Kari Arnett (Photo By @cowtownchad)
You could say that the year 2018 began with a fall. On New Year’s Day, Loretta Lynn fell in her house outside Nashville and broke her hip. The accident put her out of commission for most of the year. Lynn’s recovery cast an eerie silence over the year for a woman who has been a strong voice for more than six decades and is still touring in her eighties.
So in the Fall when Margo Price mentioned on Facebook that Loretta Lynn had called her just to chit chat, the younger singer (and spiritual flag bearer known to cover “Rated X”) seemed downright giddy. Shortly after Lynn resurfaced on the Today Show and a compelling new album Wouldn’t It Be Great. Lynn’s return was an affirmation and moral support in a year in which women seemed to be under perpetual assault.
What happened in the months while Lynn healed defined a contentious year. In a year when Aretha Franklin died and Joni Mitchell turned 75, we were all fodder for a relentless news cycle. Led by the president’s daily assaults on truth and new standards for bad grammar in his daily tweets, one couldn’t forget the day he singled out a female reporter at a press conference by saying to her, “You never think.”
The year was best epitomized by the Supreme Court hearings for justice Bret Cavanaugh and his alleged assault of Dr. Christine Blazey Ford. When asked why more women weren’t on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Charles Grassley surmised that maybe it’s because women couldn’t work as hard as men. In the sports world, the NFL’s outspokenness around domestic violence seemed at odds with the two high profile cases including Kansas City Chief star running back Kareem Hunt and former San Francisco 49ers player Reuben Foster. When the 49ers released Foster for alleged assault of his former girlfriend Elissa Enney, the Washington Redskins quickly signed him off of waivers. When the team sent out executive Doug Williams to address the media, the former Super Bowl MVP and father of six daughters, minimized it all, saying there have been much worse things and calling Foster’s actions small potatoes.
“Women are not inferior versions of men,” Rosanne Cash memorably said in her Spirit of Americana Award acceptance speech at the Americana Music Awards. When she grew up in the 1960’s the singer was full of aspiration. Progress, she thought, was an arrow that moved in one direction and would never pull back, she recalled when speaking with Steve Earle on his Hardcore Troubadour radio show. She believed the playing field was going to get more equal for women and minorities after the Civil Rights Movement. Now approaching her Sixties, Cash came to the realization that it’s not true and that there’s a real regressive pull in the country. As a mother of four daughters, Cash started thinking about how women have been treated and the trauma many struggle to overcome from events that happen early in their lives.
Perhaps no one song better defined 2018 than Kari Arnett’s “Only a Woman” and that’s why it’s my choice for Song of The Year. The Wisconsin-born Arnett assembled a group of Minneapolis musicians to record her debut album. When The Dust Settles is a remarkable set of personal songs that rise to a moral referendum on the state of the country and its soul and character. The songs emanate from the Americana scene of Minneapolis, the same city where last year a large group gathered to get tattoos and started a movement in the wake of Mitch McConnell’s infamous quote about silencing Senator Elizabeth Warren. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” A book was published this Fall, Nevertheless, We Persisted: 48 Voices of Defiance, Strength, and Courage, was inspired by the events and features a foreword by Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Arnett’s wry observation and cutting question is at the heart of the song’s foundation. “Well, what do I know? I’m only a woman.” The song is derived from her own experiences as a female musician. There was that feeling when she would try and offer songwriting suggestions to her male band counterparts and would get shut down. Maybe my opinion doesn’t matter. Festival organizers would tell her they’ve didn’t want a lot of female artists on their bills. The reason? The music was slower, more sad, and they needed to sell beer. People would rather hear “fun, more upbeat guy bands.”
“Only a Woman” has a seductive front porch beat that you can tap your feet to, Its seductive rhythmic lineage that can be traced to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” a pre-Americana era hit. And when guitarist Jay Scabich plays slide it’s like a call and answer to underscore the biting, sarcasm of Arnett’s indictments:
“What do I know I’m only a woman?’
I’m just a delicate flower with no opinion.
He said “don’t worry your pretty little head about nothin'” and
“Honey don’t you know that silence is golden”?
It steadily rises in its fervor:
“We shouldn’t have to impress the ones in high places
Doing whatever it takes to get in good graces
It’s hard to stand tall in the shadow of a man
With everyone’s head buried in the sand”
For all of the reasons above, it was affirming that two books released in the Fall celebrate the contributions and innovations by the great women in rock music history. Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl (edited by Evelyn McDonnell) and Rock and Roll Woman: The 50 Fiercest Female Rockers by Meredith Ochs couldn’t have been released at a better time. In the words of Ochs: “All subverted stereotypes and challenged expectations whether they set out to or not. Their rebellion is empowering and exponential.”
I was particularly struck by editor McDonnell’s acknowledgement of publishing director Becky Koh who had the initial vision for a book that would match iconic female artists, writers and artwork. McDonnell dubs them all both pioneers and mothers of invention. In breaking their profiles out into eight sections the book covers the a chronology beginning with Bessie Smith to Brittany Howard, a diverse palette of essays encompassing a wide array and dimensions of its subjects. There is too much in abundance to do justice here but I am partial to Jewly Hight’s examination of the political circumstances surrounding Dixie Chicks and the vision and ambition of Beyonce in Nekesa Mumba Moody’s essay. I will mention a line that has stuck with me the most in Stephanie Phillips’ essay of innovator Sister Rosetta Tharpe who writes: “When many music lovers picture the original rock and roll star, they see Elvis or Chuck Berry, but those men were actually channeling the fierce, infectious energy of a queer black woman.”
