Sometimes, it can be difficult to notice a cultural sea change. At first, there's just a little, unexpected turn in the tide. But then, whoosh! The new current takes over, and old preconceptions are swept away. Country music seems to be in the middle of this process now.
Last May, the astute critic Jewly Hight noticed that while men like Jason Aldean and Kenny Chesney still dominated commercial country, a new cohort of female artists had begun to take possession of country's most hallowed sounds and subject matter. "We're hearing women working with traditional country sounds while they sing about staking claim to personal freedom and demanding equal footing in relationships," Hight wrote.
Country radio and casual listeners still favored male artists' rock-based, proudly redneck music. But their female counterparts were laying claim to the genre's essential ingredients: honky-tonk guitars and melodies worth weeping over; and supporting lyrics that went deep into the personal politics of family, intimate relationships and getting by.
That was before a few notable developments made 2013 the first Year of the Woman that country's seen in a while. (None of them, by the way, has to do with Taylor Swift, who was always only tenuously tied to the genre and who, despite a current chart-topping duet with her idol Tim McGraw, has now decidedly gone pop.) I count five major factors: three that sneaked up on the Nashville establishment, and two that made a major splash.
The most important new thing in mainstream country isn't a trend, but a person: Miranda Lambert. Though she emerged in the first decade of this century, she's ended up shaping the second. While Swift has been more important to pop music in general, Lambert — Texas-born; married to the telegenic, 21st century, good ol' boy Blake Shelton; and known to sometimes wield a gun and knock back a whiskey — is much more influential among country's core producers and consumers.
Lambert's hits, from revenge tales like "Gunpowder & Lead" to arguments for compassion like "Heart Like Mine" and "Mama's Broken Heart," explore the inner landscape of the modern heartland woman caught between inherited conservatism and a powerful awareness that the world is changing fast. And Lambert has put her money where her mouth is, forming the successful all-female trio the Pistol Annies, whose success has further proven women's viability in the marketplace.
The Lambert Effect has opened doors for many of the new hopefuls blending hard country sounds with feminist-aware (if rarely explicitly political) attitudes. Also key has been the rise of close-harmony duos and trios: Sugarland, whose Atlanta-style, liberal twang had a huge impact circa 2006; and Lady Antebellum, whose 2010 hook-up ballad "Need You Now" redefined country romance for a new generation. Women have eased into the limelight through these groups by sharing it with men: family act The Band Perry, married duo Joey + Rory, and the outstanding quartet Little Big Town have all put the spotlight on women's voices this way.
While the artists whose faces adorned the end racks at Wal-Mart pulled country in a different direction, the music's capital city also began to change. Thanks in part to the influence of culture-friendly mayor Karl Dean and rock 'n' roll scenemaker Jack White, Nashville is becoming known for much more than Loretta Lynn's (awesome!) ranch. Americana music, the bohemian counterpart to commercial country, has flourished in the past decade, with the Americana Music Association's annual conference and festival growing each year and the scene's darlings, from Buddy Miller to Emmylou Harris, growing into their roles as local royalty.
The accouterments of a hipster hive are all now evident there — locavore food scene, indie record stores, reclaimed dive bars, and a New York Times article comparing the city to Portlandia. This city, though still home to conservative institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention and Cracker Barrel, is leading the nation in job growth as it grows into a more diverse creative hub — traditionally, a more sympathetic atmosphere for women in power positions.
Those three coalescing elements finally jelled this year, and a new star has emerged to represent them. A critic's darling who's doing well on the charts, too, Kacey Musgraves goes even further than Lambert has in marrying a progressive sensibility with a classic country sound. Even more than Lambert, Musgraves has perfected a sound that invokes the great matriarchs of classic country — Dolly, Loretta, Tammy — without ever seeming constricted by vintage trappings. (Ashton Shepherd was here first, but her excellent albums haven't yet reached the audience they deserve.)
There's no doubt that Musgraves' Same Trailer, Different Park, released in March, will top many critics' lists — in fact, it's bringing in a new generation of listeners who thought that Neko Case was as country as they'd ever get. And beyond rocking an edgy image and attitude (her signature song, "Follow Your Arrow," endorses same-sex smooching and the occasional toke), Musgraves, like Lambert, works with other very gifted women who are ready to jump into the space she's created. Just one example is Kree Harrison — a background singer on Musgraves' album who's a fine songwriter herself and who went on to be the runner-up in this year's American Idol race.
Another friendly workplace, and the final factor that's made this year so great for women in Nashville, is the television show that bears the city's name. I'm hardly the first writer to notice that Nashville deserves to be called a feminist intervention. It's important to note that not only do the program's characters and plotlines support and celebrate women; many of the songs performed each week are written or co-written by women, including Musgraves and Americana vets Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin. And given the fact that the three most frequently featured singers on Nashville are female, even male writers have had to shift attention back to the feminine.
So it makes sense that halfway through 2013, I can easily make a Year's Best list comprising the following albums: Same Trailer, Different Park; Like A Rose, by Pistol Annies member Ashley Monroe; Annie Up, the second album from that group itself; The Highway, the first independent release from Hank Williams' granddaughter, Holly Williams; Spitfire, the emotionally unrelenting comeback album by LeeAnn Rimes; American Kid, by Americana veteran Griffin; The Stand-In, by a relative newcomer in the same field, Caitlin Rose; Love and Forgiveness, by Dusty Springfield's spiritual daughter, Courtney Jaye; Carnival, by the quietly brilliant Nora Jane Struthers — just one of several younger women making major waves in bluegrass; Pioneer, by the ever more rocking The Band Perry; and yes, those two volumes of soundtrack from the series Nashville.
Oh, and did I mention that the young singer-songwriter who might be the best of them all — Brandy Clark, who co-wrote Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow," hasn't even released her debut album yet? For women creating country music, and for all of us who love to hear their stories, this is truly Lucky 2013.