Bookshelf: 2 new books examine racism, gender bias in the music world

Courtesy of Henry Holt / Penguin Random House

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Courtesy of Henry Holt / Penguin Random House

Books champion female country music artists, ponder Stephen Foster’s famous song.

Two authors tackle thorny issues relating to the world of music in new books out this month: “Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Meant to Be” (MacMillan, $28.99) by Marissa R. Moss and “My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song” (Penguin Random House, $30) by Emily Bingham.

In 1999, Shania Twain won Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards. Faith Hill had the biggest hit on country radio with “Breathe.” The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks) were at the height of their popularity and touring with Lilith Fair.

But changes in country music were afoot. As Moss explains in “Her Country,” “there is no bigger driver to success in country music than radio: it’s what propels the entire marketplace and keeps the ecosystem afloat.”

So when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 went into effect and media conglomerates absorbed all of the small, independent radio stations, women got squeezed out. Programming was no longer the job of local directors who sought diversity in their playlists and championed lesser known and up-and-coming artists. Executives and even robots started selecting the music that played on most of the of radio stations across the country, and a bias against women flourished.

Nevermind that the signature guitar sound of country music originated with Mother Maybelle Carter, and some of the industry’s biggest legends — Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Kitty Wells — were women.

Fast-forward to the present. Last year, only 10% of country radio airtime was occupied by women artists, writes Moss. Black artists — especially Black women artists — were nonexistent. And the practice of not playing songs by women back-to-back had become an industry standard.

That explains why bro-country dominated the industry for so long, I guess.

But despite being virtually shut out of radio, Moss contends a new generation of women artists have managed to prevail by thumbing their noses at rules and convention and pioneering a path for other women in the industry. To make her point, Moss focuses on three outspoken artists — Kacey Musgraves, who sells out arenas and wins Grammy Awards; Maren Morris, who’s penned three No. 1 hit singles on the Billboard Charts; and Mickey Guyton, the first Black female country artist signed to a major record label who made a statement with her song “Black Like Me” released after the death of George Floyd.

Moss chronicles the women’s careers, the bold choices they’ve made and the challenges they’ve encountered. And she explores ways the industry has tried to hold women back. High on the list is the industry’s reaction to the Chicks when they spoke out against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 at a concert in London. Music executives, country music fans and artists alike couldn’t jump on the bandwagon fast enough to shut the band down, and they succeeded for a long time.

That message reverberated with women coming up in the industry for many years, asserts Moss.

“Rissi (Palmer), Mickey, Maren and Kacey all heard the same refrain at every step along the way: any woman coming to Nashville with an opinion and something to say was going to put everyone on high alert,” she writes.

“It was like a warning,” she quotes Palmer saying. “The industry, the other artists who were threatening (the Chicks) and saying things about them — I think they knew exactly what they were doing. … I got the message loud and clear.”

But times are changing. Moss points to the influx of Black female artists such as Palmer, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts, and the success of The Highwomen, a supergroup of country music stars including Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby, as indicators that, with or without radio play, female artists are changing the industry for the better.

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Author Emily Bingham Courtesy of Jon Cherry

Credit: Jon Cherry

Author Emily Bingham
Courtesy of Jon Cherry

Credit: Jon Cherry

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Author Emily Bingham Courtesy of Jon Cherry

Credit: Jon Cherry

Credit: Jon Cherry

In “My Old Kentucky Home,” Bingham examines the complex history of the state song of Kentucky. Played every year at the start of the Kentucky Derby, the song is typically perceived as an ode to the nostalgic longing for home. But Stephen Foster wrote it prior to the Civil War as a lament for the pain of enslaved people being sold and separated from their loved ones. Yet, it was created as entertainment for white folks and historically performed in blackface. Sometime between the 1950s and 1960s, racial slurs were removed from the lyrics.

As a Kentucky native descended from slave owners and a historian by trade, Bingham weaves personal anecdotes and experiences from her own family into the scholarly research she’s conducted on the song. Ultimately, she holds up “My Old Kentucky Home” as emblematic of a country struggling to reconcile with its racist, violent past and how that history informs our present.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.