You see them everywhere. Pictures keep popping up of artists holding and reading a book. There’s Steve Earle. There’s Miranda Lambert. There’s Emmylou Harris. And there’s Billy Gibbons peering out from behind his black shades glued to Woman Walk The Line: How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives (University of Texas Press), this year’s Belmont Book Award winner for the best book on country music.
“Maybe if I post it it will seem real,” said editor and author Holly Gleason of the announcement in the days leading up to the awards luncheon held at the International Country Music Conference on June 1st. By the time she stepped onstage it was official as Gleason accepted a plaque from country music historian and elder statesman Dr. Don Cusic, the founding member and Chair of the annual Belmont Book Award.
Standing beside Cusic was an honor in itself. The prolific biographer, professor and the author of Discovering Country Music and the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music teaches at Belmont University. Cusic has also written songs that have been covered by the likes of Bobby Bare, Jim Ed Brown and Ray Stevens.
The prestigious award wasn’t even in existence when Gleason was a young aspiring writer who would go on to have a bi-line in Rolling Stone. In her essays about Lucinda Williams and Tanya Tucker, she brings us into the world of working as a woman in a male dominated industry. That lens is one of the vantage points explored in the book whose central question is: “Who was the one?” The question’s subtext was this: who was that country singer who touched you or changed you or moved you to do something different with your life?
It was something Gleason kept asking a slew of artists, writers and singers and resulted in nearly thirty essays forming the basis of Woman Walk The Line: How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives. The book is a profoundly personal and moving anthology of essays that are personal testament to the roles women have had to play while inspiring many life changing moments.
Perhaps the title of the book, taken from the song by Emmylou Harris, extolls the rules and double standards women have always had to play by. Anthology editor Gleason’s introduction recounts the recent time a radio programmer compared women in country music to being tomatoes in a salad.
The incident brought to a head the dearth of women on country radio. But if for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, it may have been the tipping point for a sea change in focusing attention on the compelling artists all around us. It was as if radio was absent from a country music renaissance of sorts with Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Brandy Clark, Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, Lydia Loveless, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, Lilly Hiatt and Sarah Shook among a list of the most compelling artists of this decade.
The book weaves through a variety of vantage points and generations. Holly George Warren writes eloquently about Wanda Jackson, the legendary singer who Ernest Tubb once walked off the stage of the Grand Ole Opry for revealing too much of her shoulders. Jackson, Warren said upon her confirmation into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,”wasn’t afraid to step outside the prim confines of a woman’s place in pop.”
Long before Nike’s “just do it “ was a marketing slogan, Maybelle Carter was booking shows for the Carter Family and driving the trio in a station wagon to shows, a precursor to the modern day van that is the traveling home of many a country singer.
If Carter, the de facto band leader of country music’s first family didn’t ask permission, she set the stage for generations to come, even managing their legacy long after the original trio broke-up. Carter’s persona intrigued a young Caryn Rose who would one day herself become a journalist and author. In the book’s opening essay, Rose writes how she was always a bookworm and librarians took favor upon her, helping connect the dots of roots music’s origins.
On her second album All American Made, Margo Price picks up the ages-old torch for inequality in “Pay Gap.” Price is not the first to sing about the struggles faced by women since the dawn of time. The longtime Louisville Courier rock critic Ronni Lundy writes a powerful essay in the book about country music pioneer Hazel Dickens. Dickens’ songs acknowledged the lives of coal miners and their families and provided a voice for them. The essay looks into the economic inequalities faced by many women and the compromising choices they make just to survive.
The best music and art always fits the context of its time. Woman Walk The Line was released against a backdrop of almost daily revelations of sexual harassment in the arts, media and politics. The book continues to be read against an ongoing backdrop of issues facing women–a continuing lack of airplay on country radio and visibility at country music festivals.
But at its core, the book is a collection of stories and personal inspiration.
In her moving tribute, Rosanne Cash recounts how June Carter Cash helped shape her. “When I was a young girl at a difficult time, confused and depressed, with no idea of how my life would unfold,” she wrote originally as a eulogy, “She held a picture for me of my adult life: a vision of joy and power and elegance that I could grow into. She did not give birth to me but she gave birth to my future.”
For Wendy Pearl, a Miami Herald reporter later to become a Nashville music publicist, perhaps it all started the afternoon when she walked into a dive bar and was drawn into conversation.. “You see that jukebox over there?” a Vietnam War veteran asked her. “Play anything by Patty Loveless.” A few quarters spent later, Pearl reminisces about an epiphany. “I was hearing my life played out in neon and grit, sawdust and sass.”
And for Aubrey Sellers, the daughter of singer-songwriters Lee Ann Womack and Jason Sellers, hearing Raising Sand, Alison Krauss’ collaboration with Robert Plant, made her realize she too could do music her own way and reinvent herself.
Perhaps the lesson of doing it your way was transferred down the generations and imparted on Sellers who didn’t want to go into the family music business. For a while she took acting lessons but succumbed to a career path that seemed inevitable.
“No matter how much I twisted following in the footsteps of my family, there was always a record inside waiting to be made,” Sellers writes in her homage to Alison Krauss. “Because of bold records like Alison’s I was able to trust my instincts. I didn’t need permission. Hell if there’s no club to belong to, make your own.”
“Sometimes I wonder where this passion of mine comes from,” muses Emily Yahr, who writes about country music today as a reporter for the Washington Post. Yahr goes back in time to try and find out, revisiting an essay she wrote nearly twenty years ago in the eighth grade. It’s subject? Shania Twain. While her social studies teacher may have been less than enthusiastic about the subject, the essay was a great investment. It started to inform Yahr’s belief in the power of connecting to songs through stories. “It’s a connection that now drives my life and my career,” she concludes.
The book is a generous collection of essays and historical references, a book that is made to be savored and re-read over time.
Can a song save you? Songwriter Alice Randall says yes, a Lil Hardin song can and writes about the trailblazer’s invisible influence. When Randall, a professor at Vanderbilt University had songwriter Mickey Guyton visit her class, she writes of how an excited student was Facetiming with her sister, a huge fan of Guyton.
“Mickey means more than many people realize to brown girls across the nation,” Randall writes expounding upon the artistry of Rhiannon Giddens and Beyonce’s performance at CMA. “All these amazing black women doing country their way.”
SiriusXM Outlaw Country personality Meredith Ochs dissects Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” like a detective story, reconstructing the song and mysterious events surrounding the song’s characters and narrator like a piece of literature.
Taylor Swift shares the inspiration of seeing the great Brenda Lee as a teenager, written on the cusp of her own meteoric fame.
And Gleason takes us back to the Palomino bar in Los Angeles during the burgeoning country music scene of the late Eighties. There she met the young woman known in the bar as “Lu.” Gleason forged a lifelong friendship with Lucinda Williams as well as Palamino compatriots Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale.
But Gleason, who walked onstage one June afternoon to accept the Belmont award, takes us back in time four decades ago when she found inspiration walking into a record store in her native Akron, Ohio. The life size image of Tanya Tucker so intrigued her she scrounged up the $5.99 to buy TNT and made her way to the counter. Upon coming home her mother made a value judgement:.”She looks like a whore.” But in the grooves were the “primal soul” sounds that spoke to the young girl.
Later in life, as an adult and an aspiring journalist, Gleason reminisces driving around in Miami with her car windows down blasting Tucker’s then comeback album.
If Tanya could do it, she thought to herself, so could she.
“Somehow,” she writes of that day, “I knew without knowing that I’d be okay.”