FEATURE: Hard Work Needed in the Volunteer State: Why Are Country Music Stations Ignoring Women?




Hard Work Needed in the Volunteer State


IN THIS PHOTO: Kacey Musgraves/PHOTO CREDIT: Eric Ray Davidson for GQ 

Why Are Country Music Stations Ignoring Women?


MY eye has been caught be an article that…


 IN THIS PHOTO: A shot of Nashville, Tennessee (the centre for Country music in the U.S.)/PHOTO CREDIT: @theexplorerdad/Unsplash

is being shared on social media. It was written by Jessica Hooper (for ELLE) and looked at female artists in Nashville standing up against a blatant ignorance of Country artists. The piece centres around a ‘Song Suffragettes’ event that collates Nashville’s premier and preeminent weekly showcase for female songwriters. The reason why this event is gaining traction and attention is because of shocking statistics regarding the male-female ratios on Country music stations. The piece brings us into that world and the event. Candi Carpenter and four other women take to the stage and sing each other’s choruses; there is that connection and the night is explained clearly – getting women in Nashville heard and ensuring there is an equal grounding. There are so many great female artists coming out of Nashville but Country music is, perhaps, the biggest genre celebrated there. Tennessee music tends to focus on Nashville and at the centre of the centre is Country. The genre gets a bit of a kicking from music snobs but it has evolved over the years and incorporates so many others sounds. It is not about the plaintive strumming and drawling vocals; the same old heartbreak and something rather cheesy. Modern Country steps in various directions and is a whole lot more accessible, varied and appealing than you might think.


 IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

I do not need to defend the genre – because it is great – but the issue relates to women being overlooked. The reason I chose Kacey Musgraves as the ‘cover star’ of the article is that her acclaimed album, Golden Hour, debuted at number-one with very little support from Country radio! Listen to the album and you get so many different sounds and angles coming in. There is heartbreak and contemplation but a whole lot of fun and captivation. It is a record that sees Musgraves co-write every track and in control throughout. She shines and bursts and shows what an immense talent she is. Musgraves impressed with her previous studio album, 2015’s Pageant Material, but Golden Hour is s step-up and a bigger statement. Musgraves co-produced the album alongside Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk and ensures it is a much bigger and more eclectic record. It is the sound of a wonderful female artists remaining in the Country genre but putting in Blues-Rock, Pop and other genres. A lot of the lyrics and themes are familiar to those who like their Country pure and uncomplicated but the performances and compositions are incredibly detailed, huge and impassioned. In essence; it is a fantastic album that should go down as one of this year’s very best! It was released in Marc but has gained its acclaim and chart positions through the label and Musgraves, I guess. Transitional Country radio, who should support Musgraves, gave it relatively little support and affection!

It is a shame that this occurred but listen to Country radio, especially in Nashville, and it is not a shock. I guess radio in this country should do more to promote female artists and I do not feel there is a fifty-fifty balance at all. Male artists are always favoured but the issue is especially pronounced in the U.S. Nashville is a hub where so many tremendous female artists are out there playing at local gigs and trying to get their music to the masses. I have been following the music coming out of the so-called ‘Volunteer State’ for a while and know how many fantastic female songwriters are striking my mind. Artists like Jess Williamson, Lacy Cavalier and Tenille Townes are among the new breed of Country/Country-tinged artists who, one suspects, has to fight a lot harder than their male peers. I hear from people there is a rule where they space-out the gap between male and female artists on Country stations. You would be hard-pushed hearing two female songs together. I am not sure whether there is this assumption female artists are inferior and do not have that commercial appeal – maybe they are not what traditional Country fans want to hear – but it seems completely idiotic. I look at the ELLE article and the facts speak for themselves:

In the past few years, the number of female artists on country radio has been steadily declining. According to trade publication Country Aircheck, in 2016 female artists made up 13 percent of radio play; by 2017, that figure was down to a meager 10.4 percent. The country radio programmer quota–cum–excuse that fuels this inequity is that “one woman an hour” is plenty. In response, labels have grown reluctant to sign female talent, knowing that radio won’t support them. Festival and tour promoters excuse the dearth of female country acts on lineups by pointing fingers at radio and labels, insisting that there are not enough bankable female artists to draw from—just superstar headliners like Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood”.



Women are being systematically locked out of the scene and having to graft and grind to get their music heard. That assumption that they (the female artists) are not bankable and lack that real star quality is rubbish! Listen to artists like Kacey Musgraves and what she is putting out and you will find a lot of similar, if inferior, artists who are taking Country to new heights. I have followed the genre for years and always hear about the successful male artists. From my childhood being fed Garth Brooks to the slightly new acts like Tim McGraw, Florida Georgia Line and Keith Urban. There are female-fronted Country acts like Lady Antebellum but, considering the solo artists, and it is the men who get the most attention. Ashley Monroe, Ashley McBryde and Brandi Carlile are among the new breed offering scintillating work but there is that heavy focus on the men.

The issue has been in plain sight in Nashville for years, though efforts to address gender inequity are more recent. Change the Conversation, an organization founded by CMT executive Leslie Fram, industry stalwart Tracy Gershon, and journalist Beverly Keel, began holding meetings with industry leaders in 2015 to raise awareness and advocate for change. The organization—and also Shorr’s career-launching anthem “Fight Like a Girl”—gained momentum in the wake of “SaladGate,” a 2015 incident in which radio consultant Keith Hill told Country Aircheck that female artists are the tomatoes, and not the lettuce, of the country music salad, and should be programmed sparingly. His evidence: In 1997, spotting a downward trend of listenership on 35-plus country stations, Hill theorized the issue was too many female artists. He tested the hypothesis with four stations, who he says saw a ratings boost after cutting the number of spins of female stars”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Carrie Underwood/PHOTO CREDIT: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Kacey Musgraves resists the assertion female Country artists are not popular and women do not like hearing other women sing. There have been some who say female Country stars are best played sparingly because it is better on the ears and rating stay higher. The male voice, it seems, is more varied and palatable and female artists can be sprinkled in to add to the pot. Musgraves is among those calling out stations and asking whether this years-lasting discrimination is based on any fact or sensible explanation. It all comes back to that false claim: women do not like hearing female Country artists perform. Maybe they assume they’ll sound like Dolly Parton or Patsy Cline. Maybe that was okay years ago but now, when Pop/R&B artists are more soothing on the ears, do we want to embrace female Country artists who will be slightly atonal and grating?! That is not my view and I think there is that falsehood being perpetuated. I keep coming back to Hooper’s findings and wonder why great artists like Carrie Underwood have to fight so hard – considering she is a huge success and has an enormous fanbase:

Carrie Underwood, whose total global sales of 65 million records have made her the biggest artist in the history of country music, agrees with Musgraves’s assessment. “I think it’s really great that there’s fan advocacy and social media support around women in country music, because there are so many incredible female artists who, for some reason, are not being given a chance,” she says. “We are told time and time again that the women listeners who make up the majority of country music radio listeners don’t want to hear other women on the radio, which I think is not true. Growing up, it was incredibly important to hear strong, amazing, talented women on the radio. It let me know that I could do that, too”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Members of the Song Suffragettes backstage before a performance/PHOTO CREDIT: Paul McGee

One of the positive movements that has been born from this discrimination and exclusion is WOMAN. That stands for The Nashville Women of Music Action Network and this comes in the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up. Whilst other genes have seen campaign and action; Country has been lacking and nothing has come up to speak for female artists. Women, in Country, are not seen as leaders in the same way someone like Beyoncé might be seen in R&B. If you look across all of music and how often do you see the media and radio promulgating female artists and heralding them as leaders?! You see plenty of attention for male bands and Popstars but rarely will you find journalists highlighting women as leaders. Maybe female journalists will do their part – I have seen great articles about Christine and the Queens and Neneh Cherry where they are spoken about as goddesses – but it is a rarity.  Country music is a genre with so many incredible female examples who are being overlooked for no reason. It seems like WOMAN is much-needed and determined to make change:

Nashville WOMAN’s tactics are a strategic pivot from the way Change the Conversation and others have been operating so far; the group is public-facing in its presentation of solutions. They tweet screenshots of what Hot Country weekly playlists would look like without male artists, often highlighting a lone female artist in rotation—naming and shaming dozens of stations directly. They’ve had some success with request campaigns and have offered research to Country Radio Seminar and advocated for Time’s Up messaging at the Country Music Association Awards. What has gotten the most notice, though, is Carrie Underwood’s Cry Pretty Tour 360, specifically, her decision to bring an all-female lineup—Maddie & Tae and Runaway June—on the road with her. Underwood says her choice was based on her desire to give young talent a boost, adding, “It’s really wonderful to see female artists supporting each other. That is one amazing thing that has come out of the lack of females being supported in country music: We are all rallying together”.


IN THIS PHOTO: One of Country music’s rising names, Jess Williamson/PHOTO CREDIT: Chantal Anderson

Spaces and systems like Hot Country have excluded women for a while and modern musicians like Kacey Musgraves and Carrie Underwood are rebelling and taking matters into their own hands. They might have to work harder than you’d expect but they are pushing hard to get their music heard and prove, when it gets huge acclaim, that the ‘rules’ and cultures in Country is denying the world of so many great musicians. There are great events and nights in Nashville where women are taking to the stage and showing what unity and talent there is.

A growing number of female artists have begun taking matters into their own hands. For Brandi Carlile, whose By the Way, I Forgive You debuted at number five on Billboard in February with negligible support from Hot Country radio, this means being the change. In July, she announced Girls Just Wanna Weekend, a destination festival with an all-female, country-leaning lineup co-headlined by Carlile and insurgent hitmakers Maren Morris, Margo Price, and the Indigo Girls, scheduled to take place in January in Riviera Maya, Mexico. Carlile’s inspiration for the festival comes from Lilith Fair, founded in 1996 by Sarah McLachlan to refute radio programmers’ refusal to play female artists back to back. That touring festival grossed over $60 million in its initial three-year run, and Carlile seeks to create a similar space of inclusion for her fans. “We want to be in the conversation—to see the pendulum swing in our direction. We want to be in the headlining slots on festivals because we’ve earned it, and to be played on radio, not as a niche or a novelty, you know?” Carlile says. “We don’t want to hear, ‘Well, we’ve got our woman on this festival lineup’ or ‘We’ve already played a woman in this hour.’ We’re not a genre. We’re half the world”.

Every genre and area of music can do more to promote women and I feel, as feminist movements come through, we can no longer avoid the nonsensical guidelines and exclusions that mean men get most of the exposure. Country is a genre that can only exist, thrive and diversify with female artists and look at modern artists like Musgraves, Underwood and their peers and you can hear what talent is there! God knows how many rising female artists there who are playing in bars around Tennessee – and states like Texas – that want to get their music played on Country radio! In this country, we have stalwarts like Bob Harris who gives a fair airing to female Country stars and is passionate about promoting equality and talent-based exposure. He, in fact, has provided a platform for a number of female artists through the years and is someone who never considers gender when it comes to picking songs – so long as it sounds great then it has its place. It seems U.S. radio needs to take this approach and have champions like Harris in control of playlists and shows! Modern Country playlists in the U.S. are not based on talent and quality: it seems men, whatever they are putting out, will get the most focus. This bent and broken system is so bowed to the desires of big labels and the sexist practices that need to be eroded. Some good work is being done from the ground in Nashville but I wonder how far the problem spreads. There are great Country artists around the U.S. – and in the U.K. who also want their music played here – and the Country stations like WSIX-FM and WSM are largely beholden to male artists. I was not fully aware how severe the situation is and how hard big Country artists like Kacey Musgraves have had to work to get on some sort of equal footing. I think the problem extends beyond Nashville itself but the heart of Country seems to be there so it is the most pronounced example. Country, as a whole, has a countrywide illness that needs curing. A lot of work needs to be done but, as the likes of WOMAN and Song Suffragettes are showing; there is a huge problem and stations/labels are not helping. It is a huge shame to see female Country artists ignored and pushed away but let’s hope, very soon, some positive changes…


 PHOTO CREDIT: @daniel_von_appen/Unsplash

ARE made!