University of Illinois Press, 195 pages, $19.95 paperback
Reviewed by Ken Burke, November 2008
onesome Cowgirls and Honky-tonk Angels
The Women of Barn Dance Radio
By Katherine M. McCusker
University of Illinois Press (2008)
The story of how women helped establish country music radio is thoughtfully explored in this extremely informative book. Focusing on both the development of Barn Dance Radio - the radio precursor to the fabled Grand Ole Opry - and female performers as pitchmen and personalities, Katherine McCusker's book reveals some largely undiscussed aspects of country music's early culture.
During its finest moments, the deftly annotated tome from the Middle Tennessee State University professor offers up equal parts historical context and rare biography while training its archival sights on such previously unheralded performers as Lulu Belle, Linda Parker, Milly and Dolly Good and Lily May Ledford. Mixing contemporary interviews with vintage news stories, a clear, compelling portrait is drawn of a time when performers hungry for recognition were forced to remodel their music and images by radio sponsors and on-air producers. The ones who warmed to their often confining roles lasted. The ones who chafed against the sexism of the era seemed to gradually fade away, despite having secured a very large fan base.
The best-remembered performers covered in depth are Rosa Lee Maphis - who's marriage to Joe Maphis allowed her to maintain a career in a male dominated field - and Sarah Colley Cannon. Better known as Minnie Pearl, the latter played against the demure girl-singer type, forging a five-decade comedy career in the process. The development of her on-stage character is one of the many historical delights contained within this book's pages. The business angles, promotional hooks, cultural expectations are all seamlessly documented. The result is a highly entertaining and educational treatise on a bygone era.