Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels: The Women of Barn Dance Radio.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Wolf, M. Montgomery
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels: The Women of Barn Dance Radio (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: McCusker, Kristine M.
Accession Number: 230778711
Full Text: Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels: The Women of Barn Dance Radio. By Kristine M. McCusker (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008. xi plus 194 pp.).

Kristine McCusker's first monograph continues her efforts to establish gender as a key component in country music's identity, a task begun in A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music (2004), an essay collection co-edited with Diane Pecknold. McCusker believes it is not enough to add women's stories to country music history. Instead, understanding how historical actors constructed and continually negotiated gender requires a rethinking of some basic assumptions about the genre.

Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels asserts the importance of women in barn dance radio, a phenomenon that established some of country music's most important practices and themes. McCusker breaks from those who claim that women were important only because they succeeded in a male-dominated industry, arguing instead that these women were crucial in shaping it. The themes she sees emerging out of bam dance radio that became embedded in country music are, first, that barn dance radio inherited vaudeville's view that in order to be commercially successful it needed to be respectable, and therefore the industry needed women on stage and in the audience. Second, rural images and performance styles in barn dance radio belied the performers' modern business practices, and female performers walked a tightrope between the two poles. Finally, women's performance of old-time music served multiple purposes beyond building a music industry, including, for example, rejuvenating a national culture some believed undermined by commercial media in the 1920s. In a collective biography approach, she uses the lives of seven women--and their own voices, whenever possible - to discuss these themes. She draws on a variety of sources, including new material like oral history and an unpublished autobiography as well as archival research at institutions as diverse as Armed Forces Radio, the Grand Ole Opry, and the Bayer Corporation.

The book's seven chapters follow her subject's lives and progress chronologically. The first chapter establishes one of McCusker's key ideas: barn dance radio's vaudeville roots and how these influences translated to radio. Drawing on work by scholars like M. Allison Kibler and Susan Glenn, McCusker argues that theatrical traditions from vaudeville, "a belief in a national theater that required women both as moral characters and as something pretty to consume - formed the core of the barn dance radio genre" (13). More specifically, vaudeville offered stock characters that became central in barn dance radio: the comedienne, the sentimental mother, and the cowgirl. Early-twentieth-century local-color writers like Emma Bell Miles and their romantic view of southern life provided the time and place for these characters to blossom. The favorite locale was Appalachia, where a "pure" folk culture thrived because generations of women protected it from commercial culture's corrupting influences. Although inspired in part by vaudeville, radio executives found further reason to hire women. Execs, nervous about beaming directly into the sacrosanct private sphere, liked the idea of female moral stewardship.

By tracing the careers of Linda Parker, Lulu Belle Wiseman, the Girls of the Gold West, Lily May Ledford, Minnie Pearl, and Rose Lee Maphis, the succeeding chapters track barn dance radio's development ca. 1932-1960 and the undeniable role women had in shaping it. Linda Parker (nee Jeanne Muenich), who performed on WLS's National Barn Dance 1932-1935, and her manager, John Lair, created an archetype of the mountain woman/sentimental mother, becoming "the first solo Southern female image that combined vaudeville, ideas about Appalachia, and radio technology" (29). Parker offered Chicago's diverse rural migrants an image of feminine stability in era seemingly defined by chaos and (masculine) economic crisis. Lulu Belle Wiseman, who built on and modified Parker's archetype, embodied a paradox. Her guise of old-time authenticity--because it was self-consciously crafted and maintained--highlighted the genre's growing professionalism and modernity. Her persona emerged from a nexus created by sponsors who paid for her performances, broadcasters who provided formats and censured her material, and her mentor John Lair who coached her stage performances. In another chapter, the Girls of the Golden West (Milly and Dolly Good) demonstrate that women were crucial in radio's move to adopt the soft-sell techniques recommended by the era's new "scientific advertising."

The chapter on Lily May Ledford is the book's least well-realized section. Perhaps following Benjamin Filene's lead in Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Musk (2000), McCusker uses Ledford as an example of 1930s efforts to use music to forge a national identity in an era of crisis. While McCusker successfully argues for a growing national fascination with the "timelessness" of Appalachia, she asserts more than proves that Ledford's White House performance represented part of FDR's campaign to garner American support for the Brits by highlighting a "timeless" culture shared by the two nations. Similarly McCusker's argument in the next chapter becomes muddled. She convincingly demonstrates that Minnie Pearl's self-deprecating humor about an ugly old-maid's struggle to find a mate showed Americans how to laugh at the (temporary) challenges to gender roles during World War II. The chapter falls short, however, in its discussion of how Nashville's Grand Ole Opry's formula, centered on southern characters, won out over National Barn Dance's more eclectic mix during World War II. McCusker seems to suggest, but never clearly states, this occurred because in an anxious, chaotic time, Americans found security in the enduring, traditional, seemingly stable image now mature in barn dance's southern characters. Furthermore, she never clearly describes "broad mix" (122). So as readers, we do not know why that mix would become less palatable over time.

McCusker's coda makes explicit what the entire book argues implicitly. The history of women in barn dance radio challenges portrayals of Loretta Lynn and her peers in the 1960s and '70s as female innovators without precedent.

Despite some weaker sections, the book as a whole stands up very well. McCusker makes it impossible to ignore women's roles in shaping barn dance radio's performance styles and business practices. Knowing already, as we do, barn dance radio's paramount importance in the history of country music, we must, therefore, acknowledge the important ways women shaped the genre.

University of Georgia

M. Montgomery Wolf
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.