- Country Boys and Redneck Women: New Essays in Gender and Country Music ed. by Diane Pecknold and Kristine M. McCusker
Country Boys and Redneck Women further develops conversations about gender in country music that have taken place over the last two decades. The book is a sequel to Diane Pecknold and Kristine M. McCusker's initial edited essay collection, A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music (2004), which helped to direct critical inquiries into the understanding of gendered metaphors in country music. With its interdisciplinary focus, Country Boys and Redneck Women examines the [End Page 157] ways gender has been a driving force in the creative process and opportunities of specific artists, the production and marketing of particular country styles and performers, and the circulation and reception of the genre in a variety of historical contexts, including postcolonial settings. Yet in this new collection, the tendency to reproduce gendered binaries is in tension with methodologies that complicate those dualisms. The strongest essays in this uneven collection challenge existing gendered concepts and assumptions, such as the masculinization of authenticity and the role of domesticity, and offer intersectional approaches to the ways gender, sexuality, race, and class shape country performance and commercial strategies in a genre often imagined devoid of such subtleties.
The insights of Georgia Christgau on Kitty Wells and those of Travis Stimeling on Taylor Swift highlight the gendered biases coming from country music criticism that have littered the historiography and reception of both artists and argue that country music studies needs to work harder in questioning journalistic accounts of female country artists. Instead of applying the usual domestic stereotypes to Wells, Christgau draws upon new research to resist the tired notion that Wells was simply a devoted wife and mother who stumbled upon commercial success with her first big hit, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels" (1952). She sheds light on how Wells developed an aesthetic of restraint and modesty that enabled her to trespass into honky-tonk territory and talk back to a generation of men, in addition to performing the balancing act required of women with public careers.
Stimeling interrogates the concept of authenticity through a study of Taylor Swift's vocal performances and her appeal to her target audience of teenage girls. Country music criticism has often used the "hard-core soft-shell dialectic" proposed by Richard Peterson to discuss authenticity in the genre—and sometimes to trivialize music that falls within the "soft-shell" category. In particular, "masculine notions of country music authenticity," as Stimeling argues, "work to marginalize" female country performers, especially those like Swift who incorporate a more mainstream popular music aesthetic (86). Confronting the confluence of gender and aesthetics in binary formulations (i.e., masculine "hard" country versus feminized "soft-shell"), Stimeling turns the gendering of authenticity on its head by demonstrating that the vocal techniques of rawness and inexact intonation that critics have faulted Swift for are the same ones that have marked male vocalists like Hank Williams and Gram Parsons as authentic and sincere for decades.
Other essays in the collection, however, subscribe to the application of the "hard-core and soft-shell dialectic" to divide aesthetics along gendered lines. Chris Wilson—who reveals the sexist biases that prevent female country songwriters from writing material for male vocalists—points to the gendered distinction between "soft-shell" female-dominated pop-influenced country music of the 1990s and "hardcore" male-dominated honky-tonk of the 2000s. Mapping aesthetic binaries onto gendered representations in country music is reminiscent of the ways [End Page 158] "cock rock" and "teeny bop" were once categories used to define popular music until scholars illuminated how the nuances of reception and performance continually blur such assumptions about gendered aesthetics.3
Several other contributions draw upon the historical conversations in country music studies that have employed the static dualism of class and gendered antagonisms to get at the meaning of the music. Such approaches can obscure the complexities and paradoxes of...