Whatever plans that have been implemented, whatever schemes that have been hatched, all the organizations christened and efforts inside and outside the industry—not excluding countless think pieces written on the issue—and still the problem with equal representation of women on country radio, or even a semblance of tokenism at this point, still eludes the country music industry.
Even trying to find the hottest girls possible to sing straight up pop songs under the misguided notion that it’s the avenue to commercial appeal has been foiled by the systematic exclusion of performers that happen to be women. Nothing has worked, and we’re arguably worse off than when we first started trying to solve this problem. Kelsea Ballerini is releasing an album in a couple of weeks, and the lead single sits outside the Top 20. Hurray for true country music, but a terrible prospectus for any women in country.
We have failed at even making a dent in this female dilemma. So why not think outside of the box? Why not throw out all the old notions that to break down the gender barrier we should just start serving up eye candy singing bubblegum pop? Besides, that’s not the trend we’ve been seeing take hold recently with artists that aren’t in their early 20’s, and artists that don’t fit the fashion plate model like Chris Stapleton and Luke Combs doing so well. It’s not to call these performers old or ugly, it’s to call them real, and appealing to the audience from authenticity as opposed to image-based marketing.
So yeah, let’s take a chance on a 30-something journeywoman songwriter with a grey streak in her bangs and the ability to drink most of the pretty boys on the radio under the table. Shit it just might work. That’s what a lot of people are betting on, including Warner Music Nashville, the big management company Q Prime, producer Jay Joyce (known mostly for working with Eric Church), and radio itself, making Ashley McBryde’s first official single “Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” one of the most added tracks on radio last week.
That’s right, a song with the name of a hard-to-pronounce north Georgia town called “Dahlonega” is one of the most added songs on country radio. It’s about as unlikely as Ashley McBryde getting signed to a major label, and not just because they don’t fit the mold, but because they’re actually fucking good. All these little baby steps in the direction of taking country music back are starting to lead to strides, and even mainstream country’s passive, malleable listeners are starting to search around for something real in a sea of Auto-tune and synth.
“Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” is not great, but it’s genuine, and it only works coming from an artist like Ashley McBryde where you believe every word she sings, and picture yourself in the shoes of the protagonist. It’s a true story, but not about her actually. It’s about one of the co-writers, Jesse Rice, who did get stranded due to car trouble at a dive bar in Dahlonega (pop. 5,200), yet the terrible day turned into a great one when he met his soon-to-be wife because of the situation. Where it’s the generic nature of so much of contemporary country’s songwriting that leaves the inspiration and details of a song idea on the cutting house floor, it’s the specificity of a song like “Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” that gives it strength.
The song is about making the best of a bad situation, which is something most of us can actually relate to, because we’re a hell of a lot more like Ashley McBride than we are Sam Hunt. So much of popular country music these days is a fantasy. Whether it’s Sam Hunt or Walker Hayes sing talking about hanging out with girls 15 years their junior at the club, or some Bro-Country act tractor rapping about tearing down back roads, that’s not actually what the people who listen to these songs do. They spend most of their lives struggling, working, searching for a break, waiting for that bad moment to turn rosy for them.
That’s why you also root for an artist like Ashley McBryde. Her successes are yours. She’s a hell of a lot more like the people you see actually listening to country music than the People Magazine version. “Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” still has that pretty formulaic list-style cadence in the verses, and it’s frustrating that it sounds like they 86’d what was probably a badass steel guitar or Telecaster break in the second half of the solo, probably to maximize radio play. But I’m willing to let the steel guitar go for the opportunity to hear a female voice on the radio, and a song that means something to people inspired by true events get a chance on the charts.