by Jessica Nicholson
Many of country music’s female artists have earned some of their most memorable hits through writing and/or recording music that speaks to the hopes, dreams, struggles, and regular experiences of everyday people.
Artists including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Reba, The Chicks, and Mickey Guyton have used their music to break down barriers and call attention to topics including gender inequality, workplace discrimination, equal rights, racial discrimination, birth control, and double standards. Along the way, they’ve opened doors for both music fans and fellow artists for generations to come.
Below, we highlight a few ground-breaking songs from some of country music’s most powerful artists:
Kitty Wells, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”
Even with her gingham-clad, prim and proper image, Kitty Wells smashed barriers for female artists with this defiant 1952 hit, a retort to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” In Thompson’s song, he expresses his regret that his bride-to-be is being unfaithful, driving the point home with the lyric, “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels.”
Wells’ answer song places the blame squarely on unfaithful men for creating women who do the same. “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” became the first No. 1 song on Billboard’s country chart by a solo female artist, and spent six weeks at the pinnacle.
Key lyric: It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women/It’s not true that only you men feel the same/From the start most every heart that’s ever broken/ Was because there always was a man to blame
Loretta Lynn, “Rated X”
Lynn’s “Rated X” challenged social stigmas surrounding divorced women. The song simultaneously encouraged women to leave bad marriages, but was also frank about the double standards they faced after divorce. It topped the country chart in 1973, becoming Lynn’s sixth No. 1 hit. “Rated X” is from Lynn’s album Entertainer of the Year, a nod to Lynn’s becoming the first female artist to be named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1972.
In her book Honky Tonk Girl: My Life in Lyrics, Lynn said of “Rated X,” “The song, I think was kind of taken wrong by some women. Some wrote me and said I was looking down on divorced women. If they had listened real good, they would have got the story right. I was taking up for divorced women. Once you have been married, if you got divorced or became widowed, every man takes it for granted that you’re available, that you’re easy….That was the story I was trying to tell—I was talking to the men, trying to set them straight.”
Key lyric: Well, if you’ve been a married woman/And things didn’t seem to work out/Divorce is the key to bein’ loose and free/So you’re gonna be talked about
Loretta Lynn, “The Pill”
Lynn’s songs are known for covering controversial topics, from birth control to cheating husbands to divorce, so it’s no surprise that more than one of Lynn’s classics makes this list.
Her 1975 hit “The Pill” was a humorous approach to the then-taboo topic of birth control. At the time, many radio stations refused to add the song to their rotation, however, the plan didn’t work, as “The Pill” became one of Lynn’s most iconic songs.
As included in Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann’s book Finding Her Voice: The Illustrated History of Women in Country Music, Lynn said of the song, “When we released it, the people loved it. I mean the women loved it. But the men who run the radio stations were scared to death. It’s like a challenge to the man’s way of thinking…something that’s really important to women, like birth control, they don’t want no part of, leastways not on the air. Well, my fans…forced most of the radio stations to play it.”
Key lyric: Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills/Yeah I’m makin’ up for all those years/Since I’ve got the pill
Reba, “Is There Life Out There?”
By 1992, Reba had firmly established herself as one of country music’s most exciting entertainers, and as a vocalist with a gift for choosing songs that resonated with female audiences. In “Is There Life Out There?,” in chronicling the story of a wife and mother who still made a point to follow her own dreams, Reba created an anthem for women everywhere. In the song’s music video, Reba portrayed Maggie O’Connor, who returns to college to complete her degree while balancing work and family life; the clip would inspire many wives and mothers to complete their own degrees.
In 1994, Reba starred in a CBS television movie based on the song’s storyline.
Key Lyric: She’s done what she should/Should she do what she daresShe doesn’t want to leave, she’s just wonderin’ is there life out there
Mickey Guyton, “Black Like Me” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”
Mickey Guyton has been releasing music for the past decade, but in 2020, she released a pair of songs that boldly and vulnerably spoke to both gender inequality and racial discrimination. Both songs are included on her 2020 EP Bridges.
