AWTY talked to rising star Demi Marriner about country music, the role of women, and its place in the British music scene.
Country music has had a long and notable female pedigree from Patsy Cline to Taylor Swift, via Dolly Parton, Lorretta Lyn and Shania Twaine. Although dominated by American artists few Brits would fail to be able to name at least one ‘femme country’ star. Yet despite that, in the USA, as one radio commentator put it in 2015, “female acts are the equivalent of tomatoes garnishing the salad of the country format” (Rolling Stone).
It’s a battle that re-emerged in January of this year when Kelsea Ballerini and Kacey Musgraves criticised a radio station that commented their listeners “wouldn’t stand them playing two female artists back to back”.
“Smells like white male bull***t and why LONG ago I decided they cannot stop me and yet, they can play 18 dudes who sound exactly the same back to back. Makes total sense” tweeted an angry Musgraves.
“In the States where country was born I think there's still a lot of stigma around female artists, whether it’s refusing to play them back to back, or not playing bands with women in them, or only 10% of the artists on radio being female,” comments Marriner. “I’m not sure why we are in that position and I would have hoped that we had moved on from that. I do think the UK is different. For example, at the AmericanaFest they now try and have a 50/50 gender split on their bill.”
"I must admit at school I was regarded as a bit different. ‘Whatever are you listening to?’ being a not uncommon reaction."
Marriner herself came to country music by chance. “My family had eclectic tastes in music from the Dixie Chicks to Fall Out Boy. When I was growing up I was in different bands and playing lots of different kinds of music. Then I started song writing about the age of fifteen and I was drawn to country. I liked it because, although there’s the cliché about country music being ‘three chords and the truth’ I understood the genre as being music as storytelling. However, I must admit at school I was regarded as a bit different. ‘Whatever are you listening to?’ being a not uncommon reaction.
“I think country music is very much on the up in the UK. It’s helped by the fact we have so many more specialist radio shows than we had before, like ‘Country Hits Radio’. Its appeal is broadening because it’s losing that thigh slapping, straw chewing image. There are also tons
of female artists here playing country music and they get far more balanced air time.”
Women in country music have also begun to have more of a political edge in recent years, from the Dixie Chicks stand against the Iraq war to Faith Hill’s comments in support of gun control and Lady Antebellum’s recent name change in response to ‘Black Lives Matter’. Suddenly the conservative confederate ‘tradition’ and country music don’t seem to be such happy bedfellows.
“I try not to bring too much of my own political thoughts and judgements into my music unless I feel that it’s really important or it’s a message that needs to be spread. But equally if there is something you feel really passionate about, then it should be reflected. Country music as it developed in the States was always about dealing with ‘bad situations’, whether personal or political, but again we don’t have quite that same heritage here.”
Marriner is also opposed to the country purist. “I see my music as Americana rather than country. Sometimes when country artists sing with others it opens people’s eyes to their music, even though it might just be rapping with a banjo in the background. Recently Kelsea Barrini did a track with the Chain Smokers and that brought country music to another whole audience, because suddenly they are hearing a female voice they like.
“Consequently, they may go away and say ‘This is country? But it’s really good’. So collaboration opens up the minds of people and anyway what’s so wrong with liking heavy metal and country at the same time?”
I can’t wait for Ozzy Osbourne’s collaboration with Kasey Musgraves; some duo!
Is world famous country singer Dolly Parton about to get political?