Can women save country music?

Dynamite new albums from the Dixie Chicks, Kelly Willis and Allison Moorer bridge the gap between alt-country and those cowboy-hat robots in Nashville.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published September 14, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

"We are changing the way we do business." -- Back cover of the CD booklet for the Dixie Chicks' "Home"

By now everyone who cares even casually about true country music knows the story of how Nashville was taken over by evil robots -- it happened sometime in the '60s, '70s, '80s or '90s, depending on who's telling the story -- and of how country radio subsequently went to hell in a multimillion-dollar handbasket. A subthread of the story is the gradual flowering of alt-country, a movement pretty much defined by the pages of the magazine No Depression, which sprung up in the mid-'90s to champion the spirit of rough-and-ready old-time country as it was interpreted (loosely or otherwise) by bands like Uncle Tupelo and the Old 97s.

Meanwhile, "country" has come to mean so many different things to so many people -- is it Johnny Cash's weatherbeaten crooning or Shania Twain's prancing-pony burlesque? -- that at the beginning of the 21st century, particularly with the music industry as weirdly fractured as it is, very few of us know how to define it at all. "We know it when we hear it," is the best most of us can do.

And as country fans of all stripes know, there is always a way to hear it, no matter what state country radio currently finds itself in. Even if an artist's presence on country radio represents a certain kind of success or acceptance, there's no doubt that "real" country is always happening in the margins, in clubs and coffeehouses, and on smaller labels or self-produced records.

But what if, at first in our minds and later in the actual industry, the gap between "mainstream" country and "outsider" country actually started to narrow? There's evidence this is happening right now. For one thing, there's the enormous bluegrass revival sparked by the popularity of the soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (Country radio continues to ignore that phenomenon, despite the fact that the "O Brother" soundtrack sold some 6 million copies.) Then there are the tremendous artistic strides being made by women in country.

Three fine, and very different, country records have been released by women artists within the past two months: One of them, the Dixie Chicks' "Home," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, knocking Eminem down a notch. The other two, Kelly Willis' "Easy" and Allison Moorer's "Miss Fortune," although they were both made by artists with a small but solid following among critics and fans alike, don't stand a chance of becoming anywhere near as commercially successful. But these three records, released within weeks of one another, straddle the space between what country means today and what it can mean -- and suggest that the distance may be collapsing.

Taken together as a snapshot of the current state of country music (however we define it), these three records stand in stark opposition to the gummy plastickiness of country divas like Twain and Faith Hill. They're as different from one another as morning, afternoon and evening, yet in terms of their craftsmanship and honesty they're not so different at all.

Willis and Moorer, of course, work on a much smaller scale than the Dixie Chicks: They don't have arenas full of fans to please, and at this point the idea of country radio airplay has become such a pipe dream for most artists that it won't faze them if they don't get it. What's more, the Dixie Chicks, you could argue, have always had as carefully cultivated an image as Twain -- the difference, and it's a significant one, is that they at least made better music. Still, there always seemed to be something suspiciously prefab about them: Whether it was fair to say it or not, they just seemed to sound like the right girls at the right time.

But "Home" sounds almost shockingly fresh and unmanicured -- in other words, less tailored for country radio than you'd probably expect. That's not to say it doesn't have commercial appeal. "Home" is a mainstream record pure and simple, and doesn't pretend to be otherwise. But the Dixie Chicks sing as if they don't give a damn whether they're hot or not, and that makes all the difference. There's often something magnificently rough or off about their harmonies -- these aren't pop harmonies, with all their attendant easily grasped pleasures, but mountain harmonies, whose trickier beauty lies in the way they sometimes slide dangerously close to being "wrong."

Lead vocalist Natalie Maines (her father is Austin pedal-steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, who has played with Joe Ely, among others) goes for gutsiness over warbly vulnerability every time, even on the album's ballads; Emily Robison and Martie Maguire add richly shaded harmony vocals and weave lustrous textures out of fiddle, banjo and mandolin.

