by Jada E. Watson
On her “Women Want to Hear Women” podcast, Elaina Doré Smith developed a tradition of concluding her episodes by asking her guests to curate a playlist of 5 songs by female artists and then “Play it Forward” by covering a song by a woman that they admire. Trisha Yearwood’s “Walkaway Joe”, which peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart on this day in 1994, landed on the playlists of Kalie Shorr and Leah Turner, and was Abby Anderson’s cover. A tale of reckless, youthful desire, “Walkaway Joe” is country music storytelling at its best and highlights Yearwood’s ability to convey what reviewer Thom Jurek calls “working class love gone bad.” More critically, the song uses relationships and heartbreak as a way to elaborate complex female subject positions.
Trisha Yearwood burst onto the Nashville country music scene as a solo artist in 1991 (she had previously recorded songwriters’ demos and provided background vocals for Garth Brooks) with her self-titled debut album. Her lead single, “She’s in Love with the Boy”, rocketed to #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart (then named Hot Country Singles). It was, as Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann note in Finding Her Voice, “the first time a woman’s debut single had topped the charts in country music since Connie Smith’s ‘Once a Day’ in 1964.” The three singles that followed – “Like We Never Had a Broken Heart”, “That’s What I Like About You”, and “The Woman Before Me” – all entered the list’s Top 10. The album sold one million copies, making her the first solo female artist to hit this milestone with a debut album. Her next album, Hearts in Armor (1993), also sold one million copies, thereby solidifying Yearwood’s role as a force to be reckoned with and a trailblazer for women in the industry.
“I heard all of the time when I was starting out that women don’t sell records.’ – Trisha Yearwood
We often think of the 1990s as a decade in which women thrived in country music – a period dominated by Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks, and so many more. But this could not be further from the truth in the first half of the decade. In her important chapter on women in country music in the collection A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music, Beverly Keel states that labels were “reluctant to add women to their rosters” in the early 1990s. Despite the immense critical success of Yearwood (and of Tillis) in these early years, labels believed that women were not financially viable. Men made up 70% of country labels’ rosters. Yearwood herself spoke openly in interview with writer Michael Bane that she “heard all of the time when [she] was starting out that women don’t sell records” (cited in Finding Her Voice). But Yearwood proved the industry’s predominantly male gatekeepers wrong with her debut and sophomore albums. By the mid-1990s women were selling millions of albums alongside their male colleagues and by the end of the decade they had become the genre’s commercial and artistic centre.
Yearwood’s second album, Hearts in Armor, was released in 1993 following her divorce in 1991. “Wrought with conflict,” Jurek states that the album “feels like an exorcism.” The album’s fourth track, “Walkaway Joe” stands at the centre of this conflict. Written by Greg Barnhill and Vince Melamed, “Walkaway Joe” recounts the story of a young woman who falls helplessly in love with the “wrong kind of paradise” only to be loved and left in the middle of the night. The lyrics, and Yearwood’s performance establish a sense of impending doom for this “average Jane” in Verse 1, opening with a message of warning from a Mama to her daughter to take it slow. Unwilling to heed her mother’s warning, she hops into “Joe’s” car and rides off with him. But the narrative takes a sharp and very unexpected turn in Verse 2, when we find out that this young man is not simply uninterested in long-term romance, but is also a criminal and robs a gas station. Blinded by her love, she remains with him, and is ultimately abandoned in a motel room in Verse 3.
The track features harmony vocals of Don Henley (of the Eagles), who appears as co-narrator with Yearwood in the accompanying video. Shot in black and white, the video relays the story of “average Jane”, featuring a young Matthew McConaughey in the role of “walkaway Joe”. While the video relays the intimate details of their whirlwind romance, it also reveals a secondary narrative for the third character in this story: Mama. Mama watches her “Jane” run off with “Joe”, with devastation and concern written all over her face. As Yearwood sings about fate in the refrain of Verse 1, Mama sits on her verandah and looks through an old photo album, pausing on photos of a man that (we can only presume) was her “walkaway Joe”.
“Walkaway Joe’s” narrative resonates for its listeners – not (necessarily) in its details (of crime), but in its portrayal of heartbreak and its exploration of complex human relationships. Yearwood’s performance does not just recount “average Jane’s” heartbreak; it also relays a mother’s heartbreak – heartbreak over her own past relationships, over her daughter’s current one, and for the loss of innocence. Mama sees herself in her young daughter as she rushes off with “Joe”. Not only has the mother experienced the pain of her own “walkaway Joe”, but she is now watching “Jane” make those same mistakes. But are we really seeing “Jane’s” story in this video? Or are we seeing Mama’s story? Is Mama reliving her own experiences as she sits there on her verandah? Is she imagining all of the things that happened to her, wondering if her daughter is now suffering the same heartbreak?
The story is messy. It shows human weakness and vulnerability. It presents real human situations, complex characters and relationships, and a range of complicated emotions like regret, concern, and desperation. At a time when few women were present on radio and labels, Yearwood’s song offered – and clearly continues to offer – female audiences a lens through which they can see themselves and make sense of the world around them.