Top women of song: All the girls I loved be­fore

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PHILIP MARTIN

In July, Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio re­leased a list of the “150 Great­est Al­bums Made By Women.” It starts (at 150) with the Roches’ epony­mous 1979 de­but al­bum and winds up with Joni Mitchell’s Blue at No. 1.

Like all hi­er­ar­chi­cal list­ings, the point is to evoke quib­bles, which lead to clicks, which some wizard some­where knows how to mon­e­tize. For in­stance, NPR ranks The Mise­d­u­ca­tion of Lau­ryn Hill No. 2, just ahead of Nina Simone’s I Put a Spell on You and Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, which is de­fen­si­ble only if you’re talk­ing about records and not artists.

Sim­i­larly, does Bey­once’s Le­mon­ade de­serve a spot in the Top 10 ab­sent its video com­po­nent? And how are Ca­role King’s Ta­pes­try and Patti Smith’s Horses not Top 5? (My Top 10 list would prob­a­bly be made up en­tirely of records re­leased from March 1969 — Dusty in Mem­phis, by Dusty Spring­field, which checks in at No. 45 on NPR’s list — to De­cem­ber 1979 — The Pre­tenders, NPR’s No. 60).

What’s in­ter­est­ing is we still find it use­ful to pro­duce lists like this, to re­mind us that hey, women make in­ter­est­ing mu­sic too.

When I was 15 years old and be­gin­ning to amass a record col­lec­tion, I re­mem­ber flip­ping through my crates — sorted al­pha­bet­i­cally by artist and chrono­log­i­cally by re­lease date — and be­ing mildly ap­palled by the dearth of fe­male artists.

It would be mis­lead­ing to sug­gest that as an ado­les­cent male I thought a whole lot about is­sues of gen­der eq­uity, but on my very next trip to the record store I bought Linda Ron­stadt’s Heart Like a Wheel. It wasn’t the first al­bum by a fe­male artist I’d added to the col­lec­tion — I had ap­pro­pri­ated my par­ents’ Patsy Cline al­bums and ac­quired a few for­get­table pro­mo­tional records by women. But Ron­stadt’s was the first one I’d spent my money on.

It might be say­ing too much to say it changed my life, but it kind of did. Heart Like a Wheel is a thrillingly sung, deeply in­tel­li­gent project that re­deems some of the worst cliches of ’70s pop/coun­try bal­ladry. It’s ba­si­cally Ron­stadt fronting the Ea­gles (Don Hen­ley, Glenn Frey, Ti­mothy B. Sch­mit) aug­mented by singers-song­writ­ers An­drew Gold and J.D. Souther, with back­ing vo­cals by Em­my­lou Har­ris, Maria Mul­daur, Cissy Hous­ton, Wendy Wald­man and Cly­die King. Sneaky Pete Kleinow plays pedal steel gui­tar and Herb Ped­er­sen banjo, while David Lind­ley plays fid­dle. All this tal­ent was mar­shalled by pro­ducer Peter Asher, for­merly half of Peter and Gor­don, brother to Jane and man­ager of Ron­stadt and James Tay­lor.

Read­ing those cred­its, you might con­clude Heart Like a Wheel was less a Ron­stadt al­bum than an all-star ef­fort she karaoked over. She didn’t write the songs — they were by the likes of Clint Bal­lard Jr. (“You’re No Good”), Low­ell

Ge­orge (“Willin’”), Phil Everly (“When Will I Be Loved”). And Asher’s in­ven­tive, sub­tle ar­range­ments are set with a jew­eler’s pre­ci­sion.

Still, it’s Ron­stadt’s name above the ti­tle, and her com­mand of the ma­te­rial is im­pres­sive. “Dif­fer­ent Drum,” her first hit, with the Stone Poneys, was re­leased in 1967, and she’d been nom­i­nated for a Grammy for 1970’s “Long, Long Time” — but Heart Like a Wheel opened the flood­gates for her brand of grownup, torchy white blues.

