Country Music Dials Down on Girl Power as Nashville’s Women Find Even Fewer Slots

CMT has scheduled an all-female lineup for its annual "Artists of the Year" program. It may be scant redress in a format where women struggle to get even 10% chart representation.

Maren Morris
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Loretta. Dolly. Tammy. Reba. Faith. Shania. The Chicks. When we think of the all-time greats of country music, or the genre’s biggest sellers, gender parity isn’t a question; if anything, history has been on more of a first-name basis with the women than the men. But female performers are an even rarer commodity than fiddles on the charts in 2018. What would Patsy say? You’d be crazy to pursue a career in country if you fall on the wrong side of the gender divide.

The stats are alarming. In radio’s top 50 for the week of Oct. 1, as compiled by industry newsletter Country Aircheck, only six songs are from women. Were it not for Maren Morris’ slow-rising “Rich” finally edging up to No. 9, the top 10 would be devoid of female artists entirely. Elsewhere Carly Pearce comes in at No. 13, followed by Sugarland (17), Kelsea Ballerini (28), Danielle Bradbery (a duet with Thomas Rhett at No. 46) and a just-released Carrie Underwood single (47).

So radio must be the culprit, suppressing female-driven tunes that are doing great in streaming and sales, right? Not necessarily. Variety had media analytics firm BuzzAngle Music run the overall numbers for country songs over the period of September 2017 through August 2018 — accounting for all methods of music consumption, including streaming — and those metrics are even worse, with exactly three female artists in the top 60 for that 12-month period. Adding possible insult to injury, the top performer isn’t even a country artist: Pop singer Bebe Rexha’s “Meant to Be,” a collaboration with Florida Georgia Line, is at No. 1; then you have to drop to No. 38 to find Maren Morris, with Miranda Lambert barely sneaking in at No. 47.

The takeaway, it seems: No matter how great an artist you are — and women like Lambert, Morris and Kacey Musgraves continue to rack up an inordinate amount of the CMA album of the year, Grammy and critical accolades in the genre — you ain’t woman enough to take a prime chart spot.

“I’m the most positive person you’ll ever meet, so I always want to think things are getting better,” says Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president of music strategy, who co-founded an awareness group that fights gender inequality, Change the Conversation, in 2014. “But then you look at [the charts] and you’re like, wow, they really aren’t.”

That’s one reason her network is devoting its annual “CMT Artists of the Year” program, which airs live Oct. 17, to an all-female slate of honorees, including Underwood, Lambert, Morris, Ballerini and the female-fronted groups Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum. The good news: CMT landed virtually every radio-viable woman artist of more than a couple years’ standing. The bad news: They all fit onto one telecast, no problem —and none can claim a recent run of No. 1s like the streaks some of their brethren enjoy.

“It’s an embarrassment to country music and a disservice to the girls and young women who listen to country radio, because their stories are not being told there,” says Beverly Keel, chair of Middle Tennessee State University’s Department of Recording Industry, who co-founded Change the Conversation with Fram and artist manager Tracy Gershon. “And with what’s going on in society now, we need to share voices and words and stories of women more than ever.”

The debate about discrimination went into overdrive in 2015 when Country Aircheck published an interview with radio consultant Keith Hill that has come to be known in some circles as “Tomato-gate” — or, to the Change the Conversation founders, “the best gift we ever got.” Hill was quoted as saying that “if you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” because women make up 70% to 75% of the listenership in key quarter-hours, “and women like male artists.” He added that “great female records” should get played, but “they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton. … The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” The women of Nashville embraced the image, even sporting “Tomato lover” T-shirts, but any consciousness raising has had seemingly zero chart impact.

Hill sticks to his guns even now, though he tells Variety that “a good friend of mine suggested I switch the analogy to ‘Men are the dirt and women are the gold.’ On planet Earth there is much more dirt. The ‘tomatoes in a salad’ was an analogy that had no genderized bias embedded.” He sees radio as “a meritocracy,” and says if advocates believe more airplay would get struggling female artists off the bubble, they should “go buy some stations and test it. Country programmers do everything they can to get our female listeners to listen longer” — and if women really wanted to hear more women, that’s what they’d be giving them.

RJ Curtis, longtime board member of Nashville’s Country Radio Broadcasters, counters, “It’s an easy thing to say, that women only want to hear hot-looking guys and not other women, but research people I’ve talked to say there’s no data that supports that.” He agrees that most stations won’t play two female artists in a row, but in his view, the reason is that they’re so scarce, programmers are forced to spread them around. “I know women would hate being referred to as inventory, but we don’t have enough female artist inventory coming down the pipeline, and I don’t think country radio is responsible for that,” Curtis says, defending radio against its bad rap in the ongoing controversy. He estimates that 20% to 25% of the adds at radio in a given week are women performers, “and if you go look at the artist rosters at country labels, it’s very proportionate.”

But the percentage of women achieving half-decent chart positions is well below 20% — and Curtis faults some programmers for allowing records by female stars to stall out, like Ballerini’s underperforming “I Hate Love Songs,” which he was sure would be a smash. He thinks Morris also merits more play. “Maren had one of the biggest records of the year. Unfortunately, it was on Top 40 [‘The Middle,’ with Zedd and Grey]. Maren has had to struggle getting traction, and other formats are taking our artists. Now you have Kelsea making a [pop] record with the Chainsmokers, and I feel like country radio should take a look at that and go, wait a minute.”

It’s a “vicious cycle” in which no one can take complete blame, says Tracy Gershon. “Labels felt it was too hard to break a woman at radio so they weren’t signing them, and radio says the labels aren’t giving them the artists. When I signed Miranda [to Sony in the early 2000s], it was never ‘Uh-oh, she’s a female.’ That only started in the last 10 years. I [recall] taking an artist around, and a record label exec said, ‘I’m not signing any females’ — not even ‘I’m not signing your female.’ I mean, that was spoken.”

Leslie Fram expects the backstage atmosphere at CMT’s “Artists of the Year” show to be a meeting of the sisterhood. “Women were always told there’s one slot and it was very competitive, and we’re like, no, we want to create an environment where a win for one is a win for all. On social media you’ll see Maren reaching out to one of her fellow female artists to congratulate them on something. These women are all supporting and celebrating each other — I don’t see that happening in any other format.”

In his non-“Dancing With the Stars” day job as a radio personality, Bobby Bones has used his platform to advocate for women artists on his daily “The Bobby Bones Show” and, starting this summer, the gender-exclusive “Women of iHeartCountry” weekend program. “I’ve had a little pushback,” he says, from other radio people weary of the four or five years he figures he’s spent on a soapbox about the issue. “I know being vocal about breaking the cycle can seem obnoxious. But I’m over people getting irritated at me for being an advocate of females. If they’re not getting the picture now, they should probably go away — like, really. But I think people are getting it.”