Female Performers in Country Music

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Female Performers in Country Music

During the early twentieth century, southern music began to be known by a somewhat more precise and diverse set of classificatory designations such as "country," "blues," and "jazz," Through the phenomenal development of the radio and recording technology, the music of the south rapidly became known throughout the nation. The contributions of early performers such as the great Jimmie Rodgers, Vernon Dalhart, Bob Wills, Milton Browne, the singing cowboys and many others are well documented. But where are the female musicians during the early development of country music, specifically during the 1920s and 1930s? In the "blues" field, the names of the legendary Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey are well known along with male performers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, "Peg Leg Howell," and many others. In the opera, women had long held important places in the music and the same may be said of vaudeville. In earlier country music, female performers were much less prominent and their roles more muted. Furthermore, until recently, there has been a woeful lack of scholarly attention to the early roles of women in the formation of the music in its modern commercial form. A part of the problem lies in the fact that recorded country music from the pre-1940 period is difficult to find, but it is also likely that women performers were far less numerous during this period. Coltman (1978:161) reports of that of the 377 pieces of recorded country music from the period 1922-1931 he had heard, only 12 (3%) were female soloists or all female groups, only 5% of the records were male groups who would feature a female soloist, and only about 5% were known to feature women as instrumentalists. This is not to diminish the importance of the contributions made by those women who were involved in commercial country music's formative years, but to suggest that the socially scripted roles of southern white women prior to World War II may have suppressed their role in commercial music. For whatever reasons, their roles and contributions were neglected for many years. There has, in the last very few years, been a rather significant attempt to correct this deficiency and several important pieces of research on the role of female performers have emerged. Bill Malone (1985) devoted a fairly large section of his chapter on "Early Commercial Hillbilly Music" to the women who performed in the 1920s and early 1930s. Charles Wolfe and Patricia Hall were instrumental in bringing about a significant recording of several of the major early country female performers (Rounder 1029, "Banjo Pickin' Girl"). And Robert Coltman's fine piece on women in early country music (1978) stands as a major contribution toward filling the gap left by nearly 60 years of ignoring the contribution of women. These investigations, primarily by historians and folklorists, are of crucial importance to other social scientists, particularly sociologists, who are interested in the study of popular culture because of the light they shed upon the social structure of the southern region and the roles and values which emerged within it and supported it.

In 1988, the Center for the Study of Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, under the direction of Dr. Paul Wells, sponsored a symposium on Women in Music. One of the more fascinating sections of the program was a presentation by Robert Oermann and Mary Bufwack entitled "Women in Country Music." In their presentation, Oermann and Bufwack identified several images portrayed by female performers in country music from the 1920s to the present. The images reflect the developmental process by which women have emerged to the status presently occupied within the industry and, at the same time, mirror the roles southern women were allowed, or encouraged, to play within the social structure of the south. Predictably enough, the standard roles provided for women, particularly southern white women, during the formative years of country music defined the roles that women would play in the music industry. The present analysis makes extensive use of the typology outlined by Oermann and Bufwack.

Women in the early 1900s were expected to be lady-like and demure; the role of mother,wife and sister were the expected focal roles for female performers. Typically, female musicianship was frowned upon and viewed as inappropriate behavior. It was, for the most part, believed that if a woman played music, it was for the purpose of entertainment at home only. For this reason, in large measure, males dominated the popularization and recording of early commercial country music. As Bill Malone (1985:22) observes:

Public performances of all kinds were dominated by men, and the physically aggressive skills of fiddling, banjo playing, and the like were felt best confined to male participants, particularly when displayed at such rowdy events as country dances or fiddle contests. Women certainly played banjoes, fiddles and other instruments at home (and some of them, such as Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis, even appeared as instrumentalists on early commercial recordings), but few men were eager to compete against the ladies in any kind of public arena and the women were encouraged to keep their talents noncompetitive and at home.

