By Gretchen Peters
Sixteen years old with a newly minted driver’s license, I drove myself to Ebbets Field, a 250-seat Denver rock club that usually featured acts like Tom Waits, Dr. John and Bob Seger to see a woman named Dolly Parton. It was 1974 and I had just discovered country music. It was like finding the Rosetta Stone — the key to the kingdom, the genetic code to all the music I’d loved and played for years — folk, rock, roots, bluegrass, gospel.
She appeared on the tiny stage in a diaphanous gown, her hair swooped like soft serve ice cream. She was utterly alien to me in every sense: nothing that a girl born in the Updikean suburbs of New York and hippified in 70s-era Boulder, Colorado, could get her head around. And then she opened her mouth and sang.
I still wonder what voodoo she worked on me that night. I only know that I found myself disarmed, overwhelmed and more than a few times in tears — and then it was over. I drove home to Boulder, picked up my guitar and wrote my first real song.
There was something about the authenticity beneath the fake hair and rhinestones —something that lived in the space between them — that felt like tumblers in a lock falling into place. My real education in songwriting began that night. You have to be real. The songs come from a place that lives deep inside you. The rest is show business; the songs are bits of your soul. You don’t create them from shiny, sequined words, you create them from that place that holds your pain, your dreams, your unguarded self. The reason the circus is magic is because, beneath all the tawdry sparkle and sleight of hand, there is a child’s innocent heart. So it was, and is, with Dolly.
As a nascent feminist, the deeper I waded into the waters of country music, the more fascinated I was by the steel magnolias who sang it. There was a strength, even a sense of triumph in “Stand By Your Man” that warned me off dismissing Tammy Wynette as a southern Stepford Wife. Patsy Cline may have sounded lovelorn singing “Crazy,” but she sounded like a badass, too — especially slinking through “Walkin’ After Midnight”. But the woman that most embodied this dichotomy was Loretta Lynn.
The story songs were always my favorites, and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was her origin myth. There are all the hallmarks of the country song cliché: the hardworking father, the poor-but-we-had-love upbringing, the saintly mother. It could so easily have veered into hollow nostalgia, that territory where so many lesser country songs live — instead it’s so utterly real it feels as if it couldn’t have been written because it simply always existed.
Loretta, like Dolly, wrote her own songs, and mined her own life for them. At the height of her career, she wrote and recorded three — three! — songs that were banned on the radio. She told the unvarnished truth about what it was like to be a woman in the 1960s and ’70s, and it stuck so far up in the craw of the overwhelmingly male-dominated music business that they’re still spitting out pieces. But everyday women — and more than a few men —heard those songs and recognized themselves in them. She rose to fame at the same moment as Gloria Steinem, but, like Dolly, wouldn’t call herself a feminist. Neither of them needed to. They walked the walk.
Decades before I wrote “Independence Day,” Loretta Lynn wrote “Rated X” and Dolly wrote “Just Because I’m A Woman.” As a young songwriter, hearing them tell the truth about women’s lives made room for me to tell my own truth. I can’t imagine myself even wanting to be a part of Nashville without their example. Their songs made me feel like there might be a place for me at the table, too.
I hear them both everywhere today: in the sweet but steely voice of Kacey Musgraves, in the smart, knowing lyrics of Brandy Clark, in the plainspoken ache of Miranda Lambert. If they were the mothers of my generation of female country artists, they’re the grandmothers of this generation and are, if anything, even more beloved and revered.
They are the elders who whispered in our ears, “Go. Tell your stories, write your truths, sing your songs. And when they try to tell you that you’re just a girl singer, and girl singers smile and look pretty and sing about their broken hearts, put on your heels and your lipstick and go show them all what a woman sings about.”