Who doesn't love to listen to music when they travel? Especially if that means three minute stories for hours. Before offline playlists, I was up the night before a flight burning a CD for the perfect runway song. Weren't you?
A good friend just watched Carrie Underwood perform at Glastonbury on TV, and, as she knows I quite like country music, has asked me to recommend some country songs for her.
She saw Carrie’s televised set and she’s about to convert; imagine how she’ll feel once she sees Carrie perform live?
But just how do you curate a thirty year passion for storytelling and those vocals unique to women in country music?
I have a few standout musical memories from my childhood; I saw ten hours of the original Live Aid on TV on 13th July 1985. Before we could record TV shows. I went to my first concert at the age of eleven; watching Shakin’ Stevens playing barefoot on the stage was my own Elvis moment.
And my Mum had a twenty-track cassette tape of Country songs. I definitely had to fix that ribbon a few times with a patient pencil.
I remember rewinding the tape so I could hear Billie Jo Spears sing Blanket on the Ground and What I’ve Got in Mind over and over again, singing out every lyric, despite being unable to sing and being innocent of the content. I remember the build up of Juice Newton singing Angel of the Morning and hearing how a voice can control and implode a song. Thirty years on I’m still fascinated with the whodunit of Bobbie Gentry singing her Ode to Billie Joe; don’t worry about passing the biscuits, Papa, what happens next?
And I remember watching my Dolly obsession grow when I saw Nine to Five. Revenge is sweet and stylish. I scoured the library to locate more Dolly music.
And when I heard Coat of Many Colours?
I learned my first lesson; there are bullies everywhere. But if Dolly can handle them, so can I.
By the mid-nineties we (finally) had cable TV, and I regularly fell asleep on the sofa to the 24-hour Country Music TV channel (CMT). I loved waking up to hear the Martina McBride song Independence Day, a story of renewal, of breaking free.
Second lesson: country is always there for you. Especially at night.
A few years later, as the rising teenage star Leann Rimes was belting out Blue, and Shania was sharing dating advice on Any Man of Mine. I moved from my small northern town to the massive city of London. I couldn’t afford cable, but I discovered 24 hour Country 1035 on the AM dial. There was also this quirky thing called the World Wide Web doing the rounds.
Imagine if you could look up information on any country artist? You just had to go across campus to the library to use a computer. In the mean time I spent my free time bouncing between the basements of HMV in Leicester Square and Tower Records in Piccadilly. Where they kept the country music sections.
And what did I discover on my Discman?
Your Mum might send you off to be nice to the gentlemen (Reba’s Fancy), childhood sweethearts Katie and Tommy were meant to be together (Trisha’s Xs and Os - An American Girl) , your husband may leave you with three kids and you’ll find a job in the typing pool, but you’ll be your own boss (Mary Chapin Carpenter’s He Thinks He’ll Keep Her), a coin could decide your future (Jo Dee Messina’s Heads Carolina, Tails California), when he goes you’ll both walk the floor (Lorrie Morgan’s We Both Walk) and you’ll ask yourself if you shaved your legs for a relationship (Deana Carter’s Did I Shave My Legs For This?)
Third lesson learned: how to be a country woman. Even when life goes wrong.
I also discovered that you can’t play Tanya Tucker’s Delta Dawn often enough or loud enough. Or the Dixie Chicks.
Fourth lesson: doesn’t matter if you can’t sing, enjoy a song. That’s what they’re written for.
Amazingly I hadn’t yet been to a country gig. I’d have to wait over a decade for that experience.
Enter 2015 and my first C2C country festival experience. Indoors; my kind of festival. Three days of great music, too, from Brandy Clark’s Stripes, where, “no crime of passion is worth a crime of fashion", to witnessing the 90s legend Lee Ann Womack remind us, “when we get the choice to sit it out or dance”, we need to pay attention, in I Hope You Dance.
Fifth Lesson: attend as many country gigs as you can. Same applies to other genres; see as much good live music as you can, while you can.
And I did. For the next three years I was a regular at the O2’s C2C in March, and subscribed to a music platform, because I was discovering fantastic music every other week, especially when I began reviewing albums, songs and gigs for Your Life in a Song and Lyric Magazine.
So who are the stand out female country artists, and their stories?
Hearing Kacey sing Follow your Arrow, and two years later headline the main stage and hear Rainbow was a moment. As was watching Maren clamber onto the satellite stage to sing her two songs, including MyChurch. Then hear twenty thousand people sing along with her the following year when she was on the main stage. Hearing the love and kindness as LoriMcKenna introduced and than sang Humble and Kind. Hearing actual Reba in London. My first Meet and Greet, with Logan Brill, after just hearing Walk of Shame. Yeah, that song, that story. And learning to embrace life as a Good Story; “remember that time, remember that place?” Listening to Cam sing her Jolene, Diane, whilst asking herself WWDW: What Would Dolly Wear? Hearing Ashley McBryde silence a room and an arena with her guitar and a memory. Hearing Miranda from the floor of the arena. Then hearing Carrie. A CD doesn’t quite transmit the emotion, the range, the sass now, does it? Although I do love a lyric book. Life is still a balance of domesticity and independence for women in the twenty-first century, but we have sage reminders from the Pistol Annies: Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty At All. So spend time with friends.
And beyond the arena I’ve travelled to the boats and the clubs and the satellite stages to watch stories unfold from Ward Thomas, Cassadee Pope, Twinnie, Catherine McGrath and Sinead Burgess.
Sixth Lesson: It’s your path (runway?); own it.
I have also strengthened my own writing and storytelling, from the hours I’ve put in listening to the song writers whose words have changed my life, the lives of others, have wrenched at the hearts of so many. And all while working as a team, probably on a set of sofas somewhere in Nashville, practising their craft on a honky tonk bar stool where patrons have no idea of the resonating lyrics. But we know. We hear: Erin Enderlin, Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Nicolle Galyon. And all the other storytellers I can’t wait to discover, like Brandi Carlile and TenilleTownes.
My country eighties
1. Billie Jo Spears: Blanket on the Ground/What I’ve Got in Mind
2. Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billie Joe
3. Dolly Parton: Nine to Five/Coat of Many Colours
4. Juice Newton: Angel of the Morning.
My country nineties
5. Trisha Yearwood: American Girl
6. Mary Chapin Carpenter: He thinks He’ll Keep Her
7. Jo Dee Messina: Heads Carolina
8. Tanya Tucker: Delta Dawn
9. Deana Carter: Did I Shave my Legs for this?
10. Lorrie Morgan: We Both Walk
11. Reba McEntire: Fancy
12. Martina McBride: Independence Day
13. Shania Twain: Any Man of Man
14. Lee Ann Womack: I Hope You Dance
15. Leann Rimes: Blue
16. Dixie Chicks: Goodbye Earl
My twenty-first century country
17. Brandy Clark: Stripes
18. Carrie Underwood: Before He Cheats
19. Kacey Musgraves: Merry Go Round
20. Miranda Lambert: Platinum
21. Pistol Annies: Being Pretty
22. Logan Brill: Walk of Shame
23. Cam: Diane
24. Maren Morris: My Church
25. Margo Price: A Little Pain
26. Erin Enderlin: Broken
27. Ward Thomas: Guilty Flowers
28. Ashley McBryde: Radioland
29. Cassadee Pope: If My Heart
30. Twinnie: Better When I'm Drunk
31. Runaway June: Blue Roses
This list is for my daughter, currently seven, with hopes that she may navigate those emotions we don't always know how to voice.
Country music knows.
Country women know.
These are my learned lessons from women in country – what are yours?