Holly Gleason remembers the moment when Tanya Tucker changed her life.
She was a high school student in Cleveland when she walked into a record store and saw a life-size display of Tucker in a red spandex catsuit promoting her 1978 album “TNT.”
“I think I lost my breath,” says Gleason, who, in addition to being an author and songwriter, works in artist development in Nashville now. “All my circuits were overloaded. . . . I remember thinking, ‘$5.99. What will I find out?’ ”
It turns out Tucker taught young Gleason a lot — about country music, about being a woman, about navigating the world. And it’s those moments that Gleason looked to document in her new anthology “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives” (University of Texas Press), which collects female artists writing about the female country artists who influenced them.
Gleason approached artists such as Taylor Swift and Rosanne Cash and writers ranging from pre-eminent critic Holly George-Warren to newcomers like Entertainment Weekly’s Madison Vain. “It was super not-scientific,” Gleason says. “I asked them, ‘Who was it? Who was that one artist who changed everything — your DNA rearranged, the world changed, what you thought was possible was different? What was the pivot and how did it play out?’ ”
From the Tucker album, Gleason says she learned two valuable lessons — not to be afraid of what others think and not to be so sure that you know what someone else is about.
“She used her sexuality and her own charms to stand on her own two feet,” Gleason says of Tucker. “She was an empowered, intellectual hot girl — all the things boys say they want. . . . She was a big star doing what she wanted to do, doing it as she saw fit.”
In pulling together the submissions of “Woman Walk the Line,” Gleason was struck by how it seemed everyone could find a moment in their lives where music fundamentally changed them. “One of the things that makes this book stand out, I think, is the passion people have for music and its potential for life change,” she says.
It was even apparent in the submission that surprised Gleason the most — thoughts Taylor Swift, at the age of 18, had about Brenda Lee, the teenage sensation known as Little Miss Dynamite for hits like “I’m Sorry” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” “It was stunning to me and thrilling,” Gleason says. “The revelation wasn’t that the writing was great, from her or any of these writers, it was how willing they were to be vulnerable.”
For Floral Park’s Cynthia Sanz, an executive editor at People who wrote about how important Mary Chapin Carpenter is to her, that didn’t come easy.
“I thought the idea for a book was a great one,” Sanz says. “I was less interested in sharing my personal life. I’m happy to write about artists. I’m less happy to write about me. It’s much easier to write about other people than it is to be introspective and write about your own life and your thoughts and feelings.”
However, Sanz wanted to pay tribute to Carpenter. “I felt that she was singing about my life in a way that she expressed it better than I could,” says Sanz. “Her lyrics spoke for a lot of women my age who were trying to find their way in the world, in juggling a career and relationships.”
Nancy Harrison, supervising producer at “Access Hollywood,” wrote about how she became a Dolly Parton fan while growing up on Long Island even though her first concert was Billy Joel at Nassau Coliseum when she was 14 and she had spent plenty of time at teen nights at North Shore clubs. “Intelligent, bold, and confident, she conquered a male-dominated space and did so without camouflaging or hiding her femininity,” Harrison wrote. “She proved you did not have to look or act like a man to be successful. In Dolly’s world, lipstick, wigs, and high heels were immaterial to the talent that lies within.”
At a time when country music remains a male-dominated space where large parts of the Nashville establishment believe male artists are the lettuce in their salad and female artists are the tomatoes, Gleason says she thought it was important to celebrate the female contribution to country. “There was something in me that wanted to say these women shouldn’t be forgotten,” she says. “We’re so inundated with everything that people can get lost.”
“There’s never been a more diverse time in country music — with roots rock and Americana and bluegrass — it’s just not all on country radio,” Gleason adds. “It’s out there, but people have to know where to look.”
COUNTRY STARS TALKING COUNTRY STARS
In addition to music critics and essayists, Holly Gleason turned to some of country music’s stars and up-and-coming stars for their thoughts on female artistry. Here’s a look at some excerpts from “Woman Walk the Line”:
TAYLOR SWIFT ON BRENDA LEE “Brenda Lee is grace. Brenda Lee is class and composure. And when she hears the roar of a crowd, Brenda Lee smiles like she’s five years old and receiving her first standing ovation.”
ROSANNE CASH ON JUNE CARTER CASH “When I was a young girl at a difficult time, confused and depressed, with no idea of how my life would unfold, she held a picture for me of my adult life: a vision of joy and power and elegance that I could grow into. She did not give birth to me, but she helped me give birth to my future.”
GRACE POTTER ON LINDA RONSTADT “Now listening to her records, I feel they’re invitations to an internal world. And the most beautiful thing about her singing is, she finds that break in her voice, in her vocal, that no one else would have thought of. It seems to happen so naturally. It’s so emotional, and it milks the context even more than the words or the chord change.”
AUBRIE SELLERS ON ALISON KRAUSS “Her voice is as timeless as her records. It transcends genres as so few can, because it’s so real, in the way that only singing with your actual unaffected voice can be. You get lost for a second when you hear her, not able to distinguish what era it is and not able to tell if everyone else has already discovered this or if you are the lone person in the world listening.” — GLENN GAMBOA