“Ladies love outlaws,” Waylon Jennings sang in 1972, “like babies love stray dogs.” Jennings was boasting. He presented himself as a desperado and would soon be the co-leader (with his Texas pal Willie Nelson) of country music’s nascent “Outlaw” movement. And Jennings, more than anyone, lived out the myth with his black hat, black leather jacket, bristling beard, hard drinking and caustic comments about the country-music establishment. And the ladies did love him for it.
These days, however, ladies are less likely to love outlaws than to be outlaws. In a gender reversal of staggering proportions, the outlaw role that was a male prerogative in country music in the ‘70s and ‘80s has been abandoned by the bearded gender and seized by the women. Further evidence arrived this summer in the form of terrific, rule-breaking albums by Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe, both signed to major labels and both testing how far one can push the envelope and still get played on country radio.
In 1972, when Jennings recorded “Ladies Love Outlaws,” country music was a tightly controlled operation. The major labels dictated what songs were recorded, who played on them and how the singer should look on the record sleeve. The songs were usually by somebody else; the musicians were the same A-Teamers who played nearly every session, and the look—whether you were male or female—was country-club clean-cut.
Despite this corporate mindset, the songs often romanticized hard-drinking, hard-headed cowboys who went their own way. Jennings and Nelson hit on the brilliant idea of adopting the personas of the characters in their songs. They fought to record the songs they wanted with the musicians they liked and to look as hairy and unkempt as their fans. When Hazel Smith, a Nashville studio assistant, dubbed them “The Outlaws,” that gave fans a hook for embracing these rebels within the system.
But female country artists didn’t have that option. There wasn’t a parallel mythology of women outlaws in song, so there was no obvious archetype to embrace. Even Jennings’ wife Jessi Colter, who joined her husband, Nelson and Tompall Glaser on country music’s first-ever platinum album, Wanted: The Outlaws, in 1974, was constrained by Music Row’s double standard. Men were given a full menu of possible personas, but women could only order the house special.
How times have changed. Today it’s Miranda Lambert who is able to try dozens of styles—musical, visual and emotional—while her ex-husband Blake Shelton is strapped into the new gender straitjacket for men: the party animal as teddy bear. The willing participants in this new male stereotype are able to drive home with the pick-up truck beds full of cash, for country radio is dominated by binge-drinking, sweet-talking male models. But the music is as boring as its range is narrow.
With a handful of exceptions (Jamey Johnson, Dierks Bentley and Gary Allan), the most interesting mainstream country of the past 10 years has been made by women. The big breakthrough was 2013, when Musgraves, Monroe and Brandy Clark all released their first nationally distributed solo albums. In the Nashville Scene’s Country Music Critics Poll (which I coordinate), these three women were voted not only the year’s Best New Artists but also the Best Artists overall. As singers and/or writers they contributed to four of the top five albums and eight of the top 10 singles.
Were these women just creatures of the moment, singing the right songs at the right point in history? Or were they major talents that will be an enduring presence in country music? Clark hasn’t released her follow-up yet, but the sophomore albums from Musgraves and Monroe suggest these women are going to be making important country music for a long, long time to come. And they’re going to do it by exploiting the artistic freedom that mainstream country now gives its women but not its men.
Can you imagine Capitol Records allowing Luke Bryan to sing smart, sly satires of small-town life like “Merry-Go-Round” from Musgraves’ first album or “Biscuits” from her second? Can you imagine Republic Records allowing Florida Georgia Line to sing dark ballads of loss such as “Like a Rose” from Monroe’s first album or “The Blade” from her second?
When Musgraves performed on Valentine’s Day at Rams Head Live in Baltimore this year, she wore white boots and a red cowgirl mini-dress; she was surrounded by five neon cactuses and backed by a giant photo of a desert sunset. She sang most of her terrific debut album and nodded to her influences by singing Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again,” Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” She introduced three songs from the then-unreleased second album: “High Time,” “Biscuits” and “Cup of Tea.”
In introducing that last number, she articulated her career strategy: “When I started out, I knew I wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea—and that was alright. I just believed that the people who would like it, would like it a lot.” This is a very different philosophy from country radio’s strategy of not offending anyone.
Musgraves is not afraid to rub folks the wrong way or to defy expectations. The title track on Pageant Material is seemingly a funny send-up of beauty contests: “It ain’t that I don’t care about world peace, but I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage.” But underneath the humor is the steely resistance to the expectations for “a girl who grows up in the South.” “I can’t wear a smile,” she sings over the melodic steel figure, “when a smile ain’t what I’m feeling.”
She pursues this theme on many of the album’s 13 songs. Country radio may spin the fantasy that its listeners lead perfect lives, driving their new pick-up trucks down to the skinny-dipping pond with a case of beer and a good-looking date. Musgraves reminds us that it ain’t necessarily so. “Nobody’s perfect,” she sings on “Biscuits,” “we’ve all lost and we’ve all lied.” “We’re all fightin’ with our mirrors,” she adds on “Somebody to Love,” “scared we’ll never find somebody to love.”
She backs up these lyrics about human flaws with music of appropriate scale: a tuneful country-pop that mixes string-band and rock-band instruments to disarm the listener rather than bludgeoning one with over-the-top production. “Don’t wanna be a part of the good ol’ boys club,” she sings with her fiercest bite. “Cigars and handshakes, appreciate you, but no thanks, another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.”
Monroe’s new album doesn’t challenge social norms the way Musgraves’ does, but The Blade does dissect male/female romantic relationships with unusual insight. Just as importantly she crafts a updated version of the Emmylou Harris sound, by giving a digital clarity to some virtuoso picking and sumptuous harmonies. Vince Gill is a disciple of Harris’s longtime producer Brian Ahern, and Gill works with co-producer Justin Niebank to make Monroe’s new project sound terrific—hitting that sweet spot between over-produced mainstream country and under-produced alt-country.
This is most obvious on the title track, which wrestles with the truth that most romances are unequal: one party usually cares more than the other. As a result, break-ups are also unequal. When her ex-lover serves up the cliché, “I’m still your friend,” she replies, “That’s easy for you to say, ‘cause you caught it by the handle, and I caught it by the blade.” Paul Franklin’s steel-guitar figure resembles a stifled sob, and he drops it in only occasionally until the bridge when it is unstifled with dramatic effect.
Such restraint is rare in contemporary country, but Monroe demonstrates how devastatingly effective it can be on such failed-romance numbers as “Bombshell” and “If Love Was Fair.” She co-wrote all the songs with the likes of Gill, Lambert, Chris Stapleton and Matraca Berg, and gets vocal support from Gill, Lambert, Marty Stuart and Alison Krauss. It’s as if Nashville’s progressive wing gathered the troops for one last stand.
Of course, there’s a reason the country-music establishment gives greater freedom to the women than to the men. The men make a lot more money right now, so there’s more pressure to not mess with the formula. The women may not cash the biggest checks, but in 20 years, it’s their songs that will be remembered.