I am partial to southern and southern-inspired female musicians. Band mates say I talk about them endlessly and their work dominates my playlists on long car rides to our next show. I believe I am a fan of all music, but there is something about a woman that rocks that hits my soul the hardest. In a time when the accessibility of new music is astonishingly abundant, Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris are just a few of the greats that remain household names decades later.
I have been a songwriter since I was 12 years old. At first I didn’t understand what I was doing or why I was doing it other than the fact that it felt good. One thing led to another and, in middle school, I started singing in public; in high school, my band was called The Sandbox Lizards; and as a senior in high school and into college, I embarked on a solo career. Now I am 23 and working on my sixth album, living in Nashville, and constantly working on growing into my full potential as an artist.
In other words, music is my life and this article has presented me with the opportunity to list some women that I feel are very talented and definitely worth checking out. The songwriters mentioned are all women that throughout my life have given me happiness and comfort through their music. While not all of them are necessarily born in the South, their music is influenced by southern culture, and they represent us well. It was no easy task to narrow these down, but here they are, in no particular order.
1. Brandi Carlile
I first heard Brandi Carlile on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Her song, “The Story,” was played in the intro and really helped her break into the mainstream. The song showcases an unbelievably large voice that seems to easily float out of her tiny frame. I once saw her play a sold-out show at George’s Majestic in Fayetteville, Arkansas. They unplugged every mic and instrument and, over the bustle of people in the bar, her voice rang loud and clear—it was amazing. All of her lyrics are clever, and her melodies catchy.
Where to Start: “Throw It All Away” from Self-Titled, 2005
2. Shelby Lynne
In 2001, Shelby won Best New Artist at the 43rd Grammy Awards. In her acceptance speech she said, “Thirteen years and six albums to get here.” Shelby comes from a troubled upbringing—when she was 17 years old her father shot and killed her mother and then himself. I gravitate towards the raw, honest personality in her voice and the mixed influence of country and blues in her music.
Where to Start: “You Don’t Have A Heart” from Suit Yourself, 2005
3. Jessica Lea Mayfield
Jessica has a kind of thin, sweet quality to her voice that belies her songs’ dark subject matter. She uses very unique instrumentation behind her acoustic guitar songs; in particular, credit must be given to her long-time guitar player Richie Kirkpatrick. That guy can create effects live that are amazingly entertaining, yet fit the dark mood of Jessica’s songs wonderfully.
Where to Start: “Kiss Me Again” from With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, 2008
4. Heartless Bastards
I have had the pleasure of playing a couple of shows with this female-led, almost “garage rock” influenced band. Erika Wennerstrom has a very unique sound that is perfect for the rock music they create. After a stressful day, their album The Mountain is always a comfort.
Where to Start: “Sway” from The Mountain, 2009
5. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
One of the first things that attracted me to Grace Potter was her unique and soulful voice. Since 2005, this group has gone through several incarnations, but perhaps none as drastic as their move to a more 60s rock-themed style and look with their 2010 album “Grace Potter & the Nocturnals.” In June, Potter released a new album, “The Lion the Beast the Beat.” All are worth listening to, however, my recommendations are from her earlier, more vocally-centered work.
Where to Start: “Falling or Flying” and “Apologies” from This is Somewhere, 2007
6. Priscilla Ahn
Though it’s a generic and overused adjective, ‘beautiful’ is the one that best describes Priscilla Ahn’s music. Her voice is soft and breathy, in the same vein as Norah Jones. The instrumentation, for the most part, is gentle and soothing. This is a singer you can turn on while you nap or take on a long car ride. I first listened to her through a YouTube video where she performs her song “Dream” using a loop pedal to harmonize with herself, creating the most beautiful combination of melodies to pull on the ole’ heart strings. Search for that and listen to this: “Dream” from A Good Day, 2008
7. Wanda Jackson
The now 75-year-old Wanda Jackson has been labeled the “Queen Of Rock.” She first had success in the 50s and 60s as a pioneering female artist, and she’s still on the road touring and rockin’ out today. Her music is a mix of blues and gritty rockabilly at it’s finest, and her voice is a bluesy growl. I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like her during her era or ours.
Where to Start: “Shakin’ All Over” from The Party Ain’t Over, 2011
8. Madi Diaz
I first discovered Madi’s music when I moved to Nashville. She is a local songwriter, and I gravitated toward her work on first listen. A smooth voice complements both her “light rock” songs and her upbeat material, all cleverly paired with catchy choruses.
Where to Start: “Johnny” from Plastic Moon, 2012
9. Neko Case
I first heard Neko through her indie rock band, The New Pornographers; however, she is best known for her solo career, and it’s her solo albums that made me super fan. Heavy reverb, droney guitars and thought-provoking lyrics give her a style that is strong, easily recognizable, and all her own.
Where to Start: “Margaret Vs. Pauline” from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, 2006
10. Lucinda Williams
This 59 year-old Grammy winning artist has released 11 albums and still spends a good deal of her time on the road. Her intelligent, clever lyrics, and the southern grit in her voice earn her a position as one of my all time favorite artists. She’s timeless, and her live performances always feature top-notch musicians that really bring her work to life.
Where to Start: “Can’t Let Go” from Car Wheels on the Gravel Road, 1998
Elise Davis is a Little Rock, Ark., native now living in Nashville, Tenn., where she plays live shows and works on material for her sixth album. Look for her on tour this fall, and check out elisedavis.com to listen to her music. We asked Elise to write this article because we feel that her name should be on this list.
Where to Start: “Make the Kill” and “Doll” from Cheap Date, 2011