Sometimes, it can be difficult to notice a cultural sea change. At first, there's just a little, unexpected turn in the tide. But then, whoosh! The new current takes over, and old preconceptions are swept away. Country music seems to be in the middle of this process now.
Last May, the astute critic Jewly Hight noticed that while men like Jason Aldean and Kenny Chesney still dominated commercial country, a new cohort of female artists had begun to take possession of country's most hallowed sounds and subject matter. "We're hearing women working with traditional country sounds while they sing about staking claim to personal freedom and demanding equal footing in relationships," Hight wrote.
Country radio and casual listeners still favored male artists' rock-based, proudly redneck music. But their female counterparts were laying claim to the genre's essential ingredients: honky-tonk guitars and melodies worth weeping over; and supporting lyrics that went deep into the personal politics of family, intimate relationships and getting by.
That was before a few notable developments made 2013 the first Year of the Woman that country's seen in a while. (None of them, by the way, has to do with Taylor Swift, who was always only tenuously tied to the genre and who, despite a current chart-topping duet with her idol Tim McGraw, has now decidedly gone pop.) I count five major factors: three that sneaked up on the Nashville establishment, and two that made a major splash.
The most important new thing in mainstream country isn't a trend, but a person: Miranda Lambert. Though she emerged in the first decade of this century, she's ended up shaping the second. While Swift has been more important to pop music in general, Lambert — Texas-born; married to the telegenic, 21st century, good ol' boy Blake Shelton; and known to sometimes wield a gun and knock back a whiskey — is much more influential among country's core producers and consumers.
Lambert's hits, from revenge tales like "Gunpowder & Lead" to arguments for compassion like "Heart Like Mine" and "Mama's Broken Heart," explore the inner landscape of the modern heartland woman caught between inherited conservatism and a powerful awareness that the world is changing fast. And Lambert has put her money where her mouth is, forming the successful all-female trio the Pistol Annies, whose success has further proven women's viability in the marketplace.
The Lambert Effect has opened doors for many of the new hopefuls blending hard country sounds with feminist-aware (if rarely explicitly political) attitudes. Also key has been the rise of close-harmony duos and trios: Sugarland, whose Atlanta-style, liberal twang had a huge impact circa 2006; and Lady Antebellum, whose 2010 hook-up ballad "Need You Now" redefined country romance for a new generation. Women have eased into the limelight through these groups by sharing it with men: family act The Band Perry, married duo Joey + Rory, and the outstanding quartet Little Big Town have all put the spotlight on women's voices this way.
While the artists whose faces adorned the end racks at Wal-Mart pulled country in a different direction, the music's capital city also began to change. Thanks in part to the influence of culture-friendly mayor Karl Dean and rock 'n' roll scenemaker Jack White, Nashville is becoming known for much more than Loretta Lynn's (awesome!) ranch. Americana music, the bohemian counterpart to commercial country, has flourished in the past decade, with the Americana Music Association's annual conference and festival growing each year and the scene's darlings, from Buddy Miller to Emmylou Harris, growing into their roles as local royalty.
The accouterments of a hipster hive are all now evident there — locavore food scene, indie record stores, reclaimed dive bars, and a New York Times article comparing the city to Portlandia. This city, though still home to conservative institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention and Cracker Barrel, is leading the nation in job growth as it grows into a more diverse creative hub — traditionally, a more sympathetic atmosphere for women in power positions.
Those three coalescing elements finally jelled this year, and a new star has emerged to represent them. A critic's darling who's doing well on the charts, too, Kacey Musgraves goes even further than Lambert has in marrying a progressive sensibility with a classic country sound. Even more than Lambert, Musgraves has perfected a sound that invokes the great matriarchs of classic country — Dolly, Loretta, Tammy — without ever seeming constricted by vintage trappings. (Ashton Shepherd was here first, but her excellent albums haven't yet reached the audience they deserve.)
There's no doubt that Musgraves' Same Trailer, Different Park, released in March, will top many critics' lists — in fact, it's bringing in a new generation of listeners who thought that Neko Case was as country as they'd ever get. And beyond rocking an edgy image and attitude (her signature song, "Follow Your Arrow," endorses same-sex smooching and the occasional toke), Musgraves, like Lambert, works with other very gifted women who are ready to jump into the space she's created. Just one example is Kree Harrison — a background singer on Musgraves' album who's a fine songwriter herself and who went on to be the runner-up in this year's American Idol race.
Another friendly workplace, and the final factor that's made this year so great for women in Nashville, is the television show that bears the city's name. I'm hardly the first writer to notice that Nashville deserves to be called a feminist intervention. It's important to note that not only do the program's characters and plotlines support and celebrate women; many of the songs performed each week are written or co-written by women, including Musgraves and Americana vets Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin. And given the fact that the three most frequently featured singers on Nashville are female, even male writers have had to shift attention back to the feminine.