As noted by Malone, Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis do enjoy the distinction of being recording artists in the early development of country music, but they were the exception to the rule -- especially given the fact that they were not members of a musical family group. The two, natives of Sylvia, North Carolina, have the historical honor of being "one of country music's first recorded string bands and possibly made the first five-string banjo records." (Oermann and Bufwack, 1988) Roba Stanley may have been the first female country music singer to be recorded (Oermann and Bufwack, 1988; Lomax, 1985:108; cf. also, Malone, 1985:435; Wolfe, OTM)

Following the success of Bumgarner and Davis, who first recorded on April 23-24, 1924 (Malone, 1985:50), Fiddlin' John Carson (who is credited with putting the first commercial country music record on wax) took his 15-year-old daughter, Rosa Lee, on tour with him to sing and play the banjo and guitar (Wiggins, 1968:62). Although many observers were dismayed at the idea of Rosa Lee traveling with her father, it is said that her "winning ways" kept too many tongues from waggling. As time went on, Rosa Lee's role underwent a significant evolution from that of demure daughter to a sassy, aggressive comedy figure. Over time a comedy routine emerged out of the repartee between Carson and Rosa Lee in which he was the "moonshine reprobate and she was the sassy, snuff-dipping mountain gal" who usually ended up out-wisecracking her father. She soon took on the stage name of "Moonshine Kate," a character in one of their songs, and in this role traveled as far as Mexico and Canada with her father in their Model T Ford (Oermann and Bufwack, 1988).

The "Sweetheart" Role

According to Robert Oermann, one of the earliest images to become associated with female country music performers during this period was that of the "sweetheart." He says, "The sunbonnet and gingham dress constituted a uniform for female performers even when the singer was tough and independent and not at all demure (1988:)

Linda Parker, a Kentucky-born banjo player and singer, personified the typical country sweetheart. Parker was a major act on WLS Chicago's famed National Barn Dance in the mid 1930s. Her typical outfit while playing with the Cumberland Ridge Runners was a frilly gingham dress. During those same years on the Barn Dance, one of Parker's fellow female performers was Lulu Belle Wiseman. She remembers Parker in a recent interview:

I would like to have sung like Linda Parker, but I couldn't sing like her. She sang `straight." Actually, Linda was a nightclub singer. But they built a whole new image for her. They called her the `Sunbonnet Girl.' She wore a sunbonnet with the strings hanging down and a little gingham dress. She died rather suddenly with a ruptured appendix, as far as I know --that's what the story was. (Lightfoot, 1987)

The Family Member Role

The second role that was accepted for women in the early years was that of family member. These musical groups that were willing to admit women performers felt the need to present them in the wholesome image of "sister," daughter, or "help-meet." The Carter Family, the Stoneman Family, "Uncle" Jimmy Thompson, and many other early groups reflect this image. The first country music family to be recorded, according to Malone (1985:45), was the Jenkins Family in August, 1924. This singing family consisted of "Blind" Andy Jenkins and his two step-daughters, Irene Spain and Mary Lee Askew. Jenkins was a blind "Holiness" preacher from Jenkinsville, Georgia; the family first came to attention in 1922 when WSB began broadcasting in Atlanta.

Unquestionably the most famous singing family in country music's history is the Carter Family from Maces Springs, Virginia. The group was "discovered" by Victor recording agent Ralph Peer on his talent search to Bristol, Tn/Va. in 1927. A.P. Carter, his wife, Sara, and his sister-in-law, Maybelle Addington Carter were the original members of the group. A few years after their discovery by Ralph Peer, A.P. and Sara separated (in 1933); the group continued without her, except for an occasional recording, until their final dissolution in 1943.

A.P. played a minor role, musically, to the duet of Sara and Maybelle and he never played an instrument. His managerial role, however appears to have dominated the group. The Carter family left behind them a legacy of folk materials of enduring quality; during their recording career, they recorded over 300 songs on Victor, Decca, Columbia and American records.

