Unlike many hard rock acts, country music singers don’t usually see audience members holding their middle fingers up high as a joyous response to a song or lyric. But as Sarah Johns’ new “One in the Middle” began picking up radio play across the country, crowds at her shows started hoisting the bird while smiling and singing along.
Set to a bouncing pop-country arrangement powered by a purposely comic harmony vocal groove, “One in the Middle” finds a female protagonist pointedly breaking up with her guy after discovering him enjoying the company of what the lyrics refer to as “just a skank.” The singer tells the fellow that she was ready to offer him the ring finger on her left hand. Instead, she’s offering a different finger—“The one in the middle / The one that’s a little bit longer,” Johns sings in the chorus. That’s not all, either, as she adds, “And I’ve got another one on my other hand / So I can say it even stronger.”
Delivered with a wink, the tune has received a positive response in cities where radio stations have given it a chance. But country music is a conservative genre, and the older male programmers who dominate the market are notorious for blocking anything that criticizes a man’s behavior. So while the song hasn’t received the across-the-board support it needs to climb to the top of the charts, it hasn’t stopped audiences from showing their approval in the most graphic way possible.
The song is the first salvo from Johns’ debut album, Big Love in a Small Town, released Aug. 28 on BNA Records. With it, the 24-year-old from rural Kentucky joins a slate of young, cheeky females currently trying to rewrite the possibilities of what women can express in country music.
Nashville has tried to lower the age of its average female artist in the recent past, but without great success. In the ’90s, country music appeared to be on the cusp of a female-driven youth movement, when LeAnn Rimes and Mindy McCready both scored platinum albums in the wake of success by Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride. But when Music Row’s major labels responded by trying to shift the age of its new female artists into the teens, it didn’t take.
At the time, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and a handful of boy groups dominated pop music, so Nashville labels recruited a bus full of school-age girls. A couple of them, such as Jessica Andrews and Lila McCann, enjoyed some recognition, but couldn’t sustain long careers. But the next wave—teens Alecia Elliott, Jennifer Day and Meredith Edwards among them—all fell flat, barely registering a dent on the radio or sales charts.
Part of the problem was material: these teens were singers, not songwriters, so the material came from older, mostly male, pros who mistakenly saw teen country music as one-dimensionally cheerful or sentimental. Without the sexual content of their pop-teen equivalents, and without the angst of modern rock or the swagger of hip-hop, there wasn’t anything in the songs that connected with young listeners. And the core country audience showed no interest in these unerringly upbeat youngsters. The most successful female soloists to come out of that era, Sara Evans and Lee Ann Womack, were rooted in marriages and growing families, and their songs reflected a mature outlook on the world.
But Johns and other young females now forging their way into the country mainstream offer something more relevant and refreshing. Taylor Swift, the 17-year-old Nashville phenom, is in her fifth consecutive week at No. 1 on the country sales chart with her self-titled, platinum-selling debut. Carrie Underwood, 24, joined Rascal Flatts and Kenny Chesney as country music’s biggest sellers with just one album, and big numbers are expected for her follow-up, scheduled for release Oct. 23. Like Underwood, Kellie Pickler benefits from the exposure she received on TV’s American Idol, and she had a hand in writing both of her most effective songs, “I Wonder” and “Red High Heels.”
Another newcomer, Sarah Buxton, wrote Keith Urban’s recent hit, “Stupid Boy,” and her initial release, an EP titled Almost My Record, features five whip-smart songs that reflect the attitude, wit and worldly concerns of a single, 20-something woman.
What gives Buxton’s songs personality, besides her distinctively hoarse voice, is her point of view, which reflects that she co-wrote all the songs herself. She looks at life like a typical want-it-all young adult who has yet to set anchor in a lasting relationship or career, and her crafty lyrics reflect the heightened drama and savage humor typical of her age group.
Like Buxton, Johns and Swift also co-wrote all of their material. Pickler wrote her two most significant songs, and Underwood went to significant lengths to contribute more songs to her second album. This personal perspective may be the most significant aspect of the current youth movement. All of a sudden, a growing percentage of female voices on country radio not only sound younger, but the songs themselves snap with the exuberance and fierce emotion of youth.
Johns and Buxton, both in their 20s, take gutsier chances with their subjects. Not only does Johns flip off a deceitful guy, but she addresses sex straightforwardly on “Touch Me” in ways rare in contemporary country music. Co-written with Jon Henderson and Lynn Hutton, the steamy ballad finds a young woman worrying that an ongoing relationship isn’t as physical as it was in the beginning. So she propositions her boyfriend with a direct invitation: “Tell me you want me right now,” she burns, her voice dropping into a lower register. By the chorus, she’s asking him to “kiss every inch of my body” and “whisper words I ain’t heard from you lately.”
Where Johns’ Kentucky twang is as backwoods Southern as that of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Buxton is a Kansas native who, in her teens, sang lead vocals in Stoic Oak, a Nashville jam band that had some success touring the South and Midwest. Her raspy vocals show a rock influence, and her initial EP on Disney-owned Lyric Street Records pries open formulas to allow Buxton to punctuate songs with spoken asides and off-beat flights of fancy.
Unlike most Music Row newcomers, Buxton doesn’t play it safe. Instead, she tears at the boundaries of her songs in inventive fashion. Her sense of humor can be wicked and self-effacing, with songs like “That Kind of Day” and “Love Is a Trip” presenting a female version of Brad Paisley’s comical slice-of-life tunes.
But Buxton’s best songs establish that she can write with distinctive insight about tricky subjects: “Innocence” deals with a young adult looking back at losing her virginity to her first love. As she remembers, she doesn’t ache for the lost boy but for the freedom and spontaneity that came so naturally before she so quickly matured. Her version of “Stupid Boy” tops Urban’s more intense take, mainly because of the subtle inflections she gives her story about dressing down a guy whose controlling, critical nature led to him losing the best thing that ever came his way.
The new albums by Johns and Buxton weren’t meant to represent a generation—they were meant to speak frankly and cleverly about each of the songwriter’s experiences. But coming on the heels of Swift’s and Underwood’s success, these songs suggest Nashville may be beginning a subtle but important shift in how it represents a young woman’s point of view.
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