What Loretta Lynn, Deana Carter, and The Chicks Taught Me About Liberation

Music

In 2017, I ended my marriage of almost 12 years. It wasn’t one big betrayal. No one was a villain, not really. What happened was the oppressive weight of being a wife and mother and the burden of heterosexual marriage broke me. Three years later, in 2020, I realized I wasn’t alone. That the cultural weight of society keeps slipping onto the shoulders of mothers and wives. We are breaking. My book This American Ex Wife examines the way marriage is inherently unequal, and the way our culture defines love as misery, and argues for our freedom.

Listen to this excerpt, read by the author

In high school, my older sister drove a 1972 Pontiac Catalina. The interior was teal with wide bench seats. My father bought it for her. He’d seen it in a driveway with a for sale sign and thought it looked like it would keep her safe. It was 1998 and we lived in Vermillion, South Dakota.

The town was small, and we could walk or ride our bikes almost anywhere. But we were never truly free until my sister got her Catalina. The soundtrack to our freedom was the country music of the nineties. We’d listen to Deana Carter sing about summer love, and I’d look out the window to the flashing green and brown of the soy fields and imagine all the love I’d find when I could finally leave for good. There would be romance and adventure, and it would be just like strawberry wine. 

I’d lean out the window and sing along with Alan Jackson about my little-bitty life and living on love. But more often it  was Lorrie Morgan asking men what part of no did they not understand. Or Chely Wright singing about heartbreak and how we needed to just shut up and drive. 

We’d been raised on country music. When we weren’t listening to it or Christian pop or gospel, we were listening to Pete Seeger, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King. My mom played the guitar and the dulcimer and had a degree in music, and she’d tell us about the Scottish folk songs and African spirituals that made country music so uniquely American. Our mom orchestrated Christmas concerts for our small churches with twangy mountain songs. At home, she’d pull out her guitar and teach us “Old Joe Clark” and “The Rattlin’ Bog.” 

I lived for those moments when we’d sing together as a family, our voices soft, mingling, making something that felt like magic. If my mother had her way, we would have turned into the Trapp family singers. My sister Jessie played the flute. Zach, who was just sixteen months younger than me, sang in a children’s choir and could play songs by ear on the piano. My younger sisters could either hold a tune or were young and cute enough to get away with singing off-key. But no one was interested in my mom’s plan for the family band, except for me, the least talented. I sang so loudly and so badly and with such enthusiasm, I was often asked to sing softer when we’d all line up on the church stage to sing “The Old Rugged Cross.”

We weren’t allowed to listen to other secular music, even though we did, hiding in the closet, around my sister’s clock radio, or taping Alanis Morissette songs off the Top 40 countdown. But country was deemed safe, along with Christian  contemporary. On its surface, country music reinforced tradition rather than upended it. It wasn’t Madonna with her overt sexuality and embrace of queer culture. There was no riot grrrl writing “SLUT” on her stomach or singing about girl power. It was, at the time, primarily a white genre of music. There was no Salt-N-Pepa, no Whitney Houston, no Michael Jackson. Consequently, country was still safe for white Americans clinging to the past. 

But it was still the nineties, and the women who were singing country songs were angry. Jo Dee Messina told them “bye bye” and Deana Carter looked at her man and sang, “Did I shave my legs for this?” Mindy McCready pointed out the hypocrisy of gender relations in America when she sang about coming home late, drinking beers, washing her truck, and watching ball games, and what? You got a problem with that? Well, guys do it all the time. 

Women in country music had always been a little subversive; their boots had been made for walking after all. These women were in love and angry and disappointed. They were not rejecting men outright. They were fighting with them, leaving them, coming back, then leaving them again. But isn’t that what women always did? They weren’t pushing for social change, just for Earl to change. They never wanted to burn down the system, the system had already been burned down—they just wanted their husband to come home for dinner on time and maybe mow the goddamn lawn. They didn’t have a beef with the system; they had a beef with a few bad men. And in the nineties it seemed possible to ignore the rest. Girl power was en vogue. Girl rock. Women rappers. They were all singing their power anthems about sex and the system. Other women of nineties music, especially in punk rock and indie folk, saw the system as bad, and sang about it. But country music represented a way to express feelings of frustration without burning down the whole enterprise. Just pick off a few bad men with some poisoned black-eyed peas. 

Dressed-up pain in sparkles and lipstick is what women in country music are good at; their looks and performance following standard cultural expectations for beautiful white women. But there never was going to be a sparkle bright enough, a smile wide enough, a skirt short enough, for women to be equal. 

