Notes from the Basement: Responding to Claims of Sexism in Maren Morris Coverage

So there was a little drama last week. And though the result was not much more than a tempest in a teapot that probably most of you were perfectly unaware of since it was primarily relegated to the purview of media personalities, unfortunately some fallacious and irresponsible accusations were laid at the feet of Saving Country Music, and so there is a need to respond.

The issue surrounds how I claimed Maren Morris was “not all that” in a Down With Pop Country dissertation for her Target commercial/pop single with EDM producer Zedd called “In The Middle.” Some took the comment as sexist, and accused me of as much shortly after the comment was originally posted on January 31st. But the issue seemed to pass—primarily because the “sexist” assertion seemed suspect at best. So we all went about our merry way until the evening of Sunday, February 11th, which was nearly two weeks after the Maren Morris article was originally published. That is when the controversy started anew, and with a fervor that attempted to discredit me completely out of the country music journalism pool, at least by some.

The reason this is being addressed now as opposed to when it first boiled over is because over the last two weeks, I drove nearly 4,000 miles to cover three separate music events, traveling from Austin to Florida to cover Mile 0 Fest, driving from Florida to Memphis to cover the Ameripolitan Awards last Sunday and Monday when the flap began anew, and then drove to Folk Alliance in Kansas City on Wednesday. Furthermore, on the day the controversy was swirling, it was the same day Daryl Singletary died, which instantly became the priority—along with having to drive some 1,200 miles to Memphis in 48 hours, cover an event when I arrived, and then having to drive another 450 miles and cover/participate in an event the very next day and for the impending week at Folk Alliance.

That may be too much information for you, but the idea that I was “shut down” over the issue as asserted by Taste of Country and others is to misconstrue how my priorities were elsewhere at the time. Also, I don’t see the value in participating in angry flame wars primarily spun via social media. Such exercises are simply vehicles to vent anger, and sow division as opposed to solving problems. So I decided it was best to live in the musical moment I was in, which was on the road covering important events, while letting tempers die down to potentially broach a more pragmatic discussion in the future.

Former label executive and journalist Beverly Keel touched off the melee on February 11th by posting a note on Facebook of why she felt the “not all that” comment about Maren Morris was sexist. Like so many of the angry comments that would ensue, the basis for why the comment was being considered sexist was formed upon completely incorrect assumptions about Saving Country Music.

For example, in the note, Beverly Keel says the opinion on Maren Morris comes from a “traditionalist writer.” As has been said many, many times before, Saving Country Music is not a “traditionalist” outlet. It may be more traditionalist than the mainstream, but most true traditionalists vilify Saving Country Music regularly for talking about artists such as Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton, who all sit well outside the traditionalist ideal. This very point was made in response to another article posted by Texas Monthly recently criticizing Saving Country Music. Furthermore, I was interviewed by Beverly Keel for The Tennessean in July of 2015, and I expressly stated to her that I was not a traditionalist, did not want to be couched as a traditionalist, and that I go out of my way to make that distinction out of respect for the true traditionalists out there who hold to a more firm ideal for country music than I do.

But the primary basis for my “not all that” comment about Maren Morris being sexist according to Beverly Keel was that it illustrated a double standard. “I don’t recall male artists being criticizes (sic) for being confident,” Keel says. “Indeed, swagger is celebrated in rock, rap pop and country. Has an ‘outlaw artist’–especially those praised by Saving Country Music– ever been chided for being confident? Cocky male rock stars are a dime a dozen.”

First off, there is a big difference between confidence and arrogance. Maren Morris was never being criticized for having confidence. The words “confidence” and “swagger” were never used. I would never criticize the confidence of anyone, especially a woman. Confidence is vital for all music to succeed. Arrogance and self-importance is what was being criticized.

But taking the the question on face value of whether Saving Country Music has criticized male artists for being cocky, the answer is a resounding and unequivocal “Yes,” and on many, many occasions, and many more occasions than women. I’m sure regular readers are laughing right now at the ridiculous notion that Saving Country Music doesn’t regularly rail against male artists for being too full of themselves. Criticizing male artists for their cockiness is one of the cornerstones of this website. Saving Country Music has posted entire series of articles slamming artists such as Brantley Gilbert, Florida Georgia Line, Eric Church, and others for their ridiculous, arrogant, and over-the-top cocky disposition, both in their songs and in their social media presence.

