Marissa R. Moss
Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be
“… Most people in my orbit couldn’t possibly understand why I wanted to move to the South, based only on assumptions they had made about it from movies or books, and not from a careful understanding of the complexities that existed on our side of the Mason-Dixon Line. I was a Jewish girl from New York City, and I was supposed to stay exactly where I was, where it made more sense” (p.277)… “Once I started digging and understanding more deeply the way country music treats anyone who has a say in something that didn’t conform to the status quo, I couldn’t get enough of the rule-breakers” (p.279).
For nearly 300 pages, journalist Marissa R. Moss tells the sprawling, complicated story of the women who have been purposefully marginalized by the country music industry over the last two decades. It isn’t until the autobiographical “Afterword” that concludes Her Country that Moss makes the case for why she needed to be the person to tell that story, laying bare how the very title of her book is a rebuke of historical precedents for who gets to write about country music.
Her Country is many things– all of them necessary and important– but what it is, at bottom, is a rejection of the notion of cultural gatekeeping in all its forms. For Moss, that’s a matter of asserting through her thoroughly-sourced and fact-checked reporting here and through her clear, authoritative prose that a Jewish woman from New York City has every right to write an essential volume of country music’s history and its present. Broadly speaking, the people who’ve gained the greatest prominence in the published discourse around country music have been white men who share similar backgrounds and similar perspectives on the genre itself. While that’s not to diminish the valuable or high-caliber work of a Chet Flippo, a Bill Frisicks-Warren, a Chris Willman, or even the occasional country dalliance of a Robert Christgau, there’s a certain homogeneity of thought that has upheld the genre’s conventions that favor both aesthetic and political conservatism, which perpetuates the very systems that privilege the recorded output of white male artists.
Moss is one voice – among many others, including essential writers like Andrea L. Williams, Jewly Hight, and Marcus Dowling– in recent years who have challenged that status quo. Her Country captures in riveting and infuriating detail how the machinations of Music Row, by design, view the work of anyone other than conservative white men as an existential threat that must be neutralized, rather than as an opportunity to expand the genre’s appeal, fanbase, and aesthetics. To that end, Moss, armed with her encyclopedic knowledge of and deeply-felt passion for country music, is perhaps the ideal writer to outline the ways the industry did its damnedest, and in some instances failed, to keep the current generation of women in their place.
Her Country has a triptych structure, telling parallel and loosely chronological histories of the barriers faced by Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, and Mickey Guyton over the course of their respective careers. Moss emphasizes some common experiences– early opportunities as gifted child performers that gave way to underwhelming results on American Idol and Nashville Star– and shared influences for these three women. LeAnn Rimes is, finally, given her proper due for inspiring a whole generation of women with her genre-spanning career, and Patty Griffin’s extraordinary recordings figure prominently.
Still, the theme that emerges most powerfully are the institutional barriers that each woman faced. Each had to circumvent the typical Nashville paths to a major label deal, and they each benefitted from risk-taking on the part of like-minded allies within the industry who believed in their unique talents and points-of-view. Even when those allies proved imperfect– Moss details a particularly illuminating exchange between Guyton and Mike Dugan, in which Guyton explains that he, as a white man, is not the audience whose experiences she’s writing about– it’s clear that each of these three women had at least a small contingent of supporters who believed enough in their art to continue to fight for them.
Moss captures the numbing details of how and why these women– and a litany of others whose stories intertwine over the course of the book’s decade-plus arc– had to fight to be heard. Certainly, the shadow of The Chicks’ excommunication from the country industry is a long one, which each of these three artists reference in their direct statements about how they were advised to speak. While some of the stories are familiar to those of us who’ve long been invested in the country music space– for instance, Musgraves’ conflict with self-appointed gatekeeper and professional self-promoting blowhard, Bobby Bones, is given a scathing recitation here– what’s staggering is the repetition of aggressions both macro- and micro.
While reading, I was reminded of the experiences my aging parents have had in managing healthcare: This is a system designed to make people just give up. It isn’t even that they’re being told to Shut Up And Sing– though they’re told that, explicitly, too– it’s that they’re being told to go away altogether, because country music isn’t for people like them.