The lesson of country music was that no matter how we tried to make ourselves look pretty, no matter how we kowtowed to and believed in men, the system was designed against us. In 1995, we cheered as Hillary Clinton declared “Women’s rights are human rights.” We’d reached equality, hadn’t we? I mean mostly, anyway. There was, of course, that problem with the pay gap, but women could do everything now. Even Betty Friedan, in her introduction to the twentieth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, had declared that the problem now was not women’s liberation but men’s frustration. Everything was possible, we believed. Women could be everything a man could be. 

But by the beginning of the 2000s, when thousands of people were burning the Chicks’ CDs, we saw limits in the flames and the rage on the faces of those men. It was a lesson we would learn over and over. 

Courtesy Penguin Random House

In the middle of the twentieth century, a lot of female anger was channeled through the voices of men in country music, who played that anger as woman versus woman. “Pistol Packin’ Mama” by Al Dexter was a 1940s hit about a woman going after her husband’s lover. Wives in songs often went after the other woman, when it was the man they should have attacked. But in 1952, something changed. Hank Thompson’s song “The Wild Side of Life” is a tale about a man who falls in love with a “honky tonk angel”—a woman who seduces a man and then leaves him for a life of freedom and barhopping. “I might have known you’d never make a wife,” Thompson’s plaintive, love-torn voice describes a liberated, oversexed floozy who just wants to drink and hang out with men, while he, a faithful man, mourns her faithlessness. He’s lamenting that this woman doesn’t want him—that a woman would choose a life of barhopping over a lifetime with him. Thompson’s song wasn’t different from many of the other country songs at the time. But the response to it was. 

The American women of 1952 were the women Betty Friedan would write about a decade later: polished, thin waisted, professional wives and mothers, forced back into the home after the brief liberation of WWII and the jobs the war machine had provided. They weren’t oversexed; they were undersexed, educated, and overworked, cleaning and cooking and raising children for men who never seemed to come home. And they weren’t happy about it. In the 1940s, divorce rates were higher than America had ever seen, at 35 over 40 percent. And now, here was this man blaming them for their husbands not coming home. 

Kitty Wells, a country singer with a then-flagging career, shot back. Her song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” written by songwriter and musician J. D. “Jay” Miller, was a direct response to Thompson’s scapegoating. Wells was initially reluctant to sing it, because it was a direct attack on a popular male artist, after all. But she had nothing to lose, and she recorded it. The song turns right around and blames men for the problems in the home: “Too many times married men think they’re still single,” proclaims Wells’s reedy voice. The song hit a nerve. It offended men and was banned by the Grand Ole Opry and NBC’s radio network. But that didn’t matter. The single quickly outsold Thompson’s and pushed Wells to the top of the country charts. “It Wasn’t God . . .” was the first number one Billboard hit for a solo woman artist on the country music charts. 

The song’s message, pushing back against the narrative and that sense of personal female rage, would reverberate through country music. Thirteen years later, Jeannie C. Riley would sing about the hypocrites at the Harper Valley PTA judging a single mom for her miniskirts. And twenty years later, Loretta Lynn would sing about “The Pill.” Following Wells’s example, as the second wave of the feminist revolution seeped into homes across America, the tired women of country music turned their rage away from the other woman and toward the man, as in Wanda Jackson’s 1969 hit “My Big Iron Skillet.” 

These women opened up a vein of anger that flooded in the 1990s: SHeDAISY, the Chicks, and Deana Carter would sing about their frustration with the roles of wife and mother and girlfriend. But the women of 1990s country still found themselves coming back to those frustrating beer-guzzling cowboys. Like Shania Twain in “Any Man of Mine,” they’d demand better of a man, but a man still would be around. 

Country music journalist and historian Marissa R. Moss explained to me in an interview that songs like these represented a personal rebellion, not a political one, which is why they were allowed on the airwaves. And even then, only tentatively so. Women artists still weren’t played equally with male artists. “It was a delicate balance,” Moss said. “Venting a personal frustration without upending the system.” She pointed to Deana Carter’s “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” “She’s complaining,” Moss notes, “but she’s not leaving, is she?” 

But I do wonder how many of those songs were written to appease the listeners, the studio executives, and radio disc jockeys. The logic being: It’s okay to kill Earl if the next song is about finding true love. Which song is the real one? Which song is the fiction? Or maybe it’s all true. It’s a push and pull that mirrors the struggles of so many women who long for freedom and equality, but also desire relationship and romance. Can’t have a male partner without the patriarchy. So we suck it up. Shave our legs. Put on some jorts and jump in the truck. And wish that our friends in low places would learn how to go down on us. For years, I’d remind myself that even though I was unhappy, my ex was a good man and there wasn’t much better out there. It would take me years to realize that the better thing I wanted did exist, and it was me.  

