100 Greatest Women
Maybelle and Sara Carter (The Carter Family)
Just over eighty years ago, a family act from Appalachia traveled to Bristol, Tennessee. Behind the wheel was A.P. Carter, and on board were two mountain women he believed were destined for stardom: his sister-in-law, Maybelle Carter, and his wife, young Sara Carter, who was eight months pregnant as they made the trip.
The previous day, A.P. had arrived home and declared, “We’re going to Bristol tomorrow to make a record!” The Carter Family had been performing in churches, living rooms and anywhere else they could get an audience in their Appalachian world, and when A.P. heard that a Victor Records employee was seeking rural talent to record in Bristol, he saw their golden opportunity to make it big.
When they got to the recording studio, which was really just a converted warehouse, they took part in a twelve-day recording session with two dozen other artists, ranging in genre from blues to gospel to folk. But among all the other raw talent, the startling vocals of Maybelle and Sara shone through.
They weren’t the first country women to put their voices on record, but for all intents and purposes, the story of women in country music traces its roots back to Maybelle and Sara Carter, members of what is now referred to as The Original Carter Family. Their seminal records took country music to the masses for the first time, as they emerged from their humble Appalachian roots to become the first female country stars to make an impact.
100 Greatest Women
The living embodiment of artistic integrity, Emmylou Harris has been creating acclaimed music for more than three decades, building up the most consistent catalog in the history of country music. In her early days, her mix of contemporary songs and classic country songs was seen as forward-thinking and progressive, but over time, she would be seen as a protective guardian of country music’s heritage, even when she strayed far away from it on her own recordings.
Her own roots were not in country music, as she was an aspiring folk artist in her early days. While she was also interested in drama, she was increasingly drawn to the folk songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, eventually leaving college and moving to New York in 1968. However, the folk scene was beginning to die down, and though she found occasional work, it wasn’t much. She married in 1969, and worked as a waitress to supplement the meager income brought in by her Greenwich Village coffeehouse performances.
In 1970, she recorded her debut album, Gliding Bird, for the struggling independent label Jubilee Records, which folded shortly thereafter. Harris would later call the album a disaster, and disowned it so much that she named her fourteenth studio album Thirteen. Disenchanted with the New York scene, and her first marriage coming to an end, she moved to Nashville briefly, but then relocated to her parents’ home in Maryland, feeling disconnected from music until she discovered the music scene in Washington D.C., through which she would met a young performer named Gram Parsons.
100 Greatest Women
The First Lady of Country Music, and the Heroine of Heartbreak. Tammy Wynette sang with a tear in her voice, a classic country wail that perfectly complemented the desperate emotional dramas she sang. But underneath the layers of pain, there was always a strong undercurrent of resilience, and some of the best songs she ever sang and wrote had as much hope for tomorrow as they had sorrow for today.
Wynette was born the only child of a farmer musician and his wife. When she was only nine months old, her father died, and her mother was forced to work wherever she could, leaving her in the care of her grandparents, who had a cotton farm in Mississippi. As a child, she picked cotton alongside the workers in the field, but she dreamed of country stardom. Her escape from the drudgery of her daily life were the musical instruments her father had left behind, which she taught herself to play, and a children’s record player, on which she spun the discs of Skeeter Davis, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.
She married her first husband right before high school graduation, and she did several different jobs before enrolling in beautician school in 1963. She would renew her license every year, long after she was a major star, so she always had something to fall back on. But she was still pursuing her dream to sing, and when her husband didn’t support her dream, she left him, three daughters in tow, determined to make it big.
100 Greatest Women
Her rise to the top was slow, with four years passing before her first top ten single and a decade before she earned her first gold album. But with time, Reba McEntire would emerge as country music’s most popular female artist, with a longer run at the top than any other female hit-maker in history. Along the way, she made the transition from singer to entertainer, becoming a powerful force on both the stage and screen.
McEntire was born and raised in Oklahoma, the daughter of a championship steer roper. As a child, she joined brother Pake and sister Susie in The Singing McEntires, but she also pursued her family rodeo tradition. Back then, the only competition open to women was barrel racing, and she became an adept competitor. By 1974, she was majoring in education at an Oklahoma university, but still singing in her spare time. That year, she sang the national anthem at the National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City, which led to her discovery by Red Steagall.
The industry veteran pushed her to pursue a Nashville recording contract, and with his help, the young redhead recorded some demonstration tapes during her spring break from college. Mercury Records was impressed, and she joined their roster in late 1975. Thus began the slowest ascent to superstardom of any woman in country music history, as her debut single “I Don’t Want to Be a One Night Stand” stopped at #88 in 1976. Three more singles fared no better, but all four were included on her debut album Reba McEntire, which also included covers of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues” and Patsy Cline’s “Why Can’t He Be You.”
100 Greatest Women
There are few women in the history of popular music as revered as Patsy Cline, one of the few country legends who has transcended the status of a singer and become a pop culture icon. Almost all of her classic recordings were created in a three-year span, and she only released three albums in her lifetime. However, her fame has grown exponentially since her career was tragically cut short, leaving behind questions of the music that might have been, but also immortally preserving her in her musical prime.
