Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Womanspirit Rising

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 life.

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 grittier.

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 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 Womack self-combust.
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.


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