For the first time in more than seven years, the country radio airplay chart has three solo female artists in the top 10 — another sign of hope for proponents of greater gender parity at the heavily male-dominated format.
The number holds true on both the Mediabase and Billboard airplay charts for this week. On Mediabase, the three singles are clustered together: Ingrid Andress’ “More Hearts Than Mine” and Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” — both from freshman artists — on the rise at Nos. 7-8, followed by Maren Morris’ “The Bones” on the way down at No. 9.
No one should feel too bad about Morris’ song being on the decline: That single already set its own contemporary benchmark when, in February, “The Bones” became the first song by a solo female artist to spend consecutive weeks at the top since 2012.
The good news is compounded by the fact that both the Andress and Barrett songs have been almost universally acclaimed by programmers and cited as strong contenders to get to No. 1, eventually, in country radio’s slow churn.
These upward moves follow on the heels of a panel at last month’s Country Radio Seminar in which some programmers and label execs were predicting, or at least hoping, that 2020 could be “the year of the woman” for a format that has spent a lot of years being called out by the media for affording female artists so few slots, in comparison to eras when they were better represented.
According to Dr. Jada Watson of the University of Ottawa, who has specialized in data-filled studies about the changing status of women in country, the last time there were three solo woman on Mediabase’s country chart was the week of Feb, 23, 2013, when Taylor Swift’s “Begin Again” reigned at No. 1, followed by Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” at No. 6 and Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” at No. 10 (still her career peak on the chart to date).
On the Billboard chart, the last time there were three at once dates back even further, to October 2012, when Underwood’s “Blown Away,” Miranda Lambert’s “Fastest Girl” and Jana Kramer’s “Why Ya Wanna” were all in the top 10.
With Watson’s recent studies showing that women usually account for only 10% of country airplay, is this a sign of real change or just a happy aberration?
“I am cautiously optimistic about what we’re seeing on the charts over the last couple of months,” says Watson. “There has been a slow increase not just in the number of current singles by women on the Mediabase airplay reports and weekly charts, but also in the number of spins accorded to songs by women. We saw that, in 2019, 10.1% of the daily spins were for women; since January, though, the percentage has increased to an average of 14.4% of the daily spins.” She additionally points out that in the last Mediabase weekly stats, songs by women accounted for 15.7% of the spins.
“This is a truly positive sign and a suggestion that radio is putting more support behind female artists,” Watson says.
Could there be room for four in the top 10? Watson says the last time that happened for women on the Mediabase chart was in 2010, with Lambert’s career-defining “The House That Built Me” at No. 1, Underwood’s “Undo It” at No. 6, Reba McEntire’s “I Keep on Loving You” at No. 7 and Martina McBride’s “Wrong Baby Wrong” at No. 10.
There is another song by a solo female hovering in the top 20 — Kelsea Ballerini’s “Homecoming Queen?,” bulleted at No. 17 — but by the time it gets into the top 10, Morris’ “Bones” will be gone, so three is the highest benchmark for solo women we’re likely to see soon.
However, there are two male-female duets also rising through the top 20: Carly Pearce and Lee Brice’s “I Hope You’re Happy Now” at No. 12, and Blake Shelton featuring Gwen Stefani’s “Nobody But You” at No. 14, both of which could rise into the top 10 while Andress and Barrett are still in it, which would afford women at least a shared status in five out of the top 10 songs — potentially. (Watson, for her part, says she does not include featured slots for female pop artists like Stefani as counting toward women’s totals, lest Bebe Rexha be declared a savior of women in country.)
Watson did see one ongoing cloud amid this silver lining. “At the same time,” she said, “I find it disconcerting that the increase has occurred for only for current singles. This is important for new artists, to be sure, but recurrent songs by women continue to register under 2% of the daily spins, and so we’re not hearing older songs by female artists that have contributed to the genre’s sound and culture. Songs by women are seemingly cast away at a greater rate than those by male artists, and this is where improvements can be made.”
Has the media attention to women’s fortunes at country radio — and gambits like CMT’s “Equal Play” initiative — finally had an effect at the format? Possibly, although many programmers will be prone to say that the great songs by women haven’t been there in quantity in recent years… and now, with these three undeniable smashes, they suddenly are. That notion will rankle proponents who say the great singles have been there all along and overlooked. Either way, artists on the rise like Garrett and Andress, along with their pleased supporters, may not be too inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth right now.