A Feminist Message In Country Music

Patsy always knew just what to do.

When a man leaves - spitting you out like an old wad of chewing tobacco, dumping you by the side of the road like some old rusty refrigerator - Patsy Cline understood what happens to a woman.

You go "Crazy." "You Fall to Pieces." That heartbroken homecoming Queen of Country Music would wail the "Lovesick Blues" that come only when you're not a sugar baby anymore.

Reba has some other ideas.

If some puny cowpoke cuts and runs, Reba McEntire - this year's working-mother, run-my-own-company, don't-give-me-no-trouble Queen of Country Music - says just one thing:

Girl, you pull yourself together and keep on moving.

Just listen to Reba sing: "Falling out of love and back into your life. Pulling your heart out from under the knife. . . . Finding out that nothing feels as good as letting go."

They're just songs, right?

Just a little country music that comes out of the radio and disappears into a vacuum void. Just lyrics that don't mean much in a busy world.



Reba McEntire's hit single, "Fallin' Out of Love" - and a host of other songs - represent a trend. No longer content to stand by their men, women singers affirm a feminist message that hasn't often been heard in music, especially not in country ballads.

From relationships to careers to fending off unwanted sexual advances, the themes of country songs are almost becoming a how-to manual for women in the '90s.

Perhaps most important, this new generation is reaching an audience - rural America and working-class families - where feminist philosophy is not often debated over the supper table.

"It's been amazing that music can have an influence on people in such a powerful way," says singer Trisha Yearwood. "It gives you a sense of responsibility. Sometimes you don't realize it when you are recording an album that you are touching people's lives."

Paula Schwed, author of a book analyzing country lyrics, agrees that these new songs and singers might do more for women than speeches and platitudes.

"It's one thing to read it in a textbook or hear Gloria Steinem say it, but it's another thing to hear it coming out of the radio," Schwed says. "These are very powerful messages. You are hearing from a new generation of women in country music."

A No. 1 hit on Billboard magazine's country chart this month was Lorrie Morgan's stinging rebuke to a man trying to pick her up at a honky-tonk bar, where she is drinking alone.

"What part of NO don't you understand?" Morgan sings.

Yearwood's new album, "Hearts In Armor," echoes that sentiment in "Woman Walk the Line," written by Emmylou Harris. Yearwood said she sometimes picks strong songs to boost her own self-esteem.

"I try to find songs that reflect the way I feel. I like to sing songs about being confident, independent and secure. Sometimes I don't feel that way, but I want to hear a song that makes me feel confident. . . . Hearing a song can help."

John Rumble, the historian with the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, Tenn., says there are strains of feminism throughout the history of country music, usually reflecting the strength of an individual artist.

He cites Loretta Lynn as a woman who often sang about strong and controversial issues.

In fact, Lynn is credited with singing the breakthrough song, "The Pill," released in 1975, in which she tells her husband she won't be tied down by him or unwanted babies anymore because "Now I got the pill."

Many of the current singers reflect even more independent women: Pam Tillis, K.T. Oslin, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and The Forester Sisters, whose 1991 hit single, "Men," is one of the most requested tunes at country dance clubs. It's upbeat and a blatant - some say sexist - bash at men.

McEntire, winner of a Grammy and many country music awards, says her favorite song is "Is There Life Out There," a rousing call for women to live their dreams.

After its release in 1991, McEntire received thousands of letters from fans who said the song prompted change in their lives. The music video shows McEntire as a housewife who returns to school, battles sexist professors, balances family responsibilities and ultimately triumphs.

"This song speaks more to the concerns of real women than all the feminist diatribes I've heard over the years," says Schwed.