The women of country: missing in action in the 21st century

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Trisha Yearwood, one of the greatest singers of recent times, has not put out an album of new material since Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love in November 2007. Looking at her discography, it’s painfully obvious that she has released very little new material since the turn of the century. Just four albums since 2000, and only three in the 21st century proper (i.e. since 2001).

Her relationship with the label MCA ended after Jasper County in 2005. It was a bit of a flop, true, and she probably needed a fresh start. Heaven… came out on Big Machine but only managed to reach #10 in the Country chart, and didn’t even reach Gold certification.

Search for “Trisha Yearwood Discography” and before you have finished typing the “Di”, the Google offers these suggestions:

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Add the S and the “discography” option finally appears, along with:

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Ah, yes. Dip, Dishes, and Recipes. That’s what Ms Yearwood appears to have been doing for the past few years. Staying at home, writing cook books, making a food programme for a TV channel, and most definitely not recording a new album or going on tour. Nothing wrong with any of that, but I no more want to buy a cook book by Trisha Yearwood than I want to buy a country album recorded by Delia Smith.

If it was just Trisha, we could leave it there and move on, but it’s not.

Consider the case of Faith Hill. A similar artist, with a voice that doesn’t quite match the Yearwood instrument, Faith Hill was nevertheless a major artist on a major label, in this case Warner.

Hill has released just two studio albums in the 21st Century, if you don’t count the Christmas album, which I don’t. Even if you do count it, just three new albums in 13 years is poor, especially considering that her last proper album was #1 in both the Country and mainstream chart, and was certified double platinum. Her previous albums, Breathe and Cry, performed just as well.

Ms Hill has been hitting the Vegas stage of late (which beats touring if you want to stay home with the kids), but the only new product since 2005 has been in the form of the odd single. These singles tend not to be released in the UK at all. They’re also a little *ahem* patriotic for my taste. Fucking Americans and their wars.

The Dixie Chicks are also M.I.A. in terms of recording. If they’d announced a split following Taking the Long Way in 2006, that would be something. It would even be understandable, given the controversy that followed them around following Natalie Maines’ comments about George W Bush. It may well have been that the other two were a bit pissed off at having threats against their lives, damage to their properties etc., and maybe they just didn’t want to give their critics the satisfaction of announcing a split.

All of which is moot, because they’ve been playing live recently, and have announced tour dates. Just no albums. Robinson and Maguire have released two as The Court Yard Hounds and Natalie Maines put out her solo album last year. I bought the first CYH album but thought it was a little on the bland side. Didn’t bother with the follow-up, and didn’t bother with the Maines solo album, which strays uninterestingly into the rock genre. I no more want to hear Natalie Maines singing rock music than I want to hear Sheryl Crow singing country. Yeah, you heard me.

Looking through my collection of music, thinking about the artists who were my favourites ten years ago, the women in particular seem to have fallen by the wayside. This breaks my flint-like heart. News in brief:

  • Chely Wright moved to New York, came out, released an album (which suffered from the lack of country arrangements/instrumentation), got married and had kids. Albums released in the 21st Century: Three (approx 5 years apart).
  • Joy Lynn White. Three great records in the 90s, and just one in the 21st Century.
  • Wynonna Judd: Similar story to the others. A flurry of albums in the 90s when she went solo, and just two in the 21st Century (proper: three if you count the 2000 release, which I don’t). And anyway. Three albums in 14 years? With the most recent of them (Sing: Chapter 1) a bunch of oldies and covers.

Is it about having babies? Is that what it is? I don’t know. You don’t see the men of country taking time off to have kids, except Garth Brooks, maybe. I’ve no objection to a career break, it makes perfect sense, and I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to tour an album. But you can’t even record one? Not even on your back porch, on a laptop? Are the labels so inflexible that they won’t contemplate releasing a record if you’re not willing to spend months on the road? Sexist pigs, if so.

  • I know Martina McBride has had children, but she has been releasing records throughout the 21st century so far, albeit that two of them are collections of oldies and covers, including the forthcoming. McBride has put out six 21st Century albums. And she seems to tour too.

Is it about a lack of material? Are all the good songs going elsewhere? I hardly think so. It’s not as if female vocalists are crawling all over the airwaves snapping up all the songs. There has been, in fact, more of a tendency for singer-songwriters as opposed to “mere” performers, so the market for hungry songwriters must be hurting.

  • Kelly Willis has had children, and has managed to put out three 21st century albums, or four if you count the Christmas one. And she doesn’t really tour, restricting her live appearances to her home state/town. But she’s less of a major label artist, having struggled to find a footing during her stay at MCA.
  • Lee Ann Womack hasn’t put out a new record since 2008. Even with a generous 3-year gap between albums, she was due a record in 2011.

