The Washington Post
For women in country, pain tops twang
Underneath the spangly surfaces of country music, there’s a lot of messiness and injustice. In some ways, the genre has been more upfront about that in recent years, especially for female artists; in some ways it has not. The range of acceptable personas for a country singer may have expanded, but personas still dominate, and as Stephanie Clifford shows in her thought-provoking and entertaining new novel, “The Farewell Tour,” life for a female country singer can still be, to put it mildly, constricting.
The book is set in 1980 and centers on Lil, a country singer clinging to a career that’s fading as the genre shifts; she’s a twangy Loretta Lynn-style singer in a
slick, Barbara Mandrell world. She has disappeared from the charts while bad-mouthing her fans and earning a reputation for overindulging in pills and whiskey. Meanwhile, a throat polyp is wrecking her voice, one more piece of evidence for her that what she needs and what the world wants don’t agree.
So, as the title explains, she’s hitting the road one last time. In the early chapters, Clifford diligently arranges the pieces that typically add up to a familiar redemption story: the toughlove bandmate who tells her to stop chewing out her fellow musicians and lay off the booze, the up-and-coming fiddler and backup singer to whom she might pass the torch, the final tour stop in her hometown, Walla Walla, Wash., and a reckoning with a past marred by abuse.
“The Farewell Tour” is indeed a redemption tale. But its seemingly predictable arc is disrupted by plenty of smart misdirections and subtexts. Like a particularly sharp country song, it takes cliches and untangles and renews them.
Clifford accomplishes some of this by capturing the constraints of women’s roles in country music in the mid-20th century. Escaping her abusive family as a 10-yearold, Lil heads to Tacoma, where, during World War II, there’s a chance for her (and other women) to occupy performing spots usually claimed by men. (“Sundays at 5 a.m., between reports about weather and Winnipeg wheat prices and Chicago hog markets, I sang songs as the sun came up to the farmer that I used to be.”) She’s a skilled guitarist and a natural at writing songs that capture her experience, but she still has to satisfy the market: “The only stuff women seemed to get on the charts was maudlin, about death and heartbreak.”
Clifford gives Lil a straighttalking, scrappy voice. She’s hard-working and unsentimental. “Pride was a joke. Tips were not,” she says of her double shifts at a diner. But Clifford also knows that every country singer has to put on an act, and Lil is working one, too. As a young girl, she recognized how to use sex to get the guitar she wanted. At 15, she saw “the glint of dull expectation” in the eyes of a radio station manager. Lacking a security deposit for an apartment, she “did what I had to do.” Her capacity to use sex to stay afloat — in the music world and in her personal life — is topped only by the emotional exhaustion it creates.
Music is the sole thing that keeps her whole: A Fender Telecaster, stolen from her violently abusive husband, “seemed made for me, the swell of my thigh matching the curve in its body.” But Clifford subtly shows how a lifetime of transactional living and walledoff feelings takes a toll. Alternating chapters between Lil’s troubled past and her last-hurrah present, Clifford intensifies the feeling of history catching up with her, adding twists that underscore the consequences of trauma and its neglect.
Clifford’s emotional acuity is matched by her grasp of country history. A host of country legends make cameos throughout “The Farewell Tour”: Lil impresses Buck Owens, who, before he became an icon of the Bakersfield sound, Djed at a small radio station in Puyallup, Wash. Lil duets with Loretta Lynn at the Grand Ole Opry. And across her 40-year career, she takes advantage of the victories female singers made along the way in the ’50s and ’60s — Patsy Cline, Rose Maddox, Dolly Parton — even while recognizing the narrow box in which she and they have been categorized. Lil has a “sexydivorcee image” to maintain, and a producer only “let me record my own songs when they were about lost love, missed opportunity, poor choices, bad women.”
The stuff about love, opportunity and choices — that’s all true. As for “bad women,” that’s in the eye of the beholder. The strength of “The Farewell Tour” is in showing just how much work is required to escape that judgment, to erase the persona and see yourself clearly.
Life for a female country singer can still be, to put it mildly, constricting.