Published on June 23rd, 2014 | by Martin Aston0
“Queens Of Country”
BBC documentary on the “Queens” of country music: interviews with country superstar Tanya Tucker, DJ Bob Harris and Nashville-based author Robert Oermann.
The oldest joke in the country music handbook goes like this: what happens when a country song is played backwards? Your wife and kids return, your truck and your dog come back too, and you find that Alcoholics Anonymous works. This is a genre built on the facts of life – tears, tantrums and tragedy. (Plus the odd moment when things work out, but only for a minute – a sentiment encapsulated by that country classic I Went Back to My Fourth Wife for the Third Time and Gave her a Second Chance to Make a First Class Fool out of Me.)
But who better to sing the blues that the women who lived them? Queens of Country (DETAILS) highlights the voices who defined country music as we now know it, with their soap operettas of struggle, heartache and excess – in order of their emergence, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Bobbie Gentry, Tanya Tucker and Dolly Parton.
“Country music’s always been sung by women betrayed or abandoned by their man,” explains R2 DJ Bob Harris, who hosts the weekly Bob Harris Country. “Even so, these women were strong-minded, resilient people. In a male-dominated industry, they not only held their own but called the tune. But they had to be absolutely determined to make sacrifices to live the dream. Their songs expressed the fabric of the life going on around them, and that’s what country singers do best.”
But what does it really take to be a queen of country? You won’t find a finer oracle than Nashville-based insider Robert Oermann, co-author (with wife Mary Bufwack) of Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music. That said, why not ask a bona fide country queen? Tanya Tucker, who broke through in 1972 at just 13 years old and subsequently enjoyed more than her fair share of chart-toppers and scandal (domestic abuse; public nudity; cocaine and alcohol abuse), gives her personal lowdown on RT’s guide to attaining royal status – and how she held on to her crown.
Robert Oermann: “You don’t have to write your own songs: Patsy Cline was simply a great interpreter. But you must respect that country music is a craft. It’s not enough to sing “ooh baby” or be a studio creation. A song must have a beginning, middle and end, and an emotional centre. If you play or sing, you really can play or sing, and if you write, you really have something to say.”
Tanya Tucker: “Country songs are so beautifully written, more so than pop. The words get to the bone of your heart. Macarthur Park is a great song but what’s it mean? A country song like Strong Enough to Bend, about two people who love another through the ups and downs, invests words with something real. How do you write a country song? Get a couple of beers, and then break up with someone. I guess we’re always breaking up over something.”
RO: “You hear these women on the radio and know exactly who they are. But what they share is how they’ve put their heart into the music. That heart-tugging quality in their voice is important but someone like Bobby Gentry could be sassy as well as yearning while Dolly’s 9 to 5 is about defiance and pride. You just have to be emotionally gripping in everything you do”.
TT: “Above everything, you need a signature voice. Nobody will ever sing like Loretta or Tammy, and if they did, people would laugh because we’ve already got one of each. Singers like Patsy Cline could get across a feeling better than anyone. It’s that something in the voice, at the back of the throat, like they sung from the gut, as music should be. They lived their music, and didn’t hide anything. But look what happened to them.”
RO: “It’s an extremely difficult life, always travelling – in Patsy Cline’s day, before tour buses, she’s sleep in the car between shows. You’re always expected to be emotionally available, to lay the truth of who you are on the table, and hope people like you. So you must be tough – tougher than men, because country music has always been a man’s world. At the same time, you must be vulnerable so that you can communicate your inner life. Steel Magnolias, as Dolly wrote”.
TT: “I had two strikes against me. I was female, and I was a damn kid! People won’t believe you, at 13, singing You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man, so you gotta sing with twice as much feeling. You must be tough enough to change a tyre, but feminine too. But when you hurt, you experience something that other people do in private. And touring is rough, especially if have kids. I’d do 250 concerts a year, but last year I did just 40. But I get rusty if I’m off stage too long. And I like to shop too much to give up! Or I could marry a rich old man with a bad cough”.
RO: “Country music is still primarily made by, and for, the American working class. It must reflect everyday people’s reality, which is busting your butt doing non-heroic things. You can’t act like a diva. Dolly’s not a diva – she doesn’t even have a manager, you just call her up. Just because you sing and make records for a living doesn’t make you better than anyone else. Out of humility comes a certain self-depreciating sense of humour that country singers have, which is essential or you’ll go crazy without it.”
TT: “You must keep in touch with your audience. If you forget who you are, you get like Michael Jackson. But be careful about showing the real you, because people hold it against you. I know better to save something back. But if people believe they really know you, that’s good. Fans think, ‘aww, poor Tammy or Tanya, she’s been through all that heartache, I know how she feels’. While the men say, ‘I could help her get over that!’
