A female social historian and a male music journalist co-wrote this wide-ranging book, which traces the history of country music through its women. Well, nobody could write such a book without mentioning plenty of men along the way, but the story is definitely about the women. It begins in the nineteenth century and discusses every famous female country singer (and plenty of obscure ones) up to the year 2000, but there is far more to this book than that.
Because this book is about social history as well as country music, it reminds us of life as it used to be without tap water and without electricity. While men spent all day working on the farm or in the factory, women spent all day doing the housework. This included fetching water in buckets from the nearest well, among other chores that are long since consigned to history in the developed world. So it was that the kind of songs that women sang were often very different from the kind of songs that men sang. Over time, technology, wars and other developments changed everybody's lives.
Two world wars opened opportunities for women. In between, an economic depression, compounded by the dust bowl, caused mass-migration as people fled the impoverished southern states. All these developments and others became reflected in the music that women sang and recorded. The mass-migration that started in the thirties took country music all around America. Later, American troops took their music to wherever they served in he second world war including Europe, Australia and Japan. Social changes including women's liberation all made their mark on country music. In business generally, women had to fight hard to break down barriers, and country music reflects this. As women have penetrated male business bastions, they have attained important managerial and boardroom position in the country music business. The book suggests that Frances Preston is one of the most influential people in country music, or in any music. Maybe, but your average country music fan has probably never heard of her. Still, she deserves her place in this book.
As far as the music itself is concerned, every aspect of country music seems to be covered, including women raised on country music but who became successful pop singers, as well as outsiders who achieved varying degrees of success within country music. In the forties, it seems that there was an abundance of female country singers performing live, most famously Rose Maddox, but the male-dominated country music industry didn't give them much of a chance on record. Yet some of the most successful female pop singers of the era were raised on country, including the Dinning sisters, Patti Page, Dinah Shore, Kay Starr and Jo Stafford. To varying degrees, their country heritage shows in their recorded music. Margaret Whiting was the first outsider to make a big impact on country music, when she teamed up with Jimmy Wakely for a series of duets. Those duets had an impact that lasted long after Margaret and Jimmy stopped recording together. It seems that country music fans happily accepted Margaret at the time, but other outsiders were controversial. Olivia Newton-John made a big impact on country music for a time in the mid-seventies, but while she had plenty of supporters, others were hostile to say the least. All of these singers are discussed, though of course the women that have made their career in country music get more coverage.
All the big names that you would expect to find are discussed, but it is refreshing to read, however briefly, about some singers who I wouldn't necessarily have expected to get a mention, such as Sheila Andrews, Diana Trask, the Burch sisters and Dottsy. Female songwriters such as Cindy Walker, Susanna Clark and Rhonda Kye Fleming are also given due coverage, although Matraca Berg and Beth Neilsen Chapman only get a couple of brief mentions each in passing. The first edition of this book was published in 1993, when they were still establishing their reputations. The revisions for the second edition seem to focus mainly on the singers.
With a substantial bibliography as well as an index to the 500+ main pages, this book is a veritable goldmine of information. Any quibbles I have are minor, as this will be one of my most-referenced books for years to come.