In late July, NPR’s music critic Ann Powers, collaborating with 50 other women music writers, published a list called the 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women. The list covers albums made between 1964 and now. This is more than just a list, though, since the writers provide for us not only a mini-history of the centrality of women’s voices in popular music but also a passionate appeal to the difference that this music makes to them. It’s a tour-de-force of writing that signals of the power of music to change society, to touch hearts, to empower individuals, to vocalize desires and dreams, and to embody the vitality and force of women’s music and writing.
The NPR list evokes palpably all the ways that music touches us, lives with us, haunts us, changes us, delivers us, redeems us, crushes us, and overpowers us. The list impels us to listen again for the first time to albums we haven’t heard in a few years, to listen again to albums whose songs we’ve stitched into the fabric of our lives, or to discover and hear new voices we missed along the way.
The NPR list also creates a sonic landscape for broader, inclusive, and thoughtful conversations about women in music, and a new collection of essays, Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives (University of Texas), edited by music critic Holly Gleason, contributes another point of entry into these conversations. As Gleason points out in her introduction—quoting Sapphire’s now-famous line about deep passion for music from Almost Famous: “These girls don’t know what it means to be a fan, to love some band or some silly little piece of music so much it hurts”—these 27 essays reflect on the ways that a woman artist in country music has moved the writers. Part memoir and part criticism, “these are also large chunks of personal life pulled through the prisms of the twenty-seven artists who are singled out. It matters less when, where, why, or how it happened; the point is that every last one of the women celebrated in these essays stirred the writers, in many ways changing their lives forever.” The contributors share the stories of ways that their encounters with the music of artists including Maybelle Carter, Lil Hardin, Hazel Dickens, Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, Rita Coolidge, Taylor Swift, Rhiannon Giddens, and Patty Griffin (written by No Depression editor-in-chief Kim Ruehl), among others, transformed their lives in small, or large, ways. (Check out the Fall 2017 print edition of No Depression on “Foremothers” for a full reprint of Cynthia Sanz’s essay, “Mary Chapin Carpenter: Every Hometown Girl.”)
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Aubrie Sellers shares her uncertainty and insecurity about walking down the musical path she’s taken to make her record in her essay, “Alison Krauss: Draw Your Own Map.” Discovering and listening to Krauss’ and Robert Plant’s album Raising Sand fixes in her a resolve to go her own way. “The major impact of Raising Sand was musical, but it may also have uncovered an understated truth that is important for any female musician aspiring to be independent and innovative. Being fearless, original, and authentic pays off. Alison did it on this record, and so many times before … As a young musician trying to find my path and learning to trust my instincts, that was all I needed to know … I could say artists like Alison Krauss break boundaries simply by being themselves, but it’s only half true, because there is no other artist like Alison Krauss. She stands on her own. That’s how a little girl from Illinois grew up and put a big mark on the world. And in some ways, an even bigger mark on me.”
In a humorous, poignant essay that opens in a dusty biker bar in South Florida, Wendy Pearl, the vice president of corporate communications at the Country Music Association, recalls her encounter with a biker vet, a jukebox, and the Patty Loveless songs “I’m That Kind of Girl” and “On Down the Line.” “I was hearing my life played out,” she writes, “in neon and grit, sawdust and sass, like I had never heard it before.” She weaves Loveless’ story into her own reflections on her relationships and the roads that eventually led her to Nashville. She concludes: “That’s the thing about Patty Loveless: she gives so much, and she doesn’t realize it. By inspiring through music, she lets you believe in yourself — even when you’re not sure you can … What I discovered was that the pain in her voice, the honesty in her delivery, her very vulnerability were forged on a path to Nashville that included hard lessons, personal sacrifice, and redemption. If I didn’t, like Patty, have a perfect last name to scrawl in neon or Appalachian authenticity, I did have some of the same feelings driving me on a path I didn’t know was ultimately going to take me to the very same place.”
Grammy-nominated singer Grace Potter reflects on Linda Ronstadt’s way with a song and what it has taught her about her own approach to a song: “Now listening to her records, I feel they’re invitations to an internal world. And the most beautiful thing about her singing is, she finds that break in her voice, in her vocal, that no one else would have thought of. It seems to happen so naturally. It’s so emotional, and it milks the context even more than the words or the chord change. She has this transcendence. Listening to her songs, I try to figure out what I love about them. I want to emulate the sound and the vibe, to bring those truths forward. That’s why she’s inspirational to me: for the feelings and intentions behind the songs. And when she’s serving as this amazing filter — singing someone else’s song — she never takes away from the writer, but reaffirms their nuances, makes them more magic.”
Food and music writer Ronni Lundy (Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes) embodies the passion and get-inside-your-skin beauty of the essays in the collection in her reflections on Hazel Dickens: “But the person who shapes and sends those notes from that very spot in her chest straight to the one in yours, bone to bone, soul to soul, is Hazel Dickens. If you wonder what I mean, go now, right now, to whatever device you have and call up ‘A Few More Years Shall Roll’ by Hazel and Alice. The liner notes say Alice Gerard is the lead and Hazel the tenor, but what I would say is that Hazel is the knife. The one that just ripped the curtains wide open.”
“Bone to bone, soul to soul”: there’s no better description of the essays in Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives. The writers bare their souls in much the way the artists that have touched them have torn open, touched, healed the writers’ own souls. Music and writing are insidious, slowly and subtly working their way into our lives, under our skin, and into our souls, getting next to us in unexpected and enduring ways, and the essays in this collection illustrate that powerful truth.