For example, in the review for the latest Brantley Gilbert record The Devil Don’t Sleep, it was said,

Brantley Gilbert is the Godfather of Bro-Country, the Master of Rural Machismo … he’s puffing his chest out and digging deeper into the well of cliché and self-ingratiating affirmation than ever before … He’s a roided-out, tatted-up, tribal Tap-Out truck-nutted horn-flashing Jesus-praising great American meat head who makes no apologies for himself and has built an entire army of fans that are just as hard headed and proud…

The Devil Don’t Sleep is the name of Brantley Gilbert’s latest record, and for 15 of the 16 tracks … there is no let up, no quarter given to the onslaught on your earholes and inner psyche by Gatling gun rock guitars screaming wildly over waves upon waves of bellicose, testosterone-pumped, carnal yawps about how totally cool and incredibly badass Brantley Gilbert and his compadres are.

Most of what I hear is the self-centered, braggadocios barking of a bulldog that uses spiked collars and brass knuckle microphone stands…

That seems like a much bigger indictment of Brantley Gilbert’s arrogance than a passing “ain’t all that” comment about Maren Morris.

It’s hard to know where to start with Saving Country Music’s Eric Church coverage to prove the point that men don’t just get criticized for their braggadocios behavior, but to a much greater degree than the women. How about the article entitled, Eric Church is Awesome, Just Ask Him (a Bragging Montage), which took various arrogant, cocksure quotes from Church and put them all together to illustrate just how full of himself he was. Saving Country Music has also been publicized for attacking Midland’s image-based cockiness and attitude in a manner that has stirred its own controversy.

Okay, but these are all mainstream artists. How about “Outlaw” artists that Saving Country Music has otherwise championed, as Beverly Keel questions. Have I also criticized them for being too arrogant and cocky?

Of course I have, and on many occasions.

For those of you who can remember back that far, Saving Country Music sprouted from an organization called Free Hank III. Hank William III was the very basis for the start of this website. In the decidedly negative review written for Hank3’s subpar album Ghost to a Ghost, the opinion was given,

The lack of creativity on this album is puzzling, because with the other releases in this cycle, we know Hank3 is capable of it. One of my worries is that he is trying to feed a demographic of core fans that he thinks wants this “cockstrong” attitude.

Okay, but that opinion was shared way back in 2011. How about something more recent? Saving Country Music actually criticizes the arrogance and cockiness of “Outlaw” artists all the time. It’s pretty much standard copy for Outlaw country reviews. Just last month in a review of an album from Outlaw artist Mickey Lamantia, Saving Country Music said about certain Outlaw artists and fans,

They want songs that mention “Outlaw” right there in the verses, and veer towards a bellicose, and sometimes belligerent attitude …  Frankly, sometimes it can be a bit much with all the name dropping and the chest puffing.

Here’s another example of Saving Country Music criticizing the “Outlaw” mindset, saying, “‘Outlaw’ today is just as much bravado and fashion as it is anything…”

These are just some of the scores of examples of how Saving Country Music has very specifically criticized male artists and their fans for arrogant, cocky behavior that is unbecoming in the country music space and beyond. Why anyone would assume otherwise about Saving Country Music’s coverage over the past 10 years and thousands of articles without doing some cursory research is pretty astounding, especially when using it as the basis for labeling someone “sexist.”

Beverly Keel also takes another completely unfounded opinion not shared by Saving Country Music, and conflates it with the confidence issue by saying, “…this message to women is clear: Know your place. Stay where you belong. Don’t you dare venture out beyond where we want you to remain.” Saving Country Music never said anything of the sort, towards Maren Morris or any other woman artist. Yes, Saving Country Music regularly criticizes artists who have utilized the infrastructure and institutions of country music to launch lucrative careers for then turning around and releasing pop songs—male and female. But the idea that this Maren Morris criticism was a “know you place” moment degrading a woman for not being submissive is just downright absurd. No such thing was ever ever said, inferred, or implied, though it does make for good buzz on social media.

I have a lot of respect for Beverly Keel as a journalist, former label executive, and as a department chair currently at Middle Tennessee State University. She helps run an organization called Change The Conversation to help advance the cause of women in country music, and I have both reported on and attended functions by Change The Conversation in the past. I consider Beverly Keel a colleague and a mentor, and whenever she shares her opinion, I listen. I respect her opinion and approach on this matter, however in this case, the basis of why the “not all that” comment about Maren Morris was labeled sexist was completely incorrect by her own logic. There was no double standard compared to men, and there was certainly no telling of Maren Morris to “know her place” as a woman.

