While Pearce’s success serves as (a least partial) proof that country females are on the rise again today, when looking back at the music of the genre 20 years earlier, what’s striking is that women weren’t just equals on country radio -- they absolutely dominated.
Spearheaded by crossover queens Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks, the late-‘90s country female movement also included Jo Dee Messina, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack and LeAnn Rimes. The genre had seen its fair share of female superstars prior -- Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire, to name a few -- but the ‘90s brought the women of country to a worldwide level, reaching a pinnacle point in 1998.
The year began with Twain’s now-iconic 1997 album Come On Over (the biggest-selling album by a female artist to date) still holding strong at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, Rimes’ “How Do I Live” sitting at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and McBride’s “A Broken Wing” earning the singer her second Hot Country Songs No. 1 and first Hot 100 hit. The end of January marked the Dixie Chicks’ major label debut with Wide Open Spaces, and come March, Hill made a much-anticipated return with a more pop-driven sound on “This Kiss,” which eventually hit the Hot 100’s top ten.
Just as important as chart success to the female country takeover of ‘98 was that all of the women offered something unique. “You had artists that could paint different pictures,” Joe Galante, who was chairman of BMG Nashville at the time and is now CMA Foundation chairman, suggests. “Those women each had a different style, and together they made a complete picture of life in general. Each of them took a different path: Shania was the worldwide star, Faith had pop hits, and Martina was the country star. But you needed all of that to have a healthy success ratio across the board.”
“It was a perfect storm of these songs,” agrees Leslie Fram, who then programmed Atlanta alternative station 99x and is now senior vice president of music strategy at CMT. “Many of them all having some sort of relatability to the audience, whether it was female empowerment, struggles, love… and the songs were fantastic on many levels.”
What’s more, she asserts that “some of the myths that exist today -- ‘Women don’t wanna hear women,’ ‘You can’t play two females back to back,’ ‘If you play women your ratings will go down’ -- none of that existed.”