Cline hailed from Virginia, the daughter of a blacksmith and a seamstress. She grew up idolizing Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, and asserted from a young age that she would be a star as well. She also liked country music, being particularly drawn to the hits of Hank Williams. Cline suffered a throat infection as a child that she would later credit as a gift, believing that it was that illness that resulted in her deep-throated voice.
As a teenager, Cline competed in local talent shows and sang on the radio in Winchester. She performed in local country clubs wearing fringed cowgirl outfits that her mother created. A brief marriage in her early twenties to Gerald Cline provided her stage surname, while a later boyfriend suggested using Patsy along with it. She was soon commanding a large following in the Virginia/D.C./Maryland area, and was appearing on the television show Town and Country. She caught the attention of Jimmy Dean, who also frequently appeared on the show, and he became an early champion of her talent. Cline began appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, and she signed to Four Star Records in 1955.
100 Greatest Women
She once said that her goal is to create music that won’t make Emmylou Harris want to avoid her if she saw her coming down the street. For nearly two decades, Trisha Yearwood has certainly achieved that goal, as she has been the genre’s most consistently excellent recording artist, with a stronger ear for material than any of her contemporaries and nuanced performances that draw on her vocal power without exploiting it.
She was born and raised in Monticello, Georgia, the daughter of a banker father and schoolteacher mother. She was a big fan of Elvis Presley when she was young, but her passion for music really developed when she first heard Linda Ronstadt. She later said that it was the first time she heard a singer with real emotion in her voice, and when she met with her producer years later, she brought Ronstadt’s Prisoner in Disguise album with her and said, “This is the kind of music that I want to make.” Another pivotal moment in her musical development was hearing Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache”, which she later called the first country record that seemed relevant to her generation, rather than being her parents’ country music.
Yearwood loved singing publicly, but she was also sensible, and she pursued a business degree at a junior college. She moved to Nashville to complete her education, studying at Belmont University as a Music Business major. This led to her first industry job, as an internship at MTM Records became a full-time job after graduation. Her vocal talent did not go unnoticed, and she soon became an in-demand demo singer. She built a solid reputation for learning songs quickly, so those that hired her could save on studio time by having her sing the demos. Legend has it that she was so fast that she could double-park her car and be in and out before she’d get a ticket.
100 Greatest Women
She was called the Queen of Country Music, the genre’s first major female solo star. In the fifties and early sixties, her string of hits were unprecedented for a female artist, as she began to prove the industry adage wrong: women could indeed sell records just like the men.
She was born Muriel Deason in Nashville, and her father taught her guitar when she was still quite young. By her teen years, she sang with her siblings as The Deason Sisters on a local radio station. When Muriel married Johnnie Wright at the age of eighteen, the newly married couple performed with Muriel’s sister Louise. Soon, Wright met Jack Anglin, who married Louise and joined the band. Around this time, Wright chose a stage name for Muriel from the old folk ballad “I’m A-Goin’ to Marry Kitty Wells.” The four performed as the Tennessee Hillbillies.
Anglin was drafted into the Army in 1942, so Johnny and Kitty performed as a duo until Jack returned and partnered with Wright as Johnny & Jack. Kitty Wells sang backup when Johnnie & Jack performed on Louisiana Hayride. Her own talent was noticed by RCA Records, who signed her in 1949 and released a series of singles, including “Don’t Wait For the Last Minute to Pray” and “Death at the Bar.” The songs didn’t chart, and since the label didn’t want to invest any more money in a female artist, she was dropped in 1950.
100 Greatest Women
Wynonna (The Judds)
One of the most extraordinary voices in the history of recorded music belongs to Wynonna Judd. As the lead singer of mother-daughter duo The Judds, she was part of the new traditionalist movement that brought country music back to its roots. But when she launched her solo career in 1992, she transformed herself into the most soulful female country singer of her generation.
Wynonna lived in both California and rural Kentucky growing up, and when living in the latter, she would only get along with mother Naomi while the two were singing. Much like the titular character of her solo hit “Girls With Guitars”, it was only singing and playing her guitar that brought her happiness. Wynonna always sang lead, and her mother provided counterpart harmony, where she would sing a mirror of Wynonna’s melody, going up when she went down, and vice versa.
Naomi started a nursing degree while in Kentucky, and she moved Wynonna and sister Ashley back to the West Coast for her to finish her schooling. Even at age fifteen, Wynonna’s stunning vocal prowess was apparent, and Naomi moved the girls to Nashville so she could pursue a recording contract for mother and daughter. While Wynonna was in school, Naomi used every spare moment when she wasn’t working to promote their act, now billed The Judds, and she passed on their demo tape to anybody who would listen.
Soon, the duo was performing on Ralph Emery’s morning show, and when producer Brent Maher’s daughter was a patient of Naomi’s, she slipped a tape his way. He didn’t listen to it immediately, but once he heard it, he flipped. He made arrangements to produce the act and they were soon recording for RCA Records, in a joint partnership with Curb. Wynonna was the youngest person signed to RCA since Elvis Presley, which fit neatly with her desire to be the female Elvis.
100 Greatest Women
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
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.