On Holly Williams, Kacey Musgraves, and the year of the woman in country music
If you haven’t figured it out yet, Holly Williams has made a country record which could, one might imagine, in a perfect world, reset the gauge as to what constitutes a country music album these days. If I had to name an Album of the Year right now, her new record would be duking it out with Kelly & Bruce.
That’s what I thought, at least, the first time I hit play and heard her sing her way through the bitterness, anger, fear, and heartache to lines like “I raise your babies and I kiss your lips, so why you cheatin’ on a woman like this?” Loretta Lynn may as well have written that line in her heyday, but when Williams sings it, there’s nothing throwbacky about it. Coming on the heels of “Why you drinking like the night is young?” the line betrays a certain timeless truth about the dynamic of an unfortunate – and all too frequent – situation.
If you walk past the signs and the uniforms and the preconceived ideas about the movement, what’s happening on Williams’ record is feminism, period. Her songs tell stories of women realizing that, for all their strength and wisdom and assertive personalities, all the personal power with which they were raised in a world that’s still trying to convince itself women are equal citizens, it turns out old habits die hard.
Old habits are another theme of Williams’ record, as is the journey through and away from them. Hence The Highway after which she titled the disc. It’s hard to say if all of this was intentional, but these themes recur throughout the album and, once you spot them (which, how could you not, given the blatancy of the opening track?), it’s hard to put the images back into a case.
Similarly, there’s a new disc streaming on NPR right now from Kacey Musgraves – an als0-young, als0-Nashville-based singer-songwriter who also approaches mainstream-palatable country music through a lens of feminism and Americana, maybe not necessarily in that order. On first listen, Musgraves’ disc struck me as a little more twee than Williams’ gritty raw energy, but then I read what Ann Powers had to say about it and listened again, and the rusty edges started showing. (It’s a wonderful thing when criticism does what it’s supposed to, don’t you think?)
But, here’s the thing. On Powers’ Facebook wall, I felt inclined to call the disc out as less hard-hitting than Williams’ effort. As soon as I hit “enter”, I stepped back from myself, found myself asking the question: Am I comparing these albums because they were both made by pretty young girls? Or am I comparing them because there are actual sonic similarities? What young twee male country singer who could be enjoyed by Americana artists could I compare Musgraves to? What about that kid – he was nominated for a Grammy? Hunter Hayes. (I had to look him up.) No.
This is what happens, though.
The impulse to compare women as though “female singer-songwriter” were a style of music, is ingrained. As a female singer-songwriter, I played those “women” nights at clubs. As a critic, I feel inclined to abolish that absurdity. As a woman critic, I’m aware that any attempt I make to conflate the work of women with the work of men could be met with eye rolls and blow-offery. And yet I find myself making a point of drawing comparisons across gender lines. If you pause to consider it, it seems silly to even say out loud (or type on a screen): woman is not a style of music or a form of expression; it’s a gender. Compare Lucinda Williams with Buddy Miller. Simple enough. Compare Ani DiFranco and Steve Earle. Even easier.
But, is feminism served when someone like me goes out of her way to try to find a man to compare a woman to, simply so she doesn’t fall into the trap of comparing her to another woman? Isn’t that a pendulum swinging too far in the other direction? Does it matter? Shouldn’t I let it swing that far when it was kept from swinging for so long (and continues to be kept from swinging for women in fundamentalist religious-run nations)? I don’t know the answer to that. And, anyway, the fact is that I believe Musgraves and Williams are drawing from the same tradition, aiming for a similar target. Sure, I think Musgraves made a record with hopes of it becoming The Big Record of the Year on Country Radio, whereas I get the feeling Williams made a record so she could get some songs off her chest and, maybe, hopefully pay some rent in the process. (And also, perhaps, Williams is aware that her name brings with it some automatic clout and the novelty that the Williams family line has thus far produced just male inheritors of Hank Sr’s legend, affording her extra leverage on a heavily-tapped legacy.)
Quest for fame aside, the target seems to be women telling the truth, no matter how it feels to do so, and no matter what the reaction. It’s a hat worn by Loretta Lynn before them, and more recently Elizabeth Cook and Natalie Maines (whose forthcoming album promises to have absolutely nothing to do with country music, if the buzz is to be believed). There have been other truth-telling women in mainstream-palatable country before them, but they’ve slid the truth into songs which were heavily arranged and surrounded by layers of pillowy production – so much that you had to squint your ears sometimes to hear the daring. (The Judds all the way to Taylor Swift, who does her damnedest, for better or worse.)
Granted, there’s a decade of life and experience between Williams and Musgraves. The heart with which Musgraves drops lines like “We get bored, so we get married / just like dust, we settle in this town,” could easily lead to the spirit of “I’ve been sitting here every night for a brand new song and a peace of mind,” in ten more years of uncovering the reality of what’s expected of women, what women expect of themselves, what we expect of each other. Maybe more importantly than any of this, what makes Williams and Musgraves (and Cook, and even Maines) comparable is not a determination to defy expectations, but a willfulness to ignore them. A willfulness to sing the songs they’ve written, the way they wrote them, without the filligree of femininity or even feminism.