Whether you’re a relative newcomer to country music or have been an avid listener for decades, Absolute Radio’s documentary series Women of Country is a must-listen. Taking a journey through the history of the genre from the female perspective, it marks the infamous milestones of the greats whilst recounting the hidden stories of those often ignored in its retelling. This is what makes it more than simply a Beginners’ Guide to Country. The usual suspects may make an appearance but it is the history of Black artists and LGBT+ representation in the genre that makes this a documentary from which any Country music fan can learn.
Ashley McBryde is the perfect host to introduce listeners to the rich and diverse legacy of women in country music. She offers a warm and relaxed tone as she introduces her interviewees and their associated music, proving accessible and insightful as she explains key moments and events that led to certain artists and songs making an impact. What is most interesting across the six episodes is the way that seemingly contemporary issues are actually part of the tradition, McBryde’s measured delivery bringing clarity rather than surprise to this fact. It makes the call for change in the industry even more urgent, knowing simultaneously that progress can never be taken for granted. “We’ve come so far”, as Dolly Parton says in the final episode, “but we’ve still got far to go”.
It wouldn’t be a documentary on female country music if Dolly didn’t feature. Here, she turns up in pretty much every episode. From her church roots and getting her first single cut in the ‘60s to appearing on stage at Glastonbury in the 2010s, her trajectory is somewhat of a mirror to the history of women in country music. Therefore, it makes sense to reference her alongside other giants of the industry. Among them are Jeannie Seely, the first female host of the Grand Ole Opry, whose clothing choices helped liberalise the genre’s fashion; and Sylvia, who defied the supposed wisdom of male executives that “women don’t put butts on seats” by scoring a hit record with ‘Nobody’ that did just that in 1982. Alongside them are the usual suspects, like Patsy Cline, Bobbi Gentry and Tammy Wynette from the early days, Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood at the turn of the millennium, and Maren Morris in the present day. Each in their own way have made an impact on country music; and together, they represent an authenticity that has been forever challenged by the patriarchy.
Recent debates over radio play and genre-blending are exposed as nothing new in this series. Patsy Cline crossed over into pop way back in the 1960s, way before Taylor Swift arrived on the scene. Loretta Lynn was addressing taboo subjects before anyone had ever heard of Martina McBryde. And we hear songs from Crystal Gayle and Carrie Underwood as evidence that Cam’s mega-hit ‘Diane’ was by no means the first cheating song to be sung by a female in country music, despite the opinions of gaslighting male producers. What is new though is to hear the history of Black females in Country Music. From Linda Martell to Alice Randall, Frankie Staton to Rissi Palmer, these were women who had to fight doubly hard within a predominantly white industry to get themselves not only heard but recognised as legitimate Country artists. It uncovers the extent to which systemic racism has run through the genre, putting the challenges faced by Mickey Guyton in a long historical context that once more reveals the ongoing struggle for equality in country music.
Women of Country ends with a fascinating response to the question ‘What is Country?’ All of the interviewees give an eclectic and sometimes paradoxical reply. It turns out that there are as many definitions as there are women in country music. Such varied answers are not the basis for conflict however but solidarity, showing women to be the real trailblazers of the genre. From the Carter scratch to the Swift effect, if there was any doubt that women have been the ones driving innovation in country music through the decades, this six-part series has dispelled it. They are at the forefront of the country music scene. Always were, and always will be.
Click here to listen to the series.
Originally written for and published on Belles & Gals on March 31st 2022.
Featured Image (C) Absolute Radio