Don’t Lump Country’s Women Together, Let Them Stand Toe to Toe with the Men

Photo: Todd Cassetty

Photo: Todd Cassetty

Boy how the entertainment media loves to ruminate on country music’s female dilemma, and how unfair it is that so many fine and talented female voices are going unheard. It’s the perfect topic for Northeast-based periodicals to piggy-back their political and sociological parallels onto, to prove the patriarchal oligarchy is still very much alive in America’s rural and Southern landscapes—and in truth that assessment is probably pretty close to correct.

But no volume of music media think pieces, or specially-tailored programs meant to bolster mainstream country’s female population has resulted in any measurable progress since the female topic became a favorite one of pontificators a few years ago. If anything, the environment has turned a shade more troublesome. Talk is always cheap, but what about all of these programs that lump many of the mainstream’s younger women together to attempt to create a support structure around them so their careers can grow beyond the training wheels stage? Are they in any way effective, or are we just launching initiatives to make us all feel better because at least we’re trying to do something about the female problem?

Frankly, something has always bothered me about taking a bunch of female artists and putting them in one room, passing around a microphone to have them tell their life story, having them pose with tomatoes to harp on Keith Hill’s comments, putting them on tour together, or sing songs round robin style as they sit on stools with acoustic guitars. It’s almost like were relegating these ladies to a special needs contingent by lumping them all in one heap. Like these “new women of country” are these fragile, endangered species that require delicate handling. The short bus of country music, if you will. In some ways, this assessment of female acts requiring special attention is valid, but will the women of country ever attain (or re-attain) their proper place in the genre, or even come close to anything resembling equality if we keep segregating them, and asking people to give them special consideration?

Women standing toe to toe with the men seems to be the better way to present female artists if your goal is equality. Presenting them as peers, not also-rans in sort of this nameless and faceless gaggle drawing little distinction between each other seems like a better way to reshape the mindset. Each of these girls has individual talents and an interesting personal narrative.

Of course we should be supporting female artists, and if that means creating specialized tours and television shows and workshops, then I’m all for it. But the aim should be creating an equal playing field as opposed to segregating women in a way that seems to quietly imply they’re depreciated assets compared to their male counterparts. CMT’s now 3-year-old “Next Women of Country” program took a step up this year by planning a 10-city tour headlined by Jana Kramer, and featuring upstart female “country” star Kelsi Ballerini. Is putting multiple women on the same tour going to help broaden the fandom or appeal for these artists beyond their established fan bases? How many bros or Luke Bryan fans do you think are going to be swayed to attending a “Next Women of Country” show? I appreciate what CMT is trying to do, and hats off for them taking leadership on the issue. But I think the effectiveness of such initiatives is fair to question.

I recently read an articles entitled “AT&T Capitalizes on Country Radio’s Dismissal of Female Solo Acts.” Yeah, how unsavory does that sound—a corporation profiteering off the fact that country women are systematically dealt with as second-class citizens? In truth it’s a program which hopes to highlight individual female artists and hopefully help instill them with the grassroots following so many of them are lacking … while trying to sell devices and programming. One of the reasons so many mainstream female acts struggle for support is because they didn’t start out on the touring circuit, but as songwriters and demo singers, or voice-coached starlets discovered by talent scouts, so they didn’t come to mainstream country with any sort of fan-based support infrastructure already in place and struggle to get off the ground floor.

And part of the reason women struggle so mightily in country music has always had just as much to do with the way the industry handles these ladies as it does with the mindset of listeners to tune them out or not give them an equal chance when their voice is heard on the radio.