So it makes sense that halfway through 2013, I can easily make a Year's Best list comprising the following albums: Same Trailer, Different Park; Like A Rose, by Pistol Annies member Ashley Monroe; Annie Up, the second album from that group itself; The Highway, the first independent release from Hank Williams' granddaughter, Holly Williams; Spitfire, the emotionally unrelenting comeback album by LeeAnn Rimes; American Kid, by Americana veteran Griffin; The Stand-In, by a relative newcomer in the same field, Caitlin Rose; Love and Forgiveness, by Dusty Springfield's spiritual daughter, Courtney Jaye; Carnival, by the quietly brilliant Nora Jane Struthers — just one of several younger women making major waves in bluegrass; Pioneer, by the ever more rocking The Band Perry; and yes, those two volumes of soundtrack from the series Nashville.
Oh, and did I mention that the young singer-songwriter who might be the best of them all — Brandy Clark, who co-wrote Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow," hasn't even released her debut album yet? For women creating country music, and for all of us who love to hear their stories, this is truly Lucky 2013.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Mainstream country music has been dominated by men in cowboy hats for a long time now, even with the crossover success of stars like Taylor Swift. Some industry watchers think 2013 will go down as the year a new batch of young women emerged, big-time.
To explain the latest trends in country music and bring us a sampling of some of those sounds, we turn to NPR's music critic, Ann Powers. Nice to talk to you again.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So, why don't you begin by explaining what you might call the voice of these new female musicians, what they're bringing that's different to country music?
POWERS: Renee, as you know, there's always an amazing women working in country music, from the Carter family to Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, all the way up to the Dixie Chicks, and more recently, Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert.
But this year there's been such a return to that gritty, honest, and very classic country sound, that really looks at the lives of young women in small towns or suburban America who really are the main audience for country music.
MONTAGNE: Well, one of these new artists is Holly Williams. She's Hank Williams' granddaughter. Tell us about her.
POWERS: She made a couple of records that were more commercial, more mainstream. But now she's returned with this album called "The Highway." And this album is just gorgeous, like the song, "Giving Up," which is about a wife and mother who just can't kick her addictions.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVING UP")
HOLLY WILLIAMS: (Singing) We're only human and we can't change somebody's will to leave their ways. The doctor said you'd die if you had another drink. Well, I wonder...
MONTAGNE: OK, Holly Williams. Another artist you recommend is Caitlin Rose. And I gather she grew up in the music business herself.
POWERS: Caitlin Rose's mom has written songs for Taylor Swift. Her dad is also in the country music industry. She has a different sound than Holly Williams. It's more, kind of, vintage and its part of a change that's happening in Nashville itself, which is this company town, is becoming more and more eclectic. Caitlin Rose reminds me a lot of early country artists like Patsy Cline with that country-politan sound.
And here's one of my favorite of her songs. It's called "Pink Champagne."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINK CHAMPAGNE")
CAITLIN ROSE: (Singing) Here's to you. Here's to me. And may we always feel the same. Let's drink ourselves another glass of pink champagne...
MONTAGNE: So a little bit, as you said, a little vintage there. So in this year of country women, I bet there's at least one more up-and-coming star that you find intriguing.
POWERS: Oh, Renee. I have so many, but I want to share a scoop with everyone today. I'm really excited about this singer/songwriter whose name is Brandy Clark. She's part of this group of women, including Miranda Lambert and Casey Musgrave. They often work together. And her own songs and voice, I think, are some of the most clear-eyed and tough-minded of the new country artist. She just has a no BS attitude...
POWERS: ...about representing life. And I love it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DAY SHE GOT DIVORCED")
BRANDY CLARK: (Singing) We just said we're going to have to stop. Left the party of the second part 'cause the party of the second part was MIA. He was getting drunk just like the day before, the day she got divorced...
POWERS: That's "The Day She Got Divorced," a great description of what it's like when a marriage falls apart. Written by Brandy Clark, was recorded once by Reba McEntire, but you hear Brandy's own beautiful voice in that version.
MONTAGNE: Now that we've spent some time here in talking about these new female country music stars, what about a veteran - someone that you think is especially exciting this year?
POWERS: I think there's no greater evidence that women in country are in a renaissance moment right now, then the new album "Spitfire," by Leann Rimes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPITFIRE")
LEANN RIMES: (Singing) If I was to untie my tongue, I could use it like a whip and watch you run...
POWERS: Leann Rimes, formerly a child star, recently fodder for the tabloids with her marital problems. But this new record "Spitfire," it's deep. It's intimate. It has an amazing sound. It's just an excellent record. And Leann Rimes coming out on top, that's a beautiful midyear capper to this women in country music year.
MONTAGNE: Ann, thanks a lot for sharing all that music with us.
POWERS: Thank you so much Renee.
MONTAGNE: Ann Powers is NPR's music critic. She joined us from member station WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPITFIRE")
RIMES: (Singing) You make me want to spit fire, spitfire, spitfire...
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.