RO: “There’s a larger-than-life quality to these singers. Tammy and Dolly would dress flamboyantly to attract people, and nowadays people wear multiple costumes on stage. To me, glamour’s important but not essential.”
TT: “It’s part of the package. Like the Queen of England has to have all that stuff, or she wouldn’t be queen, or looked up to as much. We all have our version of glam, though. Dolly has her wigs, all foo foo, Loretta her big dresses, Tammy her diamonds, and so on. Being beautiful is another step, but you gotta go beyond the look. A guy like Willie Nelson isn’t pretty but he’s beautiful, if you know what I mean.”
RO: “Tragedy is not a pre-requisite either but it helps. The cost is that your life is an open book. Your bad times are as public as your good times. You don’t have to be poor either but if your folks are wealthy, you won’t be willing to bleed for this career. Most people are in this because they have to be”.
TT: “I sang with a bit of soul before anything happened to me but when I got older, I got my little shots of pain, but that’s the way love goes. Everyone goes through rebellious times: I just happened to do mine on the cover of the National Enquirer. It definitely adds character, like wrinkles. I’ve never got married because this lifestyle isn’t part of the matchmaker’s deal. But I have a very full life, with three kids. I’m doing fine”.
THE QUEENS OF COUNTRY
Patsy Cline: The Trailblazing Queen
Robert Oermann: “Patsy arrived as country music aspired to go uptown, to Vegas and Carnegie Hall. She proved that women can be headliners in country music but she sacrificed so much, by being away from her children. But she wanted to be number one. She was dead by 30 [in a plane crash] but she’s still present and breathing on those records. People say she was ballsy but insecure. She wasn’t a great beauty and she never believed what she did was any good, but those performances are flawless. She’s the gold standard by who all female vocalists measure themselves.”
Loretta Lynn: The Blue Collar Queen
Robert Oermann: “Loretta started singing when she was older and had had all but two of her kids, so her perspective was different from the others who’d imagined they’d be stars since their teens. Her honesty made her revolutionary, because she didn’t know not to sing about the pill or Don’t Come Home A Drinkin (With Lovin On Your Mind). She was the first to directly address women’s topics. She’s a scream too, and wacky! Significantly, she sang of independence, but was married to the same guy for years and years. Tammy, meanwhile, sang of being more dependent on men but married five times”.
Tammy Wynette: The Soap Opera Queen
Robert Oermann: “The tragic, doomed heroine of the bunch but she was an amazing, charismatic person with this fascinating combination of strength and vulnerability. When you wanted to interview her, you were invited to her house, she was that open. There was nothing you couldn’t ask her. She had one of the greatest voices, singing and speaking – her accent was Alabama honey and cottonfields, just beautiful.”
Bobby Gentry: The Mystery Queen
Robert Oermann: “She sang about dark subjects, like prostitution or the mystery of Ode To Billy Jo. She was a Vegas showgirl so she’d seen a seamier side of life, which was a different woman’s reality. But she became a recluse from 1978 on, presumably because she never had that outgoing, needy quality that the others share. I’ve never met her and I don’t know anyone that knows her”.
Tanya Tucker: The Tabloid Queen
Robert Oermann: “Tanya was the wild child, a pivotal figure with one foot in the Loretta and Tammy camp but a generation younger. She sang of madness and illegal sex, things that 13 year olds don’t sing about. She has a dark side, but she’s very open about her addictions. She’s had children out of wedlock, something that you’d think would’ve killed her career but it only endeared her more to her audience. I’ve met her many times, and she’s one of the most generous-hearted people you’ll ever meet, and the softest touch”.
Dolly Parton: The Trailer Park Queen
Robert Oermann: “She’s got the dumb blonde act but she’s the genius, an awesomely gifted songwriter and performer. She defines charisma for me. I was terrified the first few times we met but she couldn’t have been easier to talk to, and now she greets me like an old friend. Sure, she’s kooky but all these people are! Part of why they’re stars is because they’re different. First, they have talent. And people doing this for a living have a need that must be fulfilled. They need the public to love them. And that’s why they’re willing to work so very hard.”
Bob Harris’ Top 5 favourite country music albums.
1. Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. This was released in 1998 but it’s a bridge across to the feel of traditional country music. She’s an incredibly chaotic individual but so honest and real, and she expresses herself so well. She really lives her music too
2. Steve Earle – Guitar Town
3. Nickel Creek – Nickel Creek
4. Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around
5. Hank Williams – Hillbilly Hero
..and his favourite Really Bad Country Music Titles
1. She Offered Her Honor, He Honored Her Offer, and All Through the Night it was Honor and Offer
2. I’m Gonna Put A Bar In The Back Of My Car and Drive Myself To Drink.
3. Get Your Tongue Out Of My Mouth Because I’m Kissing You Goodbye
4. Nobody Wants To Play Rhythm Guitar Behind Jesus
5. You’re the Reason Our Kids are Ugly