I have been listening to country music since the womb.
You know how people say it’s good to play classical music to your unborn child? And some expecting mothers will even put headphones on their bellies and play Mozart for their future little genius? Well, Dad, who’d always preferred hard rock but needed something softer when Mom was pregnant, took a liking to the complicated musicianship of bands that didn’t just have an electric guitar, bass, and a drum set. Suddenly, to rock a steel guitar, a banjo, a fiddle, an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, an upright piano, and the drums all at once seemed kind of cool.
So I was hearing bluegrass riffs from my mother’s uterus.
This is the face of a child who was already learning the lyrics to Pam Tillis’s “Don’t Tell Me What To Do.” Mom was thrilled.
I’ve been told I have a feisty little independent streak before I knew that wasn’t normal. I’ve been told I’m too sassy, too opinionated, too bossy, too brash, and that that’s why I’m single. Now, I think that’s bullshit, because I don’t think a woman should have to be anything she’s not, or more soft-spoken, or sweeter, or whatever the opposite of all those descriptions are in order to attract a man.
And I think it has a little bit to do with listening to the voices of country music’s “girls."
I’m not saying country music is an inherently feminist genre. That’d be a bit of a stretch. But I have always been drawn to strong, independent, outspoken women. And I think it’s because when I was three years old, I was hearing Dolly Parton sing “You can toss her around and round / You can keep her in your vision / But you'll never keep her down,” and I wanted to be the kind of little kid you couldn’t keep down.
When I was four, I saw Mary Chapin Carpenter’s music video for “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” and I thought it must only be quite natural for women to be very much in charge of whether men kiss them or not.
And when I was five years old, Martina McBride hit the scene with “My Baby Loves Me.” So in 1993, when Whitney Houston was making bank covering -– let it be noted –- a Dolly Parton song, and Mariah Carey was topping the charts asking her “Dreamlover” to come “rescue” her, I was hearing a growling, belting Martina McBride sling it to me over the radio that she “don’t need no copy of Vogue magazine, don’t need to dress like no beauty queen.”
I was growing up to learn it was only natural that when one day I had my own “baby," he better like me in “high heels or sneakers –- he don’t give a damn, my baby loves me just the way that I am.” I would settle for nothing less.
Leather or lace. Or Chucks (not pictured). And- my guitar’s name is Jolene.
It wasn’t just the lyrics of these songs. Even later, when McBride, arguably one of the best, most powerful vocalists across any musical genre (you guys, she KILLS it. The woman doesn’t just sing, she SLAMS it), sang songs that alerted me to the perils of abusive relationships, it wasn’t just the content of her songs that had me pressing repeat. It was the actual strength, the power, and the color in her voice. She wasn’t singing yearning love songs. She had grit in that belt, and the stories her songs told were full of women with grit.
Mainstream pop in 1994 had its power singers –- and I totally loved Celine Dion for the power in her voice too -– but there was something about the way Martina McBride sets fire to the chorus of “Independence Day,” the same way the mother described in the song sets fire to her abusive household and gains her freedom. It all came together for me the way no other songs I was hearing did.
Martina McBride’s music drove it home to me. As a woman, as a person, you don’t put up with that shit. You really. Do not. Put up with that shit.
It wasn’t easy being a fourth-grader who didn’t really get the appeal of the Spice Girls in their heyday. But I was a renegade early on. The Girl Power thing seemed to me like it was trying too hard.
For all of Nashville’s and the Grand Ole Opry’s glamour, for the most part I was seeing women in T-shirts and jeans (except Dolly of course), singing live with major pipes, often playing their own instruments; literally making their own music their damn selves with no glitter to distract from their raw power.
That’s not to say I don’t love me some Kentucky Derby-style hats moments, and I totally blame country music.
The girl group I was most interested in was the Dixie Chicks. Emily, who could play seven instruments, everything from banjo to sitar, fascinated me. I thought Martie, with her tomboy short hair, was so freaking cool on the fiddle.
And one year when I was in high school, the year that some of the top songs on the pop charts were male hip-hop artists singing primarily about clubbing, whose music videos featured women pretty much as background ornaments, the Dixie Chicks took on the whole country music industry. Infamously, they came under fire simply for being women expressing their political opinions. And they did it boldly and unapologetically. Later, they took their boldness and their lack of apology to their music and released “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and I ATE THAT SHIT UP.
The Chicks didn’t need a team of producers to play their shows onstage. Natalie Maines didn’t need Britney Spears’s auto-tuner to ironically and brilliantly blast the people who told her to “shut up and sing.” And they certainly did not feel the need to pander to the industry’s expectations.
They were, as they put it, mad as hell and not ready to back down over the way they were treated, and homegirl, that was a train I was ready to board. 50 Cent could stay in the club. I wanted to hear more women who wrested control and kept it, and who were NOT quiet or sorry.
And not to count out the men of country music! (Okay, ignore Toby Keith for a second.) I’ve also always found it way easier to translate the Allman Brothers, Zac Brown Band, Dierks Bentley “ramblin’ man” guy thing to my own life even as a “ramblin’” woman than to accept some super rapey top 40 hits like LMFAO’s “Shots.” (The first time THAT came on my playlist uncensored was an uncomfortable wakeup call.)
While I’ve expanded my music tastes in my young adulthood, my childhood raised on country music means I still prefer country western’s cousin, Americana folk music, to overproduced pop, house, industrial, or techno. And while I love a good rock concert, I get bored easily if the guitarist can’t really shred, if the singer’s pipes don’t hold up, if there isn’t a compelling story happening onstage.
And I still, no matter the genre, am more interested in hearing “the girls.”