by Laura Cantrell
Folks, if you know me, you’ve heard this rant before. There is one fact that bothers me to death - the dearth of female artists in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I worked at the Hall of Fame and Museum as a tour guide right before I went to college. It's the place where my interest in country music shifted from a casual familiarity with the sounds of my home town (Nashville born and bred I am) to a more meaningful consideration of the people, history, and evolving styles of country music.
On quieter days when there were few tourists, I would walk through the hushed Hall of Fame room and read the plaques for its members. It dawned on me then how few women there were, at that time a very small number, Patsy Cline, Maybelle and Sarah Carter, Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl may have been the only women members in the mid 1980's. Presently there are 14 female members out of a roster of 105, and two of those women are not artists, but businesswomen who promoted commercial country music. It still smarts to look at those numbers in black and white, I cannot accept that of all the great artists of Country Music history, only 13% are women.
A long time ago I wrote a letter to Nick Tosches praising his book Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll, and asked him why there weren’t any female artists in his book. He wrote me a very respectful reply that concluded, “Write your own book.” While I have yet to do that, I have moved beyond whining about the Hall of Fame and its limitations and tried to address what I feel is a general gender bias that minimizes female artists contributions throughout music history. Another music writer whom I admire called the women of the classic blues and their music “the bygone finery of another era.” Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues," sang “Give me a pigfoot and a bottle of beer …” and died in a car accident while on the grueling Deep South chitlin circuit. She deserves for her music to be better remembered and understood than just antique finery. It's powerful stuff. Sure, the records are scratchy, but that doesn’t keep people from loving Charlie Patton's music. You get my drift?
I started playing records on the radio at WKCR while at Columbia University and continued with the Radio Thrift Shop on WFMU in the mid 1990's. When I started I just wanted to be a female version of the Hound, who played all kinds of greasy, scary, and great American Music, but I knew that I would always have to give more space to women artists great and small - the superstars and those who’d been passed over by the history writers and taste makers. Singers like Mildred Bailey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie, Lilly May Ledford, Molly O’Day, Jean Shepard, Skeeter Davis, Melba Montgomery, Ola Belle Reed, and Connie Smith. This list could go on forever. I believe these now lesser known artists (some of whom were very commercially successful in their day) are a greatly significant part of the connective tissue of the music itself. They are the threads in the fabric, the nurturers, the caretakers, the teachers and the muses. Many artists had careers limited by family obligations, the lack of recording opportunities or commercial prospects, and social conventions. Even if they just made a record or two, why not remember them and honor their contributions?
I could go on and on about this topic. It has been a rant of mine for a long time, and woe to the unsuspecting party guest or band member trapped with me on a long distance drive. I’ll save some for the next time we meet, but I'll give you folks a few things you might want to take a listen to. If you like them, pursue a little further. Go buy a record, or a download, and enjoy the music.
Laura Cantrell’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Women
Tuesday, August, 19, 2008 10:00 PM
Featuring: Megan Hickey, Fiona McBain, Theresa Andersson,
Jenny Scheinman and Rodney Crowell
Pier 17, South Street Seaport
South Street & Beekman Street
New York, NY 212.279.4200
the aforementioned Bessie Smith...
"Careless Love Blues" mp3
by Bessie Smith, 1925.
available on 1924-1925
My dad got a Hoagy Carmichael collection on 8 track tape and would play it every day as he drove us to school in his Pontiac Phoenix. I loved Mildred Bailey's soft delivery which seemed to swing effortlessly. From Tacoma, Washington, she gave a break to her brother Al Rinker and his singing partner Bing Crosby in the late 1920's, was a popular nightclub act and recording artist and after marrying jazz musician Red Norvo, was known as Mrs. Swing.
"Rockin' Chair" (take 1) mp3
by Mildred Bailey, 1937.
available on 1937-1938
Sister Rosetta Tharpe played and sang as confidently and joyfully as anyone could. Her music was a hybrid, gospel with prominent guitar solos and swing band accompaniment. There is such an authority in her presence, it isn't hard to be a believer when you're in her hands.
"Strange Things Happening Every Day" mp3
by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, 1944.
available on The Gospel of Blues
I don't know of any family group that made a more joyful racket than the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Rose was the soulful and sweet center who balanced the raucus hillbilly energy of her brothers. Perhaps the fact that her body of work is split between rough hewn recordings with her family and the more produced sides she made for Capitol in the 1950's, has made her hard to categorize. But she deserves recognition for being a strong female voice in the years when hillbilly and blues music were about to begat rock and roll.
"Move It On Over" mp3
by The Maddox Brothers and Rose, 1947.
available on America's Most Colorful Hillbilly Band
Molly O'Day has been an endlessly fascinating artist for me. She was one of the first successful "front women" with her group the Cumberland Mountain Folks in the late 1940s, and made some great records including the first covers of Hank Williams material. After a nervous breakdown in the 1950s when her strong religious beliefs made her reconsider the life of a rising country star, she quit the music business and performed only as a gospel artist on regional radio. A favorite among her peers -- even Bill Monroe once asked her to favor him with a song -- she remains a touchstone artist for fans of old time country music.
"Poor Ellen Smith" mp3
by Molly O' Day, 1949.
available on Molly O'Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks
How long can we wait until Jean Shepard goes to the Hall of Fame? Besides being a pioneering female voice starting in the early 1950's when she was barely out of her teens, she weathered the personal tragedy of the death of her Opry star husband, Hawkshaw Hawkins in the same plane crash that took the life of Patsy Cline in 1963. She is still to be found onstage at the Opry.
"He's My Baby" mp3
by Jean Shepard, 1958.
available on Honky Tonk Heroine: Classic Capitol Recordings, 1952-1964
Skeeter Davis is one of my favorite singers of all time. From the tragic end of the teen duo the Davis Sisters, when her best friend Betty Jack Davis was killed in a car accident, to her 1960s pop crossover hits, she was a singer of rare emotion. There is an edge to her voice, an urgency, something sharp and sweet. She was once married to the famous DJ Ralph Emery, who is now a member of that Hall of Fame I was talking about, but I'll tell you this, there was only one artist in that family, and we honor her here.
"The One You Slip Around With" mp3
by Skeeter Davis
available on The Essential Skeeter Davis
Ola Belle Reed was the vibrant and grounded center of a musical family from North Carolina. In addition to being a gifted instrumentalist, Ola Belle wrote many songs and recorded them on her own record label, New River Records. She became more widely known after she released two albums for Rounder Records in the early 1970s.
"High On A Mountain" mp3
by Ola Belle Reed
available on The Real Music Box: 25 Years of Rounder Records
top photo: Ola Belle Reed and Friends