Of particular significance to this paper is the contribution of Maybelle Carter who, both during and after her association with the Carter family, distinguished herself as an instrumentalist, particularly on guitar. Her intricate fingering style on such tunes as "Wildwood Flower," set the pattern for other guitar players who followed her. One can hear the influence of Maybelle Carter in the guitar stylings of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins and a host of lesser-known guitarists. And, as most country music enthusiasts know, she was later known as "Mother Maybelle" Carter, matriarch of a significant group of musical daughters, Anita, Helen and June -- known as "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters."

One of the most successful, and most influential, all-female singing groups of the 1930s was "The Girls of the Golden West, composed of Dolly and Milly Good, from Muleshoe, Texas. Capitalizing on the western image and the duet style, they became important stars at WLS. No doubt, their popularity and independence paved the way for female performers in the late 1930s and 1940s.

The "Coon Creek Girls," the first all-female string band, was made up of two sisters, Rosie and Lily May Ledford and two unrelated women, "Violet" Koehler and Evelyn "Daisy" Lange. The group became a very popular act in the late 1930s and 1940s. It appears that, even when the group was made up entirely of females, the role of musician was more tolerable if at least some members of the group were related, thus creating the image of "family." In this case two of the women were sisters and the other two were unrelated.

Women, even after the 1930s, found it difficult to be accepted as musicians without being related either by blood or by marriage to other members of the group. There is some evidence that female musicians would sometimes present themselves in the family role even when such was not the case. Rachael Veach, comedienne and banjo player for Roy Acuff in the late 1930s was billed as the sister of dobro player, Beecher Kirby, in order to avoid criticism and public censure of an unmarried woman traveling around the country with a group of male musicians. Acuff presented them as "Sister Rachael" and her "Bashful Brother Oswald" (Green, 1976:43).

The Comedienne Role

Yet another role available to women during this period was that of saucy comedienne as seen in the character of Moonshine Kate. It is here that the influence of vaudeville, with its raucous slapstick caricature of southerners, is in evidence. Moonshine Kate began a tradition in country music that has been kept alive to the present and can be enjoyed each Saturday night on the Grand Ole Opry in the shenanigans of Minnie Pearl and by Ronnie Stoneman on the nationally syndicated television show, Hee Haw. In between are several females whose contributions are of significance. Vernon Dalhart's sidekick, Adelyn Hood, recorded several rowdy music-hall tunes with Dalhart such as "Calamity Jane," "Alaska Ann" and "Daughter of Yukon Steve" in the late 1920s. Under the guise of rube comedy, all of these characters projected the image of the boldly expressive female who was quite capable of competing successfully with males at almost any level.

Lulu Belle Wiseman (born Myrtle Cooper) was another performer from the early period who found popularity through the comedienne role, though her approach was much tamer than that of Moonshine Kate or Adelyn Hood, and with greater emphasis on her musical skills. Still, her style of dress and somewhat subordinate position in her performances with Red Foley and later her husband, Scotty Wiseman, placed her in both the sweetheart and family member roles. Her comedic antics, however, allowed her greater latitude of expression than the more traditional images did. According to Lightfoot (1987:7), however, Lulu Belle's image and career development were largely controlled by the producers of the WLS National Barn Dance and her manager, John Lair. A significant indicator of her success and popularity may be seen in the fact that she was named the most popular radio character in 1936 and again in 1937 by Radio Digest. Other women of note who played the comedienne role were Rosa Lee Carson and "Little Rachael" Veach.

