Holly Gleason Talks About the Cleveland Connection to Her New Book, 'Woman Walk the Line: How the Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives'

click to enlarge Holly Gleason Talks About the Cleveland Connection to Her New Book, 'Woman Walk the Line: How the Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives'
Allister Ann
The inside jacket of Holly Gleason’s new book, Woman Walk The Line: How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives, helps to lay out the mission statement for what readers will find inside, describing it as “part history, part confessional and part celebration of country, Americana and bluegrass and the women who make them. Woman Walk The Line is a very personal collection of essays from some of America’s most intriguing women writers.”

The essays spotlighting artists like Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Taylor Swift and many others illustrate time and time again that music has an incredible power to rescue and transform those who are searching for the next steps in their life journey. It’s that song or that particular album that happened to be on at just the right moment. The lyrics take hold, and everything suddenly comes clear.

As music fans, we’ve all been there, and Gleason, a Shaker Heights native, has done an incredible job rounding up an impressive group of writers to share their own experiences of how these artists have played a crucial role in shaping their existence. Gleason will read from the book at 7 p.m. on Friday at Visible Voice Books in Tremont. Local singer-songwriter Rachel Brown will also perform at the event.

She began the project with two legal pads — one with a list of writers and the other with names of prospective artists sketched out. With each person that she approached, she wanted to know two things: Who was she and what was she to you? As New York journalist Caryn Rose shared with Scene, even if you answered those two questions successfully, the work was just beginning.

“When Holly reached out to me, the book was almost done. I said, ‘Well, the only person I'd want to write about has definitely been covered already’ and when she asked who it was, she told me that no one had yet written about Maybelle Carter. That however didn't make it easy, because the thought of being the person in that lineup of writers to write about Mother Maybelle was pretty daunting.”

“She knew where and when to push and was never wrong,” Rose says, reflecting on her experience working with Gleason. “She is a superhero.”

The fact that the Carter essay leads off the book is quite appropriate, as Gleason points out during a phone conversation from her Nashville home.

“Here is a woman who is really the foremother of so much of all of it,” she explains. “A.P. [Carter]’s out of the game, and rather than seceding her autonomy, [Maybelle] starts booking the gigs, driving the station wagon, smoking the cigarettes. She didn’t ask permission; she just kept going.”

Taylor Swift is one of several artists who contributed essays, with an interesting twist — her contribution is one that was written when she was 17 years old and just getting started with her own musical career. Initially, Gleason imagined that Swift might want to write about Emmylou Harris.

“I think that Taylor doesn’t get enough credit for how smart she is,” Gleason says. “I approached her team, and I said, ‘I’m doing this book. Here’s the drill. I know she’s done a ton of benefits with Emmylou. I’m sure she’s gleaned stuff from her. I’ll give you Emmylou. The book is called Woman Walk the Line, [inspired by] the Emmylou Harris song. If she wants to do Emmy, she can do anybody else; she can do whatever she wants, but let me just start the conversation.’”

After about a week, she heard back from the Swift camp — they had a different idea which they felt might fall more closely in line with what Gleason was looking for. Swift had written a short essay about Brenda Lee, which they were willing to provide with one caveat. “She wrote it when she was 17, and it’s really important that is acknowledged in the work,” they told her. “Because she doesn’t want anyone to think that she wrote it now. Obviously. She’s a 27-year-old woman.”

Gleason was floored when she got the piece from Swift.

“Because she’s not Taylor Swift when she writes this essay. She’s a young girl, who has had some hit singles and we know how many of those girls come and they go,” she says. “There she is, sitting on her mother’s bed, looking at Brenda Lee, who was arguably in her day, one of the biggest stars. Brenda Lee, ‘Little Miss Dynamite.’ Massive, massive, massive, and here is this ambitious child, who is looking at her future, she hopes, and trying to do the math. There’s not another human being in the world that could have written that essay. They were generous enough to think about what it was we were asking for and to actually give us what we needed.”

Shelby Morrison, Director of Artist and VIP Relations for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, found herself writing about Barbara Mandrell for the book.

