“Now each day is one day that’s left in her life She won’t know love, have a marriage or sing lullabies
She lays all alone and cries herself to sleep
‘Cause she let a stranger kill her hopes and her dreams
And all her friends say what a pity, what a loss
And in the end when she was barely hanging on
All she could say is she thinks his name was John.” -“She Thinks His Name Was John”
Are there any good men left in country music? “Good” as in daring. “Good” as in willing to tackle songs of substance that go beyond the usual cryin’-intheir-beer lament. “Good” as in striving to be more than just another hat in the ring.
“Good” as in Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless and a host of other women who have become the conscience of country music.
Men may outsell them (Billboard’s latest hot country tracks chart has 60 male entries compared to 15 female), but by and large it’s women who are moving beyond the platitudes of traditional country music and into social-cultural commentary.
“I don’t think the issue song is a trend,” says McBride. “Women are (simply) putting out the most interesting music.”
Take a look at this year’s Grammys: The standouts in the Female Country Vocal category were McEntire’s poignant plea for AIDS awareness (“She Thinks His Name Was John”), Loveless’ fond recollection of family bonds (“How Can I Help You Say Goodbye”) and McBride’s horrific tale of domestic violence (“Independence Day”).
Now consider what Grammy deemed worthy among the male nominees: John Michael Montgomery’s formulaic love ballad “I Swear” (an even bigger hit on the pop charts for the R&B; act All-4One); Vince Gill’s safe-as-milk “When Love Finds You”; David Ball’s semi-traditional “Thinkin’ Problem” and the equally forgettable “Pocket of a Clown” (Dwight Yoakam) and “Your Love Amazes Me” (John Berry), which weren’t even authentic country.
And it isn’t just the Grammys. Billboard and airwaves across the country are full of songs like Daron Norwood’s silly “Bad Dog, No Biscuit” (cheating lover naughty Bowser) and Rhett Akins’ simpleminded “I Brake for Brunettes.”
“There are so many male artists, women have to do more to get noticed,” says songwriter Gretchen Peters (“Independence Day”). “The standard logic is, women don’t sell records since women, in general, are the buyers of country records. Since the deck is stacked against (women), they have to do more.”
Nashville publicist Evelyn Shriver, whose clients include Willie Nelson and Randy Travis, expands on that theory.
“There’s so much pressure on the guys to deliver a platinum record right out of the box,” she says. “Women are getting away with making better music because they aren’t put under those same expectations. (They) can come into their own without pressure from the labels and are free to grow.”
As a result, she says, “the women in country are making better music.”
Rhonda Forlaw, manager of artist relations and media at Arista Nashville, agrees but from a different perspective.
“Women are by nature more sensitive and go with songs they feel,” she says. “That’s not to say men aren’t sensitive, but women follow their instincts more.”
“The way I see it,” McEntire says, “when you get a song like ‘She Thinks His Name Was John,’ it’s your responsibility, your duty, to put out such a great message instead of a little ditty that says absolutely nothing.”
“She lit up the sky that Fourth of July
By the time that the firemen come
They just put out the flames, and took down some names
And send me to the county home.
Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong
But maybe it’s the only way Talk about your revolution
It’s Independence Day.
- “Independence Day”
Gretchen Peters uses country’s story-telling tradition to get her message across. Her in-your-face “Independence Day” - about an abused wife who burns down her home, with herself and her alcoholic husband inside, leaving their only child an orphan - was her way of working out her feelings over domestic violence, she says.
“The whole situation arouses such anger in me. I find anger a useful emotion, and a great song comes from that. Country at its best is very real.”
Peters, whose songs been recorded by Loveless (“You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”), Trisha Yearwood (“On a Bus to St. Cloud”) and Randy Travis (“High Lonesome”), among others, has become one of Nashville’s most in-demand songwriters. She represents a step back toward country’s early narrative realism with a twist: addressing social as well as personal concerns.
Moreover, she and others like her are earning awards and hits. Female stars from Wynonna to Yearwood, from McEntire and Loveless to Carpenter sell in the platinum (one million) or better range. Carpenter’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” became the first non-crossover country hit to be nominated for a Record of the Year in this year’s Grammys. “Independence Day” won Best Song at the Nashville Songwriter’s Awards earlier this year.
“Nowadays, women are being more businesslike, getting good management and cutting out a lot of the crap that has surrounded them in the past,” McEntire says. “We’re all trying real hard to make our voices heard, and that’s probably 95 percent of the reason that we search diligently for songs like ‘John.”’
Peters voices a similar hope. Presumably, “what (women) want to hear from other women is songs about themselves. It’s wonderful that there are some strong women out there coming out with (these) songs. We need it.”
“When we’re free to love anyone we choose
When the world’s big enough for different views
When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within
We shall be free.”
- “We Shall Be Free”
This is not to suggest there are no male singers who address their fears, issues and concerns through country music. Country’s most popular artist, Garth Brooks, did, indeed, go out on a limb in 1992 with “We Shall Be Free,” a plea for tolerance toward gays and people of color - two groups not usually represented by mainstream country. Another 1992 song, “Face to Face,” touched on date rape and bullies.
While other men haven’t been as bold as Brooks - and it should be noted that he could afford to take more such chances since his poorestselling records still move more than 5 million copies each - there are a few men who doff the hats and gimmickry to reveal brains behind the guitars. Doug Supernaw’s “State Fair” (from the jokingly titled “Deep Thoughts From a Shallow Mind” CD) is an unflinching look at the ruinous effects of drunken driving. In 1993 Supernaw topped the country charts with “I Don’t Call Him Daddy,” a pensive look at divorce from the male perspective.
Willie Nelson sang movingly of age and experience on his last great CD, 1993’s “Across the Borderline.” Also in 1993, Travis released “Wind in the Wire” despite knowing in advance that country radio would resist its Western themes and sound. He was right: The album was his leastsuccessful release to date.
It’s important, also, to acknowledge that many successful female country singers choose to stay within the confines of traditional country or its country-pop cousin: Just listen to Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” or Tanya Tucker’s disappointing new release “Fire to Fire.”
“She can account for all of the men in her past
Where they are now, who they married, how many kids they have
She knew their backgrounds, family and friends
A few she even talks to now and then
But there is one she can’t put her finger on
There is one who never leaves her thoughts
And she thinks his name was John.”
McEntire, Peters, McBride and company might laugh at the notion that they represent the conscience of country music today. But they are quite clear on the differences between male and female country singers - and their songs.
“We have a unique sound,” says McBride.
“Once in awhile there’ll be a message song from a man, but I think women are more sensitive to subjects of that matter,” adds McEntire. “I think those songs kind of find and search those women out.”
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