Country music, by and about women

December 19, 1993|By Lynn Van Matre | Lynn Van Matre,Chicago Tribune

Title: "Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music"

Author: Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann

Publisher: Crown

Length, price: 594 pages, $32.50

A century ago, the female country musician of the moment was Lotta Crabtree, a banjo-playing, innocently risque young woman who invariably switched into sentimental gear at the end of each show and brought down the house with a tear-jerking rendition of "Dear Mother, I'll Come Home Again." Crabtree died a millionaire, but she earned fame and fortune the hard way -- traveling from town to town on horseback and performing mostly in mining-camp saloons.

Today's female singers have it much easier. One hit record can turn an unknown into a star practically overnight, and traveling by plane or bus is far more comfortable than going by quadruped. But while technology has changed the face of country music in countless respects, Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann argue that one thing has remained constant: The story of women in country music is a window into the world of most American women.

"It describes poverty, hardship, economic exploitation, sexual subjugation, and limited opportunities," the Nashville-based couple (she's a cultural anthropologist, he's a music journalist) note in the introduction to this exhaustively researched, highly readable history of country music's female stars and the social issues underlying the country sound.

Long before Lotta Crabtree took to the road, women were carrying on the folk traditions that would figure prominently in country music. But it wasn't until 1927, when portable recording equipment made it possible to record Southern rural singers, that the country sound -- and female country artists -- began to reach a mass audience.

The guitar and vocal work of Sara and Maybelle Carter turned the now-legendary Carter Family into country's first supergroup; few years later, thanks to radio, other singers found national popularity. Patsy Montana made history in 1935 with "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," the first million-selling record by a female country artist.

The decades that followed would see female country singers exploring rockabilly, bluegrass and gospel and later participating the 1960s folk revival, the country-rock explosion, the rise of the Nashville Sound, the neotraditionalist movement and country's crossover to pop.

Country has waxed and waned in popularity and will do so in the future, but female voices will continue to be heard. "Finding Her Voice" does a superb job of documenting women's contributions to the sound and delineating the social landscape that gave rise to their songs.

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