"I often focus on radio because that's what is easy to digest but it's also the number one driver for country music success in the mainstream" In conversation with Marissa R. Moss
Fighting the good fight. It's the idealistic reason to get into journalism. Because you care about something, you're passionate. But it doesn't always go that way, there are a lot of hacks writing for a living. Luckily country music has one of the best proper journalists around in Marissa R Moss. Not only does she cover all sorts, including some proper interviews, she actually investigates things, as her landmark report on sexual harassment in country music showed, and uses facts. We asked her to take a break writing for Rolling Stone, Billboard, American Songwriter, Nashville Scene, among others.
Hey Marissa, thanks for answers my questions. So, how did you get into journalism?
Being a writer was the only real career aspiration I ever had. I love music and I love to write, and when I discovered there was a place the two met, I never looked back. I collected boxes of Rolling Stone and other music magazines, though it was always discouraging for me to see minimal women's bylines in there, because that made it all feel pretty impenetrable. In college, I interned at the Village Voice, USA Today and Marie Claire, and had a column in the school newspaper. But when I finished NYU, the economy wasn't great and magazine jobs were hard to come by, so I took a receptionist gig at a children's clothing company to pay the bills. After that, I worked in communications for a while. When I was living in LA, working in political comms, I decided I didn't want to wait any longer, so I would work long ass hours at my day job (mostly on Maria Shriver’s Women's Conference in California, when she was first lady) and then work all night, sometimes till 4 a.m. or so, on my writing, for places like Huffington Post where I often got paid zilch to build up a portfolio. One time I interviewed Yoko Ono during my lunch break in my car, went back to my day job, then wrote the story once I got home that night staying up all hours. I did this all through my time in LA, and for three more years back in New York through when we finally moved to Nashville, where, at the time, things were pretty inexpensive, and I could focus on writing more full-time. It still isn't easy, in the least. But for me it has always been, and will probably always be, about hard work. I barely missed a few weeks when I took maternity leave with two children, or got pretty sick last summer. I knew I had to work my ass off to prove myself as a woman and a voice in this business and I still feel like I do.
What kind of acts were you into at that time?
I started out covering all kinds of artists – my first assignments were on everyone from a Conor Oberst interview to a Kid Rock concert. But I grew up with a father who loved 90s country and Creedence Clearwater, and a brother who was playing in an old time band in Brooklyn way before the Americana revival. I listened to everything from the Beastie Boys to Liz Phair to En Vogue to Bob Dylan to Ani DiFranco to Chet Atkins to Fiona Apple to a Tribe Called Quest in high school. I knew I liked acoustic instruments and narrative songwriting but I also knew I really liked hip hop and punk too and the idea of liking one genre never really occurred to me. My mix tapes were nuts and I didn't see why you couldn't listen to a Clint Black song before a Lauryn Hill song and I still don't. I started getting super into country in the early 2000s, at the same time I was going to see the White Stripes play around town. Folks thought it was weird but dismissed it as remnants of my Deadhead phase. Maybe they were right? Who knows. Listen to what you like, don't worry about what genre it belongs to.
What’s been your best experience since you’ve been writing about music?
There have lots of the bucket list, humble-brag moments that I could rattle off, not gonna lie: hanging on Eric Church's tour bus while he made a microwave pizza, flying to Seattle to spend the day at Brandi Carlile's house with her amazing family, eating some mushrooms that Tyler Childers foraged and cooked himself. Any time you get to see a brilliant artist being human, that really gets to me and I try to put that into my work, because it reminds us that we truly are all the same at the end of the day, and if the people you admire still do normal shit like eat and sleep and wonder if life would be easier if they were doing a different, more mundane job, then it unleashes this sense of possibility within yourself. It also helps prove to people who may judge based on gender or race or religion or sexuality that they should stop that shit right now, because we are all the same at the end of the day and a great profile can do this, in my view.
But beyond that, I'd say getting to be edited by some of the best in the business. This is a tough thing to swallow at first, when you are young and you think your work is perfect. When you get older, and when you get lucky enough to work with great editors, you realize the value of this process. It's not about ego, it's about making the work better and you can learn so much from it.
Also any time I get a check on time is my current greatest experience!
Which piece have you written that you’re most proud of?
I'd definitely proud of the expose I wrote on sexual misconduct and country radio, because I am proud of anything I can do to change the climate for women in country music for the better, even if it is just one person. And I'm proud every time I get a story that lands on the cover of a magazine. That never gets old and my five-year-old son thinks it's really cool. It’s something concrete I can show my kids and be like, “this is why mom was working her ass off and maybe had to leave town for a minute.” I especially want my daughter to see me out there doing work that is important to me, and not settling for what society expects of me.