Much more slanderous accusations against Saving Country Music were made by another well-known and well-respected colleague in the music industry named Tamara Saviano, who after being spurned by Beverly Keel’s missive, decided to take things another step and accuse Saving Country Music of not just sexism, but being part of the “whisper network” to purposefully keep down the women of country music. Saviano is best known as the biographer and close friend of Guy Clark, as well as a producer and publicist who has worked with Kris Kristofferson and others.

Tamara Saviano said in the comments section of the original Maren Morris article on Saving Country Music,

You are so sexist you can’t even see it. I learned that about you when I saw you speak at Americana last fall. What you know about women is exactly nothing and all of the women who work in our music circles know it. You are part of the whisper network and part of the problem. But don’t worry, we don’t count on you for anything so it doesn’t matter. There is an entire industry of women who have Maren’s back, and all the other women in our business.

Characterizing an offhanded and admitted-pointed comment about Maren Morris as sexist is one thing. Saying that Saving Country Music is part of “the whisper network” in mainstream country is something different entirely.

It is a diseased, completely delusional, arguably slanderous, and a beyond irresponsible accusation born of venomous, unmitigated anger and hatred blinding Tamara Saviano from any and all aspects of anything even bordering on reality to assert that after 10 years of unequivocal and insurmountable evidence of Saving Country Music’s commitment to roll up and destroy any and all “whisper networks” in country music—including, if not especially the ones keeping women down—and including very pointed and detailed criticism against labels heads such as Mike Curb and Scott Borchetta, major promoters such as LiveNation and C3 Presents, as well as radio executives and other principles in the industry—that I would somehow actually be in cahoots with these very same individuals and entities behind-the-scenes because of some deep-seeded sexist attitude and agenda.

What Tamara Saviano’s indolent and irresponsible comment exposes is that this issue has little to do with Maren Morris or a potentially sexist comment to many who joined the fracas. This was Tamara Saviano’s attempt at a take down move, with the accusation of a sexist comment as the vehicle. Saviano said as a comment in the original Beverly Keel thread on Facebook, “That site has always pissed me off.” So there’s no objective weighing of the facts and circumstances here. This an industry professional attempting to destroy or mitigate an outlet by slandering it with fallacious accusations. What has Saving Country Music ever done to Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, or Tamara Saviano that would spurn such unchecked hatred? All Saving Country Music has done is attempt to honor and preserve the legacy of iconic performers and songwriters, and has specifically promoted Tamara Saviano’s work on numerous occasions.

Tamara Saviano says, “You are so sexist you can’t even see it. I learned that about you when I saw you speak at Americana last fall.”

What she is referring to is a discussion panel that I participated in at AmericanaFest in September of 2017 called “Woman is Not a Genre” about the way women are prefaced in music coverage by their gender. The panel was hosted by Marissa R. Moss, who regularly writes for Rolling Stone, and is someone who has been a staunch champion of women’s rights in country music.

For the record, I was the one who had the idea for the panel. I was the one who reached out to the Americana Music Association and submitted a proposal for the panel. I filled out all the initial paperwork to help make the panel happen. I followed up with Americana to bulldog it through the process. Then once the panel was approved, I ceded all power and direction for the panel to Marissa R. Moss to curate and conduct the panel however she wished. And the whole time I insisted I didn’t need to be on the panel myself, I just wanted the panel to happen. And when they did invite me to be on the panel, I purposely sat at the end of the table.

The other panelists and myself received many compliments on that panel, from many different people. Just last week at the Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, I had numerous people come up to me to compliment the discussion on the panel. This comment by Tamara Saviano is the first time anyone has brought up as there being “sexist” remarks on the panel from myself. The other participants in the panel sure didn’t voice those opinions. A lot of positive progress was made on that panel, even if there wasn’t 100% agreement on all topics. The important thing is we were discussing instead of lobbing accusations at each other via social media, which is how this Maren Morris situation devolved in the aftermath of Beverly Keel’s initial Facebook note.

I completely understand that any definition I may come up with for what is “sexist” may be completely different for someone else’s, especially a woman’s. I don’t even know that it’s my place to define what sexism is as a man, and I understand that no matter what I do, I will never be able to 100% identify with the female perspective and experience. Whatever I say in these matters, I lose, especially in this politically-charged environment. But what I can say is that the comment was not meant in a sexist manner, and all of the rationale I have seen for calling it sexist has been unfounded, and based on assumptions about the nature of music coverage on Saving Country Music that are simply untrue. This has nothing to do with not listening to women’s concerns, or not trying to understand them. Yet to say that the criticism of Maren Morris was specifically attached to her being a woman, or that it was more pointed than the criticism of her male counterparts, simply doesn’t hold water.

If women are to be treated equal, then they have to submit to equal criticism in the music marketplace. As Phillip Seymour Hoffman said in the movie Almost Famous when portraying legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, “If you want to be a true friend, be honest, and unmerciful.” This is what Saving Country Music was doing by pointing out that the arrogant attitude being expressed by Maren Morris was eroding her ability to connect with certain segments of the country music audience.

The intention of the comment about Maren Morris was to be constructive, believe it or not. To myself and many others, Morris appears to be too full of herself in an off-putting, and down-looking way. Again, this is not about confidence, this is about coming across that she believes she’s better than others. It’s a diva, hip-hop attitude. And when she responded to the controversy by calling me, “some cowardly basement dweller (no disrespect to basements) with a keyboard,” she confirmed that she holds this better-than-thou attitude.

All criticism is offered constructively. Whether it is taken that way is up to the subject. But Saving Country Music was founded on the belief that criticism is a vital part of the creative process, and overly-sensitive perspectives conjured in the political vitriol of the modern moment will never be good judges of what is appropriate criticism, and what isn’t. Certain people in the current country music media pool with clear political biases and agendas are attempting to reshape country music culture into their own image through slanted journalism efforts hoping create a battlefield of the genre under the pretense that this is a way to assuage Trump voters away from their principles.

Saving Country Music’s record on covering the issues facing country music’s women—whether it’s the lack of representation on radio and streaming playlists, the lack of gender parity on festival lineups, the characterization of women in country songs, sexual harassment and assault issues, along with other subjects—is unquestionably unparalleled in the country media marketplace, and by a wide margin, regardless of the individual journalist or outlet. Dozens of articles have been published simply on the lack of representation of women on the radio alone, and as a one-person operation.

Of course none of this can somehow make what some consider a sexist comment unsexist, but it does need to be considered when high-profile industry personalities decide to attack and characterize Saving Country Music as a misogynistic outlet, or as Tamara Saviano said and others agreed, part of “the whisper network.”

For example, at the moment, the most clear and comprehensive insight we have into what many believe to be the behavior that persists at country radio when it comes to how women performers are expected to behave is the Katie Arminger disposition first published by Saving Country Music on January 27th, 2016—over two years ago. Though many outlets, including Rolling Stone Country, Buzzfeed, and others have cited elements of the deposition in their coverage of the subject of women in country music, it was Saving Country Music who first unearthed it, labored through the court system to find the right names and numbers to petition for its release, filled out the Freedom of Information Act request to have it unsealed, paid the administration fee to make it available, leaned on the court clerk to get it expedited and released in full, and then published it verbatim to get it out there to the public.

Unfortunately none of the recent stories that have used the Katie Arminger deposition as the basis for their articles have linked to Saving Country Music’s story, or cited it as the originator of the document or information. But if I was truly part of a “whisper network,” would I really go through the effort to expose such inside industry information? However the hatred for Saving Country Music by some is so virile, they truly believe that the some three dozen articles posted specifically on the subject of women in music are all just a diversionary tactic so that two years after the release of the Katie Arminger deposition, I can take a dig at Maren Morris for not being “all that,” and use all that coverage as a shield for my misogyny.

I have tremendous respect for Beverly Keel and some of other music journalists who chimed in on this issue. I have written so extensively about the issues women face in country music because I am passionate about the subject. It’s certainly not because it’s a popular subject that has generated traffic for the website, or that has created a lot of street cred for me. In fact I have lost countless readers after being deemed a “social justice warrior” and “liberal” from my long-winded and frequent deep dives into the subject, and still here I am, the target of an attempt to be ostracized from the country media pool for making sexist remarks. I want to work with these women and men who see the need for all artists to be dealt with equally regardless of gender in country music, but I will not sit idly by and be impugned, or have my words mischaracterized just because hating me becomes the pitchfork and torch cause célèbre of the day without any rationale or context entering into the equation. 

That said, I also don’t want to be that guy that everybody hates that you have to invite to the party because he’s an even bigger nuisance if you don’t. Perhaps some of the women who have taken up the cause of women in country feel threatened by the aggressiveness with which I’ve delved into this issue and feel like it is not my place. In fact if I had just minded my business in the first place and never broached the subject, it’s very likely I would have been left alone and never regarded as a sexist. So if need be, I will back off participating in panels and such. But if you expect me to stop writing about it, I can’t make that guarantee. I write whatever I’m passionate about, even if it’s to the detriment of my career or success, or the credibility of Saving Country Music in some people’s eyes. And I am very passionate on the subject of the treatment of women in country.

