Around five months ago, I posed a question, “what does country music look like?”
An intentionally vague, loaded question that could fuel several different topics (and has, and will continue to), but for our specific purposes meant to springboard a discussion and history of visual representation – both physical and metaphorical – within country music, and even then, with a heavier focus on the former. The basic conclusion was that changing cultural styles offered greater individualistic expression and freedom for nearly everyone, though not necessarily as equals, but still concrete enough to offer a consistent timeline.
What about the latter focus, though? Metaphorically speaking, country music’s cultural portrayal is a bit of an overall paradox, specifically for its male and female performers, and again, certainly not on the same level, even if both parties yearned for that same individualistic freedom.
Johnny Cash’s Masculinity and Outlaw Fever
That paradox, for example, can be observed in one of the genre’s most iconic performers, Johnny Cash. Cash, country music’s first “bad boy,” as dubbed by Bill C. Malone in his own Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’, was often portrayed as an outlaw rambler, because he identified with it so strongly in his attire and artistic decisions, particularly with his prison albums. The rambler, typically perceived as a masculine character out of bias but certainly not set in stone, embodies domesticity versus freedom in the genre, explored in depth by both male and female performers out of a desire for freedom and independence from cultural pressures to marry and support a family. Its long-standing populist admiration stems from that resistance to social mores. The strong male connection mostly stems from the circumstances surrounding its popularization within country music, from Jimmie Rodgers serving as a counterbalance to other hillbilly singers in the 1920s as he hopped trains and became the genre’s first legitimate superstar, to Hank Williams in the late 1940s to early 1950s for living the sort of life that intrigued others but never to the point of wishing it was their own, to the outlaw movement spearheaded by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in the 1970s, and beyond. Ironic, in a sense; a progressive ideal running nearly 100 years in time funneled through a predictable social cycle.
Not to be ignored, however, is the underlying opportunity of the sentiment and its potential, or the inner paradoxes that have occurred within it regardless. Going back to Cash, it’s true that his surface image portrayed a heroic working-class masculinity, but what gets ignored is the ways and complexities in which that identity was explored, from subtly supporting a theme of faithfulness on “I Walk The Line” with an admission of inevitable failure in “For you I know I’d even try to turn the tide,” to, yes, singing songs about hardened outlaws, but with messages that dramatized real-life cases, in turn urging listeners to support prison reform and condemn abusive conditions within the prison system.
So, too, does a similar air linger around the aforementioned outlaw revolution of the ‘70s. Not quite “political” in an overtly explicit sense, but “rugged” enough to portray an image and stance that questioned all authority. On one hand, for instance, the outlaws stood with the counterculture’s refusal of Puritan moralism and suspicion of concentrated authority, but also, through the antihero outlaw symbolism, fed a large disdain for the perceived Great Society overreach of liberal expertise and activist energy, and, ultimately, found its best moments when reaching for a populist appeal. I don’t know whether it’s fair or not to say it all started with smaller ambitions, but the initial focus was simple – to take back individualistic, artistic power from an increasingly homogenized recording system based in Nashville and negotiate better deals to reflect the benefits that rock and pop artists were able to wrangle from their record companies. Another paradox presented: resist against an oppressive recording industry, but do it by cribbing from an established business model by another industry. Granted, revolution wasn’t the goal; it was basic freedom. Or, as Tompall Glaser once said, as he described the benefits of operating his own independent production company that could exist outside of his record label’s control:
“That was when I first began to know the power of business. Managers and people have been taking advantage of the hillbillies and the hillbilly music fans … They quit programming Ernest Tubb, so they made him obsolete. They put him on the scrap-pile before he died. But he’s not obsolete. There’s a market for him.”
“Country music is very close to the people who listen to it, and they need to hear the sincerity and the reality of it … When we started, people thought we were going to destroy Nashville. Who wants to destroy Nashville? It’s a long way from my mind … But if he’s got a good, decent alternative, all he’s got to do is keep doing it, and pretty soon the whole fucking industry will be doing it, because there are few too people in this town that know what the fuck to do.”