But the Chicks, known then as the Dixie Chicks, would threaten that delicate push and pull between frustration and appeasement, simply because they were a success. “There was always going to be a backlash to the women of 1990s country music,” Moss told me. “And songs like ‘Ready to Run’ and ‘Goodbye Earl’ were more directly rejecting of men than many others.” When the Chicks criticized sitting president George W. Bush at a 2003 concert during the Iraq War, they not only ignited political frustrations but also exceeded the limits of what women in country music were allowed to do. They’d been tolerated when they were murdering an abusive husband but criticizing the president—that symbol of American male power—during a time of war, well, that had to be punished. 

In 2003, advancements in gender equality were just a few years away from stalling out. In 2000, the number of women in the workforce had peaked at 60 percent participation. But the number of women going to college and graduating was on the rise. The gender gap in wages, which had stagnated in the eighties, was on its way up again. It’s not that America was particularly progressive; it was just that the dot-com boom and the ubiquity of computers meant more jobs and more flexible workplaces, which made it easier for women to find employment. All of this progress would end just a few years later when the Great Recession of 2008 hit. Economic downturns always hit women and people of color the hardest. And we haven’t made up for that lost time. During the COVID pandemic progress once again stagnated. 

It’s depressing to look at those charts, to see the numbers on women’s progress going up and up, only to fizzle out.  America, once a leader in gender equality, now ranks 41st among developed countries for equal pay. The backlash to the Chicks felt so acute and personal. It was the first time my generation would smash our heads into the glass ceiling. It wouldn’t be the last. 

The anger the Chicks incited erupted from a nasty part of American culture that needed to keep women in their place. It’s a part of culture I’d see again in the 2016 election when men yelled at me online for voting with my vagina for Hillary Clinton, and in the spitting rage of the “Lock her up” chants. The election proved America would rather be led by Donald Trump than a competent woman. It’s a rage I’d see again in the caucuses of 2020, when Americans said they wanted a woman for president, but not that woman, or that one, or the other one. We failed to nominate any of the female candidates that ran during the primary cycle that year. It was a message made clear: Capable, talented women would constantly be found lacking and wanting. And millennial women raised on the girl-power messages of the nineties would smash our heads again and again on the glass ceiling we were told has already been broken. But all of that would come later. In hindsight, 2003 was an omen of the toxic mix of jingoism and patriarchy that was to come. The lesson in people burning the Chicks’ albums in the streets was that women were allowed to succeed only within the narrow confines of patriarchy. Fall afoul of that and burn. 

Lyz Lenz

Pilsen*

Riding in that car with my sister, listening to the women of country, everything felt possible. She’d drive us to school, to doctor appointments or my tae kwon do class. Sometimes to friends’ houses. And we’d take detours, driving out of town to just drive and we’d turn up the music and sing about all the cruelties we had yet to cry over and all the women we’d be. Driving a country road in the Catalina with my sister, I believed that anything was possible and that we were beautiful and that all we had to do was go forward with the wind in our hair, with everything broken behind us, and we’d be golden like the world before us. 

She was two years older and so beautiful. Everyone told me so. The two of us had always shared a room as number one and number two of eight children. In Texas, we had a room painted lavender with colorful hearts our mom stenciled along the wall near the ceiling, our beds side by side. And when we were little, in the dark, she’d ask me to tell her stories, and I would tell her a story about two girls falling into the gutter and discovering a whole beautiful world underground and all their adventures fighting alligators and fish and living alone together, until I could hear the steady rhythm of her breathing. And then I’d click on my reading lamp and read. She could always sleep; I never could. Sometimes, I’d lie awake and try to match my breath to hers. If I could, perhaps I would just fall asleep. 

Our parents were deeply conservative then and had told us that we would not date, we would “court”: a process that involved the boy in question asking our father for permission to take us on supervised dates. Jessie did not do that. She started sneaking out. She slipped right out the window and disappeared. She began dating a boy who wore a cowboy hat and listened to Travis Tritt, who bought her a teddy bear and made out with her in the basement. He had a truck and blared Alan Jackson’s “Little Bitty” from the speakers. And it was everything we’d sung about in all those songs on all those roads. We had huge screaming matches about her boyfriend. Maybe I was having a hard time understanding the dissonance between rules and freedom. Maybe I didn’t understand rebellion. After all, I would be a good girl until my thirties, when I’d divorce and blow up my life. So maybe I was, as she’d scream at me, jealous, so jealous of her. Not jealous because someone wanted her, but jealous that she had the courage not just to sing about life and freedom and love, but to find it.

In her song “One’s on the Way,” Loretta Lynn sings about how all the girls in New York City are marching for women’s lib, but in Topeka, the faucet is leaking, the wash needs a’ hanging, one kid’s crawling, one’s bawling, and one’s on the way. It’s a catchy and wry song. Maybe society was changing, but not for all women. And while Jackie O was out dancing, Loretta was in Kansas, just trying to survive. It’s frivolous to talk about liberating women when you can’t afford the gas money to even drive yourself out of town. 

