How women changed country music

How women changed country music
Photo: RM Photography, via creative commons

One of the first women that helped to start the change in gender roles in country music is Sarah Carter.

Sarah was born and raised as an orphan in Virginia. She had a rough life early on and by age sixteen, Sarah married a man named A.P. Carter. A.P. said he fell in love with Sarah before he even met her, because of how she sounded when she sang. This would be a foreshadowing of what would come and how good Sarah was at singing.

Later in her life, Sarah, along with her husband, started off singing in churches and small social gatherings. A.P. soon had the idea to arrange for a concert outside of Charlottesville, where they sold just enough tickets to pay for the venue. Slowly their fame started to grow and they were eventually asked to do a record for a record company in Bristol.

By 1929, Sarah could have been a national star, but there was one problem: she was a woman. It was only because A.P. fronted for the band that Sarah was able to sing country at all. In the 1940’s however, Sarah and A.P. divorced and she no longer sang for the public.

Another iconic woman is Rose Maddox.

Rose was born in 1925 in Boaz, Alabama. Her father was a sharecropper until the cotton prices in Alabama fell in 1933 and they had to move to California. The family tried every way they could to make money by trying to find work on farms and in towns they were passing through. When they did make money though, they never made enough to feed the whole family, causing the family to decide to give Rose to a postmaster to help lessen the load on the family and in hopes that she would be able to eat food for once.

Later in her life, Rose eventually made it back to her family, where they lived in Modesto and worked on a ranch. Rose and two of her brothers would sing at night around a campfire for the immigrant workers on the ranch. She never thought much of starting a band until her brother, Fred, told the family about a band he heard that made $100 dollars for playing at a rodeo. Fred thought this would be a good way for the family to earn a little money on the side. He eventually found an owner of a furniture store that was willing to sponsor the family.

Maddox Bros and Rose
Maddox Bros & Rose. Photo: Creative Commons

At first Rose’s family did not want her to sing due to her being a female and that at that time she was only eleven years old. Their sponsor, however, wanted a female singer and this caused the family to allow Rose to sing. The family started playing on a radio station in Modesto called KTRB and they called themselves The Alabama Outlaws.

Soon the family band became very popular and the band name changed to The Maddox Brothers and Rose. The band then decided to enter a contest against fifteen other bands in Sacramento in 1939, and they won. The prize for winning this contest was a spot on a radio station in Sacramento. After this, the band became so popular that at eighth grade Rose had to drop out of school.

Unfortunately, later on Rose’s brothers went off to the military and Rose had nowhere to go. It was hard for her to find work because men thought women still could not headline country acts and they did not have any use female singers. This left only one option for Rose and that was for her to wait until her brothers came back from war.

When her brothers finally did come home from the war, they started right where they left off. From then on, the band lasted until around the 1950s. Rose never did become the great stand-alone female country singer she wanted to be, but due to her being affiliated with her brothers, Rose was still able to sing, and that was enough for her.

Kitty Wells, country music
Kitty Wells, 1965.

The first stand-alone female country singer was Kitty Wells and she greatly helped improve the social perspective for women. Kitty became the first great country music singer and star.

She was born in Nashville, Tennessee.

By 1949 Kitty was thirty years old and she had accomplished something very significant, and that was being on The Louisiana Hayride, which is a cousin of The Grand Ole Opry.

By this time in her career though, Kitty was still receiving criticism by male singers. Many did not believe that a female country singer could headline a show, let alone make it big on her own. Kitty proved them wrong. She sang songs that were from a female perspective and that really won over many people. By the end of her career, she sold millions of records and helped to inspire the next generation of female country singer, such as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Patsy Cline.

Patsy Cline was described as being more man than woman and due to her singing honky-tonks when she first started off singing, she was one of the first females that were well respected by men.

patsy cline, country music
Patsy Cline, 1957.

She was born in Winchester, Virginia in 1932. She had a rough childhood and dropped out of high school by her sophomore year to help the family make money working in a variety of jobs. After work, Patsy would sing in talent shows, fair grounds, supper clubs, and in bars.

By age twenty-two she was signed to a record company and by age thirty she had replaced Kitty Wells as the star female in country music. Sadly, also at age thirty, Patsy died in a plane crash in 1962.

However, she became even more popular after her death than when she was alive. Millions of her copies were sold and her face was even put on a postage stamp. Later Patsy was also portrayed in a movie called “Sweet Dreams”.

Another important woman to improve the social perspective of females in country music even more than it was is Loretta Lynn. She was born in Kentucky in 1932 and endured many hardships due to the Great Depression and post-World War II. She was the oldest of eight siblings and she faced multiple problems at school and at home. By age fourteen, Loretta married a man named Oliver, and by age eighteen she was a mother of four.

The family had very little money out in Kentucky, so they decided to move to Washington State. Oliver worked as a logger, and he pushed Loretta to sing at small, local venues to try and make some money. Loretta decided that was the right course of action and she took up songwriting.

The songs she wrote were from the viewpoint of rural women, and the hardships they were facing. She also wrote about the gender roles that women were facing and how it should change.

In 1960, Loretta started recording her own music. During this time, women were receiving more cultural advancements, however, those advancements happened more in the urban areas. Her songs connected and inspired the women that lived in rural areas and it changed the perspective of the culture found in small, rural towns.

Loretta Lynn, 2005. Photo: creative commons

By 1965, Loretta was one of the top female country singers in North America and she had eight Top 20 hits within that time frame. She continued to write about the social conflict of men and women and even about the society and women in it, even as changes were happening in a positive way for the gender roles of females.

An example of this would be a song she wrote in 1971 called “The Pill”. Her song talks about how birth control pills should not be looked down upon and that it is a woman’s right on what she does with her body. This was Loretta’s last song until 2004.

No one knows why Loretta stopped recording songs until then, but when she released her new album, she was still using her old subject matter, female rights and issues. To this day, Loretta’s music has inspired and provoked change for women everywhere.

An important factor that also helped to bring about a better social perspective for women in country music was the rise of music videos, allowing women to portray themselves as strong and independent.

By the 2000s, it seemed that women were no longer receiving any criticism for singing in country music, and to some degree that is true, however, the view on women is changing and in some ways not for the best.

A perfect example of this would be the Dixie Chicks vs. Willie Nelson. The Dixie Chicks is a country music band comprised of three women, Natalie Maines, Martie Maquire, and Emily Robison, while Willie Nelson is a solo male country singer.

When both artists spoke out in 2003 against the Iraq war, the Dixie Chicks were suddenly receiving criticism and to some extent, hate, while Willie was receiving praise. There still is a stigma around women voicing their opinion of political matters. People view the same thing differently when it comes down to gender.

The song A Girl in a Country Song” by Maddie and Tae talks about how hard it is to be a female in country music. Women are only called upon when men want them around and in that same context, women have to look beautiful and wear very little as possible. The song then goes on to explain that women will not stand for this and that in the end, women will not become an object for a man’s pleasure.

Female singers have had many ups and downs from the early 1900s to present, but the overall trend has been toward women gaining more acceptance in singing country music. There have been and probably will be more a few hiccups along the way, although, women have persevered and made it out on top over each obstacle presented to them, proving that they can rival male country singers.


Taya Titchenell

Source: Female Gender Roles and Country Music, published in the Composition at Muskingum University blog. Click here to read original piece.


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