Archive for the ‘100 Greatest Women’ Category

100 Greatest Women, #11: Alison Krauss

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

100 Greatest Women


Alison Krauss

The history of country music has long included women who have sought the crossover audience, tailoring their music so it will be more palatable to pop and adult contemporary radio formats. Alison Krauss is the only woman in history to successfully pull off the reverse: keeping her music as pure as she chooses and having the crossover audience come to her.

Krauss was a child prodigy who began playing fiddle at the age of five. Though she initially played classic violin music, she switched to bluegrass shortly thereafter, and by the age of eight she was competing in local talent contests. When she was just thirteen years old, she won the Walnut Valley Festival Fiddle Championship, and she was named Most Promising Fiddler in the Midwest by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass in America. It was at these festivals that she met all of the future members of Union Station, a band that she joined at the invitation of John Pennell, a bassist she had often performed with since she was 12.

In addition to performing with Union Station, Krauss began to document her talents on record, contributing to the 1985 independent album Different Strokes. Krauss signed with Rounder Records in 1987, and she was sixteen when they released her debut solo album, Too Late to Cry. Union Station backed her on the record, but weren’t credited as lead artists. This changed in 1989, when her second album Two Highways was released under the name Alison Krauss & Union Station, beginning a long history of her recording with the band that continues to this day.

Her contract with Rounder at the time required her to alternate between solo releases and albums with the band, so 1990 brought the solo set I’ve Got That Old Feeling. The album received her best reviews to date by a wide margin, and it earned her the first Grammy of her career, for Best Bluegrass Recording. By this time, Krauss had become a major star in the bluegrass field, and her label saw potential for a wider market, given that her sales were much higher than typical for the genre. They promoted “Steel Rails” to country radio, and it briefly dented the singles chart. Also, a video clip for the title cut was played heavily on Country Music Television.


100 Greatest Women, #12: Dixie Chicks

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

100 Greatest Women


Dixie Chicks

They went from being the one act everyone could agree on to the most controversial country band in history, but despite the changes in the climate surrounding them, one thing about the Dixie Chicks has always remained constant: their indisputable musical excellence.

The story of the Dixie Chicks begins in Texas, with two musically talented sisters named Martie and Emily Irwin. Martie was quite adept on the fiddle as a child, and when Emily started showing interest in the instrument as well, Martie pushed her younger sister into learning different instruments instead. By their teenage years, Martie was a skilled on the fiddle, mandolin and viola, while Emily specialized in the banjo and dobro.

The girls were eager to perform professionally, and in 1989, they joined up with fellow musicians Laura Lynch and Robin Lynn Macy to create a bluegrass band. Inspired by the Little Feat song “Dixie Chicken”, they called themselves the Dixie Chicks. With Macy on lead vocals, the band started playing for tips on street corners. Soon, they were performing in local clubs, and their reputation spread quickly across the Dallas area. They adopted a kitschy cowgirl image, wearing vintage western wear as they played their bluegrass songs.

By 1990, they had enough of a fan base to justify recording an album. Their first collection, Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, featured traditional bluegrass and western songs, including a cover of Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Martie was credited with many of the arrangements of the songs, and the quartet showed some musical ambition by transforming the Sam Cooke classic “Bring it On Home to Me” into a bluegrass number that closed the set.


100 Greatest Women, #13: Patty Loveless

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

100 Greatest Women


Patty Loveless

“I’m a combination of Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn and Ralph Stanley.” – Patty Loveless, 1989

Patty Loveless may be the last of the great mountain singers who will ever find mainstream country success, but there has always been a country-rock undercurrent to her material. Beloved by fans of pure country music, her work is deeply rooted in the mountain sounds of her native Kentucky, but her years singing rock music carried over into the studio, making her something of a progressive traditionalist.

She was raised in Belcher Holler, a small Kentucky town where her father was a coal miner. He was struck by black lung disease, and the family moved to Louisville seeking medical care. Her older siblings Dotty and Roger performed in a country act they dubbed The Swingin’ Rameys, and when Dotty quit the band to get married, Roger coaxed Patty into taking her place. After earningĀ $5 for her first performance, and loving the applause, she continued performing with her brother.

Roger’s love for country music led him to Nashville, where he became a producer for The Porter Wagoner Show. He cajoled Wagoner into listening to his sister Patty sing, and the high school girl sang her composition “Sounds of Loneliness” for the superstar. Wagoner was blown away, and vowed to help her break into the industry. He encouraged her to go back and finish school, but took her out with him on the road on weekends.


