While creating art from life is not exclusive to one gender, in the last few years the ladies of country music have been resetting standards for introspective songwriting. This era of strong female lyricism harkens back to a golden age when the foremothers of country music broke barriers and sang with conviction and opinion. No one will ever replace Dolly, Loretta or Tammy, but the words those iconic musicians sang, no matter the thematic difference, paved a wide road for any woman today with a guitar and an idea. Here are six contemporary country ladies and their classic counterparts:
Loretta Lynn/Kacey Musgraves: The Fearless Femme
You don’t have to look far to connect the dots between the Kentucky-born icon and Texas-bred spitfire. Their kinship is rooted in unapologetic and often risque lyrics. Trailer park or coal mine, contraception or gay rights, both women take full ownership of their opinions. And whether or not they meant to be spokespeople for the social issues on which they musically muse, fame has made inadvertent advocates of the two.
While nine of Lynn’s songs were banned from mainstream country radio, it goes to show you how far things have come, as Musgraves was the first-ever country singer to perform at the GLAAD awards this year.
Skeeter Davis/Carrie Underwood: The Girl Next Door
Both Davis and Underwood are crossover queens who, strangely enough, are unique because of their lack of mystery. With talent that should intimidate anyone, they both come across accessible and grounded, as approachable as an old friend. Underwood is a philanthropic goddess with a roster of charities that would put anyone to shame, and you never have (and likely never will) see her name attached to any tabloid scandal. Both women have been open about their Christian faith and while Underwood has never faced any repercussion for her beliefs, Davis was suspended from the Grand Ole Opry for speaking out about her involvement with an evangelical Christian group. (The ban was eventually lifted.)
Underwood has secured herself in the fabric and fame of the country music audience and is able to take risks and cover edgier material that would have been too modern for Davis’ time, but both women retain wholesome persona that would be hard to tarnish.
Bobbie Gentry/Holly Williams: The Storyteller
Sex appeal and strong writing don’t often come hand in hand, and even rarer is the possession of those qualities coupled with an arresting stage presence. When Gentry broke out with “Ode to Billy Joe,” critics described her as “sultry, moody and smart” — a singer who wove a concise story from start to finish. Much like Gentry, Williams is a storytelling siren with smoke in her voice and an almost aloof command over an audience. Both Gentry and Williams deliver authentic, seamless narratives that remind the listener how layered and poetic country music can be… and sexy.
Dolly Parton/Miranda Lambert: The All-Around Entertainer
Dolly Parton wears a self-professed “coat of many colors,” and there’s not a single patch on it that can be described as dull. Lambert is far from being a wallflower, as well. Both women possess fiery wit, sincerity, humility, humor and — despite some über-feminine qualities — they are far from damsels in distress.
No smoke and mirrors are necessary to persuade any audience of their supreme talents, but smoke and mirrors they still employ, because frankly, why not? It’s fun. In the same realm, both of the women’s talents far exceed their image, but with an almost preternatural understanding of entertainment they certainly don’t limit the glitz. They sing, they write, they play… and if Parton gestured towards the glass ceiling in “9 to 5,” Lambert shot it out with one of her pistols.
Dottie West/Brandy Clark: The Clever Songwriter
Of all the women on today’s country scene, Clark shows the most intuitive talent for the structure of songwriting. With her pen ink all over the songs of Lambert, Musgraves, the Band Perry and many others, she released a record of her own — 12 Stories — last year. Having written with so many talented songwriters today, she’s easily compared to West, who cut her teeth writing with legends like Willie Nelson and Harlan Howard. Howard’s adage that “country music is three chords and the truth” aptly applies to both women’s lyrical sensibilities. Both cite Patsy Cline as one of their major influences and while West was actually a close friend of Cline’s up until her death, the haunting sincerity and tradition to country music for which Cline has been the poster child is deeply embedded in the sound, themes and lyricism of Clark, as well.
Tammy Wynette/Taylor Swift: The Superstar Without Secrets
The way these two women came onto the Nashville scene couldn’t be more different: Wynette was a single mother with a beautician’s license and three babies in tow, while Swift had the support of her family and a head start on her social media fan base. To call them musical polar opposites is also a fair assessment. (Kellie Pickler is certainly the sonic modern-day Wynette.) But the lyrical similarities between Wynette and Swift are aplenty, with autobiographically confessional narrative that often centers around one thing: misbehaving men.
Wynette was married five times and endured a media-blitzed public divorce from fellow superstar George Jones, and you need not look far for a paparazzi photo or late-night talk show joke about Swift’s relationships. In 1976, just after her divorce, Wynette penned and recorded “‘Til I Can Make It on My Own,” a mantra and method of operation with which Swift seems wholly familiar. (Just listen to “Should’ve Said No” or “Picture to Burn.”) Like turning water into wine, both women have created career successes out of personal experience and love lost.