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Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives

edited by Holly Gleason

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 11, 2017
Category: Biography

From the day popular music came on the radio, it belonged to boys. With good reason. Males wrote most of the songs, recorded most of the songs, performed most of the songs. As a kid, I followed music the way I followed baseball — just as I knew the batting averages of my favorite players, I knew what songs were on the “B” side of 45 rpm records, That made pop music much more than a hobby for me. It was a key element in my education as a male and a human.

If you read a lot of music criticism, this is old news. I’m certain that dedicated fans of country and rock know just how few female stars there were for girls and young women to obsess about. This explains, I think, why the female contributors to “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives” are so passionately committed to the female country stars they profile — these 27 singers and songwriters are crucial to them, both culturally and personally.

The personal revelations that power these essays make “Woman Walk the Line” two books in one. The first is biographical and historical, briefly tracing careers and lives. The second is more powerful: double portraits of stars and their profilers. Acolytes reflect on their idols, most of them women they’re not likely to meet. The imprinting – by songs — is enormous. Lives get changed. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.]

So we get Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Director Shelby Morrison, in her piece on Barbara Mandrell, taking us through the career steps that took her away from Lubbock, Texas. Bluegrass Situation’s Kelly McCartney connects k.d. lang’s coming out to her own. Entertainment Weekly reporter Madison Vain’s essay on Loretta Lynn examines her life — born in 1989, she started taking the Pill at 13 in order to keep adolescent acne at bay — against that of “the Queen of the Sexual Revolution, who had her first hit in prehistoric 1963. As a Long Island teenager, Nancy Harrison made a familiar progression — Billy Joel to Fleetwood Mac to the Bee Gees — before discovering the already larger than life Dolly Parton, who “wrote the songs she sang and was a woman!” Taylor Swift, writing when she was seventeen, shares her admiration of Brenda Lee. Rosanne Cash begins her eulogy for her stepmother, June Carter Cash, with a charming story that illustrates June’s belief: “In her eyes, “there are two kinds of people in the world: those she knew and loved, and those she didn’t know and loved.” Deborah Sprague went to her office as a man, but spent weekends as the transgender she was to become; when Rosanne Cash grabs his hands at the start of the interview and says, “We have the same nail polish,” she’s acknowledging the obvious and blessing it, a gesture that says so much about her.

Holly Gleason, who edited “Woman Walk the Line,” has an acute sense of her contributors because, like them, country music was not her first love. As a teenager in Cleveland, “the Rock & Roll Capitol of the World,” she was a promising golfer who turned to journalism when she injured a tendon in her hand. As a college sophomore, she was covering country music for the Miami Herald. Soon she was writing magazine stories about Johnny Cash and interviewing Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris; in her 20s, her byline was in Rolling Stone. She’s been a music executive, adviser to talent, and writer of a #1 country song. Her essay about Tanya Tucker precisely expresses the book’s thesis: “Music, like water, often moves and shapes us without our ever realizing it.”

A country song is generally a handful of images, a few hooks, and a fade out at the 3-minute mark. Twenty-seven women writing about their favorite female country musicians fills 206 pages. That’s a lot of sharing. And if you start at the beginning and read straight through, you may feel that’s a mountain of over-sharing. So don’t do that. Nibble at “Woman Walk the Line” over weeks, one rich bonbon at a time.

“The book that changed my life” — we’ve read that piece a zillion times. But “the music that changed my life?” That’s usually a late-night conversation between friends, private, fragile — a college bull session, midnight talk on a summer weekend, memorable more for the intimacy than for the specifics. Here, happily, women walk the line….and cross the line. It’s about time.