The last week of May in 2015 will be one to remember in the history of country music after the comments made by industry radio consultant Keith Hill to Country Aircheck on Tuesday (5-26) stirred quite the controversy. Mr. Hill insisted that if country radio stations wanted to increase their ratings, they needed to yank female performers from the airwaves, and compared them to the tomatoes of the greater country music salad.
Most alarming from Keith Hill’s comments though was his assertion that country music was “principally a male format.” While some got swept up in the data argument on the subject of whether women preferred to listen to other women or male performers more, the more fundamental concern was how the contributions and historical significance of women in the genre was being disregarded and undermined. Historically, women have played an equal role to the men of country music, both in helping to form the sound and identity of the genre, and in bringing the genre commercial success. As Country Universe pointed out amidst the controversy, women performers have been the best sellers in the country genre over the last 20 years.
Since his initial comments, Keith Hill has doubled down on them with CMT and The Tennessean, and says he’s been receiving death threats over the incident. Though it is never appropriate to threaten the life of anyone, especially over a music argument, this speaks to the passion people feel for this subject, including some high profile country female performers. Miranda Lambert, the current queen bee of country, lashed out on Twitter, saying, “This is he biggest bunch of BULLSHIT I have ever heard. I am gonna do everything in my power to support and promote female singer/songwriters in country music. Always.”
And for all of this talk of data supporting the idea that women don’t want to listen to other women on the radio, once again Windmills Country writing for MJSBIGBLOG has taken a data-driven approach to prove how this is not always the case.
But how did we get here? What kind of corruption of the country music industry has occurred where female country artists and fans have to fight for the basic equality of female artists to be heard? Again, this isn’t necessarily advocating for women to get played more on country radio; this is simply dealing with the idea that they should receive equal consideration from radio programmers. Is this where the “evolution” we hear spoken about so often in country music has led us to, where the same fights for the equal rights for women in country that were fought and won in the 50’s have to be fought and won all over again?
There was another period in the history of country music when women weren’t given equal billing in the genre, and had to earn the respect and equal consideration from the entrenched male oligarchy that operated the country music industry. And they did it not by flashing leg or by accepting their subordinate role, but through speaking up for the female perspective, and directly challenging the assertions of male-driven country music songs.
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The year was 1952, and country music was still a predominately male-dominated format. A few women had made some marks in country in the past, but never in the same measure as their male counterparts. Moonshine Kate made some noise in the 1920’s, and Patsy Montana in the 1930’s. Molly O’ Day was one of the first women to be signed to the Acuff-Rose publishing company, which gave her the connections to be able to record Hank Williams songs in the late 40’s. And of course the women of The Carter Family had a major influence on the sound of country music. But prior to 1952, women were still considered supporting, 2nd-tier artists, and country had yet to see a true female star.
Then came along Rose Maddox of The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Goldie Hill, and the woman who would later rise to be known as the Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells. Together, they became pioneers for women in country, and proved that female performers could do just as well as their male counterparts, as performers and profit makers.
It wasn’t until 1956 when the Maddox Brother & Rose officially broke up that Rose Maddox would fully remove herself from the shadow of her male siblings. But in January of 1952, the California-based Maddox Brothers & Rose recorded their first album with Columbia after years with the lesser-known 4 Star Recordings. Written by Rose, the song “I’ll Make Sweet Love To You” had remarkably-suggestive lyrics for that time in country music, opened up the door for women in country to sing about the same themes that men had for years.
Right on Rose’s heels, a 32-year-old married mother of three named Kitty Wells became country music’s first female superstar when her song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” made it to #1 on Billboard’s Country Singles Chart. The song was an answer song to Hank Thompson’s hit “Wild Side of Life.” Written by JD “Jay” Miller, Kitty initially didn’t want to cut the song, but then decided to do it for a $125 session payment.
The song did so well, it eventually beat out Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life” in sales. Like Rose Maddox before her, “It Wasn’t God”¦” helped open up new risque themes for female singers. Women weren’t supposed to “answer back” to men in those days. But coming from a mother of 3 and a devoted wife, the conservative Nashville establishment didn’t put up a fuss. And most importantly, Kitty Wells proved that women performers could make big money for labels and publishers. Wells went on to have 35 more Top 10 singles in her career, and 81 total songs on the charts. Women were no longer looked upon as a commercial liability.
“Most of the time I was the only female singer among the men,” Kitty Wells said in an interview years later. “That’s just how lopsided the music business was in those days.”
Just as Kitty Wells was having big success with her answer song and 1952 was drawing to a close, another answer song called “I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes” was offered to Kitty. But she turned it down, and instead it was cut by rising female country star Goldie Hill. Released in December of 1952, it was the counter to Slim Willett’s hit “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” and once again dealt with issues that before had been considered taboo for females in country. Women weren’t just singing country music, they were symbolizing a strong, female character, willing to stand up up against male infidelity, while at the same time willing to show their own vulnerability when it comes to matters of the heart.
By early 1953, “I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes” became another #1 hit by a female performer, entrenching Goldie beside Kitty Wells as bona-fide female country stars.
In 1952, Rose Maddox, Kitty Wells, and Goldie Hill laid the groundwork for women in country that would later see the rise of strong, powerful female performers like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, and the female performers of today. In 2014, it was another answer song, Maddie & Tae’s “Girl in a Country Song” that ruffled feathers, and proved an unknown female act could still break through the barrier of the boys club and produce a hit.
The fight for female equality in country music is not just one for today. Rewriting the history of country where the women are cast in subordinate roles, and limiting the future of female performers by framing country music as a male-first genre not only do a disservice to the past and future of country music, they put the focus on gender as opposed to a true search for the best songs and artists. If country music is to survive and grow, little boys, and little girls have to be able to dream of someday becoming stars in the genre.
The fight between the business of country music and the creative desires of artists is an eternal one and will never be resolved. But where no ground can be given, and no compromise found is in the importance of women to country music: then, now, and in the future.
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Portions of this article originally appeared in “1952: Country Music’s Original ‘Year of the Woman‘”