Important last words, given that the industry did eventually accept these terms … and learned to exploit the “outsiders,” just like with rock ‘n’ roll two decades earlier. Wanted! The Outlaws, an industry cash-grab compilation disc, became the first country music album to go platinum, mostly due to a large-scale marketing campaign. Not to disparage the artists with a goal in mind, mind you, but rather offer a warning that shifts and debates within the genre have mostly occurred because of changes within the actual industry, rather than conflicts between supposed “outsiders” versus “insiders.” After all, to be an artist is to be empathetic to the world around you. Infighting occurs, but never to the point of dominating a conversation for long.
Tanya Tucker’s Misconstrued Expression
Still, needless to say from this discussion so far, it was all a boy’s club, at least in terms of the most immediately recognizable names and faces we associate with “rambler” or “outlaw” or other terms, and in terms of how we typically perceive masculinity when faced with these symbols, names and faces. Who wouldn’t, after all, want basic freedom from an oppressive industry? But for certain artists – and we’d be here all day if went through every example, hence why I’ve chosen to examine two for this piece – freedom of expression came with hassle, nicknames, emotional abuse, and worst of all, actual consequences. I mentioned Tanya Tucker’s T.N.T depiction of an artist in tight black leather pants with a microphone cord slithered between her legs once before, but while male outlaws’ illicit forays into sex and drugs endeared them to critics and fans, Tucker was ridiculed. In 1991, for example, after she won the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award, a disgusted deejay called her a “tramp.”
All that “tramp” wanted, however, was the same thing as her male peers – to express her desire to be different. Indeed, that’s a desire that, for female artists, has went beyond one specific movement. And for Tucker specifically, it’s purely a desire to be herself – the teen idol who supported women’s increased embrace of sexual freedom on “Would You Lay With Me” and recorded southern gothic tales in “Blood Red And Goin’ Down” and “The Man That Turned My Momma On,” in turn seeking validation from the industry for her working-class roots and commitment to a heralded tradition.
“I have a whole audience that really doesn’t know my music,” she observes in Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann’s Finding Her Voice. “They know me as a celebrity, so to speak, a tabloid queen … I’ve settled down some, but I still like to rock.”
Furthermore, in an excerpt from Bufwack’s “Girls with Guitars” essay, featured in Reading Country Music:
“There is no certain look, I mean I go on stage one night and I might look like a cowgirl and [the] next night I might want to wear my Tina Turner outfit, my minidress, and one night I might want to go out in jeans, so it really depends on how I feel and what I feel like doing that night.”
Really, her behavior reflected a shift in social conventions that encapsulated the ‘70s and ‘80s for American women. Premarital sex, couples living together, divorce, and single parenthood became the accepted norm. Tucker herself bore two children out of wedlock.
“My fans have been so supportive. And you can’t look at those kids and say that was a mistake. I think, too, that I’m probably making a statement for the single mothers out there. There are a lot of them and unfortunately a lot of them are in real financial trouble taking care of their kids. They’re busting their busts working nine-to-five. I really have a lot of respect for those women. ‘Cause I don’t think I could do it on my own.”
Like her contemporary, Johnny Cash, Tucker practiced empathy for an audience she related to, and the only difference came down to the public reception of it.
Indeed, Tucker has been called everything from “the Texas Tornado” (from her preteen performances) to “Nashville’s Little Levied Lolita” (from Playboy Magazine) and beyond, and a cocaine-addled affair with Glen Campbell in the early ‘80s cemented her as tabloid fodder for several decades, overshadowing the music she made, particularly within inner country music circles. No matter. Her comeback at the 1994 CMA Awards, in which she performed with Little Richard, showed her fully reveling in her sensuality (and Richard, too), critics be damned.
Dolly Parton’s Control of “Dolly’s” World
Flipping the script to another female performer who used her bodily expression to her advantage, Dolly Parton has embellished her image mainly through showy costumes and a sculptured blonde wig. She hails from a time when men told female performers that other women wouldn’t like them if they dressed too sexy – a time when Parton started as “Porter Wagoner’s singing girl” and went on to forge her own career and identity – yet the persona is an overall caricature that juxtaposes the outlandish stylings of gaudy male costuming. She advocates authenticity by making fun of the superficial, stylistic elements that seemingly both define and contradict the genre’s traditional norms.
