Country women take control -- Loretta Lynn paved the way for autonomy, opening the doors for Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, and more

In 1975, when Mercury Records producer Glenn Keener was considering signing 20-year-old Reba McEntire, the label had only one slot open for a woman. ”He went to Chicago and had two tapes, one of me and one of another girl,” McEntire recalls. ”And they said, ‘Okay, Glenn, we have a position open for a female singer in the country division, so you can pick any woman you want.’ He looked at the two tapes in his hand and handed ’em mine.”

For years, that’s the way it was in country music: A woman was lucky to get space on a record label. Radio wasn’t much friendlier. ”You couldn’t play two women in a row — this was just an unwritten rule of radio,” says Doug Baker, program director for Nashville’s WSIX. Record executives didn’t see it as sexism, just smart business. ”They told me when I started out that 80 percent of the buying public is women,” says singer Carlene Carter, ”and they buy all the heartthrobs.”

But these days, women can be the heartthrobs — and more important, they can be artists in control of their careers on every level, as performers, writers, and producers with commercial clout fully the equal of their male country counterparts.

In fact, McEntire is country’s third-biggest seller after Garth Brooks and Clint Black (her last two albums, Rumor Has It and For My Broken Heart, have each sold nearly 2 million copies). And she is hardly a one-woman phenomenon. Since 1989, albums by the Judds, K.T. Oslin, Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan, Patty Loveless, Tanya Tucker, and newcomer Trisha Yearwood have each gone either gold (sales of 500,000) or platinum (1 million).

Jimmy Bowen, head of Liberty Records, sees one important reason for women’s increased sales: ”In the last seven or eight years, women are getting control of the production, what songs they’re going to sing. It’s becoming their music.” Indeed, hit makers like Pam Tillis, Carlene Carter, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, and Oslin write much of their own material. ”I could never find songs I believed in all the way through,” Oslin says. ”I just think it gets too homogenized when women aren’t doing their own songs.” The results show up on the radio in more assertive material, from Carpenter’s ”Going Out Tonight” to Tillis’ ”Don’t Tell Me What to Do.”

But the gains have been hard won. Though women scored occasional country hits before World War II, their first real breakthrough came in 1952 with Kitty Wells’ ”It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” A rebuttal to Hank Thompson’s No. 1 record, ”The Wild Side of Life,” which accused women of causing most extramarital affairs, it became the first No. 1 country solo record ever recorded by a woman. Wells’ success set the stage for tough- talking, smooth-singing Patsy Cline, whose hits (”I Fall to Pieces,” ”Crazy,” ”Sweet Dreams”) were hardly revolutionary in content but sent a message just the same: Women could compete on the charts with big names like Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold.

Despite the success of Wells and Cline, it was Loretta Lynn who really pointed the way to creative autonomy for women. One of the first women after Wells and Cline to score a No. 1 country single (1967’s ”Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’…”), she achieved much more, distinguishing herself in the late ’60s and early ’70s with her own plainspoken songs. ”Your Squaw Is on the Warpath,” ”You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” — in song after song, Lynn said what few others dared: Women were tired of double standards; they wanted equality. ”I think my songs opened a lot of women’s eyes,” Lynn says, ”and blacked a few men’s eyes.”

”Women related to what that woman was saying,” agrees Emmylou Harris, ”because she’d been through it. She’d had those babies and cooked those meals…and been through all those marriage problems.”

Through the ’70s, though, there were still battles to be fought over creative control. When singer-songwriter Gail Davies tried to tell Nashville’s top studio musicians how to play on her records, they balked. ”I was crying to (disc jockey Ralph Emery) one time up at WSM about people being so cruel with me. And I told him I was just going to go home. And he said, ‘Well, Patsy Cline never would have turned tail and run.’ He said, ‘You’ve got to stand up to these boys.”’

Davies went to Muscle Shoals, Ala., and L.A. to produce her second and third albums, at a time when it was unheard of for any country artist to enjoy such control. She hasn’t had any million sellers, but she did have a good chart run through the mid-’80s — and her take-charge attitude so impressed Bowen that he hired her as a producer last year.

Of course, the more records a woman sells, the more clout she has. When McEntire included dialogue in her video about a struggling housewife, ”Is There Life Out There,” cable’s Country Music Television griped that she was putting message ahead of music. But McEntire’s label, MCA, backed her up.

Having established themselves as creative artists and commercial draws, women in country would probably benefit most from what should be inevitable: an increase in the number of women in positions of corporate power — as top-level record company executives, as radio programmers, and more.

”Women now have songs with integrity,” says singer Jann Browne, who has no record deal despite doing two critically acclaimed albums for Curb Records in ’90 and ’91. ”We’re not singing about being chased around the haystacks. We’re singing about real important issues. And that’s why I remain optimistic that the doors are going to open wider.”