Country Music

The Women of ‘90s Country Are Back to Save Us All

No one really thinks of the 1990s as a golden era for music, especially country. In fact, you have to go back to about the 1970s to find any artists who are really treated like legends, like the beatified trifecta of Willie, Waylon and Cash. George Strait might be a major exception to that rule, but perhaps he shouldn’t be. It was the women of country who were truly killing it during the 1990s.

Now, it appears as if two of the decade’s biggest successes will return to save us all from the hell that is commercial country radio. In the past week, both Mary Chapin Carpenter and Wynonna Judd have announced upcoming releases, just about the best news that fans of the genre can hope to receive at a time when the establishment is happy enough to continue cashing checks and rewarding mediocrity.

Mary Chapin Carpenter returns to country with The Things That We Are Made Of. Carpenter’s 14th studio album, produced by the genre’s producer du jour, Dave Cobb, represents both a return to the traditional and a turning point for one of the genre’s most legendary female artists. Carpenter told Rolling Stone that she’d painstakingly sequenced each track on the record, a hat-tip to the way that everyone once had to discover new music before streaming services made indulging in the same old singles over and over a possibility.

It is also, of course, an impeccable showcase of her incredible ability to craft lyrics that are at once poetic and entirely relatable. Over the years, Carpenter has honed her more than 30 years in the music business into a ridiculously sharp lyrical aesthetic that echoes Bob Dylan’s storytelling prowess with plenty of old-school country twang. Carpenter has come a long way since those tunes from the early 1990s, but the authenticity and charm that made her a star are still firmly in place.

Just a few days later, Wynonna Judd announced that she would also be making her way back to country music with her first release in more than a decade, Wynonna & the Big Noise. Alongside husband and bandmate Cactus Moser, Wynonna has created an album of love songs that bear little resemblance to the overwrought ballads she recorded with her mother, Naomi, back in the 1980s and ’90s.

And that is where the album truly succeeds. Wynonna may not be quite as able to belt in the way that she was 20 years ago, and hearing a more subdued version of that completely unmistakable voice is a truly beautiful segue into Judd’s second act. Equally impressive is Judd’s duet with Jason Isbell, “Things I Lean On.” Paired together, those two are country music at its best — a blending of generations and genres and aesthetics that produces something remarkable.

Lord knows that country music needs a little more remarkable, and there’s really not a crop of better artists who could bring about that change. As much as we talk about the future of country music, the traditionally leaning young artists like Kacey Musgraves and Sam Outlaw and whoever else, it would be ridiculous to ignore the lessons that these artists have to bring from the 1990s, a time when country music had significantly more tolerance for these artists who didn’t quite fit into the mold of what was traditionally commercially successful.

As much hate as there is for the Garths and Shanias of the country-music world, there were an equal number of artists who found success in that time even if they were, stylistically, a bit on the fringe. In a time when country radio marginalizes these artists perhaps more than ever, there’s no way that Dwight Yoakam or Kathy Mattea or Terri Clark has the success they saw in the 1990s in this image-obsessed, frankly dystopian new world of country music.

Bringing that to an even sharper point is the very real likelihood that neither would Mary Chapin Carpenter or Wynonna Judd. Even at the peaks of their careers, they would’ve never been young enough, thin enough or otherwise close enough to the genre’s current (and beyond ridiculous) standards for feminine beauty. It isn’t easy to be a not-conventionally-gorgeous-and-ridiculously-thin woman in country music right now. Just ask...well, there’s no one even remotely famous to ask.

But since they’ve now got these well-established careers and actual decades of success as country artists, those things really don’t matter. Or at least they matter less. Either way, Wynonna Judd and Mary Chapin Carpenter have returned to country music and it’s time for these fearless broads to come back and kick the shit out of the men who would relegate them to salad garnishes and sexual stereotypes. 

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Amy McCarthy is a food writer and country music critic who splits time between Dallas and Houston. Her music writing is regularly featured in the Houston Press and has also appeared in Texas Monthly, Salon, VICE, Playboy, and Pitchfork.