In 1968, Tammy Wynette released one of country music’s most iconic hits. Fifty years later, Nashville still stands by its men.
A singer-songwriter who works out of Nashville and Toronto was telling me about his excellent career choice the other day. He was recalling a conversation he had a few years ago with a popular alt-country band. The guys in the group – three fellows, it needs to be mentioned – were saying how great it was on the road, hitting town after town, getting good money and a case of beer every show. To the singer-songwriter, it all sounded exceptional – like robbing banks, but legal and theoretically harmless. Now, his career has taken off and, sure enough, life on tour is everything it was cracked up to be. “I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” he told me.
Contrast that to the case of Lindi Ortega. By most measures, she’s a successful (if maverick-y) country artist: three Juno nominations, mainstream critical acclaim – “the fast-rising dark star of country and rockabilly,” proclaimed The Guardian in 2014 – and enough of a foothold in Music City that she appeared on ABC’s Nashville.
And, yet, in 2017, the singer-songwriter with a noir-country edge released what was intended to be her swan song to the music business. No longer with her long-time label (Toronto’s Last Gang Records), she self-released the downbeat EP Til The Goin’ Gets Gone, which came complete with a stark title track, a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Waiting ’Round to Die, the sombre ballad Final Bow and the tear-jerking What a Girl’s Gotta Do.
“I was having a difficult time,” Ortega says, speaking to The Globe and Mail from her new home base of Calgary. “I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to continue with music as a career. At the level I’m at, it’s very difficult to pay for life.”
The level Ortega is at is mid-level – successful, but not over-the-top so. And while most Americana and country musicians struggle to keep themselves in Stetsons and guitar strings, female artists are particularly marginalized. In an on-air interview in 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill cautioned country stations against playing too many songs by women. “Trust me,” he said. “I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
The remarks caused a furor on Music Row, but, two years after “tomato-gate,” not much has changed. In 2017, only 18 out of the top 100 country singles had a female artist featured.
“It’s a good time to be male in country and Americana music,” says Ortega, who penned an opinion piece for the website Saving Country Music after Hill’s controversial salad analogy. “Female artists are struggling to be heard among a sea of male artists who are thriving.”
But while Ortega continues to be frustrated with country music’s gender disparity, she’s rededicated herself to her career. Professionally and personally rejuvenated – she married a guitarist, moved to Calgary – Ortega has a redemptive, conceptual new album out, the tellingly titled Liberty.
Female artists are struggling to be heard among a sea of male artists who are thriving.— Lindi Ortega
After releasing the Til The Goin’ Gets Gone, Ortega was writing songs, but none of the material was hitting her as an “aha moment.” But, during a casual session with a long-time songwriting partner in Nashville, she came up with the song Liberty. In her mind, Ortega imagined it with a spaghetti-western production style. Lyrically, she began to write to a semi-autobiographical theme involving a protagonist’s path from darkness to light.
“It was challenging,” Ortega says. “I never thought I’d want to do a conceptual record, but I loved it.”
Ortega also has a new manager: Paquin Entertainment’s Michelle Szeto, who has steered the singer-songwriter in a new direction. “I think with women in country, alt-country and Americana, the focus is often on how they look,” says Szeto, who also manages the rising Canadian balladeer Donovan Woods. “I don’t think that type of career is sustainable.”
So, where Ortega’s previous album covers feature her in dolled-up portraits, 2017’s Til The Goin’ Gets Gone shows her in a blurry, non-glamorous photograph. The new album presents Ortega in a drawing, sitting atop a steed and very much in control – nobody’s tomato.
“We’re reshaping her brand,” Szeto says. “We wanted to reposition people’s attention on her songwriting.”
Ortega made her previous albums with high-profile producers such as Colin Linden (Lucinda Williams, Bruce Cockburn) and Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton). For Liberty, a younger, more collaborative record maker (Skylar Wilson) was chosen. “Not having a big-name producer gave her more of a voice making the record,” Szeto says. “It allowed her to take risks.”
On the album’s title track, Ortega, who says she is no longer interested in hunting fame and hits, sings about riding free after years of confinement.
“I had that hunger and great ambition when I was younger, but I can’t focus on that any more,” she says. “You just end up in a world of disappointment if you’re constantly chasing that.”
Lindi Ortega plays Montreal, May 4; Ottawa, May 5; Burnstown, Ont., May 6; Kitchener, May 7; Toronto, May 9; London, Ont., May 10; Hamilton, May 11; Kingston, May 12; Edmonton, May 26.