Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Woman Walk the Line' celebrates female country icons

'Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives.'
'Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Music writer Holly Gleason says she once heard a programmer say that women on country radio should be like tomatoes in a salad: you have to have some, but it can't be most of what's there. It was outrages like that, coupled with a deep appreciation for the rich tradition of women in country music, that inspired Gleason to compile the new anthology Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives.

In just 220 pages, Woman Walk the Line spans a remarkable array of artists, from Lil Hardin — the African-American woman who plays piano on Jimmie Rodgers's seminal 1930 recording of "Blue Yodel #9" — to Taylor Swift. Like Rosanne Cash, Swift is the subject of one essay and the author of another. The book includes a tribute to Brenda Lee penned when Swift was 18 years old; while Rosanne Cash salutes her stepmother June Carter Cash and is in turn saluted by Deborah Sprague, a writer who was moved by Cash's early support of her gender transition.

Gleason is deliberate about acknowledging intersectionality in this collection. The vastly under-appreciated Hardin — a wife of Louis Armstrong — is the subject of a lengthy essay by Alice Randall, a musician and writer who has the distinction of being the only black woman to write a song to top the country charts ("XXX's and OOO's," co-written with Matraca Berg, was released in 1994 by Trisha Yearwood). Caroline Randall Williams, Alice's daughter, salutes the staggering talents of Rhiannon Giddens.

The editor also sees that mainstream artists get their due respects. Some of the book's most compelling essays concern artists like Tanya Tucker, who Gleason sees as practically punk; Barbra Mandrell, described by Shelby Morrison as radiating "confidence, fearlessness, glamour, strength, and kindness"; and Shania Twain, who "grew a beautiful life in the scorched earth," writes Emily Yahr, after her husband and collaborator "Mutt" Lange left her for her best friend.

These are biographical essays, but as much about the writers as about the musicians they're honoring. The first-person approach particularizes these tributes: it's not just about what Dolly Parton has mean to women writ large, it's about what she specifically meant to Nancy Harrison, who confessed to Parton that she reminded Harrison of her recently deceased mother. "Dolly grabbed my hand," remembers Harrison, "and told me she was honored — honored! — to be compared to my mom."

The multigenerational cohort of writers Gleason's enlisted convey a powerful sense of the legacy of love and strength in the country tradition. Millennial writer Madison Vain writes about discovering Loretta Lynn through her collaborations with Jack White, and says she later realized how lucky she was to have always lived in a world where Lynn's music existed — even if that meant it took her a while to appreciate the significance of "The Pill." Veteran rock writer Holly George-Warren writes about connecting with Wanda Jackson in the 1980s, when the music legend was returning to rockabilly after two decades devoted to spiritual songs.

As a white man reading this book, I came away with an even greater understanding of what women and people of color mean when they say that representation matters. Courtney E. Smith, for example, writes about the Judds: nobody's idea of musical rebels, the mainstream mother-daughter duo nonetheless shone in Smith's sight.

That Naomi and Wynonna were so different, but still from the same bloodline, spawned the idea that there could be many aspects to a person. I could be that sweet, traditional girly girl like Naomi when I wanted to, or I could be that over-the-top, sequins-wearing, attention-getting version of her. Or I could be an introvert like Wynonna, as well as someone with a definitive, strong point of view, like hers. There could be a time in the world that wasn't about football games and keggers in a field, like the night the Judds praise in "Girls Night Out." I could be the bad guy in a relationship, like in "Change of Heart" — the woman could change her mind about what she wanted.

I also learned about the many challenges these artists have faced. As a queer writer, Kelly McCartney was of course inspired by k.d. lang's decision to come out in 1992. It wasn't that revelation, though, that caused residents of the artist's Alberta home town to burn the sign proclaiming "home of k.d. lang" — it was the vegan singer-songwriter's 1990 appearance in a PETA ad.

In the book's opening essay, writer Caryn Rose salutes "the root of it all," mother Maybelle Carter. After detailing Carter's under-appreciated instrumental prowess, Rose writes,

I loved the stories of her smoking and driving the van, being a real road warrior, and I tried to imagine the freedom that playing music gave her, a freedom that most women in that day and age could not even imagine. Maybelle Carter was self-taught, she was playing banjo when she was three years old, she was voracious, she kept the music and the songs and the tradition going. She just got up every day and worked. And there is no way it wasn't hard, and there's no way she didn't go through what every woman at the forefront of anything goes through, but she just kept doing it anyway, like so many women before her and after her.

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