“Women Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives” Reviewed
Few people understand country music, as both an art form and a business, as well as Holly Gleason. Gleason is a difficult personality to pigeonhole – she’s a critic with the vision of a romantic poet, but also a skilled publicist as well as a songwriter. She has a wealth of knowledge about Nashville’s history, but she’s not a knee jerk reactionary against modern country music. She smartly balances the cerebral and the emotional side of music in her work. Her latest project has been as editor of the new book “Women Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives.” The book is a collection of essays/short stories about female country artists and the impact they have had on the contributing writers. Interestingly, Rosanne Cash and Taylor Swift both serve as the subject of an essay and as an author of one.
The book title, “Women Walk the Line,” comes from a 1985 weeper performed by Emmylou Harris, one of the subjects of the books. The essays develop a sense of the different roles that women have played in country music, to include, exemplars, surrogate mothers, and identity group validation. Often, the difficult realities the better sex has in a male dominated culture are addressed, with Nancy Harrison saluting Dolly Parton’s nimble ability to be candid in a non-threatening way. Many of the southern/rural raised authors describe the continuing oppressive expectations/opportunities of female roles in society and how their particular heroine crafted a different paradigm to follow.
Rosanne Cash shines both as a contributor and an inspiring artist. She writes about June Carter Cash, describing her as a “spiritual detective” whose purpose in life was to lift up other people. She noted that June “carried songs in her body the way other people carry red blood cells.” The words “stepmother” and “stepchild” were not in June’s vocabulary. She characterizes June as an endless wellspring of positivity and love. As a subject, Deborah Sprague writes about Cash as someone who is hardwired with empathy for others. Also, Rosanne Cash had the courage to walk away from a potentially lucrative career as an oldies act to follow her muse, to focus her artistic energy for the smaller percentage of her fan base that really understood her.
Staying in the Carter family, Caryn Rose contributed an excellent essay on Maybelle Carter, noting that she was an innovator as a guitarist, but also ran the family business, an unusual position for a female during her era. Often, the concept of social classes is raised in these essays, and Maybelle Carter spent most of her career performing for the working class. In fact, Maybelle Carter lived as a working class person, often driving a van to perform to small crowds who could only get to the venues by foot. One gets the sense that her life wasn’t an easy one, but through hard work she achieved a position of independence and freedom that was unusual for females of her era.
The highlight of the book for me is Alice Randall’s outstanding chapter on Lil Hardin, a singer/songwriter who was also the wife and one time manager of Louis Armstrong. As a creative African American woman, Hardin constantly reinvented herself through necessity, a blueprint that Randall had adopted as a Nashville songwriter, businesswoman, and academic. As a minority in the entertainment industry, Randall learned that racism and theft were commonplace, and she later experienced both in blatant ways, but she knew if Lil Hardin could survive those setbacks, she could as well. Really, this piece is worth the price of admission.
I doubt that anyone would be uniformly enamored by every essay and I found the pieces on the more historical figures more interesting than the contemporary artists, although I was delighted to read the chapter on Rhiannon Giddens, who will hopefully become the Americana version of Beyonce. Gleason contributes one of the best chapters on her viewpoint of Tanya Tucker throughout the years, from dismissing her early work, then simultaneously discovering the artist’s and her own sexual awakening (Gleason brings home the Tucker “TNT” album and her mother surmises, “She looks like a whore”). Gleason tracks Tucker’s years of irrelevance during the 1980s as a byproduct of bad decisions and her Nashville comeback, serving as a symbol of resiliency. It’s these traits – resiliency, risk taking, girl power, confidence – that have inspired the essays in this book. I noted one factual error that made me wince concerning when Loretta Lynn debuted as an artist, but this collection is more about emotions and inspirations than facts and figures.
“Woman Walk the Line” gives plenty of perspectives and issues to chew on, whether it is the enigma that is Bobbie Gentry, the literalist poetry of Lucinda Williams or the concept of normalization provided by k.d. lang. I laughed, I cried. This book was a good date. Two thumbs up.
Grade – A