing the Blues,” to the haunting melody of “Trampled Rose,” to the raucous energy of “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” — spoke to me in a way nothing else quite had before. Like so much of her previous work, this record attacked with subtlety, and seemed to shift the whole world around you as you listened to it—and after.
My world did move, again. Like it had when I first heard Buddy and Julie miller fuse dirty guitars and raw emotions, or when Loretta Lynn employed Jack white as her duet partner and whimsical producer. All of these far-flung musical elements that I loved — from grunge guitars to California steel — were running together like a band of perfect misfits, fleeing expectations and making no apologies. Raising Sand gave me the permission I needed to tread new ground and to believe that I could take these spare parts that I picked up and loved and create a new whole. Alison showed on Raising Sand that you could draw your own map, from start to finish.
Most of my life I appreciated my musical upbringing, but as a girl surrounded by musicians, coming into my own, I needed another outlet that belonged to nobody but me. I needed somewhere to escape to, where I could express all the observations of people’s characters, both big and small, that I had made while growing up in an uncommon way.
For many years, acting allowed me to do that. I loved movies. I enjoyed dissecting all the little tics, reactions, and feelings that make a person and re-forming them into unique characters of my own. In an attempt to plant myself in another garden, to make art where I was in my own world, I went to California and studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. It allowed me to take all those feelings, all those observations, and twist them into expression. I engaged in a deep study of how bodies hold emotions, the way people react to each other, and I loved it. I loved everything about how creativity manifests there.
Something else was bubbling under the surface, though. I always felt it, as if it was waiting for the right time to come up. Every time I heard an album like Raising Sand, or an unfamiliar blazing guitar solo, whatever it was moved a little closer to the surface. When I picked up my guitar and started to write, it emerged fully. A lifetime of perceptions and melodies helped me begin to shape songs, and I met players and writers like Adam wright, who got where I was coming from and were excited to try something divergent. The creative freedom that came from being fully in control of a project and going at it independently was new and intoxicating for me. Because of bold records like Alison’s, I was able to trust my instincts, find people who understood, and keep pushing forward even when they didn’t.
The major impact of Raising Sand was musical, but it may also have uncovered an understated truth that is important for any female musician aspiring to be independent and innovative. Being fearless, original, and authentic pays off. Alison did it on this record, and so many times before. She alternated between solo records and albums with union station. She turned pop songs and country classics alike into bluegrass anthems and did it all so effortlessly, you forgot the songs weren’t hers to begin with.
As a young musician trying to find my path and learning to trust my instincts, that was all I needed to know. When music is something you live and breathe, you can only hold your breath for so long. I couldn’t outrun my genes, and no matter how much I resisted following in the footsteps of my family, there was always a record inside waiting to be made. And I didn’t have to sound like my parents, regardless of our vocal kinship.
I didn’t need permission. I could sing with a tender twang over thrashing drums if I wanted to. I could unite dreamy steel with braying electric guitar. I could call out trivial magazines, cookie-cutter chicks, and cheap men alike and connect with other people who hate those things, too: people who grew up on country and who embrace tradition while rejecting the conventional. Hell, if there’s no club to belong to, make your own. Thanks to Raising Sand, and all the other great records and artists I grew up on, my own brand of country — garage country — was born.
People will always put dauntless musical choices through the wringer, but in the end, there’s a space for them—a space that wasn’t there before, opening the world wider for others to connect and invent. For every person who is scared of something different, there are two people excited to find a space for what is distinct. I could say that artists like Alison Krauss break boundaries by simply being themselves, but it’s only half true, because there is no other artist like Alison Krauss. She stands on her own. That’s how a little girl from Illinois grew up and put a big mark on the world. And in some ways, an even bigger mark on me.