A New Exhibit Showcases the Sterling, Enduring Presence of Women in Country Music

A New Exhibit Showcases the Sterling, Enduring Presence of Women in Country Music

The Power of Women In Country Music |  Friday, Oct. 28–Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023  |  The North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh

Country music is said to revolve around “three chords and the truth.” But the truth is that, despite a progressively diverse roster of talent, the genre’s history has tended to heavily emphasize white men.

The Power of Women in Country Music, a new exhibit coming to the NC Museum of History from the GRAMMY Museum on October 28, spotlights the women who shaped country music and those who continue to propel it forward.

The impetus for the project occurred a few short years after Tomato-gate in 2015, when radio consultant Keith Hill discussed the issue of gender parity on the radio by crafting one limp metaphor: In the salad of country music, he explained, men were lettuce and women were tomatoes. Playing too many tomatoes distorted the dish.

At the time, Hill’s rhetoric received significant flak, though that did little to change things. Women have continued to struggle with terrestrial radio, where visibility in country music arguably matters most.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Kacey Musgraves became the rare country artist to win Album of the Year at the 2019 Grammys or that Miranda Lambert is now the most-awarded musician in the Academy of Country Music’s history. As of 2019, women still comprised just 16 percent of airplay.

The GRAMMY Museum set out to help change that erasure with a traveling exhibition that landed in cities like Tulsa and Los Angeles prior to Raleigh.

“We wanted to shine a light on not only the contemporary women in country music but also the ones who came before them and show how important women have been this whole time,” says Kelsey Goelz, associate curator at the GRAMMY Museum.

The exhibit material is featured chronologically, beginning with country music’s purported inflection point in 1927, when the Carter Family traveled to Bristol, Tennessee, to record with producer Ralph Peer. “The show takes you back and shows you that people have been working hard so the Kaceys and Mirandas can do what they do,” Goelz says.

“Some of the most groundbreaking stuff that’s happened in country music has happened because of women,” says the Durham musician Rissi Palmer, who also hosts the Apple Radio show Color Me Country. Palmer is also featured in the exhibition.

Much of that history-making has taken place along gendered lines, but a growing number of artists, Palmer among them, have pushed for greater racial inclusivity as well. After all, many of the songs deemed “country” in the early 20th century were popular hymns, spirituals, and folk tunes that circulated in sundry communities.

“The history of the music itself goes back to Black women and people in the South,” says Goelz. “They’ve been there the whole time, but they’re finally getting their due.”

Palmer’s inclusion feels especially important considering the growing spate of artists—Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah, among others—who are working to deepen country’s legacy.

“My inclusion as a Black woman shows the impact people of color have had on the genre,” Palmer says.

The Power of Women in Country Music features a wealth of objects that bring an ephemeral art form to life. Costumes from Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, among many others, sit alongside Shania Twain’s famous top hat and tuxedo jacket from her “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” music video.

“We wanted to show performance outfits and fashion because I think that trickles into pop culture so much,” Goelz says.

Palmer donated the 1950s-style Betsey Johnson dress she wore during her first televised Grand Ole Opry performance.

“It means a lot to me to be able to go see it alongside LeAnn Rimes’s dress—or now Loretta Lynn,” says Palmer. “All these people that I looked up to and all these people that made music that mattered to me.”

Visitors will also get to see handwritten lyrics, and interact with certain instruments, like a dulcimer and autoharp.

The exhibit’s arrival in Raleigh brought an opportunity to expand the number of musicians featured in the display. Katie Edwards, curator of pop culture at the NC Museum of History, pulled Emmylou Harris and Rissi Palmer from the main setup and placed them alongside four new additions: Myrtle Wiseman (aka Lulu Belle), Donna Fargo, Rhiannon Giddens, and Kasey Tyndall.

Like the GRAMMY Museum’s original curation efforts, the sheer abundance of North Carolina talent made it difficult to figure out whom exactly to include.

“It was hard coming up with those women because there are so many,” says Edwards. “But I decided to choose natives from all over the state.”

The museum will also host four concerts in a Southern Songbirds series to bring attention to the different North Carolina artists who play in and around country music. Durham singer-songwriter H.C. McEntire kicks off the series on October 29, along with Charly Lowry, who lives in Pembroke, and Caitlin Cary, who lives in Raleigh. The three following concerts will feature Triangle musicians Tift Merritt, Alice Gerrard, and Rissi Palmer.

“I grew up in North Carolina,” says McEntire. “I grew up in the mountains, so country to me is much more than a genre—it’s more cultural.”

And that culture has been overdue for a shift, especially as more voices insist on new perspectives.

“As much as I am inspired by the country musicians that came before me, I challenge myself as a queer woman in the South playing music,” McEntire says. “I’m proud to be from the South and be creating art in the South. I also think with that comes a responsibility.”

Palmer is set to close out Southern Songbirds on January 21. “I love the name of the series because I think that being country and being Southern are two different things. It’s not a monolith. All of our experiences and influences are different, but it doesn’t make them any less authentic.”

McEntire echoes that sentiment. “There should be room for everyone,” she says. “Sometimes you have to elbow your way in a little bit. I think it’s starting to crack open in terms of visibility and opportunity, but there’s a long way to go.” 

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