BackBeat: Ladies in the Country rhythm

Nov 2019 BackBeat: Ladies in the Country rhythm

By Pat Murphy

Country women broke through in a big way during the 1970s

IN COUNTRY music’s early days, stardom was largely a male domain.

For instance, only Kitty Wells cracked the list of the 1950s’ 25 most successful country chart artistes. But that changed.

By the 1970s, six women were on the list. And no fewer than 70 solo records by female artistes topped the chart during that decade.

Here are 10 of them. The indicated dates refer to the year they scaled the summit.

Coal Miner’s Daughter

by Loretta Lynn (1970)

Although Lynn was already an established country artiste by the time Coal Miner’s Daughter came along, it became her signature song. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Self-written, it’s an autobiographical piece relating the story of a rural Kentucky childhood growing-up in a large family that depended on her father shovelling “coal to make a poor man’s dollar.”

Life wasn’t easy but the family held together and Lynn was imbued with an intense sense of identity. There are worse fates.

The song became the title of both Lynn’s 1976 autobiography and a 1980 movie based on it. For her performance in the title role, Sissy Spacek won a Best Actress Academy Award.

Rose Garden

by Lynn Anderson (1970)

Joe South wrote this one and several versions, including his own, predated the Anderson recording. But in commercial terms, she blew them all away.

Originally conceived as an album track, her version got single release in October, 1970, and quickly became a crossover phenomenon. It was huge internationally, making the Top 10 in over a dozen countries and hitting the summit in places as far away as Australia and Germany.

While it was neither Anderson’s first nor last country hit, it was easily her biggest. Careers are built on such things.

Help Me Make It Through the Night by Sammi Smith (1971)

Kris Kristofferson had an extraordinarily productive song-writing period in the late 60s/early 70s.

Help Me Make It Through the Night was one of the best and most commercial.

Many artistes recorded it – including Glen Campbell, Elvis Presley, Ray Price, Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. But a lady called Sammi Smith got there first and it became her career song.

Smith was a relative unknown from California when she cut Help Me Make It Through the Night. Emerging From the so-called “outlaw” tradition, she scored one of the decade’s biggest crossover hits. It was a certified million seller, a distinction accorded to relatively few country chart-toppers.

The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA by Donna Fargo (1972)

I saw Donna Fargo just once. It was the late summer of 1972 and she was supporting Merle Haggard at an open air concert at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA had been a multi-format radio favourite that spring, topping the country chart for three weeks in the process. And she had another winner – Funny Face – on the way. Both were self-written.

What’s Your Mama’s Name

by Tanya Tucker (1973)

Tanya Tucker was only 13 when she had her debut country hit, Delta Dawn. Thematically, it wasn’t the kind of song you’d associate with someone of such tender years. Then again, Tucker was precocious from the get-go.

Her first chart-topper came less than a year later, thanks to a classic slice of Southern Gothic called What’s Your Mama’s Name. Told in flashback, it’s about a man’s futile search for the daughter he initially didn’t know he had. Needless to say, it ends tragically.

By the way, if you’re partial to Tucker, she has a new album on the market. Entitled While I’m Livin’, it’s had generally positive reviews. Rolling Stone gave it four stars out of five.

Kids Say the Darndest Things by Tammy Wynette (1973)

Tammy Wynette will be forever linked with two iconic records from 1968, both of which had to do with the tribulations of the marital state.

First up was D-I-V-O-R-C-E, followed by Stand by Your Man. Years later, Hillary Clinton raised eyebrows by condescendingly dismissing the sentiments of the latter without apparently recognising its relevance to her own situation.

But if those two were Wynette’s signature songs, the 1970s brought another truckload of hits. For instance, take 1973’s Kids Say the Darndest Things. In true Wynette fashion, it’s about marital problems.

Jolene

by Dolly Parton (1974)

If I had to choose a favourite song from Dolly Parton’s extensive self-written repertoire, it would probably be Jolene.

Crisp, lively and propelled by an insistent guitar figure, it tells of a woman’s fear that a seductress might steal her man. Reputedly, it was inspired by a flirtation incident in Parton’s early married life.

The song has also generated a sizable number of cover versions over the years. I’m particularly partial to Olivia Newton-John’s 1976 effort from the Come On Over album. It could easily have been a major pop single for her.

I’ll Get Over You

by Crystal Gayle (1976)

Almost 20 years younger than her sister Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle had her starter sniff at the country charts in 1970. Six years further on, I’ll Get Over You provided her first chart-topper.

It’s not as famous as the following year’s Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, but it’s still a liltingly lovely piece. Melodic and melancholy without being maudlin, I’ll Get Over You sounds tailor-made for what’s been described as Gayle’s “warm, velvety vocal style.”

And like Tanya Tucker, Gayle also has a new album out. It’s a selection of classic country songs called You Don’t Know Me, and marks a welcome return after a 16-year hiatus.

Sleeping Single in a Double Bed by Barbara Mandrell (1978)

The title would suggest a downtempo bluesy song, maybe even a dirge. The hit recording, though, is nothing like that.

You might even characterise it as country disco!

Still, it was big back in 1978, giving Mandrell the first of a half-dozen chart-toppers.

I Just Fall in Love Again

by Anne Murray (1979)

Anne Murray’s recording wasn’t the first version of this song. Both the Carpenters and Dusty Springfield had previously featured it on albums. However, Murray did put a distinctive stamp on it, making it unmistakably her own. And Billboard ranked it as the top country single of 1979.

The story of female artistes in country didn’t begin with the 1970s, and the ensuing decades witnessed the arrival of many more stars, people like Reba McEntire and Martina McBride. But give the 1970s its due: it was truly the breakthrough decade.

A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.