Akenson's "The Women of Country Music" offers insight into famous musicians past and presentWhether you think women who sing country music should be traditional like Tammy Wynette standing by her man or edgy like the Dixie Chicks, who insist Earl has to die, TTU professor James Akenson and colleague Charles K. Wolfe have edited a book covering the kind of female country singer that appeals to you.
“The Women of Country Music: A Reader” (The University of Kentucky Press, 2003), co-edited by Akenson, a professor of curriculum and instruction at TTU, and Charles K. Wolfe, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, contains more than a dozen articles about famous, forgotten or often ignored women who have shaped the country music industry.
“Up until about ten years ago, the written history of women in country music was rife with stereotypes and omissions,” said Akenson. “But recent scholarship by women as well as men has given us a more balanced picture."
One chapter, written by Wolfe, features the story of Roba Stanley, the first woman soloist to record country music. Her career lasted less than a year in the early 1920s, and her story fell into obscurity — with most historians believing she was dead long before she was — until Wolfe found her in Florida and corresponded with her during the 1970s.
Stanley recorded what historians now acclaim as the “first” country record in an Atlanta studio, three years before Sara and Maybelle Carter began recording. She sang about women seeking revenge and living the single life happily, topics that female country performers after her weren’t free to sing about for decades.
“The platinum hair, miniskirts and playful sexuality of many of today’s female stars sharply contrasts the early performers’ images, created by prim, buttoned collars and floor-length skirts,” said Akenson. “The Carter sisters, Kitty Wells and other performers always had to keep a decorum about them and avoid scandal.”
Akenson supposes today’s performers would be shocked to know the restrictions placed on women who shaped country music. For instance, a woman was expected to travel with her father, husband or a father figure while she was on the road, and a female performer, especially one who was a good musician, could never upstage a male with her talent.
According to another chapter, Roni Stoneman found that lesson out the hard way. Wearing a pink robe and curlers in her hair, Roni played Ide Lee Nagger on Hee Haw, a role in which she traded barbs with a lazy husband who often took licks on the head with a frying pan. Stoneman, an expert banjo player, traveled with her family band in the 1950s and 60s before joining the cast of Hee Haw.
On the set one day and unaware the cameras were rolling, Stoneman dueled with Roy Clark on the banjo and began “outrunning” him. After the show aired, producers literally taped up her banjo strings and did not let her play on the show for a while.
Other essays include an analysis of Faith Hill’s career, a look at the influential women of the Louisiana Hayride radio show, and commentary on Canadian poet Bronwen Wallace’s connection with country music. The book concludes with a chapter written by Akenson on how country music can be used to teach students in the classroom from kindergarten to the university level.
“The history and contemporary status of women is a broad and complex topic that stands on its own merits as a worthwhile topic to study,” said Akenson.
The book marks Akenson’s and Wolfe’s fourth annual effort to collect modern country scholarship with this publisher. The editors previously published three Country Music Annuals with an eclectic assortment of works, but decided to rename their annual collection and focus on a thematically oriented series each year. Akenson is also founder of the International Country Music Conference.