Is Country Music Feminist? (I Think So - How About You?)

Like no other genre, country is brilliantly bittersweet, combing heartbreak and humour in a compelling mix. I love that contrast and conflict within the music, it reflects how complicated real life can be.
Publish date:
April 2, 2013

Apologies for starting a piece with that tedious old question, “Is insert-random-thing-here feminist?” but in the case of country music, I think there’s some scope for discussion. A song like Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man doesn’t exactly invite the listener to rise up and overthrow the patriarchy, but things are never that simple, are they?

I will hold my hands up and say that I don’t know a huge amount about the history of country, but I know that I love the music of Dolly Parton, Emmy Lou Harris and Linda Ronstadt (and a bit of bluegrass – watch Homemade Hillbilly Jam, it’s amazing). I’ve always admired the way those women wrote and performed their own work, as well as covering traditional songs, telling gritty, honest stories about the realities of working class American women’s lives.

Women have always played a central role in the evolution of country music and I have a hunch that now, more than ever, they are doing more exciting things within the genre than their male contemporaries. After reading an article in the New York Times about two country stars, Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves, I downloaded their new albums (Like A Rose and Same Trailer Different Park) plus Pistol Annies’ Hell On Heels and they’re all fantastic.

These female country artists aren’t afraid of sharing their truth, confronting the harsh realities of life and putting them out there – often cloaked in deceptively sweet-sounding music which only serves to emphasise the brutal stories they’re telling further. They tell claustrophobic tales of small town, rural life and the limited options available to young women which will break your heart and make you angry at the same time.

Like no other genre, country is brilliantly bittersweet, combing heartbreak and humour in a compelling mix. I love that contrast and conflict within the music, it reflects how complicated real life can be.

One of my favourite country songs is Jeannie C. Riley’s Harper Valley P.T.A, in which a seriously badass mom tackles the hypocrisy of a disapproving school system who say she isn’t dressing or acting ‘appropriately’. It’s witty, ridiculously catchy and contains a serious and ahead-of-its-time message: don’t you dare slut shame me.

And can I just take a moment to publically state that I LOVE what Taylor Swift is doing with her music and I’m completely baffled by the fascination with her private life. She’s been writing perfectly pithy country/pop songs since she was 14 and she uses her life experiences to shape her lyrics – that’s what a country artist is supposed to do.

She’s smart and confident and while some of her lyrics and videos are a bit problematic (the ‘geek’ v ‘mean girl’ dynamic is well worn, as is the ‘Romeo save me’ trope) Taylor has a long career of writing and producing ahead of her and I can’t wait to see how she’ll develop as an artist.

Talking about Taylor allows me to segue neatly into the subject of my new favourite TV show, Nashville (which Dani told us we would love back in October). The main plotline is the rivalry between a legendary older female country star (Connie Britton) and a teen starlet upstart (played brilliantly by Hayden Panetierre) who is clearly a combo of Taylor and Britney.

I haven’t finished watching the first season yet so I don’t know how that particular dynamic is going to unfold, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the two women end up joining forces – together we’re stronger and all that.

There’s a subplot following a timid young singer songwriter who’s seriously talented and has a horrible boyfriend who’s jealous of her burgeoning success – she finally gave him what for in the episode I just watched and I hope she goes on to great things. The original music performed by all the characters in the show is unbelievably good and they’ve released it on an album called The Music of Nashville – get it!

The main reason I think female country music stars are feminist (whether they choose to define themselves as such) is because they are so comfortable with accepting their own femininity and womanhood and celebrating all that is great about being a women, while exposing the challenges with unflinching honesty.

And for a crash course in feminist-country-music check this nifty guide on Flavorwire – lots of musical inspiration there.