When Kelsea Ballerini's "Love Me Like You Mean It" (Black River) hit the top of the Billboard Country Airplay chart (dated July 4), it ended a hefty dry spell for solo females at No. 1. It had been two years and eight months since a woman had reigned as a lead artist: Carrie Underwood had ruled 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 25-year history.
But why such a long wait? What's going on at radio? Is the research not there? Are there biases and misconceptions regarding women at country?
Checking in with a sample of programmers, Billboard found that many PDs say they have been supportive of women, even if national consensus doesn't appear to back that up. "I have had a lot of success with females here, and in many cases, that didn't translate nationally," says Tim Roberts, operations manager/PD of CBS Radio's WYCD Detroit. "This single worked across the board with us. She 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."
Roberts adds another important viewpoint: Although there has been such a wide gap between No. 1s for solo females, his playlist has long been peppered with women, thanks to female-led groups. "When Karen [Fairchild of Little Big Town] sings lead on 'Girl Crush,' that's a female. Listeners don't make these rigid industry distinctions that we do. Same thing with Lady Antebellum, The Band Perry and so on." (Those groups have tallied one, nine and four Country Airplay No. 1s, respectively, since 2009.)
iHeartMedia's WSIX Nashville senior vp programming Michael Bryan concurs that Ballerini makes a strong case that women can return to dominance at the format. "We have almost 1,400 spins on ["Love Me Like You Mean It"], and we're already playing her new single, 'Dibs' [going for adds July 20]. There's something special about her, and I saw it from day one when she played in my office for me. I supported her from the very beginning, and I don't often do that. The content of ["Love"] was something we desperately needed on the charts. I'm hoping that it will create momentum for other women."
Nate Deaton, GM of Empire Broadcasting's KRTY San Jose, Calif., notes that there's an opportunity for new women, and audience, at country in 2015 post-Taylor Swift's 1989 segue to pop. "I believe that a good amount of listeners changed formats when Taylor went pop, so we needed [Ballerini]. Timing was good, and she got several boosts along the way, including Taylor saying favorable things [on Twitter]. She played our conference room, and I knew there was something unique about her. The song sounded great on the air but also hit the marks in research. That doesn't happen all the time.
"At this station, we've backed females all along; Maggie Rose, Jana Kramer and many others did amazingly well in this market. I'm really glad to see that the Kelsea record achieved enough success nationally to get her a No. 1.
"I hope that this is a prime moment," says Deaton of a possible upturn for women overall at country radio. "I mean, when I look at the pop charts, it's full of females."
What separated Ballerini from other female country aspirants? Tom Jordan, PD of Buck Owens Broadcasting's KUZZ Bakersfield, Calif., thinks that authenticity is key, along with, of course, being armed with a great record. "She played for the staff early in the song's run, and she blew everyone away. So many new artists are trained on exactly what to say and can come off as a little plastic. With Kelsea, you just know from the second that she opens her mouth that this girl is real. On top of that, and most importantly, every song she sang was outstanding. She was so good, she just had me scratching my head."
Still, unlike the other programmers surveyed, Jordan feels that "Love" may not be a proverbial game-changer for women. "I just don't hear the quality in the songs when I listen to other new women. However, the Kelsea song is so good that I can see it inspiring greatness."
While radio appears open to welcoming more women, it's ultimately up to labels to provide them. Warner Music Nashville president/CEO John Esposito says that Ballerini hitting No. 1 can be a step in that direction (adding that Kramer, who is on his label, and Ballerini are good friends and have toured together). "We were rooting for her. Is this a pivotal moment? I think it might be for this cycle," he muses. "Kitty Wells was a game-changer back in the 1950s for females, and there have been game-changers for groups, traditional country acts, and on and on. Fundamentally, I think the Kelsea song may provide a boost [to other women]." Notably, Kramer's "I Got the Boy" bullets at No. 38 on the Country Airplay chart dated July 11.
Esposito adds that songs by women, like all singles, will need to play enough to warrant impressive call-out numbers. "You can't research a record that you're barely spinning. The brave PDs are already getting great results on women. We just need a few more bold programmers not afraid to take those chances."
Overall, when it comes to reacting to Ballerini's career-opening No. 1 in terms of how labels look at signing artists, Esposito makes it loud and clear that it won't change their philosophy. It's not gender, but talent, that dictates deals. "We simply sign the most talented artists. And, we're never looking for a certain sound, like 'bro country.' It's, 'Is this a great artist?' In the end, that's all that really matters."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.