The issues of progress seem so remote when you have babies and not enough money to keep them all in diapers. It’s not easy to untangle the choices of your life from the forces of culture. It’s not easy to understand if what you’ve chosen was your choice or the only choice you had available to you in a world designed to limit you. But who has time for those questions when you are so tired you want to cry, one child needs more milk, the other wants to play Candy Land again, your husband wants to remind you that you haven’t had sex in three weeks, and you just want to do your work? What country music understands is that at a practical level, it’s good to talk about liberating women, but most of us can barely afford to free ourselves. The songs of these country women communicate a kind of empowerment that reflects the complexities of our lives. So much of country music is a perfect embodiment of the struggle of marriage: a never-ending battle between the desire for freedom, the desire for more, and the men who seek you, haunt you, hunt you. 

A tweet by Lucy Huber, an editor at the humor website McSweeney’s, went viral in 2021. She wrote, “Why is male country music like ‘hot girls in teeny tiny shorts I will make you my wife, bear my children, front porch, family values, casseroles’ and female country music is like ‘oops I killed my husband.’” It’s not really a question. The answer is in the contrast. So glaring when put into a social media post. But it’s easy to miss it when you live it.

I got engaged the year after America burned the Chicks’ CDs. I was learning something I wouldn’t fully comprehend for a long time. “For all the newly liberated women of the 1990s, the daughters of the second wave of feminism,” Moss said, “the cancellation of the Chicks was an important lesson: The world is not limitless for a woman.” Whatever equality we thought we had, whatever gains we thought we made, would go up in a pyre of Chicks CDs. 

In a podcast, Dolly Parton would confess that the lesson of the Chicks would be one she took to heart, careful not to cross political boundaries that would prompt her fans to turn on her. Even the most powerful woman in country music was aware of the limits. 

And that’s what we couldn’t see, my sister and me—two girls who’d never kissed anyone and had pledged our purity to Jesus and our daddy, driving down those roads. The roads would end. There would be limits. But how could we know that then? What girls we were. How the world seemed so open and wide. How our hands snaked through the hot highway air. We knew the words to every song and weren’t afraid to sing them. Innocence is a myth. Men had already hurt us. Our father’s long unexplained absences, the fights between him and our mom. We’d been regularly hit by our father with a spanking spoon for talking back and fighting. Jessie was hit so hard, my father broke the bowl of the wooden spoon on her. My sister and I were already hurtling toward heartbreak. But in that Catalina, we felt like we were just waiting to be protagonists in the great love story of our lives.

My senior year of high school, my sister got married. And her marriage was a country song. But not the fun kind. There were fights and making up. There was always a return. We fought, too. I told her I hated her husband. Told her I thought he was cruel. I told her I thought he was misogynistic and a sexist. I wasn’t wrong. But being right rarely makes people like you. I thought love would be our freedom. We’d hoped for wide open spaces, but she’d ended up trapped in a basement-level apartment that smelled of Axe body spray and cheap candles. And he couldn’t pay the bills to keep the lights on. 

But I guess I didn’t end up much better. My bills were paid, but it was still a trap. 

In 2015, my sister finally left her marriage. And two years later, in 2017, I would end my own. The year of my divorce, I started going on long drives just to cry. I didn’t want to be alone in my house. I wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, but I was so broke. So I would get a large Diet Dr Pepper from a gas station soda machine (the one with the good ice) and drive and drive and listen to music and cry. I listened to Kesha and P!nk. But, mostly, I turned on the ladies of nineties country music. I listened to Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Terri Clark, and, of course, the Chicks. 

The Chicks’ Fly, the music that promised my sister and me our freedom, became the soundtrack to my heartache. Listening to the album nearly twenty years later, I felt like a failure. Why hadn’t we run? Why hadn’t we murdered our Earls? Why hadn’t we stuck together? 

Trending

The heterosexual narrative of country music celebrates love, our cowboys taking us away, claiming there is freedom in love. But it also carries a warning. Mary Anne and Wanda may kill Earl, but the very next song on the album opens with Natalie Maines’s twang saying, “Hello, Mr. Heartache, I’ve been expecting you.” I sang all those songs and felt all those contradictions as I reached my hand into the golden Midwestern air and looked for my freedom again.

From the book THIS AMERICAN EX-WIFE: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life by Lyz Lenz. Copyright © 2024 by E Claire Enterprises LLC. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Click to order the book


Listen to Lyz Lenz’s Women of Country Music playlist

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

Poetry Comics
‘Dune: Part Two’ Getting Extended Imax Run This Month
“Delivery Braids” Are an Act of Self-Care
What I Would Do If I Were Starting Book Riot Today
Taylor Swift Starts Countdown to ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ With Her Favorite Number

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *