Basking in the August sun in a T-shirt reading “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound,” professor Jada Watson is swaying to the sounds of the all-female country trio Runaway Junes at the annual Boots & Hearts music festival. Watson, who drove five hours from Ottawa that day, is more than a country music fan. To many women in the genre, she’s a champion.
Her recent study, titled Gender Representation on Country Format Radio, proves what many of the top women in country have been saying for years: Country radio stations play way more songs by male artists than female.
Watson analyzed year-end and weekly charts compiled by Mediabase, which determines artist’s standing by the amount or radio airplay he or she got.
In 2000, the ratio of “spins” of songs by male to female artists was 2.1 to one. In 2018, that gap widened to 9.7 to one.
“Looking at the year-end charts between 2000 and 2018, there was a 66 per cent decline in the number of women, from 33.3 per cent to 11 per cent, which is strikingly terrible,” says Watson, who is a professor at the University of Ottawa.
While radio play may not sound like the be-all-and-end-all of music stardom in 2019, in country, it just might be. With its loyal listeners, country radio still has the power to “break” a new artist or amp up the spotlight (and album and concert ticket sales) of an established star.
“So if you’re not gonna get radio airplay, you won’t be signed to labels, you won’t get publishing deals, songwriters won’t be asked to write for women,” Watson says. “Women won’t get spots on festival tours as opening acts, on arena tours, merchandising, fan clubs, et cetera. It’s a spiralling and self-fulfilling prophecy.”
It’s a tune that women in country music have been singing for a while. Multiple Grammy winner Miranda Lambert said in a 2018 Washington Post interview that she “had to sing with someone with a penis to get a number one,” alluding to her duet with Jason Aldean, which became her first number one song in five years.
Earlier this year, the stellar success of Kacey Musgraves, a critics’ darling who became one of a few country artists to win Grammy Album of the Year, stood in contrast to country radio stations’ reluctance to play her songs.
The whole matter became a public debate back in 2015, when prominent Nashville radio consultant Keith Hill said in an interview that he advises stations to play fewer female artists if they want their ratings to go up. He also suggested women should be sprinkled through the playlist, not played back to back.
The quip — and the ensuing outrage — became known as Tomato-gate, due to Hill’s analogy that women are “just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
It’s all about the song
But whether the dearth of women from country airwaves is a matter of systematic prejudice or a confluence of other factors is a matter of some debate. Many female artists who have spoken up on the matter argue it’s the former.
Ashley McBryde, an up-and-coming country artist, says she witnessed it firsthand when she went on her first “radio tour” in Nashville.
“You go visit all the stations and everything and try to beg them to play your song,” she said. “At first I thought it couldn’t be that bad, like as bad as people say it is, it can’t just can’t be that bad! And it was.”
McBryde said she was also told she had to be an opening act for men less famous than her, because “girls belong in this spot before the men,” a comment she says “broke her heart.”
Watch Ashley McBryde perform:
But radio programmers and consultants contend that there’s no agenda. One argument that’s been brought up frequently is that there are just fewer women signed to major labels, which “feed” radio stations with suggestions of which new songs to play.
A brief glance at the artists signed to major labels suggests there’s some truth to this: on Sony Music Nashville, there are eight female and 17 male artists, even if the women are absolute superstars Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris. On Universal Music Group’s country division, only seven of 33 artists are women.
Veteran country radio consultant Scott Huskey says he would never advise a radio station to play fewer women, but that in country, audience tastes dominate what gets played.
The ‘bro country movement’
And recently, that’s happened to include more men — even if the country radio audience tends to skew slightly more female.
“I think we have a cyclical nature to the format that every 10 or 12 years, it kind of changes, it kind of evolves to another genre-within-the-format, and in the most recent years it was the derisively called bro country movement,” said Huskey in a Skype interview from his home in Corinth, Miss.
Watch Florida Georgia Line perform:
Indeed, the so-called bro-country, exemplified by artists like Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean and songs about pickup trucks and girls in cutoff shorts, has been country radio’s most popular sub-genre in the last few years.
“I think in terms of listeners really wanting that kind of content, it made it tough for a female artist to break through for those few years, because it would be tough for them to sing songs that were about guys and girls and pickup trucks,” says Huskey.
His job entails running snippets of new songs in front of a test audience before radio stations put them in rotation.
But Huskey predicts the cycle is about to turn again, with a fresh crop of country artists like Kelsea Ballerini, Carly Pearce, and Morris singing intimate, thoughtful songs that perform strongly with radio audiences and on tour.
Morris’s Girl, a female-empowerment anthem, recently reached number one on country radio and simultaneously breaking streaming records for an album by a female country singer.
She is currently touring alongside another country superstar, Miranda Lambert, and a half a dozen other female singers, including McBryde.
Pearce, one of three solo females in the last 12 years to have their debut single top the country radio charts, says she’s the living proof that country fans want to hear a woman sing — live, and on the radio.
Watch Carly Pearce perform:
“I think it is ridiculous that country programmers will not play back-to-back women, that they say women don’t want to hear women,” says Pearce in an interview after her set at Boots & Hearts Festival.
“I invite all of those [programming directors] to come to my shows and watch every girl sing every word.”