It took Nashville songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman three years to sell her country song, ``Five Minutes,' about a woman leaving the man who mistreated her. She gives him five minutes to set things straight:
``It's going to take a miracle, no doubt /But you've got five minutes to figure it out.'
``It was pitched to a lot of women,' Chapman says. ``There wasn't anybody to record it. Now these kinds of songs are suddenly in vogue.'
``Five Minutes' is on ``Leave the Light On,' a new album by singer Lorrie Morgan, wife of the late Keith Whitley, and is quickly climbing the charts.
It's an example of the kind of song that's making an anachronism of the cheated-on, lied-to female so prevalent in country songs of the past. Country women of the '90s don't unconditionally stand by their men. They might fall in love, but they rarely fall to pieces. And if he comes home a' drinkin', she might not be there.
The new attitude was apparent in the '70s with Lynn Anderson's ``Rose Garden.' It gained intensity in the '80s with Reba McEntire's ``When Whoever's in New England' and K.T. Oslin's `` '80s Women.'
``That stronger, more independent image is definitely coming through in country songs today, and one of the main reasons is because the image is a reflection of the women who are writing and singing the songs,' says McEntire. ``They're stronger, more independent and showing a more positive point of view.'
And while Tammy Wynette (``Stand By Your Man'), Patsy Cline (``I Fall to Pieces') and Kitty Wells (``They're Stepping All Over My Heart') were no pushovers, ``the songs they sang reflect society's way of looking at men and women at the time,' says Jenny Bohler, McEntire's publicist.
Back then, ``country women singers assumed they were singing songs for the homemaker with children and not a lot of financial resources,' says Mary Bufwack, a Nashville writer who's working on a historical book about female country singers.
Women characters in country songs were pretty much relegated to the home and the whims of their men until well into the '70s, Bufwack says, when songs finally began to acknowledge that women worked outside the home. Probably the most famous stereotype-breaking song came in 1982 with Dolly Parton's ``9 to 5.'
Now songs go even further.
``The role of women characters in songs has changed because country music has always reflected society,' says Kyle Cantrell, a radio producer for The Nashville Network in Nashville.
For example, he says, ``A decade ago, you didn't see women producing their own records.'
McEntire, who's expecting her first child next month, is a prime example of the new female country singer: she writes many of her own songs, co-produces her albums, handles her own management, booking, promotions, publicity and advertising in-house, and recently started her own publishing company.
Holly Dunn, one of Nashville's new breed, credits two of her forerunners, Emmylou Harris and Parton, with paving the way for more artistic expression for women.
``I have very definite ideas about what I want to do and how I want it to sound,' Dunn says. ``I won't do something fluffy just because it will play on the radio.'
Dunn, who records for Warner Bros., co-produced her past three albums, something almost unheard of a decade ago, when male producers told a woman ``where to stand, what to sing and what to wear.'
The freedom that has made it easier for women to take control of their wardrobes, their songs and their careers also has affected the way men - still the vast majority of country songwriters and performers - write for women.
``In the old days the woman was stomped on, and I don't portray that in my songs,' says Pat Alger, a songwriter who did ``Going, Gone' for Kathy Mattea and also writes for Nancy Griffith and Parton. ``The trend is not to portray women as victims.'
But heartache is still the heart of country music, Alger says, and the modern woman whose career is more important than her love life still hasn't quite won acceptance.
``It's hard to get a song like that on the radio.'
Observers see feminism bringing about a broadening of old themes and the introduction of new ones - social issues, for example.
McEntire sang a song about wife abuse, ``The Stairs,' in which a woman, beaten by her husband, gives the excuse that she fell down the stairs. Dunn's latest album, ``The Blue Rose of Texas,' addresses topics such as the homeless.
``Women singers are being much more sensitive to women's issues than they generally have before,' says David Whisnant, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill English professor who teaches a class on country music. Such songs are becoming almost as common on albums as the obligatory gospel song used to be, he says.
The newly popular feminist tone in country music comes from a long tradition, Whisnant says.
In the early '50s, for example, Wells recorded ``It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels' in response to Hank Thompson's ``The Wild Side of Life,' which made a moral statement about women who hang out in bars.
``You were either a virgin or a whore in (Thompson's) song,' Whisnant says.
Wells' song countered that. ``She said women may end up in those circumstances, but it's men who are largely to blame,' he says.
Matraca Berg has been writing and singing songs in Nashville for almost a decade. She recalls growing up and hearing ``Stand By Your Man.'
``That song kind of bugged me,' says Berg, who wrote ``The Last One to Know' for McEntire and has written for Randy Travis, Tanya Tucker and Highway 101.
On Berg's first album, ``Lying to the Moon,' to be released in May, she sings a song she wrote about teenage pregnancy. Another, ``You Are the Storm,' illustrates the idea of how a woman can only give so much until she gives up:
``I tried to love you /
I tried to keep you from harm /
But I might as well be holding /
The wind in my arms /
No, I can't give you shelter /
When you are the storm.'
Modern country lyrics can reflect a relationship that didn't work out without making a woman look like a doormat, she says.
Tracy Gershon of CBS / Tree, who pitches songs to country artists, has learned not to try to sell self-pity songs to women.
They'd much rather sing songs where the heartbreak tables are turned, or they're getting on with their lives despite a disappointing love affair.
``They say, 'I don't want to be the one being left,' ' she says.
One of Mattea's latest hits, ``Life As We Knew It,' is the story of a breakup, sort of the flip side of ``By The Time I Get To Phoenix.' This time, she's the one who leaves - for Asheville.
In the song, Mattea's feelings about the relationship are bittersweet but matter-of-fact, part of the complex range of female emotions finding their way into words. ``It's OK now for a woman to get pissed off,' Berg says.
Highway 101 lead singer Paulette Carlson knows that feeling well. It's evident in her hit song, ``The Bed You Made for Me,' which she wrote about a former boyfriend:
Did you tell her /
She was sleeping /
In the bed you made for me?
``I was a little bit on the huffy side when I wrote that,' Carlson says, in a telephone interview from Salt Lake City, Utah, where the band was getting ready to leave on a Canadian tour.
``Good Good-bye,' another Carlson song, is about a woman who leaves a relationship because she's not getting what she wants.
``It's a conscious effort not to sing 'poor me, I'm going out to eat worms' songs,' ' Carlson says. ``It's the times.'
Those times are reflected in the work of Karren Pell, a songwriter from Greensboro who recently signed to write for McEntire's publishing company. In ``The Healin' Hands of Time,' which hasn't yet been recorded, Pell writes with Nashville songwriter Buddy Blackmon:
``I'm in no hurry to find someone new /
Ain't no sin to be alone.
The prevailing attitude is ``I really want this man, but there are limits to what you're gonna get, because I'm my own person,' says Pell. ``You can hurt, but you don't have to lie down and eat the carpet.'