Photo by Ted Barron, stellar photographer and bloghost
Let Us Now Praise Famous Women, countryfolk artist and long-time WFMU radio host Laura Cantrell's guest post over at Boogie Woogie Flu decrying the dearth of female artists in the Country Music Hall of Fame, is a masterstroke on many levels: a good read, an earnest critique of gender bias in country world, and a great dissolution of the usual dichotomy between blogger and performer which can only lend further blogcred to the big and well-deserved buzz that Cantrell enjoyed for her most recent release, the digital-only covers EP Trains and Boats and Planes, a fine, well crafted country/folk/pop album with solid nods to a wide variety of songwriting greats, and undertones of Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams, and even a touch of Kathleen Edwards in performance.
In the folkworld, the issue of gender difference is actually much more subtle, and it drifts as generations go on. For example, musician and folk chronicler Scott Alarik, in his seminal exploration of the modern folkworld Deep Community, makes a good case for an anti-male bias in the crossover potential of that particular section of the singer-songwriter folkworld which has long been his focal point; as evidence, he notes how metorically the female Fast Folk artists of the eighties rose to pop prominence, while their male contemporaries, such as John Gorka, Bill Morrissey, Greg Brown, and Cliff Eberhardt, seem to have hit a wooden ceiling that keeps them on coffeehouse and festival stages at the peak of their career.
But it also true that, in order to rise to such prominence, artists from Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega to, more recently, pop-folker Kathleen Edwards and on-the-cusp country star Lori McKenna had to crank up the pop production value -- a move that some have decried as leaving the folkworld behind for the trappings of top 40 radio. Alarik's premise is muddied by the easy target: crossover appeal is no confirmation of core values within a genre.
And what Scott sees in his generation may not be true of all iterations of folk, either. If you ask the average passerby to name ten folk artists, they'll tend to start with Dylan and Guthrie, but from there, the common fan's history of sixties folk is full of names of both genders, from Judy Collins to Joni Mitchell. As I mentioned in the comments to Laura's entry, the rich crop of name-brand women performing on the countryfolk line over the last few decades -- Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, even Allison Krauss -- gives hope to a new generation even as it decries the easy, central categorization that best provides potential entry to a Hall of Fame. The newest folk movements seem heavy with female singer-songwriters, but it remains to be seen what fame and fortune will bring to their careers. And, of course, folk has no equivalent hall of fame -- which means no gatekeepers, and thus a much less easily identifiable pattern of bias.
Laura's insider report is highly credible as a condemnation of the Country world, though -- and it is only lent credence by her early career as a guide to those same hallowed halls where the portraits of Country music's Hall of Fame line the walls. But it also stands as a more general statement about bias in singer-songwriter forms, inviting us to look more deeply into our own responsibility, as fans and flamekeepers, for the way we frame the relationships between our musical icons, and ourselves. Laura deserves props for reminding us that, as long as the past continues to matter to how we define the present, which portraits hang in the halls of our memory palaces and institutions matters greatly. Here's the songs of a few artists both living and long-gone which Laura herself has paid tribute to over a decent decade or more of increasingly confident, dynamic, and adept countryfolk.
- Laura Cantrell: When The Roses Bloom Again (orig. A.P. Carter)
- Laura Cantrell: Indoor Fireworks (orig. Elvis Costello)
- Laura Cantrell: Letters (orig. Lucinda Williams)
- Laura Cantrell: Sam Stone (orig. John Prine)
- Laura Cantrell: Hong Kong Blues (orig. Hoagy Carmichel)
- Laura Cantrell: Love Vigilantes (orig. New Order)
Laura Cantrell's new album Trains and Boats and Planes, which includes covers of artists from Burt Bacharach to John Hartford, is available at the usual digital download sources. Head to Laura's homepage, for some sweet downloads; link from there to the EP, and Laura's excellent past recordings as well.
You can hear Laura's radio show The Radio Thrift Shop most Wednesday mornings live on NYC institution WFMU from 6-9; archived streams are available at the link above. And, if you're in or around the Big Apple --a surprisingly significant hotbed for countryfolk these days -- Laura will also be presenting a special "Let Us Now Praise Famous Women" revue at The Spiegeltent in NYC on Tuesday, August 19, featuring guest artists Jenny Scheinman, Megan Hickey (Last Town Chorus), Fiona McBain (Ollabelle), Theresa Andersson and a special performance by Rodney Crowell. Let me know, if you go.
Today's bonus coversongs have major street cred:
Thanks to Boogie Woogie Flu for soliciting Laura's thought-provoking piece, and Setting the Woods on Fire for calling it to my attention. Head on over to the former for choice cuts from some classic undersung female country artists, and the latter for a few great originals from Cantrell herself.