Still the 'Road Less Traveled,' But Women Are Rising on the Country Charts
When Kelsea Ballerini's debut single, "Love Me Like You Mean It," topped Billboard's Country Airplay chart on July 4, 2015, it ended quite a dry spell for solo females at No. 1. For two years and two months prior to Ballerini's feat, no solo female had led the list since Carrie Underwood reigned for two weeks with "Blown Away" beginning Oct. 27, 2012.
That's a long time. The longest drought, in fact, for lead solo female artists in the chart's now-27-year history.
As for the time between debut No. 1s by women? Ballerini ended a gap of more than nine years, as "Love Me Like You Mean It" marked the first career-opening Country Airplay No. 1 (officially promoted to country radio) by a female artist since Underwood arrived with "Jesus, Take the Wheel," which began a six-week rule on the chart dated Jan. 21, 2006.
What was behind the long break that ended two years ago? And, what is the current state of women atop Billboard's country charts?
When Ballerini's "Love Me Like You Mean It" reached No. 1 on Country Airplay, Billboard spoke to a sample of radio programmers about the famine of female No. 1s and found that many are supportive of women artists, even if chart statistics don't bear that out.
Tim Roberts, operations manager/program director of CBS Radio's WYCD Detroit, offered, "I have had a lot of success with female artists here and, in many cases, that didn't translate nationally," said Roberts. "["Love Me Like You Mean It"] worked with us. Kelsea came in, played the conference room early on, the staff fell in love with her and then it tested phenomenally right out-of-the-gate. It had all the ingredients for a hit record."
As Ballerini's breakthrough pulled back the covers and stirred conversation, let's see how women artists have performed in the past year-plus, compared to the period before.
On Billboard's Country Airplay chart from June 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016, women in lead roles reigned in only three weeks:
"Love Me Like You Mean It," Kelsea Ballerini (July 4, 2015)
"Dibs," Kelsea Ballerini (March 5, 2016)
"Heartbeat," Carrie Underwood (March 26, 2016)
Four additional weeks found three female artists at No. 1 in featured or duet roles, including one essentially core rock artist:
"Wild Child," Kenny Chesney with adult alternative singer-songwriter Grace Potter (June 27, 2015)
"Home Alone Tonight," Luke Bryan featuring Karen Fairchild (of Little Big Town) (Feb. 13 and 20, 2016)
"Think of You," Chris Young with Cassadee Pope (May 14, 2016)
Thus, as no country groups with female members led Country Airplay in that span, only seven weeks were represented by women in the No. 1 spot.
Looking at Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, which blends airplay, streaming and sales data, during that same span, no week was led by a solo female. Still, Little Big Town, which includes Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman (along with Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet), dominated for 10 weeks with "Girl Crush" (starting June 6, 2015).
On Top Country Albums between June 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, eight weeks were dominated by women, including four by soloists, with all earning No. 1 debuts.
The other woman to hold the No. 1 position on Top Country Albums in that stretch was Joey Feek, half of country/Christian duo Joey + Rory. Feek passed away from cervical cancer on March 4, 2016, at age 40 and it was bittersweet when the act's Hymns became its first Top Country Albums No. 1 on the chart dated March 5, 2016, eventually spending four total weeks at the summit.
WOMEN AT No. 1 ON BILLBOARD'S COUNTRY CHARTS
Country Airplay June 1, 2015- June 30, 2016: 7 weeks
Country Airplay July 1, 2016-July 31, 2017: 8 weeks
Hot Country Songs June 1, 2015- June 30, 2016: 10 weeks
Hot Country Songs July 1, 2016-July 31, 2017: 10 weeks
Top Country Albums June 1, 2015- June 30, 2016: 8 weeks
Top Country Albums July 1, 2016-July 31, 2017: 12 weeks
(Totals include women in solo roles, both as leads and featured artists, and groups with female members.)
Now let's look at the more recent tracking period of July 1, 2016 through July 31, 2017.