The most wholly gorgeous song on "Home" is the Chicks' version of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" -- not a cover of a pop song, but a way of revealing the truth that "Landslide" was a country song all along, a plaintive beauty directly descended from the old English and Scottish ballads from which country sprang in the first place. Other songs on "Home" push the boundaries of how much melodrama an artist can, or should, get away with, which is a fine country tradition in itself.

"Travelin' Soldier," about a young girl left behind by a soldier who ends up dying in Vietnam, ends up working on you perhaps less because of the lyrics themselves than for the way Maines stretches them taut over the boughlike frame built by Robison and Maguire's fiddle, dobro and accordion. ("Travelin' Soldier" was written by singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, who had a hand in all three of the records dealt with here: He's married to Willis, and sang backing vocals on "Easy"; he also co-wrote one song on Moorer's "Miss Fortune." And he's Emily Robison's brother-in-law -- she's married to his brother, singer-songwriter Charlie Robison.)

The album's first hit single, "Long Time Gone," is notable for a verse that takes a swinging jab at the current state of country radio: "We listen to the radio to hear what's cookin' / But the music ain't got no soul/ Now they sound tired but they don't sound haggard/ They got money but they don't have cash/ They got Junior but they don't have Hank."

"Long Time Gone" (written by Darrell Scott) isn't about country music per se but about the overall impossibility of recapturing the past in our lives. And the Dixie Chicks recently told a New York Times interviewer that the song wasn't political in any way -- it wasn't intended as a challenge to radio programmers.

But do we trust the teller of the tale, or the tale itself? Whether or not the Dixie Chicks intended "Long Time Gone" as an overt anti-country radio statement, its presence on the record is by itself something of a dare. As radio programmer Darren Davis told the Times, "Do we have a choice not to play the Dixie Chicks? Sure, we have a choice, but one also has a choice to cut off one's nose to spite their face. The Dixie Chicks are the biggest of the big right now. We play their music as often as we can get it on the air."

Which means that that unintentionally subversive verse in "Long Time Gone" is spreading forth on the airwaves hour after hour, day after day. Dixie Chicks may be laughing all the way to the bank, but as that old '60s chestnut goes, If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Dixie Chicks, working from an indisputable position of power in the industry, may be part of the sneaky solution to fixing what's wrong with mainstream country music.

"We are changing the way we do business." That quote from the Dixie Chicks' CD sleeve (it's actually a photograph of one of those signs made with big plastic letters stuck into a ridged lit-up background, the kind you can still find outside motels and mom-and-pop restaurants in certain parts of the country) may mean nothing at all. Or it may mean everything, an exhortation for the country music industry to change its way of doing business. Sure, it will always be something of a Jezebel, but it doesn't have to be such a low-class one. The Dixie Chicks aren't telling us exactly what that crypto-inspirational message on their CD booklet means, but maybe that's because they prefer to sing it. "Home" just may be the sound of the wind shifting.

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It's always been a good idea to remain healthily skeptical about the country-music industry: In the '60s, the all-powerful Nashville establishment frowned on the likes of Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings (although, unlike today, you could still hear those artists on country radio -- in fact, their outsider status probably made them more popular with audiences, rather than less).

Kelly Willis, an Austin-based singer-songwriter, has seen the view from inside the margins of the country-music industry, although she now works on its fringe. In the early '90s Willis released a number of beautifully made albums on MCA, but she could never quite scramble onto the Nashville star track. In 1999 she released "What I Deserve" on Rykodisc, which helped her find her natural audience: country music fans who care less about leather hot pants and dog collars than about astute, well-shaped songs brought to life by a pure, clear country voice -- a voice that carries with it both a healthy reverence for tradition and an understanding of how to make tradition sound modern.

"Easy," Willis' second album for Rykodisc and her fifth overall, sounds comfortably homey and bluegrassy when you listen to it casually. But there's always a prickly underside to Willis' work, as if it were informed by an awareness that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Willis' voice is shot through with sunlight and threads of honey; it's a bracingly confident voice, but its vulnerability shimmers through, too.

On "Wait Until Dark" (which Willis wrote with John Leventhal), Willis sings as one-half of a pair of illicit lovers who have to stay away from one another until the sun sets. Willis floats along on the drifting, mournful melody: "We have to waste the day/ We have to hide the way that we are." Her voice is knowing, sophisticated, vaguely regretful but aware that there are times when all of us succumb to life's complications; the song's lovers are cast as a couple of troubled, sympathetic vampires, people whose happiness comes bundled with desperation and suffering.

There are strong moral underpinnings to the country tradition: Millions of songs have been written about no-good, cheating fellers or wicked women who steal men's hearts away. (The flip side is that country music is also sympathetic to people who make mistakes, who find themselves doing things they never could have imagined themselves doing.)

Willis is a completely modern country singer in the way she deals with the genre's moralism: On Paul Kelly's "You Can't Take It With You," she reworks an old-time gospel theme, reminding us that we can't take our hard-earned riches to the grave with us. That's as upright and God-fearing a morsel of advice as ever there was -- but the twist of the song is that it also reminds us that our reputations, our ideals and even our love will be of no use to us when we're gone.

The suggestion is that we need to spend all that good stuff here, an idea that's steeped in good sense as opposed to sanctimony. And the song's banjo, acoustic guitar and mandolin, scrambling along together in a joyous chipmunk race, are almost sinfully seductive, probably because the best way to make an impression on people is, after all, to impart pleasure.

Moorer's "Miss Fortune" offers another sort of pleasure -- a darker, more brooding one, and one that doesn't always sit comfortably. "Miss Fortune" is Moorer's third album; like her previous two, "The Hardest Part" (2000) and "Alabama Song" (1998), it was executive-produced by Nashville titan Tony Brown. (Moorer is the sister of fellow country singer Shelby Lynne. The family's personal history is spliced through with tragedy: In the mid-'80s, Moorer and Lynne's father shot their mother during an argument and then turned the gun on himself.)

Moorer's record is a spectacular one; but unlike Willis' "Easy," I can't say it's one I'll reach for again and again. While I think it's crucial, in Moorer's case especially, to resist making easy pop-psychology pronouncements about artists on the basis of what we know (or think we know) about their lives, I think it's safe to say that Moorer's music is ultimately shaded by the realization that safety and comfort are always just out of her grasp. In its tone and timbre, in the way it's heavy with ghosts, in the way it leaves you feeling as if nothing will ever be quite right again, it reminds me of Mikal Gilmore's devastating and staggeringly beautiful memoir "Shot in the Heart," which deals with Mikal's complicated relationship with his older brother, executed killer Gary Gilmore, and with the specters of tragedy that trailed the family like a curse.

Moorer (who wrote or co-wrote nearly every song on the album) doesn't just give us songs about tough times and heartache as temporary states of being, as events that one can get over like a toothache; she sings about lives you just wouldn't want to lead. Some of these songs are old-time story ballads laden with tragic exaggeration. "Ruby Jewel Was Here" tells the story of a young girl, the daughter of a turn-of-the-century whore and opium addict, who shoots the brothel patron who takes her virginity.

Moorer doesn't make Ruby Jewel an easy symbol -- Ruby goes to the gallows for her "crime." Moorer sings with a snarl, making it clear that Ruby would want nothing to do with new-millennium bleeding-heart feminism; her suffering could never be recruited for anything so cheap as a mere cause. "Ruby Jewel" is just as hard a song as its name suggests, and the voice of its singer (although not her heart) is harder still: It's the diamond that hasn't forgotten it came from carbon.

"Miss Fortune" isn't technically a country album, but it's a Southern record if there ever was one, a '60s style R&B record in the vein of Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, accented by horns that sound borrowed from Muscle Shoals. Moorer's songs get you precisely because it's hard to resist their alluring, good-timey sound. In fact, if you never bother to listen to the words, you'll be convinced "Miss Fortune" is a much happier record than it actually is.

"Yessirree" sounds like a relief at first, a description of the kind of neighborhood bar where everyone feels welcome to drown their sorrows. Then you hit the line "Each morning at eight it opens its gates for all of my buddies and me," and you realize Moorer is describing a more desolate reality, one without regular working hours -- regular hours for anything, really, except drinking.

But it was the last song on "Miss Fortune" that really did me in: All I could think of was what the great producer Jerry Wexler reportedly said when he first heard Big Star's gorgeous and stone-dark masterpiece "Big Star 3rd." "Baby," Wexler told Jim Dickinson, the studio musician extraordinaire who had sent him the demo, "that tape you sent me makes me very uncomfortable."

Loping and funereal (though in the New Orleans sense), "Dying Breed" is a thumbnail sketch of a human being in love with a death's head image of herself. "I take a red and blue one from my mama's purse/ I wash 'em down with homemade wine to see what kicks in first." Moorer sings the line -- the whole song, in fact -- with more than a dash of black humor, which makes it even more rattling. "I take after my family, my fate's the blood in me/ No one grows old in this household, we are a dying breed."

The lines ring with the romance of family pride that stretches back for generations. They're an assertion of the self-love that binds both the healthiest and the most twisted families together. Blood is thicker than water, but not nearly so binding as bourbon.

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So how is "Miss Fortune" or "Easy" or even a record as instantly huge as "Home" going to save country music?

And why is it women's job to save country at all? It's not as if male country artists don't have either the talent or the means: Alan Jackson and George Strait raised a ruckus a few years back with their anti-country-radio anthem "Murder on Music Row." Although not much has changed in the interim, you can't say they didn't open at least some country fans' eyes a little wider.

But women have several advantages over men, and let's get the shallowest one out of the way first: Good looks never hurt. Willis has porcelain skin and a shy, earnest smile; Moorer has a voluptuous pout and a direct, challenging, enticing gaze. And the Dixie Chicks? Face it -- they're total babes in their asymmetrical miniskirts and high-heeled boots. (As Dolly Parton would be the first to tell you, country music always needs a high glamour quotient.)

Beyond that, we all know that women can get away with certain acts of mischief that men can't -- they have the stealth factor in their favor. Neither "Miss Fortune" nor "Easy" will sell anywhere near as briskly as "Home." But both records offer something that's in short supply on any chart these days, country, pop or otherwise: a sense of surprise.

Willis' records are consistently terrific, but every time I hear her I'm reminded anew how perfectly she walks that stretch of muscle between toughness and tenderness -- and I think, This is what I want out of country music. Moorer's record threw me off my bearings, plain and simple: I can't think of an album in recent memory that I liked so much and that I was less eager to listen to again. That's not a faint compliment, but rather one that butts honestly against the ultimate failure of all music criticism: In thinking about "Miss Fortune," I repeatedly rustled my bag of adjectives until I couldn't hear anything but dry bones.

And the Dixie Chicks? Their great strength lies in precisely how commercial they are: Their commercialism is inseparably entwined with integrity, know-how, talent, sex appeal and gutsiness. Country fans often claim to like their music unvarnished. But some of the greatest country sides ever cut have been, if you'll pardon the expression, slicker than a cat's ass. (George Jones' classic heartbreaker "He Stopped Loving Her Today," anyone?) In country music, a certain amount of polish is OK; slipperiness is not. The Dixie Chicks need never apologize for their polish.

And then, of course, if Britney Spears taught us anything, it was that stars are made just as often as they're born. Britney's success has record companies scrambling to find the next Britney, and that's a bad thing. But if the Dixie Chicks' success has record companies scrambling to find the next trio of young women who can sing beautifully, who have a finely tuned relationship with their material, and who know how to play their instruments -- well, what's so bad about that? Greater crimes have been committed in the name of record sales.

The future of country music, just like its past, is both on the radio and off, somewhere between the green glow of the dial and the white halo of the moon. One represents commerce, the other purity -- but the most beautiful music you've ever heard can exist anywhere in between.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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