How Kacey Musgraves, Mickey Guyton and Maren Morris Beat a Sexist Country Music System

The story of women in country music is being written anew every day, but it needs its actual scriveners, too, to keep a record of what progress is or isn’t being made in a genre that sometimes has wavered between nourishing and ignoring its queens. That role has been well-filled in recent years by music journalist Marissa R. Moss, who perhaps more than any other writer has made it her mission to hold feet to the fire when it comes to the still beyond-glaring inequities between female and male artists in the genre. A regular contributor to Rolling Stone Country, Moss has come even more to celebrate than to excoriate — though there’s plenty of both to go around — with her first book, “Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be.” 

The volume has as its recurring focus three young, accomplished singer-songwriter stars — Mickey Guyton, Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves — but takes plenty of detours beyond that core trio to explore the stories of veteran for bubbling-under female artists. It’s a book that sees Moss fulfilling her role as an activist-journalist, but that in its individual storytelling also reveals her astute eye for biographical detail. In other words, come for the agitprop about how a system that katy-bars the doors to female artists needs to be fixed… then stay for everything you always wanted to know about Kacey Musgraves as a pre-teen Texas yodeling prodigy.

Moss spoke with Variety from her Nashville home. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.) Also scroll on for a 15-minute excerpt from the audiobook version of “Her Country.”

You wanted to tell a big story on a big canvas, but how did you settle in on the idea of these three particular women as its anchors?

I wanted to tell a story that showed women that really blazed their own trail and made their own rules and encountered different challenges in very different ways. I really wanted it to be intersectional. and I thought the best way to do that was to tell the story through these three women, all from the same sort of geographic general area in Texas — the broader Dallas/Fort Worth area — who had made a similar journey to Nashville around a similar time. I wanted to bring so much else in, too: from these different modern and even younger artists to the Chicks to Chely Wright. But the leanest main story thread that I could do would be to tell the story of three women from Texas — and I also happen to really love the music of all three. Which helps, if you’re going to do that.

These three do have a lot in common in where they’re from and how they came up, and yet it’s striking that represent three such different paths to success. Maren Morris has had maybe the most uncomplicated story, in terms of just having had massive success at country radio, periodically, at least. She definitely pisses some more conservative people off here and there with a tweet about gun control or something, but still gets love across the board, including the traditional routes. Then you have Kacey Musgraves who seemingly has had massive success everywhere you could get it except at country radio. Then you have Mickey Guyton, who really has become a household name, lately, without having a hit. So were you also thinking it would be interesting to spotlight three women whose commercial journeys diverge so greatly?

Totally. I think you nailed it there: They show three unique paths. And I think sometimes we sort of lump women’s stories together in a way, but I wanted to show how different those journeys had been. And not even just in the challenges, but to give lots of space for their biographies and their stories, because we don’t always give women that too. We get preoccupied with having them talk about the difficulties, and we don’t get to just talk about the time they were 11 years old and playing in a bar, you know?

Maren, Mickey and Kacey in their different ways have really rocked those narrow definitions of what a woman is supposed to present in country. Kacey can be super country and smoke weed and hang out with Willie Nelson, but then really love fashion and show up at the Met Gala, and do all those things together. Maren can be on pop as well as country radio, and then do a interview with Playboy talking about oral sex. They’re all pushing these boundaries all the time and refusing to be boxed in by what a woman is supposed to present as. And Mickey has to deal with the fact that, most of the time, that’s blonde and white — you know, 95% of the time, and then the other 5% is white and brunette. So she has a whole different set of challenges even within that, that are far more intense.

Kacey and Mickey basically have become mainstream TV stars after genre-formatted radio was denied to them. It’s a pretty good work-around if you can get it. Do you think that this is more common to women, if not almost exclusive to women, that they or their teams are forced to find these alternate paths to be in the public eye, if the usual gatekeepers don’t seem to want to budge?

It sure seems like it, right? And there was no shortage of women who had done this, and to varying success, keeping in mind the degree of success that a Kacey and a Maren have been able to have, whereas Mickey as a Black woman in country music has encountered even more closed doors. But I find all of these women’s stories and the way they’ve navigated things to be really inspiring. I mean, I can’t play or sing a note, except to play like two Indigo Girls songs on a guitar. But I think what they’ve done is applicable not just to a musical path, but to a path for anyone who encounters misogyny or racism or any kind of roadblocks. That’s kind of what I would hope people would take out of it, too, is to be able to apply it to their own life.

These three figureheads take up a lot of narrative but are hardly the sum total of the book. Are there any of the sort of second-tier stories, if we can call them that, that you most enjoyed or wanted to spotlight?