I want to ask... this piece is for a women in country & Americana month of interviews, is that an OK this as a concept? I ask because I struggle with separating women into their own “thing” and then, in prep for this, read your “We need to talk about how we write about women musicians” piece.
I think this comes down to changing the way we think about covering women musicians and writing about them in general – that it doesn't always have to be about interviewing them as women only, i.e., "what's life like as a woman musician, etc?" Talk to a woman as you'd talk to a man, in that you should be asking her about her art, first and foremost. But I also realize that we are in a bit of a crisis especially in country music in terms of representation and we need to, as Ann Powers at NPR talks about with Turning the Tables, rewrite history a bit and offer a new narrative of musical history that actually includes women. So I think these two things can exist simultaneously, in that we are conscious of how we cover women and the words we use and choices we make, while trying to also rewrite the canon to be more inclusive by constantly working on chipping away at representation. We really are in a bit of a crisis especially in country music and in representation of women/non-binary artists and people of color in the festival circuit, so it needs special attention right now.
What’s the single biggest challenge facing women in country music at the minute? Is it radio airplay as that seems to be the focus of the conversation, or is it deeper than that?
It is both – it’s as simple as radio, but much deeper. That's why I often focus on radio because that's what is easy to digest but it's also the number one driver for country music success in the mainstream. Get played on country radio, get tours, get sponsor deals, headlining slots, longevity, everything. We need to put focus there because that's where it matters. Nothing will change until radio changes. Everyone tried to say, well, it’s a chicken/egg game. Well, I want to see some movement, so let’s start cracking open those damn eggs.
Your “Inside Country Radio’s Dark, Secret History of Sexual Harrassment and Misconduct” piece is brilliant, so indepth, so well written. What do you think the impact of that has been?
Thank you so much. I hope it has had some impact, because that's why you do the work. I had a lot of hope when a bill was proposed in Tennessee to help protect independent contractors (when it didn't leave the Senate floor it was discouraging. But now it's back, which is very promising news). Honestly if it makes one person re-evaluate how they treat the women they interact with on a daily basis, then that’s a win, though you obviously hope its broader. I put months of my life into that piece and I truly believe it was a story that had to be told, because it’s gotta change. What makes me hopeful is that there has been so much work and scholarship in the gender equity in country music space, with WOMAN Nashville, great studies from Annenberg and Dr. Jada Watson, everything CMT is doing, Live Nation’s Woman Nation and a lot of other really promising stuff. Now get your asses in gear, country radio. I know it’s not that simple, but it feels good to say sometimes.
What’s the key thing that needs to change to move this conversation forward?
MEN. Speak up, dudes.
Have you personally had any experience of being treated differently as a woman in the music industry?
Unfortunately, yes. Everything from folks assuming I am the girlfriend of the artist I am showing up to interview to noticing that I am only being assigned profiles of women (I like profiling men, too! I like profiling people, not a gender). I feel it every day, whether or not it’s internalized. But I don’t blame that internalizing on myself, either. We know the world we have to exist in.
Changing subject to people you’ve interview, who has been your favourite so far, and why?
Getting to interview Guy Clark in his studio was an experience I will never, ever forget. I was maybe eight months pregnant? I asked him for advice on how to raise children who love the arts and he said, "play them Woody Guthrie and read them Dylan Thomas." You can bet I have done both.
I loved your interview with Brandi Carlile recently, what’s been the most surprising experience you’ve had interviewing someone?
Thank you! Interviewing Brandi at her home was an all-time favorite. She was amazing but that wasn't surprising, because she exudes amazing (hot damn!). But I think the most surprising for me has been Eric Church. I'm a longtime admirer of his music and the way he has shaped his career, but I didn't know what to expect because he doesn't do much press. A few minutes into talking, and you forget you're talking to a massive superstar. You are fully aware of how in control he is over his entire vision, but it struck me as just what a regular music fan he is. Both times I have chatted with him, I have to remind myself I'm talking to a superstar and not someone who is a rising star still so enamoured with everything. He's managed to keep that total sense of joy and thrill and seems like he doesn't take anything for granted.
Where’s the weirdest place you’ve interviewed someone?
This is a great question. Not sure if this is the weirdest place, but weirdest circumstance: I interviewed Justin Townes Earle recently, and it was on a day my 5-year old's school was cancelled for the day due to flooding. Normally I would, of course, try to move the interview or get a sitter, but neither of those things were options. So I brought my kid along and he waited downstairs while I did the interview. We don't have family around to help, so sometimes when you don't have a village, you just gotta be your own village and get things done. That day the staff of New West was my village!