For a while, I de­cided to buy at least one record by a fe­male artist for ev­ery record bought by a male artist. This led me di­rectly to Joni Mitchell, whose 1975 al­bum The Hiss­ing of Sum­mer Lawns opened my 17-year-old eyes. It wasn’t well-re­ceived by crit­ics. In Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden awarded it zero stars and al­lowed that while it was “cere­bral” and of­fered “sub­stan­tial lit­er­a­ture,” there were “no tunes to speak of” and as­serted that the mu­si­cians’ “unin­spired jazz-rock style com­pletely op­poses Mitchell’s ro­man­tic style.” It was “a great col­lec­tion of pop poems with a dis­tract­ing sound­track,” Holden wrote.

Holden’s re­view is very strong, even if, like my con­tem­po­rary Prince, who of­ten cited Sum­mer Lawns as one of his main in­flu­ences, you think he gets it wrong. We all come to this stuff in our own way, and as a teenager I was

more im­pressed by clever lyrics than I should have been. Sum­mer Lawns was a break from the con­fes­sional singer-song­writ­ing vein Mitchell had pur­sued on her pre­vi­ous al­bums, mov­ing more into so­cial com­men­tary and phi­los­o­phy than per­sonal ex­ca­va­tion. There was no “I” on the lyric sheets — the singer took on an om­ni­scient point of view as she re­lated the sto­ries of char­ac­ters who were in­volved not in heart­break or ec­stasy but in cooler trans­ac­tions.

While writer and mu­si­cian Win­ston Cook-Wil­son once be­gan a piece by say­ing Sum­mer Lawns would “never be an ini­tial gate­way to Joni Mitchell,” it was ex­actly that for me. I had heard Court and Spark but hadn’t lis­tened hard. I hadn’t even been aware of Blue (1971), which on some days is my fa­vorite record of all time. Sum­mer Lawns not only sent me deep into Mitchell’s cat­a­log but stirred a vague and early in­ter­est in jazz. Maybe it wasn’t the best jazz (though the early ’70s it­er­a­tion of Tom Scott’s L.A. Ex­press is un­der­rated) but it was a start.

An­other thing about Sum­mer Lawns — un­like Heart Like a Wheel, there was no doubt about the cre­ative en­gine be­hind it. Mitchell wrote the songs (with the ex­cep­tion of the Johnny Man­del-Jon Hen­dricks tune “Cen­ter­piece”), pro­duced the al­bum and “drew the cover and de­signed the pack­age.”


By 1978 I had a sense of

my­self as a so­phis­ti­cated con­sumer of pop cul­ture. I had lived abroad, had my own apart­ment, a ra­dio show and an elec­tric gui­tar I some­times played in the com­pany of like-minded young men. I had no busi­ness buy­ing Blondie’s Par­al­lel Lines and Plas­tic Let­ters for the cover pho­tos.

On the other hand, that’s what al­bum cov­ers are for — to en­tice sus­cep­ti­ble con­sumers. Blondie may have been a band, but its fo­cal point was a plat­inum-haired former Play­boy bunny named Deb­bie Harry, a for­mi­da­ble vo­cal­ist and savvy mar­keter whose com­plex min­gling of in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism and dif­fi­dent sex­u­al­ity was cal­i­brated to evoke crushes from the sort of boys who, on the cusp of the ’80s, found them­selves tran­si­tion­ing from ripped jeans to skinny ties.

Plas­tic Let­ters’ cover fea­tured a pink-dressed Harry sit­ting on the bumper of a po­lice car, with the three other dudes in the band hang­ing around. It evinced a de­lib­er­ate trashi­ness closer to the aes­thetic of John Wa­ters (who would, a decade later, cast Harry in the movie ver­sion of Hair­spray) than the down­town Warhol scene which spawned the band.

With songs that blared like tabloid head­lines — “Ber­muda Tri­an­gle Blues (Flight 45),” “Youth Nabbed as Sniper” and “Con­tact in Red Square” — along­side a faith­ful cover of Randy and the Rain­bows’ 1963 hit “Denise” (re-ti­tled “De­nis”) and the ethe­real “(I’m Al­ways Touched By Your) Pres­ence Dear,” writ­ten by bass player

Gary Valen­tine, who left the band for a solo ca­reer be­fore the al­bum was recorded, Plas­tic Let­ters es­tab­lished Blondie in Europe while de­liv­er­ing them a cult in the U.S. Five months later, Par­al­lel Lines and “Heart of Glass” made them huge pop stars.


