- Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angles: The Women of Barn Dance Radio
According to standard accounts of country music's development, women played a minor part in the 1930-40s. They cite the prejudices against women performing on stage and traveling unaccompanied with men. They say that for women to have a chance, they performed as part of family aggregations or with their husband and his band. The prejudices were all too real, but many women had opportunities to perform as part of a barn dance show's 'family' cast. Scholars have generally seen these women as 'window dressing,' unimportant to the development of country music. Confronting this view, McCusker [End Page 153] convincingly shows that women not only appeared on barn-dance radio, but they played a significant role in shaping the country music Zeitgeist.
McCusker makes her case by following the careers of seven barn-dance radio women as revealed by their biographical material, the correspondence of the managers who shaped the women's image and career back-story, transcriptions of the broadcasts, radio station fan-oriented publicity, and published fan comments.
A juvenile delinquent and bar singer, twenty-year-old Jeanne Munch was the prototypical female barn-dance performer. She was invited by John Lair to join Chicago's National Barn Dance in 1932. He changed her name to Linda Parker, "The Little Sunbonnet Girl," and her hometown from industrial Hammond, Indiana to rural Kentucky. To complete the picture, Lair coached her to be cheerful, optimistic, and perky, a coy hillbilly ingénue.
Linda Parker's fabricated character was drawn from the Vaudeville tradition where actors performed stock stereotypical characters, but the intimate conversational tone fostered by radio technology made it possible to suffuse the character with more individuality and sympathetic humanity than had been possible on stage. Accordingly the best of these performers, like Linda Parker, became stars with many loyal fans.
Not content to develop appealing characters, John Lair and other managers, with the support of advertisers, focused on the moral tone of the programming. Their introductory dialogues, the songs chosen, and skits extolling the sanctity of the home, tradition and self-sacrificing motherhood were aimed at assuaging the hardships of the Great Depression and the sacrifices of World War II.
When Parker died suddenly at 23, there was an upwelling of fan grief that astounded the radio business, and the search was on for young women who could be shaped into the moral ingénue mode. McCusker details the lives of six successors who further developed the image of the leading Barn Dance female performer. Four of these were influenced by John Lair: Lulu Bell Wiseman, the most wildly popular of them all, Molly and Dolly Good—Girls of the Golden West, and Lilly May Ledford, who actually hailed from the Kentucky mountains. Rose Lee Maphis was able to make a steady career when she paired with her guitarist-manager husband, Joe Maphis. Sarah Colley Cannon came from a wealthy small town Tennessee family and attended finishing school. She needed no guiding manager to navigate the many traps that McCusker shows were faced by every female performer. Instead she crafted the "Minnie Pearl" character and deflected sexual innuendos by making a comedic prop of her plain looks and adopted a nurturing motherly role off stage.
Scholars and fans alike will find this an essential resource on women's important role in developing country music.