100 Greatest Women, #14: Barbara Mandrell

Monday, June 16th, 2008

100 Greatest Women


Barbara Mandrell

Every once in a while, an artist comes along who both defies and redefines expectations. Barbara Mandrell was one of those artists. She completely transformed the notion of what a country music entertainer should be, breaking down barriers for women and raising the bar for all of those who followed her.

She was a musical prodigy, already playing the accordion at age five. Her father owned a music store, so Barbara and her sisters had a myriad of musical instruments at their disposal. Barbara took full advantage of this, and began playing an assortment of core country instruments, becoming particularly adept on the banjo and the steel guitar.

She also learned the saxophone. When she was just eleven, she began playing professionally. By age thirteen, her skill on the steel guitar had her playing on tour with the biggest acts of the day, including Patsy Cline, George Jones and Johnny Cash. After high school, she moved to Nashville to pursue a singing career, and she was signed to Columbia in 1969.


100 Greatest Women, #15: Tanya Tucker

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

100 Greatest Women


Tanya Tucker

She was barely a teenager when she first appeared on the country music scene, but her voice had a tortured wisdom far beyond her years. Her early singles were dark and brooding slices of Southern Gothic, but over time she would mellow into one of the most consistently successful female country artists of all-time, with a span of hits stretching over three decades.

As a young child, Tucker was surrounded by music. Her older sister LaCosta was an aspiring country singer, and by the time Tanya turned eight, she had embraced the same dream. Her father Bo drove her across the West and Southwest, looking for opportunities for his youngest child and taking construction jobs wherever he could find them. She auditioned for a film in Utah, earning a small part, and sang at the Arizona State fair. In 1969, she was discovered by Mel Tillis, who put her on a show with him. This encouraged the family to move to Las Vegas, where Tucker was soon performing regularly.

While still shy of her thirteenth birthday, she recorded a demo tape that caught the attention of Billy Sherrill, head of A&R at Columbia. He was so impressed that he invited her to record for the label. On the first day that he presented her material, he played her what he thought would be the perfect song for a young teen artist: “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” Tucker hated it, and passed on the song. Sherrill was taken aback, but the next day he returned with another song, “Delta Dawn.” It was a dark and mysterious tale of a 41 year old woman who wandered around town, looking for the deceased lover who was supposed to make her his bride.

The song was a smash, and set the tone for a stunning series of Southern Gothic singles from the throaty young vocalist. Her first #1 single, 1973′s “What’s Your Mama’s Name”, was about an old man desperately searching for the love child he’d learned about in a letter years ago. “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone”) was a love song seeking a promise to share a grave. Her darkest hit was the #1 smash “Blood Red and Goin’ Down”, where Tucker is a young girl following her father from bar to bar until he finds his cheating wife and her lover. “He sent me out to wait, but scared I looked back through the door. And Daddy left them both soaking up the sawdust on the floor.”


100 Greatest Women, #16: Shania Twain

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

100 Greatest Women


Shania Twain

The biggest-selling female country artist in history, Shania Twain achieved success on a worldwide scale that had never been seen before in country music, and hasn’t been seen since, either. Her stunning visual image made her an icon, but it was her songwriting that made her a superstar, bringing a female empowerment message that essentially ended the long tradition of heartbreak queens in country music.

She started out in her native Canada, raised in Timmins, Ontario. Her given name was Eilleen Regina Edwards, and she was adopted at the age of two by her mother’s second husband, Jerry Twain. Her mom noticed Eilleen’s gifts at an early age, and by the age of ten, she was being pulled out of bed in the middle of the night to perform country songs at the local bars. Because of her age, she could only sing in such establishments after they had stopped serving alcohol for the night. She would sing and play guitar, covering the songs by her favorite country acts of the seventies: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and fellow Canuck Anne Murray.

By the time she reached adulthood, however, her musical tastes had expanded, and she developed quite a liking of eighties pop and arena rock. She was already fronting a covers band at 21 when tragedy struck, and her parents were killed in a car accident. She was suddenly responsible for the care of her younger siblings. She moved them to Huntsville, Ontario, where she made good money performing at the Deerhurst Resort. When all of her siblings had graduated high school, she felt ready to pursue her professional recording career, and with the help of a manager who’d caught her act at the resort, she headed to Nashville.