The Singing Cowgirl Role

In the evolutionary development of female roles within country music, an important transitional role which bridges the gap between the "sweetheart" and the "saddle pal" was the singing cowgirl.2 In this transition, Patsy Montana's contribution is deserving of special attention.3 Patsy Montana, a native of Arkansas, was born Rubye Blevins on October 30, 1912. She began as a singer and a fiddler and later became fairly proficient on guitar. Despite her rural background and the dominant "hillbilly" image of country music in the early part of this century, Patsy rejected the hayseed image in favor of a more assertive and independent role. To achieve this, she capitalized on the western theme which had taken the country by storm after the advent of the western movie and the "singing cowboy." She adopted western attire, complete with boots and spurs, a bold singing style, complete with yodeling, and a much more aggressive stance with regard to her career than had been the case with her predecessors and many of her contemporaries. Her formula worked very well; she was a regular on the WLS National Barn Dance throughout the late 1930s and 1940s and was the first female country music artist to sell a million copies of a record. The song, "I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," recorded while she was a member of the Prairie Ramblers, has become something of a classic; she still performs it on tour at age 78. While the song may, to some extent, perpetuate the "sweetheart" role, Patsy takes a more activist stance when she sings, "I wanna be a cowboy's sweetheart, I wanna rope and ride." In 1931, Patsy teamed up with Lorraine McIntire and Ruthy DeMondrum to form the all female Montana Cowgirls. The cowgirl image has been kept alive in recent years by such contemporary performers as Lynn Anderson, Reba McIntire and Tanya Tucker (Oermann and Bufwack, 1988).

The Role of the Gospel Singer

To this point, the roles played by females in country music have been to one degree or another stereotypical and even seem to represent an attempt to manufacture a "cover" for women who sang and played secular country music. As noted in Part I (Chapter 1) early American culture, particularly religious norms, made this a difficult role even for men; one can only imagine the kinds of social reactions women performers must have evoked. However, as Coltman points out, women found public performance much more acceptable if they were seen as "doing God's work" through music. Coltman says, "Gospel singing was a defined role. A woman traveling to make music on the Lord's business was taken to be God-fearing and thus theoretically safe people." 978:166). Many of the early female groups and groups which featured female soloists performed gospel music exclusively; notable in this category are Edith and Sherman Collins who recorded on Decca Records in the 1930s. Those groups which offered a repertoire of secular music, such as the Carter Family, usually included a mixture of secular and sacred music.

The relationship between gender and sacred music is not as clear as the foregoing might suggest. Most male performers also included the sacred, or gospel, song in their public performances. Gospel singing is a southern tradition having roots that go to the very origins of southern music and has persisted to the present. Despite the non-gender status of gospel music, it seems that the public performance of religious music offered less resistance for women than the public performance of secular music. As we have already seen, however, quite a number of southern female artists were not restricted to sacred music and a few exhibited quite a rowdy, even bawdy, persona and repertoire.

Gender Roles in Modern Country Music

As the foregoing discussion makes abundantly clear, there were several female pioneers in the period from 1920 to World War II who were instrumental in breaking down the barriers to independent musical careers in country music. As the decade of the forties opened, several future female stars such as Louise Massey, Molly O'Day, Wilma Lee Cooper and, of course Patsy Montana already had successful careers under way. Patsy Montana (personal interview, 1990, BSA) was very modest when she said, "I wasn't aware of being a pioneer for other women performers; I was just a hard-headed girl trying to make it in the music business." Aware of her contribution or not, Patsy and the other women of the 1920s and 1930s not only opened the door for contemporary artists, they also contributed significantly to moving the music itself into the modern era.

The combined impact of World War II with its attendant demographic shifts and the rapid industrialization of the south in the post-war era had the effect of loosening up the social structure and facilitating the emergence of challenges to the existing gender stratification structure. Southern women were no longer relegated to the home and to the traditional roles of childrearing and housekeeping. New issues for women were emerging. And, inevitably, these also became issues for males as the home, the workplace, the university and the political arena were forced to adapt to a new set of imperatives. It was equally inevitable that the music of the region would adapt to these changes as a means of expressing and relating to the emerging needs and concerns of southern women breaking out of more than two centuries of second-class citizenship. John Coltman's observation is to the point:

When the men came back from the front in '45 they would find that not only had Rosie the Riveter shown she could do a man's job, but a vast number of women had been showing that they could sing country music. The ground was prepared for a day when the pre- eminent country voices, many of the most inventive stylist, and a sizeable proportion of the best songwriters would be women. (1978:175).

