You all know the timeline of women in country music: The Carter Family — Sara and Maybelle, token "girl singers" — Queen of Country Music and the first female solo star Kitty Wells, Patsy, Loretta, Connie, Tammy, Dolly and on and on, until today, when the biggest stars in the TV never-never land version of Nashville are of course women.
But real history is never a simple straight line of progressive steps. It's a twisted and complicated beast full of lost paths and forgotten pioneers. And so it is with the story of women in country music. As part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's ongoing exhibit, The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and California Country, that story will unfold this Saturday in a special panel, "California Angels: Women of West Coast Country," which will feature an impressive lineup of female country singers that encompasses decades of the Golden State's country music history and styles.
From the very beginning of the California music scene in the heady years after World War II, the role of women on the West Coast differed from their counterparts in the Southeast. According to Scott B. Bomar, country music historian and the moderator of Saturday's panel, "As a general rule, the West Coast acts tended to be more lively and aggressive with a harder edge. Some of the women like Rose Maddox were not always the polite, demure female role you might expect in the 1940s and 1950s. She was very exuberant onstage, and The Maddox Brothers and Rose presented a wild, kind of unhinged stage show. It was not the type of thing that you saw on the Grand Ole Opry every weekend."
That sass and attitude was an outgrowth of the atmosphere where California country music developed. In the Southeast, live country music was performed in churches, schools, community halls and radio barn dances like the Opry, which did their best to portray an illusion of hearth and home. But out West, country music was nurtured in hardscrabble honky-tonks and dancehalls, and influenced by the glitz and flash of Hollywood.
Lorrie Collins, who formed the duo The Collins Kids with her brother Larry, produced some of the most exuberant and hard-driving rockabilly records ever made. Joining the Los Angeles-based radio and TV country music program Town Hall Party in 1954, the pair quickly began forming their own version of hillbilly bop, long before they ever heard Elvis Presley. The West Coast musicians immediately took to the pair's driving beat.
"We had drums on Town Hall Party and great musicians like Fiddlin' Kate," says Collins. "It was a different group of people with a different mindset on the music from what was in Nashville."
While traditional restrictive ideas about gender roles were common throughout the U.S. in the '50s, the California music scene was open to stronger women than in other parts of the country. "Some people did regard it as scandalous," Collins says, "but most people really enjoyed what we were doing." The Collins Kids' brand of red-hot rockabilly made them mega-stars on the West Coast, even though they never secured a national hit on the Billboard charts.
Collins is making a special Nashville appearance for the panel Saturday. She'll be joined by Country Music Hall of Fame member Jean Shepard, whose 1953 hit "A Dear John Letter" was the first post-World War II record by a female country artist to sell more than a million copies and the first hit record to emerge from the Bakersfield scene. Singer and songwriter Rose Lee Maphis, who captured the feel of the Bakersfield music scene with the honky-tonk classic "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)," will also be appearing, along with Bakersfield honky-tonk legend Kay Adams, whose 1966 hit "Little Pink Mack" is a classic of gear-jammin' feminism. They will be joined by modern traditional country and rockabilly torchbearer Rosie Flores. A special concert by Flores will follow the panel.
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