How Kacey Musgraves, Mickey Guyton and Maren Morris Beat a Sexist Country Music System

Country Music
Courtesy Henry Holt & Co.

The story of women in country music is being written anew every day, but it needs its actual scriveners, too, to keep a record of what progress is or isn’t being made in a genre that sometimes has wavered between nourishing and ignoring its queens. That role has been well-filled in recent years by music journalist Marissa R. Moss, who perhaps more than any other writer has made it her mission to hold feet to the fire when it comes to the still beyond-glaring inequities between female and male artists in the genre. A regular contributor to Rolling Stone Country, Moss has come even more to celebrate than to excoriate — though there’s plenty of both to go around — with her first book, “Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be.” 

The volume has as its recurring focus three young, accomplished singer-songwriter stars — Mickey Guyton, Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves — but takes plenty of detours beyond that core trio to explore the stories of veteran for bubbling-under female artists. It’s a book that sees Moss fulfilling her role as an activist-journalist, but that in its individual storytelling also reveals her astute eye for biographical detail. In other words, come for the agitprop about how a system that katy-bars the doors to female artists needs to be fixed… then stay for everything you always wanted to know about Kacey Musgraves as a pre-teen Texas yodeling prodigy.

Moss spoke with Variety from her Nashville home. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.) Also scroll on for a 15-minute excerpt from the audiobook version of “Her Country.”

You wanted to tell a big story on a big canvas, but how did you settle in on the idea of these three particular women as its anchors?

I wanted to tell a story that showed women that really blazed their own trail and made their own rules and encountered different challenges in very different ways. I really wanted it to be intersectional. and I thought the best way to do that was to tell the story through these three women, all from the same sort of geographic general area in Texas — the broader Dallas/Fort Worth area — who had made a similar journey to Nashville around a similar time. I wanted to bring so much else in, too: from these different modern and even younger artists to the Chicks to Chely Wright. But the leanest main story thread that I could do would be to tell the story of three women from Texas — and I also happen to really love the music of all three. Which helps, if you’re going to do that.

These three do have a lot in common in where they’re from and how they came up, and yet it’s striking that represent three such different paths to success. Maren Morris has had maybe the most uncomplicated story, in terms of just having had massive success at country radio, periodically, at least. She definitely pisses some more conservative people off here and there with a tweet about gun control or something, but still gets love across the board, including the traditional routes. Then you have Kacey Musgraves who seemingly has had massive success everywhere you could get it except at country radio. Then you have Mickey Guyton, who really has become a household name, lately, without having a hit. So were you also thinking it would be interesting to spotlight three women whose commercial journeys diverge so greatly?

Totally. I think you nailed it there: They show three unique paths. And I think sometimes we sort of lump women’s stories together in a way, but I wanted to show how different those journeys had been. And not even just in the challenges, but to give lots of space for their biographies and their stories, because we don’t always give women that too. We get preoccupied with having them talk about the difficulties, and we don’t get to just talk about the time they were 11 years old and playing in a bar, you know?

Maren, Mickey and Kacey in their different ways have really rocked those narrow definitions of what a woman is supposed to present in country. Kacey can be super country and smoke weed and hang out with Willie Nelson, but then really love fashion and show up at the Met Gala, and do all those things together. Maren can be on pop as well as country radio, and then do a interview with Playboy talking about oral sex. They’re all pushing these boundaries all the time and refusing to be boxed in by what a woman is supposed to present as. And Mickey has to deal with the fact that, most of the time, that’s blonde and white — you know, 95% of the time, and then the other 5% is white and brunette. So she has a whole different set of challenges even within that, that are far more intense.

Kacey and Mickey basically have become mainstream TV stars after genre-formatted radio was denied to them. It’s a pretty good work-around if you can get it. Do you think that this is more common to women, if not almost exclusive to women, that they or their teams are forced to find these alternate paths to be in the public eye, if the usual gatekeepers don’t seem to want to budge?

It sure seems like it, right? And there was no shortage of women who had done this, and to varying success, keeping in mind the degree of success that a Kacey and a Maren have been able to have, whereas Mickey as a Black woman in country music has encountered even more closed doors. But I find all of these women’s stories and the way they’ve navigated things to be really inspiring. I mean, I can’t play or sing a note, except to play like two Indigo Girls songs on a guitar. But I think what they’ve done is applicable not just to a musical path, but to a path for anyone who encounters misogyny or racism or any kind of roadblocks. That’s kind of what I would hope people would take out of it, too, is to be able to apply it to their own life.

These three figureheads take up a lot of narrative but are hardly the sum total of the book. Are there any of the sort of second-tier stories, if we can call them that, that you most enjoyed or wanted to spotlight?

I really found myself loving getting into talking about Chely Wright’s story and talking about the Chicks, and spending time with Mindy Smith and Patty Griffin and Margo Price, who has her own memoir coming out this year, so she’ll tell her own story soon. But that was some of the most fun stuff for me, getting into those… I don’t know if we should call them tangents, but other stories that I got to weave through was really fun. And to even get to weave some of my personal favorites that aren’t even women, like to get to talk about Charlie Worsham and bring him in, and about Hotel Villa [a place in East Nashville where burgeoning artists like Musgraves and Brothers Osborne used to hang out], and just show how much exists under this country umbrella and is part of this ecosystem here.