With so much talk about the shortage of women on country radio, once in a while, we have to pause and take a look at the amazing females that have been pioneers in country music and the ones that continue to kick down doors for young ladies with stars in their eyes.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we’re looking at 10 women in country music who made a big difference, not just for their successors, but for listeners who needed a voice, an ally and a sister.
Popularly known as the original Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells was the first female artist to top the country charts with her 1952 signature hit single, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” The tune about an unfaithful man who is to blame for his wife’s infidelity was so successful that it essentially made it a bit less abrasive for women to sing such honest lyrics. Full of the cotton, calico and twang that was popular in that era, Kitty continued to crank out Top 10 hits deep into the 1960s.
Where Kitty Wells embraced her twang, Patsy Cline brought the torch, as well as the glam, to country music. She also took her place among popular men of her era as a rare female headlining act. While Patsy’s music predominately kept to traditional themes of love and relationships, the arrangements were lush, filled with strings and heady with her gutsy vocal. Now, according to movies like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Sweet Dreams,” Patsy’s reality was anything but sweet dreams, but her ability to rebound onstage and bring her magical music to audiences shows the true strength of a woman.
Although the incredible relationship between Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn is well documented in movies, Loretta wasn’t one to stray too far from her roots, both musically and personally. She embraced her twang and her simple lifestyle, as well as no-nonsense approach to relationships, and worked them into one of the most prolific songwriting catalogs of any woman in country music. And where Patsy sang of love and heartbreak, Loretta planted her little boot and declared, “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.”
But it wasn’t just relationships that had the Kentucky songbird flexing her voice. She repeatedly addressed topics in her songs that were timely for her day. “Dear Uncle Sam,” told the story of a wife whose husband was headed to Vietnam, “Rated X” reflected on the stigma attached to be a divorced woman and “The Pill” obviously spoke about birth control.
Oh yeah, she’s not finished.
Like many in Music City do, Dolly Parton got her start as a songwriter, but it didn’t take long until she was recognized for her own melodic voice and musicianship. While she is iconically known for her striking silhouette, she is legendarily known for her artistry, and the brilliant blonde made the two work together to work for her. A self-deprecating sense of humor made her a favorite collaborator, but she could sweetly smack someone into their place before they realized what hit them. And she still can.
And Dolly was and remains a supporter of her fellow female singers, which is especially significant today.
She’s just a little bitty thing, but Barbara Mandrell’s talent could overflow the Grand Canyon. Proof? The multi-instrumentalist was the first two-time winner of the CMA’s “Entertainer of the Year” award. Impressive, yes, but she was also fearless in the songs that she chose to record. Lyrics that came from a cheating woman were relatively unheard of in her day, but Barbara did it in “The Midnight Oil.” And her cover of “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right,” didn’t just address an extramarital relationship, it also gave her success as a pop crossover artist. Here television show with her sisters was wildly popular and gave a little production gloss to a genre of music that was once considered hayseed.
Speaking of production, Reba McEntire raised the bar when it came to live concert experiences. A ticket to one of her shows brought all the bells and whistles and costume changes and light and lifts. But behind it was an Oklahoma cowgirl who stayed true to her roots while experimenting with new sounds, songs, and creative outlets. From a hit comedy series, to movie roles including the cult classic, “Tremors,” to appearing on Broadway in “Annie Get Your Gun,” the saucy redhead reached way beyond her comfort zone and brought her fans right along with her. And, just like any good country girl does, she always came back home to country music.
At a time when country music was feeling a surge in the popularity of women, powered partly by Reba’s success, Martina McBride was a powerhouse, and not just vocally. Martina’s diminutive size belied a voice as big as a mountain, but her song choices were also epically strong and regularly addressed difficult issues. “A Broken Wing” and “Independence Day” are about domestic abuse, “Concrete Angel,” addresses child abuse, “God’s Will” offers a lesson on humanity, perspective and gratitude, and “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” sings of a woman fighting breast cancer. She may not have even meant to, but Martina became a voice for women.
It’s hard to believe that when you look up “sass” in the dictionary, Miranda Lambert’s picture isn’t there. Even though her breakthrough single was the sweet “Me and Charlie Talking,” and songs like “The House That Built Me” stir fan’s hearts, its hits like “Kerosene,” “Gunpowder and Lead”and “White Liar” that empowered a generation of young women to refuse to put up with any guff from men. She also seemed to single-handedly make it OK for women to enjoy hunting, fishing and drinking whiskey. With a little pink and a little power, Ran sets the example for “all kinds of kinds” to be just who they are.
Carrie Underwood may be Miranda’s contemporary and great friend, and they even played music video’s “Thelma and Louise” in the clip for “Something Bad,” but they are quite different. Where Miranda is gritty and raw, Carrie is smooth and polished. Neither is better, they are, simply different. Carrie’s ginormous vocals have become her brand, but so has her honest and somewhat bashful demeanor. Her wholesome lifestyle is as much of an example to aspiring young artists as her incredibly diverse catalog of hits, from her straight up country cover of Randy Travis’ “I Told You So,” to her edgy current smash, “The Champion” to the goosebump-inducing “I Know You Won’t.”
There are plenty of folks who turned their back on Taylor Swift, feeling that she abandoned country music after achieving superstardom there, but we just like to think that country music was just smart enough to launch this young star’s stellar career. And as far as turning abandoning country music, well, she did write Little Big Town’s recent monster hit, “Better Man,” so it seems she still has a passion for the format. In addition, what artists like Barbara, Reba and Carrie have done for high production in live shows, Taylor took to a new level, so long before she crossed over to pop music, pop music fans were coming to her shows. She became one of “Time” magazine’s most influential people in 2010 while she was still firmly embedded in country music, and she is one of the best-selling artists of all time. That’s not our opinion, that’s a fact.
These brilliant women and so many more are now influences and inspirations for artists like Kelsea Ballerini, Lauren Alaina, RaeLynn, Margo Price, Runaway June and Ashley McBryde who will, in turn, go on to be inspirations for a new generation of women in country.
And while we don’t think we hear them enough on country radio, we can always turn that radio off and play their records!