Lowdown from the High Country
I have a habit of responding to conversation, direct questions, even the occasional overheard comment from a stranger, with whatever song lyric that—unbidden, but often uncannily appropriate—pops into my head. Friends and family find this mildly amusing or deeply annoying: others are just plain bewildered, like the man in the store whom I heard ask his wife, “Got everything you need?” to which I too loudly responded, “She’s an artist; she don’t look back.”
Not always a public nuisance, there’ve been times when I’ve been delivered from the horns of a dilemma when I realized that, playing in the background as I pondered the eithers and ors of an impending choice, was a song whose lyrics, once parsed, had the answer. This even works sometimes for friends. Years ago, during post-cancer therapy, a colleague came to our group session debating if she should start taking an anti-depressant again. She had good reasons pro and con: I mean, she was depressed. Not just sad, but “why should I get out of bed today?” depressed. But the side effects she’d experienced before had not only been bad in themselves, but seemed to exacerbate those of one of her cancer treatments. There was more, and as she laid it out, our group was no more able than she to see a rational preference. So our therapist suggested we simply clear our minds, close our eyes, and ask for an answer. I was annoyed at first to discover my busy little brain not only wouldn’t shut up, but seemed to be playing the radio in the background. And then I realized the song playing was “Marrakesh Express.” “All aboard / the train . . .” She started the pills again, and this time did well.
Okay. Maybe I won’t put out a shingle, as I sometimes threaten to do, and call myself a Song Lyric Therapist, but my point is that the words of popular songs have a way of seeping down into our unconscious, then percolating back up into our lives, with uncanny resilience. As a woman who has written, and therefore thought quite a bit, about the power of music in our lives—as a woman trying to make sense out of what our culture says to women about who we should be—this can be an unnerving realization.
Thirty years ago, when k.d. lang was still dressing in cowgirl drag, packaging her heart-wrenching ballads and brilliance in a roadshow fueled by the glorious chops of the Reclines and packed with romp, polka, and pop, I went to a full-house showcase for her in Nashville. Two-thirds of the way through her set, she launched that shining voice into a rave-up version of a song from my childhood, “Johnny Get Angry.” Filled with emotive hooks and a fiercely blasting chorus, this was a favorite sing-along from my tween years, so it didn’t surprise me that I and most of the other women my age were grinning and mouthing along: “You know I love you, of course / let me know that you’re the boss . . .” And then lang, who had been throwing mock punches to emphasize the song’s persistent pleas for an angry reaction as a sign of love, started miming receiving them instead. Suddenly she screamed, “Johnny . . .” and fell to the floor. The laughter that immediately greeted this shocking, seemingly campy move was first genuine, but then became nervous as lang stayed on the floor while the band vamped on. Intentionally she remained immobile long past the comfort zone, pushed the audience past laughter, past nerves, into awareness, and only when the audience had been silent long enough to really register what was going on, did she get up and bring the song to an end.
Under My Thumb, Stand By Your Man, “Run for your life, if you can little girl, hide your head in the sand, little girl, catch you with another man that’s the end-uh, little girl.” As a child, I used to fall asleep while listening to my transistor radio, turned low. The lyrics that entered my brain each night via the earplug that hooked into that tiny radio under my pillow defined the rules of engagement without my knowing it was happening.
Music enters us unmediated by the intellect. Every other form of art goes through the brain on its way to your heart, your gut, your soul. We don’t “enter into” music, the way we do with a book, a movie, a piece of visual or tactile art; it enters us. And it enters whole. When music is accompanied by lyrics, we absorb them before we parse them. This is a powerful experience, akin to certain forms of spiritual ecstasy, and so it can provide a direct connection to something at least subliminal, if not cosmic. This can be heaven. It can also be hell.
You can go crazy looking closely at the lyrics of popular songs. When my daughter was in grade school, because of my work as the pop music critic at Louisville’s Courier-Journal, we often watched MTV together. I didn’t realize how much I annotated what we were seeing and hearing until one night my eight-year-old sighed mid-video and said, “Mom, I get it. Rock & roll exploits women. Can we just listen to the music now?”
I’m still not sure what my answer should be, but I’ve realized the value in recognizing the counter narratives, celebrating the subversive, when you can find it.
Music journalist Holly Gleason showed up on my radar about the same time that k.d. lang did, about the same time as that conversation with my daughter. We were both spending a good bit of time in Nashville, covering the mid-eighties wave of country renegades, and became friends. Holly was almost two decades younger than I and her perspectives were often startling to me. She once cited Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” as a major influence on her life. I’d never given the song much thought, seeing it as a mere novelty vehicle to give Frank Sinatra’s daughter a ticket into showbiz. But in Holly’s eyes, it was a genuine call to female independence, the path out of the sorts of negative relationships I, and many women of my generation, had grown to expect as “normal.” I listened again, and discovered what my conscious mind had dismissed at the same time that I wondered what that song had taught me without my knowing.
Holly has always pursued the deeper questions, both in the work she is writing about and also in herself, as the receiver of that work. These are things I’ve sought to do in my own writing, initially about music and then later about culture through the lens of food and foodways, so when she contacted me last year about participating in a book she was editing, Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, a compilation of original essays by women with some connection to the music business, discussing the woman in country music whose work most affected them, I was hooked. I understood immediately that what she wanted was an individual and personal deep dive—not a general statement about an artist’s importance or the construct of the work, but an exploration of that liminal space between the artist’s intention and the listener’s reception.
And that is what the volume, released by University of Texas Press in September, provides. The subjects include many big-name stars, but their impact on the writers often comes between the lines: Ali Berlow writes about Emmylou Harris’s ability to open her heart to grief; a transwoman finds encouragement as she’s transitioning in the iconoclasm of Rosanne Cash; Holly’s essay finds the hot mess of Tanya Tucker’s life a contrast to her fierce and focused art, and from that Holly finds her own way forward. Even more intriguing to me were the stories about musicians I’d not paid attention to, or even known. Alice Randall writes of how Lil Hardin’s music, lyrics, and life gave her the strength to chart her own course as a black, female songwriter in Nashville’s overwhelmingly white Music City.
Holly asked us to each choose our own subject because the idea was to talk about the deep and personal resonance of that artist’s work. I thought about that performance of k.d.’s so long ago. I considered how deeply Emmylou’s devotion to her art has affected my own. I explored the fact that I’d watched a teenaged Alison Krauss both smash through the barriers to women in bluegrass and then stand her ground for her own vision when country and pop music came to call. But I chose Hazel Dickens, because that’s who my soul knew was “the singer of the song.”
The songs of Hazel’s I write about in that essay form a good primer to who she is and why she matters, if you don’t already know. The ones that seeped into and changed me as a young woman included her feminized version of “Hello Stranger,” sung with Alice Gerrard; “The Custom Made Woman Blues,” “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.”
Repeatedly her lyrics move us to rethink the assumptions we’ve made and make about who and how women are to be. Lately the meat of those lyrics have been more important and heartbreaking, it seems. Watching women all around the country step up and out of shame to speak the truth about the ways they have been abused and silenced in these last months has both filled me with awe at their courage, and despair that anything will truly change. That’s so much a part of what Hazel taught me in those songs—that, and not to be silent, no matter how deep the despair.
You can read about that in Holly’s book, and about the diverse and surprisingly liberating impact that music can have on a woman’s heart and soul. But I’ll end this by suggesting, as I do in the book, that you go now and listen to one song from the late Hazel Dickens, “Pretty Bird.” For me, some days, it seems to say it all.