Female country singers emerge with self-confident musical statements
By Bill Friskics-Warren
MAY 29, 2000:
Faith Hill's latest album turned back the clock for women some
2,300 years. Not that she meant to, of course. But on song after song on
Breathe, as well as in the supine, sex-kitten photos that line the
CD booklet, Hill embodies the misogynistic ontology that Aristotle
inflicted on Western philosophy more than two millennia ago.
"In Aristotle's biology women are denied all generative potency,"
writes theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether. "[Women] are merely passive
incubators of the male seed which provides the entire formative substance
of the homunculus." Aristotle's observations extend to all forms of human
activity, not just procreation. Men, he insists, are powerful, active, and
spiritual; women, by contrast, are weak, passive, and material. Women are
ultimately defined by and subordinate to men.
Breathe reverberates with this inane anthropology. At nearly
every turn, Hill sings not of what she does or even can do, but of what her
man is doing to her--of how he's kissing, touching, transforming, breathing
life into her. Nothing on the album, though, is as egregious as "Bringing
Out the Elvis," an unwitting howler in which Hill exalts the man who
liberated her by, get this, unlocking her inner Elvis. "Just a fossil
frozen in time/I could not move my heart, my soul, my feet/Then you
unearthed me," she moans, trying to sound sexy. Incredibly, she delivers
these lines with no hint of irony, and the same is true later in the song
when she relishes no longer having to wait like a canned sardine for her
man to open the tin she's in and set her free.
Thank the goddess, then, for the new albums by Trisha Yearwood and Lee
Ann Womack, records brimming with grit, autonomy, and smarts that couldn't
have less in common with Hill's insufferable song-and-dance. Much as women
like Macy Gray, Angie Stone, and Melky Sedeck are doing in the pop realm,
Yearwood and Womack grapple with the variable pull of the heart's compass,
in the process rendering country music relevant, even crucial, to everyday
At a time when most of her Nashville counterparts have gone the slick
pop route, Yearwood has up and made a blues album, or at least the
emotional equivalent of one. Granted, apart from the Latin-undertow of "One
Love" and the grassy twang of "Too Bad You're No Good," Real Live
Woman isn't much of a musical departure from the pop- and
rock-influenced country records Yearwood has been making since her
self-titled 1991 debut. The differences are subtle, matters of degree: The
guitars growl more; the rhythms press harder; Yearwood's vocals, which have
always evinced exquisite subtlety and command, are huskier, a mite
The striking shift is in her perspective, in where she's coming from.
Yearwood recently divorced her husband of nearly six years, Mavericks bass
player Robert Reynolds, and the wrenching material here reflects as much:
She's got the blues, and she's got 'em bad. Throughout much of her new
album, Yearwood fingers the jagged grain of that painful experience in
search of meaning and, ultimately, a measure of transcendence.
"Lately I ain't been feeling right/And I don't know the cure," she confides
on "Try Me Again," a wailing, gospel-steeped number cowritten by her hero
Linda Ronstadt. On "Some Days" Yearwood sinks deeper into despair. "If you
see dark skies in my green eyes/It's just that I can't find no cover/These
ghosts that haunt me/They get me when they want me," she grieves. It may be
a leap from these emotionally barren lines to Robert Johnson bawling about
blues falling down like hail, but it's hardly an inconceivable one.
Still, as Yearwood sings at one point, "some days are better than others."
On "I'm Still Alive" she emerges from her dark night of the soul and throws
open the drapes to find that the sun is shining. "You're gone and I'm still
alive," she marvels, exulting not just in the power of her soaring soprano,
but in her hard-won resiliency as well. Later, struck by how her
fingernails look better in pink sorbet than in some chic designer polish,
she wonders "what took me so long to sing this song."
It's a defining moment, as is the Bobbie Cryner-penned title track, a
soul-searching meditation on the meaning of beauty akin to TLC's
"Unpretty." "I don't need to be 19 years old/Or starve myself for some
weight I'm told/Will turn men's heads," Yearwood sings, affirming her
inherent worth and vowing to shape her own destiny. "Been down that
road/And I thank God I finally know just who I am."
Womack's new album, I Hope You Dance, exhibits much the same depth
and scope as Yearwood's does. The record encompasses bluegrass (courtesy of
top-flight bluegrass pickers and singers), pop, and honky-tonk, and does so
in a way that's both tradition-minded and contemporary. Thematically, the
songs plumb heartache and issues of self-esteem ˆ la Real Live
Woman, but they also tackle topics ranging from parenting to providence
to the meaning of life.
The album's title track and first single is getting all the attention, and
deservedly so; the song has an anthemic quality, a universality, that has
made it a favorite at high school and college commencement ceremonies
across the nation. But where "I Hope You Dance" veers into Hallmark
territory--its sentiment earned largely on the strength of Womack's
big-hearted vocal and David Campbell's tensive string
arrangement--"Stronger Than I Am" is a gut-wrenching tour-de-force.
Yet another stunner from the pen of Bobbie Cryner (a first-rate
country-soul singer in her own right), "Stronger" finds Womack humbled by
the resiliency of the daughter she's raising with her ex. "So many things
she can teach me/Full of life and so completely innocent/She still says she
loves her daddy/Goes on just like nothin' happened/Forgives and forgets,"
the singer muses in a silvery, Dolly-like tremolo.
Warbles as breathtaking as Womack's, a sound as pure as the dew on the
wildwood flower, come along only once a generation. That's why it was such
a disgrace that the production on her first two albums often shrouded her
gifts. It's not that these albums were without their share of moments, but
too often Mark Wright's production--a Billy Sherrill retread here, a
billowy Reba knockoff there--sounded phoned-in, barely a cut above the
lowest common denominator.
Not so with I Hope You Dance, where the pickers, arrangements, and
material push Womack to reach deep inside and sing her throbbing heart out.
Witness the difference between the wooden version of Buddy and Julie
Miller's "Don't Tell Me" from Womack's last album and the soul-searing
reading of Julie Miller's "I Know Why the River Runs" on I Hope You
Dance. Elsewhere, Ricky Skaggs' mountain harmonies help etch sorrow
into "The Healing Kind," while the fire in Womack's cover of Rodney
Crowell's torch-twang anthem "Ashes by Now" is so palpable it's
astonishing. Despite lyrics to the contrary, it's as if we're listening to
I Hope You Dance abounds with these adult emotions, feelings that
Womack, inspired by her main man Conway Twitty, says she wanted very much
to convey. For all-consuming passion, though, nothing can touch the album's
bone-chilling cover of the Millers' "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger," one of
three standout tracks produced by Womack's husband, Frank Liddell. The
back-holler wailing on the chorus alone might even be enough to dispel the
stench from the corpse that's rumored to be stinking up Music Row these
days--a fetor that not even Faith's perfumed lingerie can conceal.