We look at some of the most savvy female country artists, from Patty Loveless to Roseanne Cash

By Alanna Nash
Updated May 07, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the ’60s they were known as girl singers. Every big country package tour and TV show had one — a pure and passive, teased and lacquered, gingham-clad gal (sequins came later) thrown into the shows’ all-male lineups to add a dash of sex appeal. Norma Jean, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton — they weren’t supposed to worry their pretty little heads too much, circa ”Stand By Your Man.”

These days you’re more likely to hear Lyle Lovett crooning the Tammy Wynette hit than K.T. Oslin or Trisha Yearwood. Call it Nashville’s new integrity — or just keeping up with the times commercially. But as The Women of Country, a prime-time CBS special airing Thursday, May 6 points out, there’s a fresh crop of female stars who are smartening up country music and lifting it out of its low-rent, high glitz stereotype. Some of them with a higher profile than others: New traditionalists Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, and Kathy Mattea — three of the dozen country singers featured on the special — have hit the charts jackpot. But the no less critically acclaimed Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams — neither of whom made the CBS cut — have yet to make major mainstream inroads. All five of these women are country’s thriving present, but perhaps Cash and Williams, extremists in the integrity department, are its future.

Back in 1987 she seemed the least likely female to go the distance on the country charts. Raised in the Washington, D.C., area with an Ivy League education (Brown ’81), Carpenter wrote literate songs about decidedly noncountry themes like Halley’s Comet and the spiritual life of old shirts. And she affixed them to melodies and instrumentation aimed more at the acoustic- music crowd (read: folkies) than at the country audience. Five years later the Country Music Association named her Female Vocalist of the year. And she has won two Grammys, for 1991’s Cajun-spiced ”Down at the Twist and Shout,” and last year’s ”I Feel Lucky.”

”It’s been a real identity crisis these last few years,” admits Carpenter, 35, who grew up with a Life magazine executive father and a mother who worked at a private school. ”I never thought of myself as a country musician either.”

But two things happened. First, as country began incorporating ’70s folk sounds and attracting college-educated baby boomers in the post-Urban Cowboy boom days of the ’80s, Carpenter was at the right place at the right time. Second, she gave her record company enough commercial tunes (”Never Had It So Good”) to get her on the radio, while also insisting that her albums include the more thoughtful, in-depth material (”I Am a Town”) that made her rep as a songwriter.

If Carpenter has garnered great respect from her peers (”Chapin’s brilliant,” says Rosanne Cash), the rest of the industry — especially the good ol’ boy faction — has been slow to recognize all of her talents. ”Sometimes I’ll go to a radio station and it’s clear that the guy has only heard my radio stuff and not the rest of the album,” she says. ”He’ll look at me and say, ‘Did you write this?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah.’ And he’ll say, ‘That’s great, little lady.’ I swear that happens, and I don’t know how to describe that feeling. I just want to punch ’em.”

In a time when radio programmers favor the slicker side of New Country — meaning they don’t play much by folks over 40 — chances are slimmer than the ghost of Patsy Cline that you’ll hear Williams’ voice blaring out of car speakers. ”I’d be just as surprised as anybody,” admits the Louisiana-born singer- songwriter, 40, whose ”Lines Around Your Eyes” is currently courting airplay without much luck. That’s because Williams (whose 1992 album, Sweet Old World, made several critics’ ”best” lists) prefers an unfashionable country-rock fusion that incorporates the rawer ’60s sound of Neil Young and Bob Dylan.

Fiercely independent and a lifelong rebel — she was expelled from high school for refusing to salute the flag — Williams is the least likely of these women to make any concessions to increase sales. ”I don’t care about success if I have to change artistically. Country’s still mainstream and I’m not. I won’t cater to record companies — never have, never will,” says Williams, who got out of contracts with RCA and Columbia when the labels pressured her into a more radio-friendly sound.

But while Williams herself isn’t reaching the masses, people covering her songs are. She wrote Carpenter’s hit ”Passionate Kisses,” and ”The Night’s Too Long,” a single for Patty Loveless in 1990. And Emmylou Harris recorded her song ”Crescent City” for an upcoming album. Artists pick her deeply moving story-songs, with their documentary quality and literary attention to detail, because they deal with tough topics like suicide (”Pineola”) and child abuse (”He Never Got Enough Love”).

Ideally, Williams would like to see herself and other women get to the point where they don’t have to fit into any pigeonhole at all, as male country-rocker Steve Earle has. ”He’s pretty much accepted for what he is,” says Williams, who sees stereotyping as a bigger problem for women. ”At some point I hope to have the same sort of understanding about me, so people will quit asking me to explain what I do.”