Today is International Women’s Day. Historically speaking, country music has never enjoyed a reputation for being socially progressive. For the general public, the definitive statement the genre made was “Stand By Your Man.” That Tammy Wynette classic is often cited as country music’s counterpoint to the women’s liberation movement, although Wynette wrote the thing in fifteen minutes without any agenda in mind. She just needed a song to sing. I generally consider the classic country era to have ended with the seventies, preceding the Urban Cowboy and New Traditionalist movements. What follows are some of the best deliberate statements made by country artists during those years in support for women’s rights. Some were big hits. Some were not. But they were all ahead of their time and are still interesting to listen to today.
Jeannie C. Riley
100 Greatest Men: The Complete List Tom T. Hall is known as the Storyteller, a fitting title for a man whose ability to spin a musical yarn led to some of the greatest country story songs of all-time, many of which he sang himself. His childhood set the stage for a career in music. His father gave him a guitar when he was eight, and he learned music from his hometown neighbor Clayton Delaney, later the subject of Hall’s longest-running #1 single. His mother died when he was just 11, and when a hunting accident four years later made it impossible for his father to work, Hall joined the workforce of a garment factory at age 15.
A case study in musical identity crisis.
Here we have one of the most gifted vocalists in the history of country music, searching in vain for her voice. The trend has been going on for some time now, and if this isn’t its apex, we’re in for a long and bumpy ride. Not since her days with Mercury has McEntire ever tried so hard to fit in with the current sound on country radio, and much like those early records, this trend-chasing set is both overprocessed and underdeveloped.
During the nineties boom, there was a mad rush to get the catalog of older country artists available on CD. For older country albums, this wasn’t always the best approach. Many of these discs had only ten tracks, so even with a handful of bonus songs, the entire running time could still be under 40 minutes. Some labels took the smart approach of pairing two albums to one disc, but for the most part, it was landmark albums or lengthy compilation discs.
The digital age has finally made it both practical and affordable to get those old albums. Vintage sets are now available from legends like Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell, and even not quite legends like Jeannie C. Riley. But there are still some glaring omissions that need to become more readily available.
Revised and Updated for 2009 While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories. This is a look back at the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category. It was first awarded in 1965, an included single competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks. I’ve often made the case that female artists were making the best music in the 1990s, and the Grammys did a great job nominating songs and albums that were ignored at the CMA and ACM awards, which is not surprising, given that those shows have so few categories that are actually for songs and albums. As usual, we Read More
Various Artists Ultimate Grammy Collection: Classic Country Contemporary Country Earlier this year, the Grammys celebrated their fiftieth anniversary with a series of compilations focusing on winners in different fields. Two of the best entries in this series focused on country music. With five decades of winners to choose from, it’s no surprise that Ultimate Grammy Collection: Classic Country and Ultimate Grammy Collection: Contemporary Country are solid collections. The Classic Country set is particularly strong, including a diverse selection of significant artists from the sixties and seventies. Even better, most of them are represented with their signature tracks. Roger Miller opens the set with “King of the Road”, easily his biggest hit. Other superstars include Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”), Johnny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue”) and Waylon & Willie (“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”) As the collection moves on to the seventies and eighties, Read More
Tom T. Hall, one of the finest storytellers ever in country music, tells tales of great insight and description that have earned him a place among Nashville’s songwriting elite. His sense of clarity and an offbeat style have translated into true respect and admiration in Music City. Hall, the son of a bricklaying minister, began learning music from an early age. At age 11, his mother died, and our years later his father was shot in a hunting accident. In order to support himself and his father, Hall quit school and took a job in a local garment factory. While he was working in the factory, he formed his first band, the Kentucky Travelers. In 1957, Hall enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany. While in Germany, he performed at local NCO clubs on the Armed Forces Radio Network, where he sang mostly original material. After four years Read More
#16: Jeannie C. Riley “Harper Valley, P.T.A.” 1968 At the peak of her powers, Jeannie C. Riley was enjoying the success of her small-town story song “Harper Valley P.T.A.” in the fall of 1968. But her handlers insisted on a sexually-charged image, one with which Riley disagreed. When she was nominated for several CMA awards that year, the first year the show aired live on television, Riley raged with disgust when her manager Shelby Singleton ordered her to wear a mini-skirt to attract attention.
Harper Valley P.T.A. Jeannie C. Riley 1968 Written by Tom T. Hall “Harper Valley P.T.A.” written by Tom T. Hall, is the ultimate in story songs. A career-changing hit single for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968, it introduced the world to a small-town environment filled with gossip and a woman not afraid to stand up to her know-it-all critics. This absorbing story was written by Hall of Famer Tom T. Hall. In an interview, Hall states that his inspiration for the song was passing by the Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee, and that he built the song around the school name. Jeannie C. Riley, who served as songwriter Jerry Chesnut’s secretary, heard the song and recorded it herself with the help of producer Shelby Singleton. Although the account is purely fictional, it brims with true-to-life spectacle. The song tells the story of a junior high student who is sent Read More
100 Greatest Women #50 Jeannie C. Riley Her music was more outspokenly feminist than any of her contemporaries, but Jeannie C. Riley was on the receiving end of every sexist obstacle imaginable as she worked her way toward stardom, with the path not getting any easier once she obtained it. Jeannie was raised in the small town of Anson, Texas, and grew up dreaming of stardom. Her uncle played guitar in a country band, and arranged for her to sing locally. By the time she graduated high school, she was already married and had a baby on the way. Her husband Mickey was supportive of her dream, and after a trip to Nashville and a visit to the backstage of the Opry, her determination was fierce. The couple moved to Music City in 1966.