30 Years Ago: The Women of Country Make History

It might have been one of the most important moments for women in country music in the genre’s history, and maybe one of the most important moments in country history, period. But you rarely hear mention of it, and many have forgotten that it even happened, if they ever knew that it did.

30 years ago today, on May 6th 1993, CBS broadcast a two-hour special of the largest gathering of women in the history of country music. Performers from every era of country had all congregated at the Murphy Center on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro some months previous for the taping of “The Women of Country.”

At the time, there was a new generation of performers that despite the power of males superstars like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Clint Black, were finding major traction with incredible songs—songs and performers who reflecting back on now have withstood the test of time. Mary Chapin Carpenter opened the special with a performance of her song “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” that challenges the possessive attitude some take to womanhood. The song was inspired by the dialogue of a Geritol commercial.

Joining Carpenter on the stage were Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss, all singing together. Looking back now, it was one of the greatest assemblages of country music talent on stage at one time. Two of those artists (Emmylou and Patty) are now in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Many of the others probably deserve to be.

“How could anyone ever say it’s a man’s world? Hey, a woman’s got it by the tail,” Loretta Lynn says laughing as the special opens.

Along with live performances, the special also included interviews with dozens of women, as well as clips of vintage performances. In total, over 60 women participated. And since it happened in 1993, not only did it capture many of the important women of the 90s era and a few of the up-and-comers who would make waves in the future like Martina McBride, it also included some of country music’s female pioneers who thankfully were still alive at the time like Patsy Montana, the “Queen of Country Music” Kitty Wells, and Rose Maddox of The Maddox Brothers and Rose.

“The reason that it’s happening for us today is because of our idols, people like Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn, Patsy Montana, Patsy Cline, people that have paved the way for us to be here today,” Lorrie Morgan says in the special. “Hopefully by us being here, it won’t be as hard for the next generation.”

That was mostly true until the mid 2010’s when the scourge of Bro-Country took over country music, and women found it historically hard to get attention in the mainstream. Country music has slowly been improving since then, but it’s still an uphill battle. Watching “The Women of Country” really helps set into context how many of the challenges in country music remain the same.

But one thing that is refreshing to see about the special is that it’s not a grievance fest. First and foremost, it’s about celebrating the talented women of country, though it’s also not afraid to tackle the difficult subjects women face compared to their male counterparts.

“To be a woman in country music is to be torn between dreams. Family and career are always going to compete for each other,” Pam Tillis says at one point, which leads into multiple women talking about how they had to work double hard to have a career while continuing to raise a family.

And appreciate that “The Women of Country” happened four years before Sarah McLachlan would start Lilith Fair, and decades before something like this would be considered as “woke” or polarizing. Nobody was trying to “virtue signal” by putting this special together. They just recognized that women were having a unique moment in country music, and wanted to put them in the same place as past greats while there was still the opportunity.

Some of the other women who participated were Tanya Tucker, Lynn Anderson, The Carters, Tammy Wynette, Lacy J. Dalton, Jeanne Pruett, Connie Smith, Dale Evans, Donna Fargo, Wanda Jackson, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Brenda Lee, Louise Mandrell, Anne Murray, K.T. Oslin, Marie Osmond, Jennie C. Riley, Holly Dunn, and Michelle Wright. About the only conspicuous absences were Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire.

Watching the special now, you wonder why something similar hasn’t been done in the 30 years since. You also realize how many amazing women we’ve lost since then, and how thankful we should be that someone had the foresight to make something like this while they still could.

Sure, since it’s the 90s, there is sometimes a cheese factor to the production of “The Women of Country.” The hair is big, and so are the padded shoulder pads. But at the 1:31:00 mark of the video below when all the younger women of country part like the sea to allow all the legendary women to come out, it’s hard not to feel the weight of all that legendary talent in one room.

“The Women of Country” was directed by Bud Schaetzle. And even though the women are the ones in the spotlight, a pretty kick ass male band backs them up. Luckily, you can watch the whole special below.

This story has been updated.

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