You wouldn’t know so just by listening, but the country music industry as we know it today has keyed into the philosophy of James Brown – or, at least, to the title of his monster 1966 hit.
“It’s a Man’s World.”
Need proof, outside of the often-pegged bro country era that seems to have enveloped country radio in recent years, leaving most female artists out of the loop? Then check out this factoid: Prior to tonight’s Rupp Arena performance by Miranda Lambert, the last solo female artist to play the venue was … well, Lambert again, in 2015.
High profile Lexington country gatherings haven’t exactly been welcoming to women artists, either. Red, White & Boom hasn’t featured a female headliner since it began topping its evening bills with major marquee names two years ago. Perhaps a greater reveal came in December, when Acoustic Jam’s bill of 12 veteran and up-and-coming artists at the Opera House didn’t feature a single exclusively female act. Outside of two Delta Rae members, Elizabeth Hopkins and Brittany Holljes, the roster was devoid of women altogether.
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So with Lambert laying down the law at Rupp tonight, here’s a look at 10 essential women artists — some established, others comparatively unknown — that are proving country music does indeed extend beyond the rows of bros.
Kacey Musgraves: The best country music news of the soon-to-be-spring, hands down, is that a new Kacey Musgraves album, “Golden Hour,” is due March 30. A versed stylist with the know-how to use tradition to her commercial advantage, Musgraves can be insightful or acerbic, as shown by online snippets of two sterling new songs, “Butterflies” and “Space Cowboy.” In 2014 she won the Grammy Award for best country song for “Merry Go Round,” an award she shared with co-writer and Virgie native Josh Osborne. Musgraves was a support act at Red, White & Boom in 2016.
Margo Price: The title tune from the brilliant second album by Margo Price suggests typical Nashville jingoism. But “All American Made” is a weary chronicle of family horrors and reluctant wanderlust. She can sing honky tonk with the best of ’em (check out “Weakness”), but braving life’s rougher pastures defines Price’s true country mission.
Brandy Clark: Think being a woman in today’s bro country climate is tough? Then try being a gay woman. But Brandy Clark has broken Nashville barriers with considerable critical praise, whether through her Dwight Yoakam duet at the 2015 Grammys or turning a masterful phrase in her 2016 hit “Girl Next Door” (“If you want the girl next door, then go next door”).
: Miranda Lambert fans know this name. Martin County native Angaleena Presley is one-third of the country trioPistol Annies
with Lambert and Ashley Monroe. But on her own, the songsmith is a seriously defiant voice for women in the country music workplace. Presley’s sophomore album “Wrangled” is her latest rallying cry.
Nikki Lane: A honky tonk priestess of the highest order, Lane has largely been shunned by country radio. That doesn’t mute the roots-savvy integrity of songs like “Jackpot” (“I was looking for sevens, they were coming in twos”) or the high profile company she keeps. But radio’s loss is the gain of Kentucky’s own Chris Stapleton. He recruited Lane as the opener for a show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas later this month.
Lillie Mae: A triple threat as a singer, writer and fiddler, Lillie Mae Rische — who goes by Lillie Mae, professionally — spent her childhood in a family band, was championed early on by country pioneer Cowboy Jack Clement and wound up in the not-so-Nashville band of Jack White. Her 2017 album “Forever and Then Some” is ripe with country style and smarts — and then some.
Natalie Hemby: Adopting the name of her Missouri hometown as the title of her 2017 debut album “Puxico,” Natalie Hemby is also someone who should be well known by the Lambert audience. Over the past decade, Lambert has cut roughly two dozen tunes Hemby has written or co-written, including the hits “Only Prettier,” “White Liar” and “Automatic.”
Jaime Wyatt: Giving new credence to the term “country outlaw,” Jaime Wyatt survived a drug habit and subsequent incarceration to cut her very telling debut album “Felony Blues.” The record runs from the unsuspecting jubilation of “Wasco” to the troubled grace of “Giving Back the Rest of Me,” showcasing a young voice within a very old country soul.
Jade Jackson: A songstress still residing in Santa Margarita, Calif., Jackson has revealed a penchant for dark, soul-searching songs and a chiming but tasteful electric urgency. Her music found an unlikely supporter in Social Distortion chieftain Mick Ness, who produced her splendid debut album “Gilded.” Imagine the lyrical ingenuity of Merle Haggard matched with the musicality of 1984-era R.E.M. Yeah, Jackson is that cool.
Emmylou Harris: Not a new name, obviously, but one every female country stylist of today in indebted to. Perhaps that’s because Harris’ own career was ignited in the outer fringes of Gram Parsons’ “cosmic country” kingdom over 45 years ago and has explored everything from honky tonk tradition to bluegrass to Daniel Lanois-driven Americana since then. She’s the unparalleled matriarch of progressive country.
One would be remiss in addressing the integrity of women artists in the bro country age without mentioning the music of Tift Merritt, Rhiannon Giddens and Alison Krauss. None are country performers in any literal sense of the term, although the ties all three share with the genre have provided an undeniable depth to the creative climate in modern Nashville.
Merritt’s first two albums, “Bramble Rose” and “Tambourine,” actually made serious stabs at country radio airplay before her third recording, curiously titled “Another Country,” moved her to a less genre-specific brand of songwriting. Giddens has been the darling of Americana audiences since her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops gained attention more than a decade ago. Interestingly, though, the vast stylistic reach of her music made her a regular in the fifth and sixth seasons of “Nashville.” Krauss, of course, was a bluegrass prodigy before her music branched out into numerous country and pop collaborations. She will be on tour this spring and summer with Willie Nelson.