Nashville has absolutely no clue what to do with it’s women not named Miranda or Carrie. And these special programs in some ways admit that. Like a golfer who shanks a few shots, it’s almost as if Music Row has the yips with women, and is so busy second-guessing itself, it’s impossible to craft a winning strategy. It’s not even that any given approach wouldn’t work, it’s that they change the approach with these women seemingly weekly, and end up wasting months, sometimes years trying to figure out the next step. Country Music has always been a copycat business, and since there’s really been no recent young female success stories, there’s really no way for Music Row execs to know what to mimic. So we get these strange 4-song EP’s, or curious tour pairings that really don’t pan out for building a fan base, and corporate-sponsored artist profiles that probably won’t result in a radio hit any more than any other piece of promotion.

In many cases, country music’s major labels are signing unproven female acts without any real direction to begin with, hoping they pan out because they have a pretty face, a strong voice, and can help pen songs so they’re eligible for 360 deals. The moderate success of Kelsea Ballerini is a shallow victory since all she proved is malleable pop stars can still make it, which doesn’t solve the female problem for country in the long term.

Meanwhile out in the independent ranks of country and roots music, including some women signed to major labels outside of Music Row’s influence, you have female artists with strong visions, proven strategies, built-in fan bases, and many times radio-ready songs that are going completely unnoticed in the country realm. The insular nature of Music Row to only pay attention to females signed to Nashville’s majors is one of the reasons the industry is struggling to find female talent that can reverberate with the masses. If you really want to solve the female problem, then start looking far and wide, and outside the box for the next women of country, and focus on songs instead of faces. That is what happened with Kacey Musgraves, and the result was success with “Merry Go ‘Round.” This is what happened with Maddie & Tae and “Girl In A Country Song.” A good song is a good song, and will do a lot of the heavy lifting for itself.

Last year, the female duo First Aid Kit had numerous songs on a new album that could have been tried on country radio, spectacular videos that resonated with listeners and received over 5 million views, an international fan base and a major label backing them. But for whatever reason, mainstream Nashville baulked on becoming their champions. Artists like Caitlin Rose, Holly Williams, and Brandy Clark are primed and ready for the big leagues, but are once removed from Music Row’s reality tunnel, and invariably get passed over. Brandi Carlile has an excellent album out right now with numerous songs that could resonate on mainstream country radio. There may be countless other female names ready to step in to fill the female void, but if they’re not already on a Music Row roster, they don’t stand a chance.

From the beginning, Saving Country Music insisted on putting the names of independent country and roots artists right beside the names of mainstream ones. This approach has maddened many readers over the years, wondering why so much ink is spilled for mainstream artists, while mainstream readers wonder why time is wasted on artists who will never make it in the big time. But by putting names like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell right beside names like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, you’re presenting the two worlds of music on an equal playing field, and hopefully elevating the stature of the one to the other. And lo and behold, we’re now seeing artists like Jason Isbell receiving equal credit with album sales and other accolades. Not that Saving Country Music deserves all (or any) of the credit by far, but the strategy of insisting on an equal playing field has been effective.

Maybe the women of country should be handled in a similar fashion. Don’t put them in scenarios where many times they’re competing with each other for the room’s attention. Put Kacey Musgraves right beside Florida Georgia Line. But Ashley Monroe right beside Sam Hunt. Give them equal time, and let the listeners decide who they like best. And even if they lose, at least they will benefit from the elevated attention.

Data and statistics will only get you so far. There was no data, no consultant who could have predicted the success of the Outlaw movement in country music in the mid 70’s, or the rise of country music’s “Class of ’89,” or the emergence of Nirvana in the rock realm in the 90’s. These artists defied the odds, and that’s why they became the perfect artists for the perfect time and profited beyond anyone’s imagination or anticipated measurement.

In many respects, country music is primed for a female revolution. The talent pool is ripe and endless, and the desire of many to see females regain their stature in the genre is fervent. But it’s going to require taking chances, looking outside the box, and not lumping females together in token gestures of attention, but setting them toe to toe with their males counterparts, championing their individual strengths instead of trying to rely on strength in numbers, and focusing on songs that resonate beyond gender bias by breaking through preconceptions to speak right to the heart of listeners.