Before Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy — even before there was Kitty Wells — there was Maybelle Carter and Lil Hardin. Those legendary ladies are just two of many careers that are covered in the new book release, Woman Walk The Line: How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives (University of Texas Press).
The book’s editor, highly respected journalist Holly Gleason, admits to Billboard that the book (to be released later this month) was not exactly what she had envisioned for her next literary project. Initially under contract with UT to write a book about Emmylou Harris as she was pursuing her Masters degree, Gleason had another idea come to her.
“I was doing a lot of reading, and it occurred to me that there were so many unbelievable women writers that I knew who loved music, that music had played a role in their life,” she says. “Either because they have lives where they can’t devote their time to music criticism, or in the case of someone like Elysa Gardner, who was with USA Today for sixteen years. They really didn’t have a place where they could write long form. That seemed like a real shame to me.”
So, she devised a plan. She spoke with many of her fellow female writers and asked them about the artist who inspired their life’s journey. She admits that her approach was surprising to those she spoke with, but one by one, everyone wanted to be involved with the project.
“I think they were startled because it’s not a history book. It’s about life and music. It’s a book that really tackles those moments where everything changes… sometimes profoundly,” she says, offering the career path of Wendy Pearl as an example of the stories she was looking for. “She walked away from a career — where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize during the Gulf War — packed up her car and drove to Nashville to work at a record company, all because of Patty Loveless giving her the courage to go chase a crazy dream.”
The book opens up with Brooklyn-based writer Caryn Rose’s essay concerning the career of Carter, which she feels added another layer to the Carter legend. “One of the things I loved about her take was that she is like her own Mount Rushmore. She is Maybelle Carter. She comes with this loaded name, and Karen puts her at this campfire, and makes her somebody that little kids without knowing it are injecting, and that makes her human — it makes you realize ‘She is part of my fiber. She is part of my flesh.’ She pulls it all the way through to the fact that she wasn’t a pioneer as much as she was doing what had to be done. It’s fluid, and it’s powerful. She knew better than to ask permission. She just freaking did it. That’s a good message to people: if you let the gatekeepers decide, they are probably not going to say, ‘Oh, yes. Go ahead.’ ‘No’ is not only more easy, it’s final. There are no surprises. She got that. Whatever came up, she got it done.”
In the case of songwriter (and New York Times best-selling author) Alice Randall’s offering concerning Lil Hardin — who played piano on Jimmie Rodgers’ quintessential recording of “Blue Yodel # 9” — Gleason confesses it was a learning experience for her.
“When I called her about the book, I was asking Alice about somebody else. She said she had a better idea: Lil Hardin. I said ‘Who’s that?’ She told me about her, and said that one of the reasons she wanted to do it was that Hardin mirrored her own experience in the Nashville music community. She’s a Harvard-educated Black woman who spent a number of years as a songwriter, and has co-written with Steve Earle — but, nobody realizes that. You make your contribution and you don’t worry about it, because it’s about the work. Lil Hardin did the same thing, and I felt like someone else saw the journey. I just said ‘Done. Perfect!’” she says, adding that Hardin’s story fit right in with the mission of the book. “This wasn’t just about superstars. It wasn’t something compiled by a Madison Avenue publisher to maximize sales potential. This was to maximize human experience and truth.”
Some of the chapters of the book are quite emotional. Amy Elizabeth McCarthy’s recollections of how the career trajectory of Terri Clark impacted her life as a young girl growing up in Texas literally brought tears to Clark’s eyes when Gleason shared it with her. “She saw that she was true to herself, and did not take the obvious marketing path of the time,” the editor explained. “It gave her courage to be her own person.”
At the same time, Ali Berlow’s thoughts on Emmylou Harris are very riveting, as the The Gleaning host spoke of how Harris’s music helped her through the most difficult period of her life – as she was going through the passing of a dear friend and mentor. “I saw how frozen she was. One day, she hears this voice on the radio, and it speaks to some primal part of her, and it all starts to release. I think she cried before that, but I think that was when she really started to feel the pain, and know how profoundly it happened.”