After all the chatter in Nashville and nationally, and various controversies such as "tomato-gate" (in which a consultant recommended that women best serve as mere garnish among male artists), you might think that the numbers would be better for women on the charts, right?
First, looking at Country Airplay No. 1, three weeks were ruled by lead/solo women in July 2016-July 2017, the same number as in the previous stretch:
"Church Bells," Carrie Underwood (July 30, 2016)
"Peter Pan," Kelsea Ballerini (Sept. 24, 2016)
"Road Less Traveled," Lauren Alaina (April 22, 2017)
As for women in featured roles, including two not core to country:
"Different for Girls," Dierks Bentley featuring pop/rock singer-songwriter Elle King (Oct. 1, 2016)
"Setting the World on Fire," Kenny Chesney featuring pop singer-songwriter P!nk (Nov. 5, 2016)
"Craving You," Thomas Rhett featuring Maren Morris (July 22, 2017)
And, groups including women:
"Better Man" Little Big Town (March 4 and 11, 2017; note that the song was written solely by Taylor Swift)
Rolling up all of the Country Airplay chart weeks from July 1, 2016 through July 30, 2017, eight frames saw a woman at No. 1, counting solo billings, features and groups with female members, one more week than the previous period's seven.
On Hot Country Songs, women held steady in terms of weeks at No. 1. One unaccompanied female, Ballerini, reached No. 1, leading for two weeks with "Peter Pan," compared to none in the previous span. In all, 10 Hot Country Songs chart weeks in July 2016-July 2017 included women at No. 1, the same amount as the prior period, although with a greater number of female artists contributing to the total:
"Peter Pan," Kelsea Ballerini (Sept. 24 and Oct. 1, 2016)
Women in a featured role:
"Setting the World on Fire," Kenny Chesney featuring P!nk (four weeks beginning Oct. 22, 2016)
And, groups with women:
"Forever Country," Artists of Then, Now & Forever (Oct. 8 and 15, 2016)
"Better Man," Little Big Town (Feb. 11 and 18, 2017)
Notably, Artists of Then, Now & Forever, the Country Music Association's (CMA) tribute to 50 years of the CMA Awards, charted as a one-time gathering of 30 artists performing a medley of three classics (John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads"; Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You"; and Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again"), with women among the 30: Parton, Underwood, Fairchild and Schlapman of Little Big Town, Faith Hill, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Hillary Scott (of Lady Antebellum) and Trisha Yearwood.
And, on Top Country Albums from July 1, 2016 through July 31, 2017, women logged 12 weeks at No. 1 vs. eight in the span before.
Pure & Simple, Dolly Parton (Sept. 10, 2016)
The Weight of These Wings, Miranda Lambert (three weeks, Dec. 10 and 17, 2016, April 22, 2017)
Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope, Reba McEntire (Feb. 25 and March 4, 2017)
Windy City, Alison Krauss (March 11, 2017)
Wildhorse, RaeLynn (April 15, 2017)
Christmas Together, Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood (Dec. 3, 2016)
Groups including women:
The Breaker, Little Big Town (March 18 and 25, 2017)
Heart Break, Lady Antebellum (July 1, 2017)
Culling all the data above, we see a slight uptick in women topping Billboard's country charts in July 2016-July 2017 as compared to June 2015-June 2016.
Thus, the road to No. 1 is, to paraphrase Lauren Alaina, one less traveled for women as compared to men, although they've increased their presence, if marginally, over the past two years-plus. It seems notable, however, that pop-leaning acts (King, P!nk) have helped up women's total weeks spent at No. 1 in the more recent measurement period outlined above, along with a one-time, co-ed all-star collective (Artists of Then, Now & Forever) featuring various veteran female acts that don't scale Billboard country charts on a regular basis.
As one of the few women to reign in that more-than two-year stretch, Maren Morris says, "It's a staggering number." However: "We're chipping away at it a little bit. More women songwriters are becoming artists; that's what I came from. I think it's letting the floodgates open for better songs."