She introduced “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” a scathing listing of the ways society often builds up young girls just to tear them down, during Country Radio Seminar in 2020. A few months later, she “Black Like Me,” shortly after the death of George Floyd. The song earned Guyton a recent Grammy nomination—she became the first black female artist to earn a Grammy nomination for Best Country Solo Performance—and a performance slot during the awards ceremony.
“I’m fighting for that little black girl that wants to sing country music but doesn’t have any opportunities, that doesn’t think that she could ever sing country music,” she told WFAA. “I am the vessel, I am the door for her to walk through so that she can get her opportunity.”
The Chicks, “Not Ready To Make Nice”
After the Chicks (then called the Dixie Chicks) member Natalie Maines’ told a London concert audience she was ashamed that then-President George W. Bush was from the trio’s homestate of Texas, the fall out came swiftly—their records were yanked from radio, sending their No. 1 hit “Travelin’ Soldier” plummeting down the country chart. The trio received death threats and music listeners burned their records.
However, the trio wasn’t about to back down from their beliefs and a few years later, they funneled their emotions into the album Taking the Long Way and the fiery anthem “Not Ready To Make Nice,” which earned the Chicks a string of Grammy awards, including Record of the Year, Album of the Year and, ironically, wins for Best Country Album and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
The group’s will to unapologetically be themselves and speak their minds brought controversy at the time, but also inspired a new generation of artists, such as Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert.
Lambert told Hits Daily Double in 2018, “I want to be the Dixie Chicks for this next generation. To put it simply, I want to write and make music that moves people, to give them freedom to be who they are. I want to kick those doors open.”
Key Lyric: It’s too late to make it right/I probably wouldn’t if I could
Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”
Kacey Musgraves’ 2013 hit, which she penned with openly gay co-writers Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, applauded self-acceptance and following your heart, and referenced both same-sex relationships and marijuana use.
The song was the third single from Musgraves’ debut album Same Trailer, Different Park, and made history when it was named Song of the Year at the 2014 CMA Awards.
“For a song I was told would never and could never be a single, it just blows my mind and it gives me a lot of faith that people still love connecting with a message and spreading something when they love it, and that’s what happened,” Musgraves said backstage after the song’s CMA Awards win. “It’s an anthem for all kinds of people so I could not be more proud.”
Key Lyric: So, make lots of noise, Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into/When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight roll up a joint, or don’t/Follow your arrow wherever it points
Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
This three-week No. 1 from 1968 recalls the story of a widowed mother who “socked to the Harper Valley P.T.A.” The mother railed against members of the parent teacher association for criticizing the mother’s miniskirts and social drinking, by publicly pointing out the group’s own vices.
The song, penned by Tom T. Hall and recorded by Riley, earned a CMA Award for Single of the Year and a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female. The song also made Riley the first female artist to simultaneously have a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Top Country Songs chart and the Hot 100.
Key Lyric: And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath/You’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin
And then you have the nerve to tell me/You think that as the mother I’m not fit/Well, this is just a little Peyton Place/And you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites
Dolly Parton, “9 To 5”
The themesong to the 1980 film 9 To 5 starring Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, remains as relevant as ever, more than four decades after its release. Generations of women have related to the song’s central tenet of women chasing their dreams with grit and ambition while fighting against gender inequality and workplace discrimination.
Parton wrote the song on the set of the film, creating the foundation of the song while clicking her acrylic nails together.
“It sounded like a typewriter and I didn’t have my guitar,” she told Today. “I would just look around and get ideas, watching whatever was going on on the set…. I would go back to the hotel and night and write down the lyrics. I played my nails on the real record just for fun.”
The song gave Parton her first song to reach the pinnacle of Billboard’s Hot 100, and became only the second song, by a female artist, after Riley’s “Harper P.T.A..” to reach the pinnacle of both the Hot 100 and the country chart.
Key lyric: They let you dream just to watch ’em shatter/You’re just a step on the boss-man’s ladder/But you got dreams he’ll never take away