“I have worked in the music industry now, for twenty years, starting back in the early 1990s, and I continue to learn about the women in this industry, have heard their stories firsthand, how they have navigated their careers based on heart, intuition, talent, intelligence and an insurmountable number of obstacles,” Morrison says. “I have had the realization, more than once, how much their experiences have mirrored my own. The fact that I was allowed the chance to dig deep and tell the story of my own inspiration with Barbara Mandrell, as a young girl, is an extraordinary opportunity. I hope that young women read this book and become inspired to choose their own path and be courageous enough to do great work, on their own terms.”

“I collect people,” Gleason says with a laugh, when asked how she came in contact with Morrison. “I think we met at the Asleep at the Wheel show they did for Music Masters for Janis Joplin. I think we started talking there. Margaret Thresher, who was the [Rock Hall’s] director of communications at the time, introduced us. You know, we just hit it off. She’s a true believer. Shelby loves music with every fiber of her being.”

Former Clevelander Deborah Sprague contributes a deeply personal essay on Rosanne Cash, which Gleason notes, begins as a piece that you might think is about “familial expectations and going your own way.” But then, it takes a turn. “You realize that this is really an essay about conflict and personal identity,” she says. “I thought that was a really brave essay. You know, a lot of these essays are brave. So many of them are.”

“I am super-flattered that these writers trusted me enough to go there,” she continues. “You know, when you write like this, and you know people are going to see it, you have to believe that the person who is caring for your story is going to protect you. In the #MeToo moment, I think that’s why so many women don’t come forward. [It's] because they don’t feel safe.”

Gleason has two essays in the book, including one on Tanya Tucker that traces her own formative years in Cleveland and the early stages of her eventual career as a writer.

“There was so much energy around rock music and local music. WMMS, I remember pulling into the library parking lot and Kid Leo saying, with that voice of his, 'This is brand new from London, England, Akron’s Chrissie Hynde, on the home of the Buzzard.’ It was the import single of ‘Stop Your Sobbing.’ I was just like, ‘What in the hell?’ That’s what Cleveland gives you. Music is important. There was great curation.The things that got lifted up were visceral.”

She also offers credit to much-loved Cleveland singer-songwriter Alex Bevan, who “put me on the road” to discovering the music of John Prine, Steve Goodman and Jimmy Buffett, “the pre-Margaritaville years,” she clarifies. “I existed when that was just a dumb song on an album.” She and Bevan had a number of important influential adventures together. Eventually, as a result of that association, she crossed paths with Vince Gill, then a member of Pure Prairie League, who heard her reel off a string of Rodney Crowell’s credits, pre-internet, let’s remember, and told her she should be writing about music. As Gleason’s essay reveals, Gill’s words of wisdom would not go to waste. She began taking her first steps toward journalism while she was still in college and found herself freelancing for a number of different outlets, including a high profile story for Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine on Neil Young, prior to the release of his 1985's Old Ways, an album which found the veteran artist leaning heavily in a country direction.

“The reason that I got sent it was because I had been writing about country music for the Miami Herald for two years and doing a really good job. And Neil wanted to talk to people that really knew country music and knew it in a fluid way, not in an archival way. And I was fluid. I mean, oh God, we spent an hour on the bus just talking about the Bellamy Brothers and 'Old Hippie' and what John Anderson was doing after 'Swingin’' had been a hit and why I thought he mattered. Did I really take the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band seriously as a country act? It was crazy. That’s how I grew up. I think too, if music is fluid in your life like that, I think you have a different respect for it.”

Woman Walk the Line, which is already in its second printing, has gotten a hefty stack of accolades, including praise from the New York Times and Rolling Stone. Gleason hints that there could be a second volume.

Both Rose and Morrison are thrilled with the reception that the book has gotten so far. “You always hope that good work will find its audience, but as we both know, that's rarely the case,” Rose writes in an email. “I am so thrilled to be part of a project that is finding its home and resonating so strongly with readers. It just proves that there is an audience for women writing about music.”

“This book is a treasure chest, each story is a jewel, much like the soul of every writer who shared their story,” Morrison adds. “I love the fact that it spans a continuum of women from different backgrounds and career choices, yet all of us have in common the genuine, pure, boot-shaking experience of song. The women artists who create the music we listen to, do so from a space within themselves that many are not brave enough to expose because of the possible repercussions of being a vulnerable woman. They, in turn, inspire all of us and it is an incredible gift.”

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