If you stop and think about it, you can probably come up with a dozen country hits written or performed by female country vocalists that have “crossed over” and become pop hits. And for most of these, if the song is strong enough to cross over, it’s strong enough to become one of the all-time standards of American Popular Song. Dolly Parton can claim a couple, with “I Will Always Love You” from the 1990s, and of course the early 80s anthem “9 to 5.” Both were movie hits, both were massive hits, and are unmistakably part of the soundtrack of America. Barbara Mandrell crossed over in the early 1980s, Patsy Cline did decades earlier. Two names that come to mind from recent years are Shania Twain and Faith Hill.
In fact it’s difficult to think of a time when female country vocalists weren’t scoring big on the pop charts. They seem to do it with more frequency than their male country counterparts. The best explanation is probably that the persistence and dedication required to be a successful female country artist propels them to these heights. Although female country artists have long ruled the airwaves, they’ve historically played second fiddle to their male counterparts. In fact, if you wanted to break into the country music business in the 1960s and 70s as a woman, you first had to put in time as a “girl singer” for an established male country star.
Dolly is probably the best example of all; she’s made millions in her career as a singer, possibly even more as a songwriter. Her talent was unmistakable even when she was in high school. But Dolly went nowhere until she signed on as Porter Wagoner’s girl singer. Wagoner, a Grand Ol’ Opry workhorse and popular country star, had a syndicated TV show that virtually guaranteed him an audience when he toured — as long as he toured where his show aired. Parton wanted to move beyond the small towns and regional venues Wagoner relied on. Dolly had no choice but to sign a contract that virtually made her an indentured servant, and was unable to jump ship until long after her star had eclipsed Wagoner’s. Even then she had to buy her way out of the contract.
Prior to Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner had a “girl singer” named Wynette Pugh. Ms. Pugh jumped ship early in her career, moving to Nashville in the mid 1960s where she was discovered by Columbia producer Billy Sherrill. He changed her name to Tammy, dropped the Pugh, and within three years Tammy Wynette had five number one records and would soon be known as “The First Lady of Country Music.” Tammy’s sole crossover hit was of course, “Stand By Your Man,” which peaked at #19 on the pop charts. Although definitely country sounding, that song has become something of a standard to be sure. While Tammy was riding up the charts in the late 1960s Sherrill paired her with male star David Houston, until her fame eclipsed his.
Houston, who was Country Music Entertainer of the Year in 1970, scored two Grammy Awards during his career. His “girl singer” through the early 1970s was Barbara Mandrell, who had but one solo hit along with a couple of smash country duets she recorded with Houston. It was not until she was dropped by Columbia in 1975 and left Houston’s shadow that Barbara scored big. Her best known crossover hit was “If Lovin’ You Was Wrong,” which peaked at #31 on the pop charts and #10 on the adult contemporary charts. She had a string of #1 country songs in the early 1980s that had lesser crossover success, although her network television show made her a household name.
It seems that virtually all of the top female country crossover artists prior to the 1990s began as somebody’s “girl singer.” Even the legendary Loretta Lynn did some time early in her career with Ernest Tubb, although the men who greased the tracks for her in Nashville were the Wilburn Brothers, who got Loretta a contract with Decca in exchange for publishing rights for any songs she wrote. Unlike Dolly, Loretta was unable to get out of this contract; the Wilburns refused to let go, and ultimately Loretta stopped writing songs! In any case, it’s hard to consider Loretta Lynn as a crossover artist, as her only contribution to the pop charts was “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which barely cracked the Hot 100. The song later served as the title to a critically-acclaimed bio movie on Lynn’s life, and thus is more or less regarded as something of a standard. It’s certainly a better-known song than its chart position would lead you to believe.
On artist who did things a bit in reverse was Skeeter Davis, who more or less began her career with a huge solo crossover hit that became an American pop standard. After flying solo from the Davis Sisters in the early 1960s, Skeeter had a few minor country hits, then hit huge in 1963 with “End of the World.”
At the time, Davis was a strong country act on her own. Yes, she was a “girl singer” for guitarist Chet Atkins, but not in the same vein as most. Decked out in heels and flattering, form-fitting dresses, Skeeter became a star to rival the likes of Patsy Cline. “End of the World” hit #2 on the pop charts, and believe it or not, #4 on the R & B charts. End of the World? Skeeter was on top of it, scoring a few more pop hits and finding success as a songwriter as well. Somehow it all devolved as the 1960s went on, she started opening as a “girl singer” for a few different artists, including Bobby Bare and George Hamilton IV. By 1970 she was sort of a country hippie. The hits more or less stopped, but Skeeter remained popular in country music circles worldwide.
We mentioned Patsy Cline. She had three of the biggest crossover hits in history, songs that are now standards that have been performed by so many different artists that it is difficult to remember that Patsy recorded them first. “Walkin’ After Midnight” struck gold in 1957, peaking at #12 on the pop charts. After a string of country hits and a surge in popularity, Cline was back on the pop charts with the incredible “I Fall to Pieces” in 1961. This was to be her first #1 country hit, and once again crossed over and reached #12 on the pop charts. Surprising, because this song resonates better with today’s “singers and standards” enthusiasts more so than country fans. In late 1961 Patsy followed this with Willie Nelson-penned “Crazy,” which could easily be called one of the top American pop standards of the 1960s. It reached #9 on the pop charts at the time.
Interesting thing about each of these songs: Patsy Cline didn’t care for them, and resisted recording each at first. Seems that Patsy didn’t care for a “pop” sound! Imagine, one of the best country female crossover artists of all time didn’t want to cross over. In true Cline fashion though, she did cash the checks. Patsy’s final crossover hit was “She’s Got You,” which peaked at #14 on the Hot 100. With the success of this song, Cline began to embrace the pop sound, and recorded a few Irving Berlin compositions for what would be her final album. Patsy Cline died in March 1963 at age 30 when her private plane crashed 90 miles from Nashville.
Incidentally, Patsy Cline had “girl singers” of her own: Loretta Lynn and Dottie West. West would later go on to tour with Don Gibson. Her top pop crossover hit was “Country Sunshine,” which hit #49 on the pop charts and became a well known jingle for Coca-Cola. In the late 1970s West recorded and toured with Kenny Rogers, but none of these cracked the Hot 100.
As for Patsy Cline, she did work for a time with Jimmy Dean, but eventually became one of the few female country stars of the day to headline her own shows.