Woman Walk the Line

Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives
Edited by Holly Gleason
[University of Texas Press]

When I first saw Woman Walk the Line in a bookstore, expectations soared through the roof. From the looks of things, talented women offered up biographies about country music singers and musicians, from progressive-minded bluegrass picker Hazel Dickens to modern-day dime store cowgirl Kacey Musgraves. The list of contributors impressed, as well, with names ranging from No Depression‘s Kim Ruehl to a familiar name to Atlantans – former Paste staffer and Creative Loafing contributor Dacey Orr.

It’s different than I expected, in a good way. Instead of biographical essays – think Cinderella’s Big Score, but for country instead of punk – or a compilation of academic papers, the book features autobiographies of the writers themselves. The featured artist’s music serves as a backdrop to a youthful, coming-of-age tale or a shift in professional or creative direction, depending on when and where the subject changed the writer’s life. To be clear, the inside flap explains that the book is “part history, part confessional, and part celebration of country and bluegrass and the women who make them.” I didn’t read the flap that day, probably because I was trying not to spend money on a new book. The less I knew when I was broke, the better.

Recently, I spent a holiday weekend curled up with the book, still expecting trivial details about old music instead of heartfelt tales of how others’ lives were shaped by singers and songs. It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised when approaching others’ creative work, as writer Courtney E. Smith discovered when she bought that Judds CD on a school field trip to New York City.

As for the essays themselves, the best pieces find the writer seeing a little bit of herself in an established country singer. Sometimes, that connection is emotional. Deborah Sprague found courage in her transgender identity through the realness and honesty of Roseanne Cash. Others, like The Bluegrass Situation managing editor and k.d. lang devotee Kelly McCartney, were comforted with knowing that country-influenced artists can fearlessly look and love different than the supposed norm.

Those examples and others showcase the sorts of emotional bonds fans build with their favorite music. Freelance music journalists in particular have a Road to Damascus moment or two where they decide they won’t be happy with any other job. Reading these women’s stories will have creative types reflecting back on the artist, album or live set that forced them to put artistic freedom ahead of financial gain.