With liberal themes and ferocious lyrics, female singer-songwriters are changing the tone of the industry.
‘People think country audiences are all conservative, redneck, almost small-minded,” sighs Brandy Clark. “That’s not true. Are they more socially liberal now? Yes. But maybe they always have been to some extent.”
The question arises because a new sisterhood of straight-talking women has been revolutionising the country world. Clark is a professional Nashville songwriter of more than a decade’s standing whose own debut album, 12 Stories, is released this month. Among the artists she has written for are the young Texan Kacey Musgraves, this year’s breakout country wunderkind, and Miranda Lambert – arguably the grande dame of the movement, a woman whose ferocious narratives have been scorching a path through country since 2005, both solo and in her all-female Pistol Annies trio. “We set out to tell the truth,” says Ashley Monroe, another Pistol Annie, who has also embarked on a solo career this year. “Stuff that happens to us and to people we know.”
In 2013, drugs, gay relationships and casual sex are no longer radical subjects in pop – but they’re hot-button issues in mainstream country, as the saga of Musgraves’s latest single, Follow Your Arrow, demonstrates. A jaunty anthem of nonconformity and self-determination, it finds her exhorting listeners: “Make lots of noise, kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into.”
On stage at the Bush Hall in London earlier this year, Musgraves revealed that she had been pushing for it to be a single in the face of hesitation from her record label, who were fearful that country radio would reject it. In our interview afterwards, Musgraves said, with obvious frustration: “Whether radio or the industry wants to admit it, I think [country] music’s ready for it. There’s enough free-thinking, open-minded young people who would support that song.” In September, Clark – a co-writer on the song – said: “It frustrates me because I know how well that song goes over when she performs live. It frustrates me because there’s a disconnect – the people want it.”
Largely, though, the tool employed by these songwriters is not the grand statement but sneaky subversion, as small-town social mores are skewered with a deft touch, wit and, crucially, empathy. Pistol Annies scratch beneath the surface of nuclearfamily hypocrisy and add recession-based emotional weight; Clark writes characters who self-medicate with prescription pills, weed and adultery, blending black comedy and quiet tragedy; on Used, written when she was still a teenager, Monroe repurposes a misogynistic slur to affirming effect.
Each has their own distinct approach to storytelling, informed by their disparate backgrounds. Musgraves’s sardonic delivery and bare-bones lyricism is the result of striving for simplicity: “You have to unlearn what you’ve been told about songwriting. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way than how it really is. Every time I get stuck, I think: ‘How would [singer-songwriter] John Prine say this?’ He wouldn’t try to make this sentence sound beautiful. He’d just say, there’s a glass of water sitting on the table. And it would work.”
For Monroe, music was catharsis of a more personal sort: she plunged herself into songwriting after the death of her father when she was 13. One of her finest songs, You Got Me, deals with the aftermath of this trauma: “I was trying not to feel anything for a long time afterwards.” At 17, she gravitated to Nashville without even knowing one could make a career from it. “I tend to go for the heartbreakers,” she laughs, and talks about how her best songs wake her in the night. “Maybe I should just stay asleep all the time. Cancel my appointments.” Conversely, her work with Pistol Annies allows her to blow off steam: “They bring out the sassier side of me. It’s hard for the three of us to be in a room and not write a song. We would have to hold it back. It’s almost like we’re writing with ourselves.”
Clark, meanwhile, casts herself not as the protagonist but as the observer. The emotional acuity of her lyrics is is astonishing: at times, so precisely does she get under the skin of a situation that you can scarcely believe it isn’t her own. “My stories are interesting, but I know ’em,” she shrugs. “Other people’s, I can fill in the blanks. As songwriters, our job and our goal is to write songs for people who don’t write songs. Someone who’s a teller in a bank – those are the interesting people to me, the people that are making the wheels turn in our country and in life … the ones who are coaching soccer, getting up early and working 50-hour weeks.” Clark pauses, and laughs. “And having an affair on the side because they hate their life.”
Nonetheless, it’s notable that Clark, a lesbian, and her writing partner Shane McAnally, a gay man, were responsible for a song such as Follow Your Arrow – along with several other startlingly liberal-minded cuts. (Clark is reluctant to put her sexuality at the forefront of the story, though McAnally credits coming out as the turning point in his songwriting fortunes and discusses the possible connection to his penchant for underdog characters: “The thing I was most afraid of – being gay – will end up being my greatest asset,” he says.)
Together, these artists signal less a radical new direction than a reclamation of a lost lineage. “Loretta [Lynn], Dolly [Parton] – they broke down the doors,” points out Monroe. “When Loretta sang The Pill, that was more controversial than anything I’m doing.” But such voices have been absent from mainstream country for a while. “It seemed it regressed, especially in the last 10 years,” says McAnally. “You got to where women had to be beautiful and sing big, soaring choruses, but as far as messages go, something got lost. The material became more filtered.”
In September, it was announced that Musgraves had received six nominations in November’s Country Music Association awards. Last week, she returned to London, playing to a sold-out Shepherd’s Bush Empire. To rapturous cheers, she announced her final song of the night: “I’m so proud that this song is my next single.” Musgraves launched into a triumphant Follow Your Arrow, and it felt like both milestone and victory lap.
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