There have always been small, independent record companies, but a new wrinkle has been added in the last few years. In the past, independence was synonymous with artistic control. The growth of feminism took that one step further, to companies that were owned by and for women. Most importantly, these companies provided opportunities for women to become involved in technical and production roles dominated by men in the rest of the industry.
As with any learning experience, the results have been mixed. Some major talents have been unveiled - Meg Christian and Casse Culver (both from Washington), Holly Near, Margie Adam and Cris Williamson come to mind. These women share a feminist ideal, sometimes a lesbian motivation. Beneath it all is an immense human-itarianism, a vision not only of sisterhood but of universally shared concerns and ideals. Like all heady concepts, it lends itself to both realization and ritualization.
Teresa Trull's "The Ways a Woman Can Be" (Olivia LF910) points up all the faults of ritualized music. It's as if she has grasped her feminist and lesbian inclinations but has yet to move beyond them. As a result, her songs are cliche-ridden and not particularly well though-out, with dull melodies to boot.
In contrast, Willie Tyson, on "Debutante" (Urana WWE-82), takes cliches and stock situations and reworks them into marvelously witty and pungently satiric songs. On "Debutante Ball" she mixes images of a cattle auction and a debutante affairs over a rolling, talking-blues format. It works beautifully.
Tyson brings to her music a humer and brightness that is missing in much feminist music. It in no way dilutes the power of her songs. On "Arsenal" she fills the Country-Western melodic braggadocio with sparkling militarist imagery.
Casse Culver's folk-based roots are reflected in the simple, uncluttered feel of her music. Her husky voice has rough edges that jump with vitality, and the clearness and crispness of the Midwest ring through her songs. Unlike most of her compatriots, Culver is a writer with an appealingly mystic vision. "Three Gypsies" (Urana WWE-81), her album's title song, is the spiritual underside of Robert Altman's "Three Women": the connection is accidental but the effect is similarly stunning.
Margie Adam's "Songwriter" (Pleiades HB 2747) is a flawed success. Adam is one of the most accessible feminist songwriters with a voice similar to that of Judy Collins.She is alos a fine pianist, as can be heard on the brief, exuberant "Rag Bag." Her songs are subtle, introspective, as can be heard on the strong first side. "Best Friend (The Unicorn Song)" has a charming energy to contrast with the insightful wistfulness of "Lost in Inner Space." The final cut, "Would You Like to Tap Dance on the Moon," evokes the whimsy and grace of her particular vision.
Meg Christian, who used to sing at various local night clubs, could very well be the class of the field. She is an excellent guitarist and a convincing singer. Most importantly, she is a superb songwriter, avoiding the naivete and exaggerations of some feminist writers. As a result, "Face the Music" (Olivia LF 913) is as fine a record as one could hope to come across from any company.
"Rosalind," the opening cut, is more of a canto, verse/chorus structure as it unfolds a study of subtle bias.But it is, "Rainbow" and "The Rock Will Wear Away" the most beautifully exemplify the songwriter's concern with what she calls "that delicate balance between high musical quality and clear conscience." The chorus of the latter song has a hymn-like quality and it is easy to imagine many voices singing along this Friday evening at 8, when Christian and Trull perform at the Ontario Theater.
Olivia, Lima Bean, Urana, Redwood, Pleiades - these are the companies that feature women's music. Most full-time record stores carry them now, as a women's distribution network has also evolved. The songs are of a high moral and social value, and with most of the artists mentioned here, the quality of performance is comparable.