I really found myself loving getting into talking about Chely Wright’s story and talking about the Chicks, and spending time with Mindy Smith and Patty Griffin and Margo Price, who has her own memoir coming out this year, so she’ll tell her own story soon. But that was some of the most fun stuff for me, getting into those… I don’t know if we should call them tangents, but other stories that I got to weave through was really fun. And to even get to weave some of my personal favorites that aren’t even women, like to get to talk about Charlie Worsham and bring him in, and about Hotel Villa [a place in East Nashville where burgeoning artists like Musgraves and Brothers Osborne used to hang out], and just show how much exists under this country umbrella and is part of this ecosystem here.

When you moved to Nashville from New York in 2011, did you foresee becoming known primarily as a country music journalist?

I definitely wanted to write about music when I got to Nashville, and I started this little music blog called Locklande Springsteen, because I thought the scene was like so exciting over there [in East Nashville’s Lockeland Springs and surrounding neighborhoods]. We wrote about Maren on Lockeland Springsteen in 2013 or 2014, something like that, and I think Kacey then too. It was a fun little passion project. But I immediately saw what were a lot of bubbling problems in country music.

I also got annoyed at how country music was sometimes covered by folks like… I’m trying to say this in a way that doesn’t seem mean. I wanted to fight for country artists to be critically considered. I wanted to do some of that work to help spread the gospel of country music as high art. But I also really got angry at a lot of the inequities that I saw — like, really immediately. So I gravitated really quickly to telling that kind of story, too.

To jump right back into that kind of story… Artists of both genders know the fear of being Dixie Chick-ed if they upset the apple cart anger part of the fan base. But you suggest in the book that women make more vulnerable targets than men when a controversy arises. You bring up how LeAnn Rimes was scandalized by having an affair with a man she would later go on to marry — and that when the same thing happened with Jason Aldean, similar circumstances who does not face the same penalties. Is it fair to say, even if it’s just Maren doing a tweet on a social issue, that these things are riskier for women in the business than men?

Yeah, I definitely think so. People have really resonated with that paragraph about Jason Aldean and LeAnn. I think that’s really resonated with people because it kind of punches you in the gut when you read it like that, just out on paper, how many No. 1 singles Jason Aldean has had [since his very short-lived scandal]. I think the permissions and penalties that we give men versus women in country music are so different. You can look around at any number of examples, I think, in country music to see that. Even to see to this day, Jason Aldean is selling (anti-vax) shirts that say “Hidin’ from Biden.” And somehow people on social media will lob things like “Country artists need to stay out of politics” to Maren and Mickey, while at the same time being OK with that.

I did want to make sure I was always accounting for, OK, if Maren or Kacey or whoever can get away with certain things to some degree, would that (grace) then be available to Mickey? And usually the answer is no — even things that we’ve allotted to let white women sort of do a little bit, Mickey would never hear the end of.

You establish early on in the book what probably anyone who follows country intuits to be true: that there were these golden eras where women were well-represented among the country superstars of the day — like the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when we had the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Reba — and that we seem to be about two decades past being able to even imagine that kind of equity. Does it feel like things were better for women in that period in every way? Or did the presence of those superstars disguise that things were still tough for most female artists, and we just see it more transparently today?

Yeah, that’s a tough one, for sure. Because we did have a very healthy number of women leading the country music charge in that moment. But there still was such like a deep layer of misogyny and unique challenges that existed at that same time. I think there’s so much that went into what ended up inevitably — or not inevitably, but eventually – happening. You had consolidation and the Telecommunications Act [leaving the programming duties of many in the hands of a few]. You had 9/11. And you had the Chicks (being tossed out) and sort of this crisis of credibility — all these things kind of in this perfect storm. But I think the fact that there were so many leading women probably masked to some degree what was a still a misogynistic culture going on.

Awareness of the vast gulf in representation for men and women in country came to a head in 2015 with “Tomato-gate,” in which a radio consultant famously said the quiet thing out loud — that women should just be a tomato in the overall salad of country radio. The discussion has been constant since then. But if you go to a radio conference, you won’t hear any programmers saying they barely play any woman because they are sexist. They insist that these decisions are purely data-driven or qualitative, and that if they were being given songs by women that worked, they would play them — but until those great songs come along and make things equal, consciously giving women more airplay than the 5-10% they get would be affirmative action.

I’ve heard that too, and I definitely think that’s a load of bullshit. I mean, if only because they still have rules that you can’t play women back to back. So what if you get five great songs from women but you still can’t play them back to back? And you’re still putting an unfair amount of promotional energy and dollars towards men. You know, these things don’t happen just organically for the most part. Every once in a while you have something like Luke Combs’ first single, where it does. But for the most part, it’s deals and payola and phone calls and all that stuff to kind of bloat some of these to the top of the charts.

