Country Music’s Dearth of Females Extends Well Beyond the Artists

Lately, much ado has been made in the consumer press about country music’s female troubles. While format insiders know this is an issue that pops up -- to varying degrees -- about every five years or so, critics have been wound up over the fact that country radio is so light on women right now, and particularly female solo acts. But the lack of females goes well beyond artist rosters.

In this week’s top 10 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, a woman doesn’t even make an appearance until No. 10, where Miranda Lambert shows up as a guest duet partner on Keith Urban’s current single, “We Were Us.” The top nine singles are all by solo males. The top 20 yields just three more women: Taylor Swift at No. 11, Lambert with a solo single at No. 17, and the female-led the Band Perry at No. 20.

The trouble was also evident in this year’s CMA Award nominations, where CMA voters couldn’t even fill the category of five female vocalist nominees without including Kacey Musgraves, a promising newcomer who has had just one top 10 hit so far, and Kelly Clarkson, a powerhouse performer and Nashville resident who had had several previous successes in the country genre, but who is still widely viewed as a pop star.

It has become an accepted truism that it’s harder to break a female artist than a male, and people in all pockets of the industry have their own theories about why that is so, including the artists themselves. In a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, Luke Bryan expressed his concerns about the issue, but also floated the truly strange notion that new female artists have a harder time because it takes them longer to get ready in the morning.

“It’s just a tough time for girls to pull off those early days and radio tours, too,” Bryan said. “In my opinion, the girls that make it, man, they can wake up early at 5 a.m., throw a hat on [and] roll into a radio station . . . They kind of have to be able to hang with the guys but also be feminine and pretty, and it’s just a tough dynamic . . . Some girls on radio tours, it will take them two hours to get all dolled up to do three songs for a radio guy. They do two hours worth of glam.”

Addressing the larger issue, Bryan said, “It’s disappointing that it’s so tough for a female artist to break. I don’t know really the demographics of why that is and what makes that so tough on women . . . I do think it sucks, but I don’t know what I can do. I mean, it’s a weird phenomenon. What’s funny is that the majority of listeners are females, but then you’d feel like they would want to hear women too . . . I don’t know what can be done to solve it. I think historically it’s always been that way a little bit. It feels like now is the toughest time ever for women, but I would imagine it’s always been pretty damn crummy.”

Sheryl Crow, who recently released her first country album, has also taken note of the issue. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Crow said, “I’d just like to see more than three women get played at radio. And that’s not just because I’m a woman. I just feel like, gosh, a huge population of record buyers are women. Why aren’t there women getting played at radio? Why aren’t there more female program directors? There’s, like, two! I don’t understand it.”

Crow might have nailed the real issue. While in reality there are slightly more than two female programmers at country reporting stations, her point is valid. Women PDs represent just a tiny fraction of the whole. And the leadership issue extends well beyond radio: Women comprise just 15% of the CMA board of directors and 19% of the Academy of Country Music board. Only slightly better is the Country Radio Seminar board of directors, whose seven female members represent 21% of the overall board.

In next week’s column, we’ll hear what country radio programmers have to say on this topic.