And while we’re on the subject of speaking out about the issues facing women in country music, what has Maren Morris done to help further the cause of her fellow women performers? Twice when asked about the disparity between males and females on radio playlists, Maren has balked, and said the issue is improving, which it isn’t. Just this week, when asked about Grammy CEO Neil Protnow’s comments on how women in music need to “try harder,” Maren Morris side stepped the issue.

“I think the person that’s won the most Grammys is Alison Krauss so I don’t know,” Maren Morris said about the big disparity between men and women winners at the 2018 Grammys. “I mean, there’s obviously some things that need to be looked at, I think, and maybe it’s just voting members. Maybe we need to like expand on that … I was really proud of Alessia Cara that she won best new artist. I think she really deserved that.”

Saving Country Music has said way more about the issues plaguing women in music than Maren Morris ever has. Cam has spoken out, so has Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, and others in the mainstream. But Maren Morris has been mostly silent, instead focusing on things “opening up” to allow her to record and release pop songs in the country format.

Of course Maren Morris isn’t going to speak out with any teeth about what is happening with women at country radio or the Grammy Awards because she’s one of the primary benefactors of Music Row’s patriarchal system. Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini are used as tokens for the mainstream to create the facade of support for females, while the best and the brightest of the genre are not given a chance because these two are being given the few precious slots for women on country radio’s skewed playlists. Maren’s last single “I Could Use a Love Song” went #1 on radio, but couldn’t inch past #7 on the consumption-based Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Is there really a widespread groundswell behind her music, or did radio just throw women a bone?

But you could also argue it’s not the place of Maren Morris to speak out against the industry, and that’s a fair point. She’s an entertainer, and her job is to do the best she can with her music, and let the media pundits take pot shots and the poor behavior of the industry if necessary. But a lot of what seems to be driving the media circling the wagons around poor Maren Morris over a passing comment seems to be spurned by fandom for Morris as opposed to a true cause for concern. Much of the country media likes Maren, especially because she’s taken a stance on social causes they identify with, and that has compromised the objectivity of some. Fan = fanatic, and we’ve seen some of that fanaticism in the form of attacks and accusations in the defense of Maren that seem to be detached from rational perspective. Combine it with the political witch hunting of the day, and the lack of rational thought is rendered even worse.

And while many media and industry professionals were attacking Saving Country Music for a passing comment, I was at Mile 0 Fest in Florida, seeking out the performances by women on the lineup, meeting with the promoters, putting myself in a position where I could explain to them that I saw the crowds for the women on the side stages and how they deserved to be on the main stage, and can do so with respect and experience because I was there.

I attended the Ameripolitan awards in Memphis, where I was able to report how Brennen Leigh said in her speech after she won the award for Honky Tonk Female, “I think it’s the women of country music that can take it and get it turned in the right direction.” While on the road, I was interviewed by a colleague, Sasha Savitsky, as an expert on the issue of the sexual harassment women are reportedly facing in the country industry. I attended Folk Alliance where I observed a panel about women in music conducted by Erin Benjamin of Music Canada Live, and the specific topic of how men need to be a part of the process of solving the issues with gender parity in music came up as a primary discussion point.

It seems to me that all the energy that was expended attacking Saving Country Music for a passing comment could have been better off building bridges and crafting solutions to some of these deeply-rooted and institutionalized problems facing women in music, especially since most of the criticism devolved into nothing more than social media trolling.

I’ve never said I was perfect. I’m an emotional individual who gets very heated about certain issues and speaks freely regardless of the ramifications. I don’t run a popularity contest. Attempts to discredit me are fruitless. The people who love Saving Country Music read it religiously. The people who hate Saving Country Music read it even more religiously. But without underwriters or ties to the industry, Saving Country Music is in the unique position of being able to speak freely and delve deeper into issues like women in music than other outlets.

I want to work with the women who called for my head last week on pragmatic solutions that will solve some of these issues facing women in country music once and for all. Or, we can continue to fight with each other while the true sexists embedded deep in the industry as part of the actual “whisper network” who never have to speak publicly on anything and run the risk of being labeled “sexist” sit back, laugh, and continue to do their worst. I’ve done nothing but show my willingness and ability to work with others, even if I’m on the outside looking in to certain industry cliques who are distrusting of me.

If any of the problems facing women in music are ever going to get solved, it’s going to take a headstrong effort across a unified front, and data-based insight underpinning rock-solid logic, not infighting over semantics using unfounded assumptions.