For Gleason, the artist she particularly wants to shine the spotlight on is the legendary Tanya Tucker — though she didn’t start out as a fan. “One of the things I loved about Tanya is that there were two lessons. Lesson one was judgment of what you know. I think in her case, I remember all the icky ads that I don’t know whether I was old enough to completely understand. When I saw them, I thought ‘Ew. That’s Country?’ I was the rock kid. The pictures [used in marketing Tucker] were very soft core. They looked like something from either a bad romance novel or some of the smutty magazines I saw in the back of the golf shop growing up.”
And when Tucker recorded one of her favorite songs — John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which she refers to her as her “musical epiphany” — she was appalled. But it was a live review, a jaw-dropping cardboard cutout, and a little curiosity helped Gleason decide to give Tucker’s music a chance.
“I remember walking into the record store, and there was the life-size spandex catsuit, and she was holding a fist full of dynamite,” she sys, referencing Tucker’s cover for the 1978 album TNT. “I was going to an all-girls school where I wore knee socks and a plaid skirt. That was so full-frontal, and there was no question mark, but she was owning it. There was no shame in that game. There was no sense of the unspoken, which I think is what I had been picking up in the ads. I just remember walking around the record store, and everywhere I looked, there was this stand-up staring at me. I picked up the record, and I went ahead and bought it. I remember my super-cool grandmother saying, ‘She looks like a whore.’ So, I had to figure out how to get it through the house,” she says, recalling that her father once threw out her copy of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye due to the swear words.
Once she put on the disc, she was pleasantly surprised. “I had loved [Akron punk-rocker] Rachel Sweet’s records, and Tanya’s record wasn’t that different. It was a pretty cool record. That was a good lesson for me: If you don’t know, figure it out. Don’t judge. Do your homework. Then, all of the tabloid stuff happened. You couldn’t go to the grocery store without seeing her. It wasn’t about music. It all fell apart,” she said.
But, the part of Tucker’s career that inspired Gleason the most was to keep rolling with the punches, and eventually the work would speak for itself and be recognized. It was a lesson she herself needed to heed.
“At the same time, the bottom fell out of my life. My parents’ divorce happened. It was devastating — and ugly. I was going to the University of Miami, trying to figure out how I was going to [get through school]. At that time, when I wasn’t sure of how I was going to get through it — a lifetime of local scandal, and people talking about my family, here I am washed out and on the rocks in Miami trying to figure out how I was going to pay my tuition. I knew I could get on record company lists, so I would get the records and know what to write about. I remember getting her Girls Like Me album. I knew Kim Carnes had written one of the songs (“Still Hold On”), and there were all these other great writers. I thought ‘Here’s this trainwreck who goes out and picks out the next wave of the great writers in Nashville.’ Then I went home and listened to the record, and it was really good. I got to watch her ascend, and watched her win Female Vocalist of the Year. That was what reminded me ‘Screw the gossip. Do the work.’ She was that light on the horizon. If she could, so could I. You know, know what you do well. Don’t surrender to the shame.”
The book also features some of music’s greatest artists speaking of other women who made an impact in their lives and career. Rosanne Cash contributed the moving yet humorous eulogy that she gave at June Carter Cash’s funeral in May 2003, while Taylor Swift — while still a teenager in 2006 — speaks of her respect for Brenda Lee, someone that Gleason says is of like mind and experience.
“Taylor Swift’s essay surprised me. It was something that she had written for the Hall of Fame. I had something else in mind, but they said ‘We think this is the piece. Will you take a look at it?’ It’s a little shorter than the other essays, but the fact that you have Taylor Swift at the moment where she’s about to become a superstar. Nobody could have written that piece in that moment except for her. She wasn’t Miley [Cyrus], whose dad was a superstar. She was a little girl from Pennsylvania who wanted to sing and write songs. She came down here, and they knocked on doors, and she fought her way there. It’s all about to happen, and she’s thinking about Brenda Lee. I get chills thinking about it. It was so much better than what I wanted.”