Like with Tanya Tucker, however, the discourse surrounding Parton shifts depending on the type of periodical, reinforced by Dolly on Dolly, a collection of Parton’s interviews. Music-focused magazines spotlight her talent and status within the industry, as do mainstream news magazines; women’s magazines focus on Parton’s personal life, including her marriage and home life; men’s magazines focus on her body and image, painting her as an image for the male gaze; and tabloids could go any which way, painting her as a sexual icon, a transgressor of patriarchal conventions, and as the occasional victim of a personal crisis.
No matter what, it’s no secret that the “Dolly” image is a facade, as she once explained:
“When I started out in my career, I was plainer looking. I soon realized I had to play by men’s rules to win. My way of fighting back was to wear the frilly clothes and put on the big, blonde wigs. It helped that I had a small voice that enabled me to sing songs of pain and loneliness and love and gentle things like butterflies and children. I found that both men and women liked me.”
But because the image is such an obvious exaggeration, it’s seemed to have made her male admirers too uncomfortable to directly address it without resorting to cheap puns, corny jokes and euphemisms to “subtly” get the point across. Parton, then, by maintaining her own dignity and self-esteem while managing to attain a maximum response from the male gaze, made the patriarchal discourse work to her advantage. She’s in charge of the conversation, in other words, seeking to subvert, and gain strength from within, the dominant patriarchal system, not to overthrow it, but to create opportunities for women to control their lives within it.
Female identification, through magazines, constructs Parton more as an ordinary person dealing with the same sort of everyday problems as her audience, bringing her down from a star-studded pedestal and onto an even-level playing field. Another paradox: she controls the conversation surrounding her persona but is ultimately just like everyone else. After an extended illness in the early 1980s, Parton lost a good deal of weight. She’d been overeating, and the conversations then surrounded her illness.
In one particular interview, Parton identified with her audience and maintained the same sense of empathy described before, when answering the criticisms of whether or not she was “too thin”:
“Boy, it burns me up to see people look at a fat person and say, “Can you believe anybody would let herself get into that kind of shape? That’s easy for someone who looks like Jane Fonda to say. When I see a really overweight person, I feel sorry for her, because I’ve been there … I know I could gain the weight back any minute, and it scares me to death.”
And Parton was like her outlaw peers in more ways than one, though that shouldn’t have to be said. Country music in the 1970s was defined mainly by the recording industry’s skillful negotiation of audience expectations, artistic opportunities and commercial imperatives. Real and imagined traditions as the outlaws and crossover successes in Olivia Newton-John and John Denver found themselves part of a larger, singular plan by the industry to find new listeners and react to changing socioeconomic circumstances for its audience. Parton herself was as believable as the homespun “Tennessee Mountain Girl” as she was the superstar who brought “9 to 5” to life, because that dual paradox was simply her.
Leigh H. Edwards sums it up best, in an essay titled “Country Music and Class,” from The Oxford Handbook of Country Music:
“I would argue that Dolly Parton uses exaggerated “rube” humor and slapstick like a burlesque that critiques the outsider tourist gaze that would frame hillbillies as abject stereotypes of ‘white trash.’ Crucially, Parton’s hillbilly image is a critical one, in her combination of the hillbilly tramp and the mountain girl. She turns the Daisy Mae type voluptuous mountain girl image into knowing camp and irony. Unlike other female country singers who were her contemporaries, Parton’s response to the country music’s industry sexualization of her was not an uncomfortable embodiment of it but rather an ironic distance that she created through exaggeration, kitsch, and a knowing campiness, using the images and escaping entrapment.”
Of course, it goes beyond the outlaws, or Tanya Tucker, or Dolly Parton. It even goes beyond pure masculinity and femininity. As I said at the beginning, asking what country music looks like fuels several discussions, and in the modern day, ones of gender, race, sexuality and more have only been amplified.
And that all, of course, ties back into our previous conversation and leads roughly to the same conclusion – that those within the country music industry who desired to express their individuality did so through their imaging and yearned for the same basic freedom. Today, artists still yearn for that same individualistic expression, and we’re at a point now where we, the listeners, need to ensure those voices can be heard, and that equity and equality can be obtained for all.
Great piece Zack! I’ve read it a few times now and you really hit the nail on the head. I love that you picked Tanya and Dolly to hone in on, showing two different paths and images, but the same independent spirit.
Thank you, Liz! And yep, you hit the nail on the head with what I was trying to say – probably even better than I said it myself!