In Ochs’ book, it is informative to go back in time and discover the first all-girl band Fanny. In her profile of glam rock era pioneer and bass guitar player Suzi Quatro, the high school dropout and purveyor of gravelly garage rock who “wanted to be a musician-not a girl musician.” Ochs describes her as a lone female voice in male dominated glam rock.” Ochs crisscrosses eras and genres effortlessly, beginning with an essay about Sister Rosetta Tharpe without whose electric guitar playing and wild style and rebellious nature influenced the earliest rock and rollers. “If Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry , Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are cornerstones of rock, Tharpe is its foundation,” she says of the woman finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. Ochs’ notes about influences, who an artist influenced and noted deep cuts accompany each profile, For Tharpe one line of who she influenced speak volumes: “All of rock’n’ roll.”
The heft of Women Who Rock is in contrast against the self-imposed limits of Ochs’ top fifty. The chronology of Women Who Rock has a noticeable absence in that Maybelle Carter is missing. Ochs admits she couldn’t cover all of the consequential female musicians she wanted to. “I’d still be writing this book and you wouldn’t be holding it,” she admits to the reader. One can fault Ochs as well as McDonnell for overlooking Lydia Loveless. But I won’t hold it against either and will take the high road by recommending Women Who Rock contributor Caryn Rose’s essay about Maybelle Carter in the 2018 Belmont Book Award winning Woman Walk The Line and Ochs’ stellar essay about Bobbie Gentry.
In the months while Loretta Lynn was away, some of the year’s most memorable releases came out. They include the stunning vocal harmonies of I’m With Her, the imagination of Kacey Musgraves, the maturing songwriting of Sarah Shook and the kinetic force of Linda Gail Lewis who sang autobiographical songs written with partner and collaborator Robbie Fulks. On Wouldn’t It Be Great, we get to hear Loretta Lynn’s remakes of songs like “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” which was a stunning rebuke for its time.
One of 2018’s most memorable events was a discussion about Loretta Lynn at the Country Music Hall of Fame. “Woman Enough,” a program exploring the impact of trailblazing women in country music, featured Brenda Lee and Aubrey Sellers and journalist Holly Gleason who edited Woman Walk The Line. Journalist Madison Vain explored “The Pill” in an essay about Lynn.
It is instructive to watch the archived webcast featuring old videos of Lynn. She surmised that the song “The Pill” validated her own research talking to women after shows, most of whom had been prescribed. But Lynn, who by then had six children of her own, was pretty quick to discuss her own disparity. “I never had the money to take the pill and I got the kids to prove it.”
Not long after “The Pill” caused a sensation, she stepped onstage at the Academy of Country Music to receive an award, Lynn thanked everyone who had something to do with it and didn’t break stride when she said next: “Tonight I won’t be singing the Pill because they won’t let me. In a genius bit of improvisation, Lynn had the last word when she added a new line in the song “If You Aren’t Woman Enough To Take My Man.” “Don’t worry women, you can’t take my man….now I’ve got The Pill.” In another old video, Lynn recalled the time she was requested not to play “The Pill” on a stop in Canada. “Loretta, leave that record off if you don’t mind. “Those women don’t need to hear it.” Lynn didn’t miss a beat in her reply. “They’re the ones who take it and I’m gonna sing it.”
All these years later “The Pill” is still relevant. We’re still debating reproductive rights and a woman’s control of her own body. One of the essential benefits of the Affordable Care Act is still under attack. Just recently a federal judge declared the law unconstitutional, affecting some twenty million Americans.
“Girl you better know your place, before I go repeal and replace,” we hear Arnett sing in “Only a Woman.”
In Vain’s compelling piece, she uses “The Pill” as a jumping of point to explore her own life and the broader issues of coming into the workforce as a female journalist. The sentiments expressed by Vain of not being taking seriously echo something Arnett shared with me. “Something I see all too often in the industry and by women as a whole is being afraid to speak out. Because often we get labeled as “difficult” or “hard to work with” or some other label.”
As Ochs reminds it’s a dilemma that has faced women in previous eras such as the Runaways a band which featured eventual Hall of Famer Joan Jett but also included a Harvard Law School graduate.
As I was writing this, I came upon a post by Ted Groman, a friend on Facebook. He wrote that he went to a show when the bandleader explained to the crowd why she now wears pants instead of a skirt. Once while wearing a skirt near the merchandise table, some guy behind her unzipped the skirt and it fell to her ankles.
“Sort of shocking and depressing, right?” he writes of the assault. “What made it worse was the old guy seated in front of me asking loudly if the guy at least spent a lot of money. His takeaway was the guy was a cheapskate. I wanted to know if the original creep was slapped, punched, or somehow equally humiliated. This whole scene though, stuck with me and sort of killed the show. She played along with the guy, but I wondered how.”
For everything written in this column, I go back to Arnett’s “Only a Woman. It is an anchor and a song we need for our times. It feels anthemic.
“I’m not gonna give up, I’m gonna keep on walking
I’m not gonna give in, I’m gonna keep on talking
I’m not gonna give up, I’m gonna keep on on walking
I’m not gonna give in, ‘cause you should know better I am a woman”
It’s been well documented that songwriters like Arnett and women face a disparity of equal airtime on country radio, ironically at a time when they are making the most compelling music. But perhaps not all is so bleak.
A recent study showed that films starring women do better at box office despite the film industry favoring men. And USA Today just reported about the professional surfing Mavericks Challenge. Brenda Valenti and her fellow women surfers will be competing for equal prize money, after years of earning as little as a tenth of what males earned.
And did you hear about the most recent Jeopardy champion? It’s a woman by the name of Jackie Fuchs. She used to go by the name of Jackie Fox when she was the bass player in the Runaways. Or as Meredith Ochs reminds us, she also attended Harvard Law School with Barack Obama.