Regardless of what anyone might think about Musgraves’, Morris’, or Guyton’s recorded work, Moss emphasizes why it is so important that each of them persisted in a system that, time after time after time, set out to demoralize and demonize them. For every time Guyton was told that she was “too pop” by white people who had put Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt into rotation or for every time Morris or Musgraves was villainized for speaking out in favor of LGBTQ+ causes or BLM, the country music industry was attempting to gatekeep them out of the genre entirely. Her Country insists that, no, country music absolutely belongs to them as much as it does to Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan or to white women like Gretchen Wilson and Carrie Underwood, who fit into very restrictive parameters of who women were allowed to be by the powers-that-be.
To that end, Her Country is a much needed corrective. Moss is unsparing in how she outlines Music Row’s bigotries that have marginalized artists and audiences who do not fall in line with one exact worldview. What’s easy to overlook is that Moss doesn’t excoriate the artists who do fit that mold: Bryan and Florida Georgia Line aren’t cast as villains for taking advantage of a system built for them. Jason Aldean is held up as an example of the genre’s gatekeeper’s hypocrisy, noting that Rimes was shunned following a tabloid-ready extramarital affair that resulted in a new and long-lasting marriage while Aldean’s career prospered following the exact same type of incident. It’s less about Aldean himself than it is an illustration, supported by easily accessible facts about chart success and industry recognition, of how the country music industry treats women and expects them to behave.
Country music has never been the monolith that some– like Aldean and his wife, Brittani– would like to believe. Her Country highlights the breadth of the community that exists within the genre. While I knew some of these stories before reading, I had no idea, for instance, that Musgraves, Morris, Brothers Osborne, Kree Harrison, Natalie Hemby, Carly Pearce, and many others had all lived in the same house, often as roommates; or that Stephanie Wright, who was key to Musgraves’ signing a deal, had initially come to Nashville to visit her cousins, the pop-country trio, SHeDaisy; or that Miranda Lambert’s and Musgraves’ guitar mentor’s first student was Michelle Shocked. Just as key is how Moss captures the work that’s still to be done in building an even more inclusive community. She gives space to how Guyton was one of the artists uninvited to the shoot for The Highwomen’s “Redesigning Women” music video, and how Our Native Daughters were relegated to a small stage at the Newport Music Festival, where Rhiannon Giddens had previously been on the main stage as a solo act.
What the book suggests but does not outright say is that the further expansion of this community is likely to occur outside the confines of the existing industry’s structures. Despite the efforts of folks like Rissi Palmer and Leslie Fram, whose career arcs and ongoing work are covered in some detail, Her Country makes it clear that Musgraves, Morris, and Guyton have achieved what they have– and have opened doors for artists like Brittany Spencer, Reyna Reynolds, Caylee Hammack, and Hailey Whitters– in spite of Music Row, not because of it. And Her Country, despite the depth of reporting on its three central artists, is still a survey course in the intersectional ways that women, POC, and LGBTQ+ artists are marginalized by the country music industry. Reading Her Country, I wanted to read an entire volume from Moss just about Rimes or Kree Harrison, or the fallow period for women between The Chicks’ exile and the emergence of Underwood, Lambert, and Taylor Swift.
Moreover, there’s a comparable book to be written about black women like Palmer, Giddens, Spencer, Miko Marks, and so many others who’ve struggled to find the space within country music that their talents deserve. Moss understands that their story is not necessarily hers to tell: Williams or Dr. Tressie McNeil Cottom, both quoted in Her Country, would write even more authoritatively about the experiences of WOC in country. Hopefully, the publication and success of Her Country will open doors for those books to be written. For some context, we’re just seven years removed from the publication of Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic. That’s why Her Country is so important for country music right now: It points toward a future where the conversation isn’t about gatekeeping– when it comes to artists, aesthetics, and audiences– but about wide open spaces that were never fenced-in in the first place. It’s truly an essential read.