On a recent vacation, the book I brought with me was Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives. Edited by Holly Gleason with essays by a number of female writers and journalists, it contains profiles of country music artists, past and present, and how they affected that writer’s life. Great idea for a book, and interesting reading.
Some of the musicians profiled are Maybelle Carter, Wanda Jackson, Hazel Dickens, Bobbie Gentry, Emmylou Harris, all the way up to Patty Griffin. I knew very little about most of these ladies, and a few I’d never heard of. (Wanda who? Hazel who?) So this volume was a eye-opener for me.
Once arrived at my vacation place (Jensen Beach, Florida, to be exact) I had the idea of looking up each of the 26 woman artists on YouTube, for a better idea of what they were about, and what I’d been missing. A fine vacation project; I was psyched. The beach could wait!
I knew a little about Maybelle Carter (I’d seen Walk the Line) but had no clue about Wanda Jackson. Holly George-Warren describes Wanda’s start as a very young country singer, then a rockabilly girl who toured with early Elvis. She’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but she veered back to country in the early 60’s. Here, she takes a Willie Nelson tune and makes it her own:
In the Hazel Dickens chapter, the term ‘plangent tone’ turns up. These tones are described by the writer Ronni Lundi this way: ‘They fall on listeners like electric shocks, making your hair stand on end, your ears tingle, and even, sometimes, your eyes weep tears.” You can get a sense of this phenomena from Mama’s Hand, taken from a documentary:
Kim Ruell was in New York City on September 11, 2001, and suffered through six years of PTSD. What helped her to emerge from it was the music of Patty Griffin. Even now, this music takes the rough edges off the author’s life. Here, Griffin sings with Emmylou Harris, on Trapeze.
A final thought on country music and the plangent tone. When my girlfriend and I went to our first bluegrass concert a few years back, the last group to play was a family band. The grown up kids were in charge, but one of them called out to their mother, sitting nearby. “Now, Mama’s retired. But every now and then we ask to her to sing a little. Mama, would you come on up?”
The crowd went a little crazy and the air turned electric. Then the elderly woman, with the aid of a walker, made her painstaking way to the stage. I couldn’t imagine what the old girl could possibly contribute, but we clapped our encouragement with the rest.
Once she was settled in with guitar strapped on and the song began, it was easy to see that Mama was the missing ingredient. Her voice didn’t overpower the others but blended in nicely, adding a mournful, plaintive quality to the music that wasn’t there before. I was moved, and so was the crowd, who roared their approval at song’s end.
This, as it turned out, was why we came.