Created as part of the University of Illinois Press series "Music in American Life," this is a fascinating audience-eye view of the very American phenomenon, Saturday-night
Traditionally, such shows were held as barn dances, church singings or school performances and were strictly isolated, indigenous and non-commercial. But with the advent of radio, and the influx of poor whites from the
South into the northern cities for work during the 1930s and '40s, a shift occurred that put hillbilly music in the spotlight of American entertainment. Since that time it has not fallen but carries on quite self-sufficiently as country or country-western music, an entrenched part of our national culture.
Central to the hillbilly radio genre was the female, whether vocalist, comedienne or merely ever-present symbol. Sacred motherhood and wifely faithfulness were prerequisites for the tastes of rural audiences, and female singers were supposed to act demure (they were even chaperoned) and, if married, have babies and talk about their husbands and their biscuit-baking.
The book details the careers of the female radio stars of the era, most of whom were connected with WLS out of Chicago or with the Grand Ole Opry – including Linda Parker, Lulu Belle Wiseman, Lily May Ledford and Minnie Pearl, with an astute afterword about Loretta Lynn.
Lily May Ledford was typical of the radio women, transferred from a very poor home setting in rural Kentucky to the sometimes numbingly tough grind of radio work. She grew up with music in the family and learned to pick the banjo and sing in a loud, nasal style that carried well in outdoor and unamplified settings. She started her own band and was quickly scouted by John Lair, an early radio entrepreneur who recognized the group's authenticity, just the sort of familiar fare that lonely mountaineers transplanted to Chicago were longing to hear. Lily May soon learned that the aspirations she held – to improve herself and make it big as a performer on an equal footing with males – would not be realized through radio. Women performers were costumed in calico and rick-rack outfits that made them appear backwoodsy and old-fashioned, hardly the look Lily was longing to achieve. Lair bought her a good banjo, but she found that its naturally loud strings created feedback when she strummed it as vigorously as she'd had to pick on her inferior homegrown instruments. Her vocal power also overwhelmed the sensitive mikes and had to be modified. All in all, Lily had to tone herself way down to satisfy the strict requirements of the commercial music business. Then Lair matched her up with two girls from the Midwest along with her sister Rosie and called their act The Coon Creek Girls, even though Lily and the others pointed out that "There ain't no Coon Creek where any of us is from." Lair responded, "Your audience out in radio-land don't know that." The name stuck. Next, Lily was weaned away from the high-wailing, lonesome sad songs she had grown up with, songs that she thought truly expressed the harsh lives of mountain folk, many of them directly descended from old English balladry. She was forced, along with the other "girls", to sing upbeat modern songs that, if anything, were a mild parody of hillbilly home life, with inane lyrics like, "Well hi, Uncle Dudy, how you feelin' today – well, I ain't very well, I'm bound fer to say." Lily toed the line, hanging on mainly because jobs were scarce to nonexistent, and the radio money was good, far better than anything she could have earned back home.
The homely virtues promoted through such shows as Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the Opry sold product, while reminding displaced people, or those still isolated back in the hollers, of the eternal values they still cherished. Sarah Colley Cannon, known to the world as Minnie Pearl, a Tennessee woman from the educated middle class, reminded them through humor that country folk were not quite as prudish as all that. In Minnie's fictional hometown of Grinder's Switch, there were some pretty questionable goings-on. She once advised sagely, "It's alright to flirt with the girls that wears the lipstick, but always marry the one that can push a broomstick."
History professor and author Kristine McCusker (A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music) makes the case that Loretta Lynn is often treated as a
sui generis mountain woman who single-handedly forged the female country singer image. However, there were a myriad of hard-working authentic characters
who preceded her. McCusker's book is the lone tribute to their contributions.