The Unsung: Mistress Mary, cosmic and comic country enigma

Every week in The Unsung, Leonie Cooper shines a light on forgotten female artists from a century of music. Mistress Mary only released one album in 'Housewife' before packing in music in favour of some more extraordinary pursuits.

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In amongst the carefully curated reversions on ‘Cuntry Covers Vol. 1’, the dreamy, western-indebted debut EP from Bria – Bria Salmena and Duncan Hay Jennings from Orville Peck‘s touring band and Toronto punks FRIGS – is an elegant take on a little-heard 1960s song called ‘I Don’t Wanna Love Ya Now’. 

Originally released in 1969 as part of Mistress Mary’s one and only album, ‘Housewife’, it’s a forthright song of acceptance concerning the end of an affair. Less of a tear-stained memento and more of a majestic moment of moving on, Mistress Mary – real name Mary Afton – breathily sings: “Loving you took my strength away / Kissing you wasn’t fun yesterday” over wailing lap steel. It’s the sound of someone shrugging and sighing at the same time and it’s impeccable. 

The rest of the album is just as impressive, a wry collection of laid-back, twinkling sounds that has more in common with the Flying Burrito Brothers’ cosmic Americana than Mistress Mary’s country contemporaries Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, and with tongue-in-cheek lyrics that are more Joan Rivers than ‘Cry Me A River’. 

Some 53 years on from the private press album’s recording and Mistress Mary remains something of an enigma. The sweetly psychedelic ‘Housewife’ was her only LP, of which only 500 demo versions were cut, and of those only 50 ended up being sent out to tastemakers of the day – including Elvis Presley. Recorded in 1968 in the Hacienda Heights area of Los Angeles over five days with a band that included steel guitarist Carl Walden, rockabilly musician Johnny Redd and Clarence White of The Byrds – and with Mary up front strumming and singing – ‘Housewife’ is a glazed and groovy triumph. Otherworldly and eerie but with a positive energy that rings through the soulful likes of ‘Dirt Will Be Yer Name’ and funky ‘Smooth Talking Con-Man’, she constantly hits the perfect point between sassy and trashy. 

The artwork is killer too. With her tumbling red curls, Mistress Mary looks like a miffed Rita Hayworth, complete with pussybow black gown and a fluffy rug clutched to her chest. It’s a camp vision of the kind that would make John Waters swoon. On the flip side, there are some extremely tongue-in-cheek handwritten notes. “Of all recording stars to emerge in the 20th century, Mistress Mary – housewife – stands out as the exploding celestial cosmo in the heavenly housewifes firmament of the entertainment field,” it reads, before explaining how much her songs have entertained and amused her immediate family “and the more perceptive and intelligent of her in-laws”. You get the feeling that Mistress Mary was a right laugh. 

Sadly, ‘Housewife’ didn’t quite take off. It wasn’t widely released until Light In The Attic put it out in 2016 and the label explained that after the album Mary ditched the music but continued to live a life less ordinary, including working as an auto mechanics instructor for women, running female self-defence class, a belly dance instructor and a disco dance instructor. A dream career trajectory if ever there was one. 

Where is she now? Well, according to Light in The Attic, she lives in a beautiful ranch home in California with her extended family. “When she’s not attending to the needs of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she’s throwing huge 500-people-plus pool parties in her backyard with a view,” says the crate-digging repro label. We wonder if the in-laws approve…

HEAR MARY’S INFLUENCE ON:

Bria

Angel Olsen

Waxahatchee

READ MORE: The Unsung is a weekly series. Get to know the stories of more musical heroes.


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