Time flies when female artists aren’t catching much of a break. Maren Morris has reached No. 1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart with the title song from her second album, “Girl” — and she’s the first woman to do so since Kelsea Ballerini topped that chart 17 months ago, with “Legends” in February 2018.
Morris also tops Mediabase’s separate country radio chart this week. At Mediabase, Ballerini had a No. 1 in June with “Miss Me More” and broke the logjam that had existed for women since her own “Legends” almost a year and a half earlier — now followed in short succession by Morris’ “Girl.” But both charts are in agreement on the fact that, among country’s female stars, only Morris and Ballerini have been able to go to the top since the beginning of 2018.
Going back further, Carly Pearce and Lauren Alaina both managed it in 2017, and Carrie Underwood last had a No. 1 in 2016. Among the other seemingly radio-viable young female superstars of country, Miranda Lambert last topped the airplay charts in 2012, and Kacey Musgraves has never come close. So the supremacy of “Girl” counts as a legitimate unicorn sighting — not least of all because it’s a song by a woman addressed to women.
“It was a risk,” Maren told Variety over the weekend between performances at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. “Every sophomore album from an artist is terrifying. It’s like the sophomore slump — are you gonna bomb and totally lose people? And putting ‘Girl’ out, it just summed up the whole record; I mean, that’s why I named it ‘Girl.’ But I didn’t think it was even gonna crack the top 10.”
She does have some experience at the pinnacle in her still young career. One of the four singles from her freshman album, “I Could Use a Love Song,” reached that benchmark. Morris also claimed a spot at the top with her featured guest appearance on a Thomas Rhett single, “Craving You.” Meanwhile, some of the Morris songs people assume were No. 1s weren’t. “My Church,” the debut single that essentially established her as a star and fans often think of as the biggest in her career, stalled at No. 9. So she had good reason to be skeptical about whether an electric guitar ballad that is flagrantly by and for women would make for an easy trip to the top.
“Weirdly enough, it’s my fastest single,” said Morris. “Because ‘I Could Use a Love Song’ was my only other (solo) No. 1, and that took 42 weeks to get there. And ‘Girl’ was 28 weeks.”
Even putting gender parity discussions aside, there has been talk in the country music industry this year that country radio should show her as much love as possible, lest pop claim her in their stead. Morris has been vocal about keeping country as her home base, but should she mount a pop crossover effort again, there would be plenty of takers, since “The Middle,” a one-off had her taking the lead vocal on a track by Zedd & Grey, was one of the most ubiquitous pop singles of 2018. If Morris couldn’t get to No. 1 again, the thinking went, what woman could?
In the past four years, only four solo women have topped the chart: Morris, Ballerini, Carrie Underwood and Lauren Alaina. Miranda Lambert, who had her biggest successes earlier, may yet get back there. Beyond those five, it’s hard to think of women who are serious contenders for a run at the top at radio, and the reasons for that continue to be debated among country radio programmers who disagree about whether it comes down to gender bias at the programming level, ingrained audience tastes, a lack of supply from record labels, or even if it’s a problem at all.
“The reason why it’s such a big deal to talk about her song going No. 1 is because it doesn’t happen very often for women,” said her bandmate in the Highwomen, long-established hit Nashville song crafter Natalie Hemby. “It’s a positive, but it’s frustrating for me as a songwriter to write songs for women in country and they don’t get the same shot as a lot of boys who just come in and out and we don’t really know their names, even as they shoot up to No. 1.”
Said Brandi Carlile, another member of the Highwomen, “She’s one of maybe two or three people that are succeeding and being embraced by the establishment. She’s No. 1 right now, and she’s at Newport Folk Festival standing next to three women saying, ‘Yeah, I’m No. 1, but it’s a problem that more of us aren’t.’ And to me it’s the ultimate expression of love, and she’s about to perpetuate inclusion in a way that’s really radical for the fact that she is in her moment and in her heyday right now, and she’s chosen to share it. It’s a big deal. The fact that she’s one of only a few women to do that recently is disturbing,” Carlile said, but the success of “Girl” “I find so encouraging. If one of us is winning, we’re all winning, you know.”
Morris appears on “The Tonight Show” this evening with the Highwomen as they sing their debut single, “Redesigning Women.”