Appalachian Music Fellowship 19

Berea College Appalachian Music Fellowship
Day 19, June 25, 2009

Girl Singers

Today I gave my Music Fellowship research presentation at the Hutchins Library. Posted below is the beginning, a little autobiographical statement. . .

When I was a little girl, I used to wake up every work-day morning to the smell of bacon, fried eggs, biscuits and black coffee—the breakfast my mother daily cooked for my father. Sometimes I could hear my parents talking in the kitchen, but mostly I heard the kitchen radio, tuned to WIVK, Knoxville, from which the glorious twang of country music poured forth. My Daddy loved Merle Haggard and could sing the words to every song he recorded. My Mother was a George Jones fan.

I was fascinated with Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Kitty Wells, Skeeter Davis, Jean Shepard, Tammy Wynette, and Connie Smith. I adored them, but I did not understand as a kid, that these women were still considered “girl singers” in the country music industry. I also did not understand that a generation of women in traditional and country music had preceded these current chart-toppers who sang so frequently in our little red kitchen. Women who had been forgotten, replaced, ignored, or silenced by the ever modern sounds of contemporary country music. Women like Cynthia May Carver known as Cousin Emmy, Molly O’Day, Lily May Ledford, Moonshine Kate, Patsy Montana, Lulu Belle Wiseman, even Maybelle and Sara Carter, just to name a few.

At about the same time that I’m waking up to country music, my family is also watching it on television. In 1963, Doyle and Teddy Wilburn debuted their syndicated country music variety show on television. In addition to the joy of seeing and hearing Loretta Lynn (who was Teddy and Doyle’s “girl singer”) with her big hair, big dresses, big guitar and big voice, I was spellbound when the Wilburn Brothers sang their 1963 hit, “Knoxville Girl.”

At 8-years-old, I thought this was a true story that had happened in my hometown. I fretted about it, worried that every time we crossed the Henley Street or Gay Street Bridge I might see some dreadful man swinging some poor woman by the hair and throwing her into the Tennessee River. My grandmother, a bossy and sensible woman, told me finally to quit watching so much TV, and that “Knoxville Girl” was just a made-up story; it was, as she described it, just one of “them awful ole killing songs.”

But it was too late. I’ve been haunted by women country singers and murder ballads ever since.

Published by Marianne Worthington

Marianne Worthington is a poet, editor, and co-founder of Still: The Journal, an online literary magazine publishing writers, artists, and musicians with ties to the Appalachian region since 2009. She received the Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award for her poetry chapbook, Larger Bodies Than Mine. She was awarded grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship at Berea College. She co-edited, with Silas House, Piano in a Sycamore: Writing Lessons from the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, a writing craft anthology from teachers at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop from the last 40 years. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, CALYX, Grist, Shenandoah, The Louisville Review, Appalachian Review, Cheap Pop, and Chapter 16, among other places. She lives in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and teaches communication studies, media writing, and journalism at University of the Cumberlands. Her poetry collection, The Girl Singer, is available from University Press of Kentucky, 2021.

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