A few new female artists have stepped into the breach, but I miss all the above. I know the industry makes it difficult for women, and country radio is sexist, but it’s as if they just give up.

Come back, ladies.


A few singles

Hard Promises
Hard Promises (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This months The Word magazine has an interesting article about music sharing and curating, proposing the idea that it might be right for a Slow Music movement to match the Slow Food movement.

I like this idea because I’ve thought for a long time that there’s something not quite right about the way music is being consumed these days. I’m not just being nostalgic when I say that for me as a teenager music was a precious commodity, the more so because it was relatively expensive and sometimes hard to find.

My daughter recently returned from a trip to Paris with a copy of Tom Petty‘s Hard Promises on vinyl – in spite of the fact that we do not have at home the means to play said vinyl. I think she instinctively gets it, though. She knows that vinyl is cooler than a download or a CD, and she is quite willing to wait patiently for the playback occasion to present itself.

I joined ThisIsMyJam because the idea of sharing just one song at a time appealed to me.

Everyone’s a critic these days and there are hundreds of blogs reviewing albums and gigs, making the traditional music press more or less redundant. When you read the kind of shit written by professional journalists these days (like this crap from Barney Hoskins in the Graun), it’s not surprising. I’ve published the occasional album review on blogs myself, but personally, I find it a bit of a bore.

Something that occured to me the other day was that the idea of reviewing singles seems to have died a death. Back in the 60s and 70s, the release of a new single was an event. These days a single, if it appears at all, tends to be just a pre-release track from a forthcoming album, part of the hype machine. But then I thought, why not? I’m actually much more interested in writing a review of a single track than I am a whole album.

So here are a few singles I’m playing at the moment. In no particular order:

So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore – Alan Jackson

Alan Jackson has released a few decent singles recently, probably from a forthcoming album, but I think it’s great to grab a track in isolation. This one is a slow tempoed ballad which gets to the heart of a certain type of male behaviour.

“I’ll be the bad guy / I’ll take the black eye / When I walk out you can slam the door

I’ll be the SOB / If that’s what you need from me / So you don’t have to love me anymore”

Like all Jackson’s records, the production values are high, and the instrumentation is traditional country: a beautifully mixed ensemble of piano, fiddle, guitars, drums, and vocals. The electric guitar solo is a fine piece of work, and the dynamics of the track rise and fall in a subtle way to the plaintiff ending. The lyrics carry the song (written by Jay Knowles & Adam Wright): he’s happy to leave her with plenty of excuses to complain about him to her friends because he knows she needs to stop loving him. Classic country.

Slow Me Down – Cyndi Thomson

I was pleasantly surprised to see Cyndi Thomson making a comeback. Her first album and single, back at the beginning of this century, were big hits, but then she withdrew from the music industry, feeling unable to take up the promotional grind for a follow-up album. She released a five-track EP in 2009 (“This Time”) and then this single in 2011. It’s another downtempo number, starting with arpeggioed acoustic guitar, piano, and her vocal. Thomson’s voice is sweet and clear, and instantly recogniseable. A string arrangement joins as the track builds. The lyrics could almost make this the theme tune of the Slow Music movement.

Georgia Mud – Joanna Smith

Guitars, mandolin, vocals. This is a typical product of the Nashville scene. A pleasant enough vocal, hard to tell apart from the liks of Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler, Julianne Hough and the like. This could have been released at any time in the past 15 years. One of the reasons I’ve always liked Country is that it has this timeless quality. Like Julianne Hough’s song “That Song in My Head“, and hundreds of other country tunes this is one of those songs which are nostalgic for some event in the recent past, in this case some kind of sexual adventure involving mud in, er, Georgia. I like it by the way, which isn’t to say that I can’t see what a construct it is.

Come Home – Faith Hill

Had to acquire this by nefarious means because it’s still not available on the UK iTunes. Faith Hill is by now country royalty, and has clearly had other things going on in recent years. Her last studio album of original material was way back in 2005. She’s released a few singles in the meantime. This is a typically baroque production (there are probably 90 tracks in the mix). I believe Hill’s vocals are always double-tracked, one dry and one wet, and that’s before you get to the layered guitars, backing vocals, pounding rhythm section. Her voice, like husband Tim McGraw‘s, has a lot of exciter on it, so that the track positively fizzes. It’s a masterful production though, building to a massive climax and the strange intrusion of some Beatles-style backing vocals in the fade. Great track.