100 Greatest Women, #17: Brenda Lee

Friday, June 13th, 2008

100 Greatest Women


Brenda Lee

She was the rockabilly superstar that Music City had dreamed would come along, a pioneer who made the fusion of early rock and country commercially viable. She made timeless records while still in her early teens, and matured into a mainstream country singer later in her career. Today, she is a legend to both country and rock audiences, one of the few artists who can be found in both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Not bad for a poor Georgia girl who started singing professionally to help her widowed mother pay the bills. Brenda Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley, and she was singing from the time she could walk. As a toddler, she could hear a song twice on the radio and be able to sing it back, word for word. Even at age six, she was a prodigious talent, and was already appearing on local television shows in Atlanta. What was a cute hobby became a financial necessity in 1953, when her father was killed in a construction accident.

Brenda and her mother slipped into poverty, along with her three other siblings. She was able to make more money singing than anything her mother could do, so she would perform every weekend all around Georgia. Red Foley discovered Lee in early 1956, and asked her to appear on Ozark Jubilee. Her biggest musical influence was Hank Williams, so she performed “Jumbalaya.” The wild response the performance received led to guest spots on several other network shows, and the exposure earned her a deal with Decca Records.


100 Greatest Women, #18: Cindy Walker

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

100 Greatest Women


Cindy Walker

For all intents and purposes, the story of professional female songwriters in country music begins with Cindy Walker. In an era where almost all artists and writers were men, she was a phenomenon, a prolific writer whose work was cut by the top recording artists of the forties and fifties, and whose songs were so strong that they’d be recorded over and over again in the decades that followed.

She grew up in Texas, where her mother was a highly skilled pianist. Though she loved performing, and was doing so publicly from the age of seven, her greatest passion was songwriting. She dreamed of going to Los Angeles, where the western movies of her hero Bing Crosby were made. In 1941, her father had to go to L.A. on a business trip, and he invited his wife and daughter along. Cindy threw all of her songs into a briefcase and set out for the West Coast with mom and dad.

She headed straight for the office of Bing Crosby. Fearless and certain of her talent, she talked herself into an audition for Bing’s brother. He was so impressed that he contacted the star immediately. Not only did Crosby cut her song “Lone Star Trail”, she ended up with a recording contract of her own.


100 Greatest Women, #19: Dottie West

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

100 Greatest Women

Dottie West

She started out as a heartache singer who could wail a lonesome tune with the best of them. She developed into a sultry, showy stage performer. For more than two decades, her presence was felt on the country charts, but her presence was felt even more by the young new artists that she took under her wing.

Dottie West grew up in rural Tennessee, the oldest of ten children. Her family was poor when she was young, so much so that they went without electricity and plumbing, and made their own soap. Her childhood would not be an easy one, as she dealt with a father who was both physically and sexually abusive to her. When she was seventeen, she reported him to the police, and he was sentenced to forty years for his crimes against her.

Music had been a comfort for her while growing up, and in the aftermath of her abuse, she poured herself into music. She joined her high school band and began writing songs. Her talent earned her a college scholarship to study music, and it was there that she met her first husband, musician Bill West. After they had two children, they moved to Ohio. She formed a duo with friend Kathy Dee, and they appeared on a regional television show as the Kay-Dots. Encouraged by their early success, they attempted to secure a record deal in Nashville. In 1959, Starday signed them, but their early singles were not successful.


100 Greatest Women, #20: Rosanne Cash

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

100 Greatest Women


Rosanne Cash

She was one of the dominant female country voices throughout the eighties, and the incisive words and music of Rosanne Cash were leagues beyond most of her contemporaries. She was also the daughter of a country music icon and legend, but her own music was so distinctively different from her father’s that one could be excused for not realizing she called Johnny Cash “Dad.”

The eldest child from her father’s first marriage, Cash was raised in Nashville, where she was teased at school for her hillbilly lineage. When her parents split, she moved with her mom to southern California, where she spent a good deal of her late childhood and teenage years. She also began traveling with her father’s road show, soon after she graduated high school. A job on laundry duty eventually developed into backup singing and occasional turns in the spotlight. However, it was believed that her stepsister Carlene Carter was the one with the bright musical future, and Cash was unsure that music was her path. So while she developed as a singer and writer, she also took acting classes and strongly considered pursuing drama.



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