There is something about the female psyche that enables women to make the best music of their careers in their 50s in a way that their male counterparts find almost impossible. Because male artists tend to swagger their rampant way through their 20s and 30s, the onset of middle age comes as a confidence-shattering shock from which few recover.
Even Dylan suffered from it, although he pulled through magisterially and is still making memorable music in his 60s. Robert Plant, once the priapic king of cock rock has surprisingly and cleverly found a way of dealing with it. So, too, has Jackson Browne. Neil Young continues to show intermittent flashes of genius. But the experience of his old cohorts Crosby, Stills and Nash is more typical of the inability of male rockers to grow old if not gracefully then at least creatively. Not a decent record between them in more than 20 years.
Women, in case you hadn’t noticed, are different. Mostly, they don’t do swagger. They’re not allowed to strut, except on a catwalk. Instead, we patronise them and ask them to sing backing vocals and get them to record songs written by other people?usually men. That is when they’re not baking bread or raising kids.
So sometimes it can take years for their creativity to blossom. While playing this waiting game, they finesse their craft and nurture their art until the world is ready. Maturity becomes them. As Lucinda Williams recently remarked in these pages: “It never occurred to me that I wasn’t going to go on getting better. I’ve never understood people who make one or two great records when they start their careers and then that’s the end of it. Poets don’t even get to be respected until they’re into their 50s or 60s, and they’ve honed their craft.”
Williams was 45 when she made her craft-honed, career-defining album, the Grammy-winning Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and 50 when she released this year’s World Without Tears?arguably an even better record. Emmylou Harris is another who has found that, far from creative life ending with the appearance of the first grey hairs, it can be a new dawn.
When Harris was 48, her renaissance began with 1995’s Wrecking Ball. Produced by Daniel Lanois, its sonic landscape was a paradigm shift away from anything we’d heard from her before, her wraith-like voice swathed in layers of shimmering, distinctly non-country sound. Yet the songs, however expertly chosen, were still all covers of compositions by the likes of Neil Young, Steve Earle and Bob Dylan.
By the time Harris released the follow-up, Red Dirt Girl, five years later, she was into her 50s. Lanois was gone, replaced in the producer’s chair by his prot