The Curmudgeon: How Women Are Saving Country Music From Itself
As male stars dominate the charts with slick arena-rock formulas, it's largely up to women to take chances and find new ways to channel music's great storytellers.Photo: Alysse Gafkjen Music Features Curmudgeon
“Radioland,” the second track on Ashley McBryde’s first full-length album, Girl Going Nowhere, is ready made for country radio in 2018. In other words, it sounds like a 1980s arena-rock anthem and manages to mention both mama in the kitchen and daddy on the tractor in the first stanza. But just when you think you can predict the rest of the song, McBryde (pictured above) reveals that her daddy, as he’s plowing, is listening to Townes Van Zandt.
Van Zandt, who died in 1997, is not ready made for country radio in 2018. This Texas troubadour was so laconic in his language and so spare in his acoustic picking that he required undivided attention. His greatest achievement, the song “Pancho and Lefty,” is so subtle that it takes four or five listens to figure out who’s betraying who. He is so out of temper with the times that many in Nashville would like to push Van Zandt and his many heirs out of the country category and seal them off in an Americana sideshow.
There is an aspect of rural Southern music that Nashville’s Music Row honchos have downplayed while cashing their checks for arena-rock knock-offs. But there’s a hunger out there for music quiet and reflective enough that listeners might soak up the details and ponder their implications.
They won’t find it so easy to push McBryde aside. The young singer lets her rural Arkansas roots show in her singing as well as her writing. She knows that Van Zandt wrote top-five country hits for Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard (“Pancho and Lefty”) and Emmylou Harris & Don Williams (“If I Needed You”). She knows that Van Zandt’s sly understatement, neglected though it has been in recent years, is still as important to country music’s identity as Waylon Jennings’ amped-up testifying.
That’s what’s so impressive about McBryde’s Girl Going Nowhere. She can rock a song like “Radioland” like John Mellencamp (to whom she nods later in the song), but she can also understate the title track as effectively as Van Zandt. That song is based on an algebra teacher who ridiculed the songwriter for saying she was going to become a singer in Nashville. The tune’s narrator remembers that incident as she takes the stage to face a sold-out crowd.
It’s the kind of song that almost begs to be delivered with a Jennings-like swagger, a bellowing, in-your-face “I told you so.” Instead, echoing that teacher, McBryde sings, “Don’t waste your life behind that guitar; you may get gone, but you won’t get far,” with a Van Zandt dryness, slowly and softly over acoustic guitar and drum brushes. It’s as if the attempted crushing of a young girl’s hopes is a cause not so much for anger as sadness. It’s far more powerful as a lament than it ever would have been as a revenge song.
This is an aspect of rural Southern music that Nashville’s Music Row honchos have downplayed while cashing their checks for arena-rock knock-offs. But there’s a hunger out there for music quiet and reflective enough that listeners might soak up the details and ponder their implications. McBryde has a knack for description; her daddy’s jean jacket has “got a hole in the elbow, bandana pocket, silver button missing from the snap at the bottom”; a car accident is “a spiderweb where the windshield used to be, what’s left of the dashboard, the smell of gasoline.” And her arrangements are spare enough to allow those details to register not just visually but psychologically too.
Again and again McBryde tricks you into thinking you know where a song is going and then pulls the rug out from under you. The car wreck in “Southern Babylon” seems like a wake-up call, but the call comes too late for the narrator. “Livin’ Next to Leroy” begins as the funky portrait of a neighborhood outlaw, who turns out to be more dangerous than educational. “Andy,” performed by just a voice and an acoustic guitar, begins as a dis of a no-good boyfriend but ends up with his merits and liabilities nearly even.
McBryde is perfectly capable of rocking out. “El Dorado,” for example, begins with a paraphrase of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and goes off on a tangent from there. But she has a sure enough grasp of country-music tradition to know that there’s a time to be loud and pushy and a time to be quiet and sit back. The first encourages excitement and action, while the second encourages thought and feeling. Listeners need one as much as the other, and McBryde is one of the few country artists providing both.
It’s hard for male country stars to do that, because they’re making so much money dominating the charts with the arena-rock formula. So it’s largely up to the women to take chances and find new ways—or rediscover old ways—of making country music. Another Ashley, Ashley Monroe, is also exploring the possibilities of understatement.
Monroe resists Nashville’s diva temptation on the new Sparrow, her fourth solo studio album. She doesn’t belt out the songs nor embellish them with extra warbling notes on key syllables as if she were on a televised talent show. Instead she reins in her vocal power to tell her stories with a low-key confidentiality, as if she’s letting the listener in on a secret. Her voice has a velvety tenderness, further cushioned by producer Dave Cobb’s tasteful use of strings and a B-3 organ, that lures us in.
Watch Ashley Monroe perform songs from Sparrow at Paste Studio:
She might be confessing a troubled childhood (as she does on “Orphan” and “Mother’s Daughter”); she might be wrestling with a crumbling relationship (as she does on “I’m Trying To” and “Paying Attention”); she might be reveling in ill-considered lust (as she does on “Hands on You” and “Wild Love”), but she always refrains from a diva’s booming certainty and hangs back in a doubter’s conversational ambivalence. Her memories are sad rather than angry; her desires are smoldering rather than fiery.
Such restraint won’t win you any votes on American Idol from Katy Perry or Luke Bryan, but it will win you loyalty from country-music fans who remember the subtlety of a Patsy Cline or Emmylou Harris. Such restraint allows the listener to be more than the door at the receiving end of a battering ram; it invites the listener to enter the song and try to connect the dots.
This allows Monroe to explore the gap between what she wants to believe and what she fears is true. This is most obvious on “Mother’s Daughter,” a countrypolitan arrangement led by a Rhodes piano. She wants to believe she’s as steady as her late father, but she suspects she’s as flighty as her mother. “She’ll deny it,” Monroe sings as a reluctant confession, “but now that he’s no longer, she’s her mother’s daughter until the day she dies.”
Arriving in the same place from a different direction is Courtney Marie Andrews, an Arizona kid who got her start in indie-rock outfits including Jimmy Eat World and Damien Jurado before emerging as a country artist. Her most fully realized album yet is the new May Your Kindness Remain, a collection of 10 smartly written songs about life on the American margins, delivered with understated vocals over gospel keyboards and honky-tonk rhythms.
Andrews’s knack for language can quickly evoke a scene, even if we’d never glimpsed it before. When she sings, “Stuck in Nickel City, on the tainted side of the coin, El Nino brought a blizzard / Greyhound brought a boy,” she conjures up “Two Cold Nights in Buffalo.” When she sings, “Sonoran sun, it never quits / if you cover your neck, it’ll burn your lips,” she makes us see an illegal immigrant crossing the “Border” in Arizona. When she sings, “Empty cans on the counter, and the laundry is never done; the dogs tracked in snow and mud,” she invites us into “This House” in a working-class neighborhood.
Merle Haggard used to describe the down-and-out places in America in such vivid detail, but country radio prefers the broad brush these days. Andrews’s Emmylou-like soprano, reedy and unaffected, reconnects country music to these precincts. Producer Mark Howard, a former engineer for Bob Dylan and Neil Young, provides the sympathetic settings—simmering organ, churchy piano and roadhouse drums—and Andrews leaves enough room for the listener to come close and join this secular revival.