When Patsy Cline and Dottie West were in their prime 30 years ago, the country music industry called them “girl singers.”
The guys were the real stars. Some radio stations even limited the number of females on their playlists.
In the 1990s, “girl singers” are called women, and they may be Nashville’s best hope for the future.
Distinctive artists like Deana Carter, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood and Shania Twain are much more interesting than most of their male peers, who have formed faceless groups or sound like George Strait wannabes.
Matraca Berg and Sara Evans deserve to be added to the list of top female talent. Both have released stunning CDs that are struggling for the attention of radio programmers.
Berg entranced the audience at last month’s Country Music Association awards show with her ballad, “Back When We Were Beautiful,” which she sang before Garth Brooks was named best entertainer. Earlier, Evans helped induct songwriting great Harlan Howard into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Evans, 26, sang Howard’s “Tiger by the Tail” as a tribute. He helped her land a recording contract with RCA in 1996 after hearing her version of his classic.
Berg, 33, joined an exclusive club, that includes The Tractors and Mary Chapin Carpenter, who were given prominent performance spots on the CMA show before scoring a major hit.
“Every now and then, a slot on that show is booked because the board or the producer thinks there’s a lot of artistic merit,” said Holly Gleason, Berg’s publicist.
Berg’s fourth album, “Sunday Morning to Saturday Night,” was released on Rising Tide Records after her three efforts for RCA went nowhere. Though her albums have received little recognition, Berg has been one of the best sources of hit material for top female country singers for years.
Among her hits as a writer: “Strawberry Wine” and “We Danced Anyway” for Carter; “Everybody Knows,” “XXX’s and OOO’s” and “Wrong Side of Memphis” for Yearwood; and “Wild Angels” for McBride.
The daughter of a backup singer and guitar player, Berg wrote her first No. 1 song, “Faking Love,” when she was 18. It became a hit for T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks in 1982.
Instead of letting McBride or Yearwood record songs like “Along for the Ride” and “The Resurrection,” Berg sang them herself. The resulting CD combines the thoughtfulness and fun of Carter’s smash album “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” with a vocal power that reminds you of McBride.
Berg knows the music industry is fickle - “Huge today, gone today,” she says - and is undaunted.
“I’ve seen so many projects seem so obvious for what we think country radio would want, and it didn’t do anything,” she said.
“And nobody knows. Nobody knew Deana was going to do what she did…. You just have to do the best work you possibly can and hope. …”
Evans grew up poor in rural Missouri and started performing with her family band at age 4. She first recorded in Nashville when she was 11, which got her publicity back home but nowhere else.
She continued singing, got married and settled in Oregon in 1992. Sara Evans and North Santiam (named after a river in Oregon) were a popular regional band, opening for Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw and others.
In 1995, she returned to Nashville. Howard’s praise of Evan’s version of “Tiger by the Tail” led to the RCA record deal.
The album “Three Chords and the Truth” was overseen by Pete Anderson, longtime producer of Dwight Yoakam. It harkens back to classic sounds from the past, just as Yoakam’s albums sometimes do. And it features songs by old-timers Justin Tubb, Bill Anderson and Buck Owens.
“I have been called retro a lot. It irritates me,” Evans said.
“It was my goal and Pete’s goal for it to be a timeless thing. I want to wear dresses that could be worn today or could’ve been worn in the 1950s, and I want to have music that could’ve worked in the 1950s and still works today, too.”
The first two singles from “Three Chords and the Truth” made no dent in the charts. Joe Galante, chairman of RCA Label Group-Nashville, said he isn’t discouraged.
He points out country great George Jones recently hand-picked Evans to open a concert in Nashville, and that led to a guest spot for her on the Grand Ole Opry radio show.
“At the same time the guy that’s doing the CMA Awards TV show saw her and put her on the CMA awards,” Galante said.
“So, people see her and are absolutely blown away, and the fact is that we just have to keep working on that process.”