In recent years, country music has come under criticism for its seeming lack of female artists. It’s true. There aren’t many women on country radio or climbing up the Billboard charts. However, there are plenty of ladies out there making astoundingly good country music. We’ll talk about those ladies at a later date. Today, we’re rolling back the clock and looking at three women who earned the right to be called the Queen of Country Music.
I chose to highlight these three women because they did so much to shape the music that we love. These ladies were more than Queens of Country Music. They were forebears, matriarchs, and trailblazers. They inspired, influenced, and even mentored many of the ladies who sit on the pantheon of country music’s elite artists.
“Mother” Maybelle Carter: The Matriarch of a Genre
Maybelle Carter was both a queen and matriarch of country music. She earned the moniker of “Mother” several times over. The Carter Family was one of the most popular bands to come out of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. As a member of the Carter Family, Maybelle was one of the first women to cut a country record. However, it was more than timing or luck that make her so important to American music as a whole and country music specifically. Maybelle Carter’s guitar style – now called the Carter Scratch – changed the way countless guitarists approached their instruments.
However, Maybelle Carter was more than an originator and an inspiration. She was, both literally and figuratively, a mother to some of the biggest names in country music. Of course, she gave birth to the Carter Sisters. Anita, Helen, and June went on to their own successes. According to an NPR profile on Maybelle, she also served as a mother figure for Johnny Cash and Hank Williams as well as a musical mentor of sorts to Earl Scruggs.
To say that country music wouldn’t be the same without Maybelle Carter is an understatement of the highest order.
Kitty Wells: The Original Queen of Country Music
For those who aren’t familiar with Kitty Wells, I’ll introduce her with a quote from Dolly Parton. “Well, I’m not the queen, though. The Queen of Country Music is Kitty Wells.”
Dolly said that on Nightline when host David Wright suggested that she was the Queen of Country Music. She’s not wrong, either. Without Kitty Wells, we probably wouldn’t be talking about the women who shaped country music. That conversation starts with her. She broke a massive barrier in the music industry when her song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” topped the charts in 1952. She was the first female country artist to achieve that level of success. That was only the beginning.
According to an NPR profile of Wells, she had to fight tooth and nail to be heard. In the fifties, there were hardline rules about what women could and couldn’t do in the music industry. However, the star power of Kitty Wells proved that some rules are meant to be broken.
Kitty Wells wasn’t just the first woman to top the country charts. She was also the first female country artist to headline a tour and sell a million records. Additionally, trade publications like Billboard, Cashbox, and Downbeat called her the best female country artist 14 years in a row, according to her website.
The title “Queen of Country Music” gets thrown around pretty often. However, if it weren’t for this original Queen, the others may have never stepped into a studio.
Loretta Lynn: The Outspoken Trailblazer
The Coal Miner’s Daughter is another artist that has been fittingly called the Queen of Country Music. Her career began less than a decade after Kitty Wells shot to the top of the charts. Loretta Lynn broke the top-20 in 1960 with “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” However, it was her 1966 chart-topper “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” that truly showed Lynn’s strengths. She became the first female country artist to take a song that she had written to the top of the chart.
Over the years, Loretta Lynn showed that she was a masterful songwriter as well as a world-class musician and vocalist. More than that, though, she was a voice for women in a changing world. She wrote songs like “The Pill,” “One’s on the Way,” and “Rated X” that spoke directly to women across the country. As a result, Lynn’s music became both controversial and influential.
Without the fearlessness of Loretta Lynn, who knows where country music would be today.
Listen to Our Queens of Classic Country Playlist
The history of these women is endlessly fascinating and I’ve barely scratched the surface here. However, we wouldn’t be talking about them at all without the music they made. So, take some time to check out our Queens of Classic Country playlist. You’ll find tracks from all three of the ladies above as well as tunes from Dolly Parton, Dottie West, Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, and more. While you’re there, be sure to follow Outsider on Spotify to get all the best music from our favorite artists.