There’ve been songs by women that should fit in and be perfect on a country playlist, and they’re not getting played. So I don’t buy that that would be suddenly the cure, and all of a sudden they’d start playing a million songs by women, if they were all about trucks. Because even Carrie Underwood had “Southbound” [a single right in that redneck/party/automative pocket], and it didn’t go to No. 1. So, I don’t buy that.

She’s too fresh to be included in your book, but what’s your take on Lainey Wilson, one of the few newer female artists breaking through to No. 1 in recent years, succeeding where other women haven’t? Not that she’s guaranteed a free and clear road going forward, either. Does she offer any evidence for the radio guys not lying when they say they’re just holding out for the right song or artist?

I like Lainey Wilson, a lot. But she’s the one, you know. There’s always the one that we let have a little bit of leeway for a little bit of time — and often it’s on a duet with a man. [One of Wilson’s two No. 1s was as a featured artist on a Cole Swindell song.] And it shouldn’t just be like, “OK, we have Lainey Wilson in the top 10 this week, and next week we have Carly Pearce.” We have 400 dudes at any given time on there, all named like Dustin, Luke and Jason. Women shouldn’t have to go above and beyond to stand out in the country sphere and then only battle for that one spot on top of all that.

The subtitle of your book is a hopeful-sounding one, though. Even since you had to turn it in, there have been some small, positive-seeming developments. Recently Miranda Lambert and Elle King had the first duet between two women (“Drunk and I Don’t Wanna Go Home”) to go No. 1 since 1993. Do we celebrate that? Or does the exception just prove how terrible the rule has been?

I can get really pessimistic, sometimes. Except for when I’m listening to the music; that’s what makes me feel good. But yeah, there’s excitement about, like you said, crumbs, and then next week’s stats will be like all dudes with bullets. So I don’t know if any of these small victories are leading to some kind of deeper change. I really hope they are. If they somehow reprogram people to think that you can play two women in a row, then that will be a very good thing. But I think sometimes Nashville likes to hold up the crumbs as evidence that we’ve done enough and everything is fine. That worries me, because I think it’s another way to just say we should shut up about this now.

The focus lately has gone beyond women in country to women of color in country. People talk about how many strikes Mickey Guyton has had against her, and then you quote someone who came along before her, Rissi Palmer, admitting that she felt a few pangs of jealousy when she saw all the attention Mickey was getting. So it really is relative when historically there has been so little love to go around for any of these artists. Cam was kind at the vanguard a couple years ago of saying, more or less, “This should not be about how we blonde women are oppressed.” How big a story did you want race to play in the stories you tell in this book?

A huge part. And as a white woman telling the story of Black women in country music — I didn’t want to suck that air out of the room, because it’s not my story to tell. But I did want to tell a very intersectional story that I think developed in real time with my own ways of thinking about things, and looking back over my work and asking myself if I could have been more inclusive, and in the process, asking other people to do that as well. I think in sort of centering that Black female experience or the queer experience, it’s not just a way of thinking that’s important to do in country music. I think it’s important to do in general. If white women are just fighting for white women, we’re never gonna get to a future that serves anyone. And it certainly isn’t a just vision of a future that we could have. So I definitely wanted that to be one of the things that maybe if you come into this just thinking about women in general, you come out of it with a little bit more of an intersectional understanding of oppression that could apply to any number of different things.

Looking at what is happening over in the Americana sphere, women are dominating the nominations for the Americana Honors, just like they dominated the recent Folk Alliance Awards, and the names you always see are Yola, Allison Russell, Brandi Carlile… It seems almost like the inverse of mainstream country in a lot of ways, albeit on a much, much smaller scale. So if you’re a woman making anything resembling roots music right now, and you see women being accepted in Americana, do you start thinking, “Well, maybe that’s where I should skew my stuff, since I’m not going to get a shot doing mainstream country”? That would be unfortunate, but you could hardly blame a young woman starting out for weighing the receptivity.

Brandi refers to Americana as “the island of misfit toys.” And it definitely serves as a home for people that don’t fit in in the mainstream country space. It’s kind of funny that I can go to AmericanaFest and hear music that’s way more country than you would hear at CMA Fest. But on the other hand, I do feel strongly that if you want to come into country music and have a mainstream career, like Mickey, you shouldn’t have to just say, “That’s not available to me.” You shouldn’t have to compromise on what your dreams are just because you don’t think they’re going to take you. So that’s why I won’t give up on the mainstream country radio space, even though I do feel pretty pessimistic at this point about it. But yeah, in Americana, the artists have built a really beautiful, inclusive community, and that’s a really good thing.

 

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