by Jada E. Watson
I’m walking in their footsteps
I’m singing their old songs
Somebody blazed this trail
I’m treadin’ on
I’m bent, but I’m not broken
I’m stronger than I feel
I’m made of flesh and bone
Not made of steel
In the opening verse of the fourth single from her critically acclaimed double album Weight of These Wings (2016), Miranda Lambert celebrates the female artists that blazed a trail for her in the country music industry. She’s walking in their footsteps, singing their songs, and holding the torch – a “Keeper of the Flame” at the ready to pass it on to the next generation. The song is not about fame or the glory of being in the spotlight. It’s about honour and tradition, responsibility and values. It’s about the admiration and respect that she has for the strong women that fought hard for their careers as country artists – the women that forged the path for female artists in a male-dominated industry that Lambert and her colleagues are now following.
Lambert wrote this song with acclaimed singer-songwriters Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose. It was Hemby that had the idea for “Keeper of the Flame” – but they didn’t get to this song right away. One evening, while sitting on her porch during a downpour, Lambert recalls being caught off-guard by the magnificence of the fireflies glowing in the rain: “It was pouring rain. There was fireflies everywhere. It was torrential rain and these fireflies were still flying around lighting up the dark.” She texted Hemby, who immediately responded and said that they have to write “Keeper of the Flame”. It was a symbol for Lambert, who said, “It’s raining on them, but they’re still flying around lighting up the dark.”
These fireflies made their way into the song chorus, a symbol of an illuminated path, of inspiration and imagination, and of hope. More critically, they seem to symbolize in this context strength, endurance and resilience. These “fireflies in the rain” can be seen through the harshest conditions, they shine brilliantly from the inside out. Unlike fire, their flame cannot be extinguished by rain. A beautiful metaphor for the struggle of female artists in the country music industry.
Female country artists have long battled double standards and discriminatory practices in the country music industry. While male country artists have been associated with the “public work” of performing and management, women were tucked away in domestic, administrative and (musically) supporting roles (as Kristine M. McCusker addresses in the Oxford Handbook of Country Music). But women helped to shape country music from the beginning – from early country radio programs, to the recording studio, and certainly the stage. Despite becoming the genre’s commercial and artistic centre by the 1990s, women continued to endure sexist double standards that guided industry practices, including restrictions placed on their public conduct, image, and sexuality, and limitations on space available to female artists on radio playlists, record label rosters, tours and television programs (see Beverly Keel’s chapter in A Boy Named Sue). Yet, they persevere. Like fireflies in the rain, they continue to write, record, perform and blaze new trails in the industry.
“I just get to hold the torch for a while, and I can’t wait to pass it on to these new singer-songwriters. I just hope I am setting a good example and making the people that made this possible, proud.’ – Miranda Lambert
In an interview with Larry McCormack of The Tennessean Lambert states: “I want people to understand that it’s the opposite of ‘look at me I’m carrying a torch.’ It’s like this has been handed to me, I have a huge responsibility from all these women that have come before me, that have set this trail, have blazed this trail to make way for me to get to live my dream as well, and write the songs I want to write, and sing, and just be an example in life. And I’m hoping that this song translates to people like that. I just get to hold the torch for a while, and I can’t wait to pass it on to these new singer songwriters. I just hope I am setting a good example and making the people that made this possible, proud.”
Lambert’s song was released on 30 April 2018, spending only 5 weeks on Billboard’s Country Airplay list… never registering enough spins, streams, or sales to enter the hybrid-Hot Country Songs chart.
This blog, named in honour of Lambert’s song, will share stories about the women that challenged industry practices, broke through barriers, and fought for their voices to be heard. While we originally had the idea of sharing stories about women that charted on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs list (our main project database), we quickly realized that some of the genre’s most important artists and critical songs never appeared on this (or any other) chart. Because of the gate-keeping practices that govern country radio and culture, many phenomenally talented artists and poignant narratives do not appear on the SongData database. Instead, we aim to share stories about women in country music. Some stories will be drawn out of the database. Others will be drawn from important moments in the genre’s history. All stories will highlight the experiences and stories of women in country music – a tribute to the keepers of the flame.