Despite the remarkable achievements of women in country music from the early 1920s to World War II, women continued to play a much less significant role in country music than did their male counterparts. Perhaps more than any one else, Kitty Wells was instrumental in breaking down the barriers that historically restricted female artists. Born Muriel Deason in Nashville, Kitty Wells hit the national spotlight with her response to Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life," which had expressed the sentiment, "I didn't know God made honky-tonk angels." Wells answer was simple and straightforward, "It wasn't God who made honky-tonk angels." The record was a tremendous success and established Kitty Wells as a major performer, dispelling in the process the notion that women singers "don't sell." According to Malone, (1980:34-35), her success opened the door for a host of female performers such as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.

While Kitty Wells opened many doors, those who followed her did not find their way to success without difficulty. Loretta Lynn reports: "When I got to Nashville in 61, there weren't hardly any women in country music. What women there was in the business tried to run me out of Nashville. They didn't want no competition." (Offen, 1974:37). Dottie West agrees:

I came to town about the same time Loretta Lynn did. In those days record men would tell you that women didn't sell, and on all the package shows, there'd only be one girl. And I think that was because they didn't think of us as artists... (Offen, 1974:37).

In 1974, Lynn Anderson said she still felt the same reluctance to travel alone as a female vocalist with a band. "There is a very bad stigma about female vocalists being on the road. You have to work with a lot of men. So I hired another girl to go with me so I don't have to go to dinner with the guys all the time" (Offen, 1974:42).

The emergence, since World War II, of a large number of very successful female country music artists who have taken their place with equal billing alongside male performers4 was made possible by the pioneering work of the women discussed in the early sections of this paper and, of course, by the emergence of radically new roles for females in American society. And, as the number and popularity of the women increased, the subject matter of their songs began to change. Initially, women singing "cheating" songs raised eyebrows among country music traditionalists. As Dolly Parton observes, "People had to at first accept the girl singers, and now they'll accept what stories they tell."(Offen, 1972:43). Today, while there may still

be gender differences in the subject matter of country songs, the limitations placed on female performers are few indeed.


Tracing the development of female country artists from the age of the bonneted sweetheart, through the period of the comedienne and the saddle pal, it is apparent that a long and difficult road has been traveled by women to become self-fulfilled musicians in their own right. Today, megastars such as Reba McIntire, Barbara Mandrell, the Judds and Dolly Parton and emerging stars such as Kathy Matea, Roseanne Cash, Lacy J. Dalton, Holly Dunn, Shelby Lynn and many, many more, are evidence that the female country music performer has indeed

arrived. The female star is capable of rivaling male superstars at the ticket office and at the record counter.

No longer are women depending on men to run the show and no longer are gender stereotypes the norm in country music. Far from stereotypical, such artists as k.d. lang often share the same Country Music Awards stage as the more stereotypical acts, e.g., the mother/daughter performers such as the Judds. Years after the beginnings of the feminist movement, female performers are being accepted as just that -- performers; role-playing is no longer necessary as a cover for musical talent. To quote an over-used, yet fitting cliche, "You've come a long way, baby."

1Jill McWhorter is a 1990 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and is currently a reporter and staff writer for the Review Appeal in Franklin, Tennessee.

2There is some evidence that Billie Maxwell, "The Cow Girl Singer," may have been the first to record in this genre. (Cf Coltman, 1978:164).

3In the Summer of 1990, Patsy visited Murfreesboro and appeared as a surprise guest in my Elderhostel class on country music. She delighted us with a rendition of "I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" and graciously consented to an interview. Some of the material in this section is drawn from that interview. BSA

4Female performers are only beginning to compete in the songwriting arena and lag woefully behind in the music publishing business. They have made great strides, however, in the area of artist management.

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