In the NPR list, it’s Lucinda Wil­liams’ 1998 al­bum Car Wheels on a Gravel Road that gets the glory — it comes in at No. 18. It’s widely con­sid­ered Wil­liams’ best record and one of the best of the 1990s. I’m par­tic­u­larly fond of the al­bum. Her father, the late poet Miller Wil­liams, played it for me months be­fore it was re­leased when we vis­ited him in Fayet­teville. When it was re­leased, I wrote a re­view that would be em­bar­rass­ing if I didn’t still be­lieve in its va­lid­ity: “It is re­plete with grace and a kind of tough magic. It rocks. It in­duces shiv­ers. It bleeds and moans and cracks a wry grin as it brushes its hair back from its eyes. Oh my baby.”

But Car Wheels is not my fa­vorite Wil­liams al­bum. For that you’d need to go back to 1988’s Lucinda Wil­liams, which was her third al­bum, af­ter her Folk­ways blues al­bums Lucinda and Happy Woman Blues.

Lucinda Wil­liams was recorded for Rough Trade, a Bri­tish la­bel that spe­cial­ized in punk and ska acts. While it wasn’t a com­mer­cial hit, it earned her a small but in­tensely loyal (and some­what ob­ses­sive) fol­low­ing and a bur­geon­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a “mu­si­cian’s mu­si­cian.”

Rough Trade folded soon af­ter the al­bum was re­leased, leav­ing her with­out a record com­pany. RCA snapped her up but when it pre­sented her with sug­ary, ra­dio-ready mixes of her songs she told them “no thanks” and walked out on Elvis Pres­ley’s old la­bel.

Thanks to dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion, Lucinda Wil­liams is easy to find these days, and songs like “Pas­sion­ate Kisses” and “I Just Want to See You So Bad” have be­come neo-stan­dards. It’s the place where a great song­writer fi­nally found her foot­ing, and along with con­tem­po­rary work by Steve Earle could be seen as the foun­da­tion of the Amer­i­cana move­ment.


Even more in­ter­est­ing than NPR’s list is ven­er­a­ble critic Ann Pow­ers’ com­pan­ion es­say, “A New Canon: In Pop Mu­sic, Women Be­long at the Cen­ter of the Story,” also on the NPR web­site.

Pow­ers makes the case that the story of pop­u­lar mu­sic is told through the “great

works of men,” with women for­ever on the mar­gins.

“Back in the 1980s, in my col­lege women stud­ies classes, I was taught to be sus­pi­cious of the per­va­sive­ness of the ‘pseudo-generic man’ — the as­sump­tion that a male per­spec­tive can stand for all per­spec­tives,” Pow­ers writes. “To­day, myr­iad iden­ti­ties across the gen­der spec­trum flour­ish within our shared so­cial me­dia spa­ces and the con­ver­sa­tions gen­er­ated there. Yet in pop­u­lar cul­ture, and es­pe­cially in mu­sic, the pseudo-generic man still rules.”

She’s right, and I’m not sure what to do about it other than feel a lit­tle guilty. And won­der where the great fe­male pro­duc­ers are. Most seem to be like Mitchell — artists in­volved in pro­duc­ing their own projects. If there is a fe­male Phil Spec­tor or Rick Rubin, I can’t come up with her name.

OK, Lau­ren Christy is half of the pro­duc­tion team The Ma­trix, known for their work with Liz Phair (who, if this es­say had un­lim­ited space, would cer­tainly merit men­tion­ing). Linda Perry has tran­si­tioned from artist to pro­ducer, work­ing with Pink and Christina Aguil­era, among others. Back in the day, Sylvia Robin­son pro­duced some sem­i­nal hip-hop record­ings. Emily Lazar is a top mas­ter­ing en­gi­neer.

I’m prob­a­bly over­look­ing some­one. I hope so.

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