Talk to me about The Highwomen, they’re an amazing thing, right?
Yes! Not much I can say other than it's going to rock everyone's world and shake the country community to its core in the best way possible. It thrills me to no end. Four musical geniuses on one album? We are lucky to be alive in the time of the Highwomen.
You live in Nashville, what’s your favourite place to go see live music in Nashville?
Staple answer for this is always the Ryman, and it's the right one. But there are a lot here – I love going to the Basement East, near my house. I do wish Nashville had a killer rock club, like the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC or Bowery Ballroom in NYC. I don't think we have one that compares and I'd love it if we did. But I love all the outdoor spots, too: Musicians Corner, a random outdoor show at The Groove, just blocks from my house.
What’s the allure of Nashville for people? I believe you moved from NYC.
When I moved here I was really just sucked in by the slower pace and the idea that music was absolutely everywhere. It’s changed a lot, but that music is still there. I always say, if you spend too much time bemoaning the changes and not noticing what’s going on around you, then you are just not getting out enough.
If you’re telling a non-believer why they should give country music a go, what’s your elevator pitch?
“Listen to Golden Hour and then get back to me”
You’re all over Twitter, how important (or not) is social media? Both to artists, and to people who’ve got something important to say.
I don't do much on Facebook and I can't stand it anyway, and I only use Instagram to share photos of my kids with friends on a private page – plus, I generally enjoy Instagram because I only follow people I like and it's fun to see them enjoying life! Twitter, for better or worse, is a part of my business. It's been great in some ways, in terms of spreading a message that is important, or meeting fellow journalists or the simple stuff of just trying to get people to read my stories. I think anyone can really turn Twitter into a very powerful promotional tool and I know for me, as a freelance writer, it's very important. Because no one is looking out for me, or promoting me or getting my name out there, but me. No one has my interests at heart, businesswise, but me alone. I'm a one-woman business and Twitter's where I get myself out there as far as social media goes. So we beat on, like boats against the Twitter feed...
We all know the flipside of social is that it allows anyone to say what they like to whoever they like, how much crap do you take on social for your opinions?
A lot. Being a woman on the internet can be a miserable experience. After a certain blogger wrote something about me, I got death threats. Death threats about music?! Can you even imagine? Well, now I can. After I wrote about Kane Brown, the same happened and I cannot even fathom with the infinite bullshit a country artist of color, or a queer country artist, must have to put up with on a daily basis. But when it comes to those faceless bloggers and trolls: I put my full name and my face right there in the twitter handle and photo, and I can tell you that any man who has attacked me online does not do the same. Brave enough to threaten a woman online, but cowardly enough to hide behind an illustration or fake photo or fake name. Gotcha. I worry about my kids. Not too proud to say that Twitter has made me cry because threats are very scary when you have two small children at home. And again, since I am freelance, it's not like I have an employer who has my back when things get scary. It's just me. And I am 99% sure what I am being tweeted is nothing something one would say to my face.
If you could recommend one artist to hear this week, who would it be?
Kelsey Waldon. Just got signed by John Prine’s Oh Boy. I’ve loved her for years, get hip to her before the entire world falls in love. Also, Charlie Marie, Ian Noe, Senora May, Caroline Spence!
And what’s the one album you couldn’t live without?
Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Dunno if that’s the answer one would expect, but it’s the truth.
What’s the question we should have asked you today but haven’t?
One thing I get asked all the time is some variation of, when I have written about a mainstream (usually male) country star, is "how do you write about so-and-so when you don't like their music?" One, I like plenty of mainstream artists, I don't look at a label when I listen to a record, I listen to the actual music, so don't assume. Two, and this is more important for the work I do, I don't think it's the job of a feature writer or reporter to personally love to listen to an artist they are profiling. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. But it is far more important to realize that an artist has an importance with an audience and to a culture whether or not you like it, and to be interested in what that is. It is much more important to be interested in something than to like it. I'm a journalist, this isn't my own personal blog to an audience I create. This is misunderstood far too often by many different folks, from up and coming journalists to other writers, and I think it's a problem. Be interested in what you write about, and interested in figuring out why this person matters. Not just interested in yourself and your own insular world. I have enjoyed profiles immensely I have written
on artists who I may never, ever listen to in my spare time. And that's how it should be.
How do you take your coffee?
Black and frequently. I have kids!
You can keep up to date with Marissa's work and other updates on her Twitter.