by Jamie Canavan of LOUD WOMEN Ireland
The Love Junkies, The Highwomen, the Pistol Annies: women in country music are challenging the radio play status quo and have learned that they are stronger in groups – super groups.
I have been a country music fan since I heard Martina McBride’s ‘Independence Day’ covered by a local band at my hometown’s Strawberry Fair. I was just a kid but I was struck by the fact that a song with a chorus seemingly about 4th of July Patriotism was actually about fleeing domestic violence and small-town judgments. At a young age, I delved deeper into a love of country music for that reason – the lyrics said so much so simply. They spoke about daily life problems in a way that I never heard before in other genres.
I stumbled upon an album by Lori McKenna and I thought to myself, ‘wow this is an entire album of covers of some of my favourite songs.’ Eventually I figured out that those were in fact not covers but the original songs, sang by the prolific song writer herself. McKenna is the pen behind many of country music’s top hits such as Tim McGraw’s Humble & Kind and Little Big Town’s Sober. Lori McKenna, Liz Rose, and Hillary Lindsey make up the Love Junkies songwriting team and going down the rabbit hole of all songs written by these women is a journey worth taking. By forming a song writing team, these powerful song writers leverage more industry prowess. Check out this playlist.
At the Country Music Association Awards in 2019, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles donned a dress with a cape that stated, ‘play our f***ing records.’ Women artists were being played at an all-time low by country music radio across the United States in 2019 despite their popularity on streaming platforms. This is not the first time that country radio did not reflect country popularity. Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ (written by the Love Junkies) was refused by many country stations in 2014 for its LGBTQA+ connotations but ended up topping the Billboard charts in spite of this. The Chicks’ single ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ and album Taking the Long Way were extremely successful after the group was effectively blacklisted on country radio for their criticism of George Bush.
Women in country music realise they are stronger together and it is beautiful to see. The Pistol Annies is a super group made up of Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, and Miranda Lambert. Each artist brings a different flavour and each of their three albums will speak to anyone with a bit of family dysfunction, financial struggles, love of partying, or who is trying to reclaim themselves after a break-up. Their voices blend so gorgeously together reminiscent of old hymns while singing about taking a man’s money and running.
The Highwomen, named in honour of the Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson) is made up of Maren Morris, Brandi Carlisle, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby with appearances from Yola and Sheryl Crowe. Their first single ‘Redesigning Women’ gives a nod to the 1980s sitcom Designing Women. It’s a fun feminist bop that will make you want to get shit done that day. One of the next songs they released from their first album was ‘Highwomen’ written and modelled after the Highwaymen’s single ‘Highwayman.’ This song is SO important for country music history. It opens with a pro-immigrant lyric about a woman who dies crossing into the United States but whose family survived the journey. It moves on to a verse about a woman who was hung in the Salem Witch Trials. Then comes in Yola’s verse, this verse will send chills down your spine as she sings about being shot and killed as a Freedom Rider during the US Civil Rights Movement – something very pertinent to today’s climate. Brandi Carlisle is married to a woman and they have two children. She has sang about the struggles of becoming a parent in an LGBTQA+ marriage in her song ‘the Mother.’ On the Highwomen’s album, she highlights the lack of discussion and awareness about LGBTQA+ relationships in her song ‘If She Ever Leaves Me’ – I’ve loved her in secret, I’ve loved her out loud…if she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you. This may seem insignificant in any other genre but in the country scene, songs such as this are very important to stigma break.
My love of women in country is all about the relatability. Angaleena Presley, Ashley McBryde, the Pistol Annies, Sunny Sweeney, Nicolette Hayford, and Lori McKenna have all sang about small-town drug epidemics, addiction, and hypocrisy– the minister’s wife told a bold face lie to protect her daughter’s name, when half of the congregation was hooked on the very same thing (Pain Pills – Angaleena Presley). There are countless songs about the shame and stigma relating to unplanned pregnancies. I would LOVE to see a song about abortion care, and while it’s definitely alluded to, I think it will be a little while before I finally get that wish. Domestic violence is another topic highlighted significantly in the genre and this is very important for women, especially those in rural areas who need access to messages of support – it ain’t love if it’s mean, Evangeline (Little Big Town). Maybe you drank a bit too much last night and you’re coming down with a case of the fear, throw on ‘Ugly Lights or Dark Bars’ by Miranda Lambert – I really hate to say I’m turning into a cliché, I’m hopin’ that nobody brings it up. I have been seeing so much love for Taylor Swift’s new album Folklore, if you’re loving that do yourself a favour and deep dive into this world. It mixes well with Bikini Kill or Pillow Queens as well.