“Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,” Tammy Wynette croons on the first line of her 1968 classic “Stand By Your Man.” In recent years that’s proven particularly true in commercial country, where a fairly anonymous army of beer-swilling dudes in plaid shirts have dominated the charts. The crest of so-called “bro-country” even earned seemingly infallible stars like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton the dubious distinction of being the lettuce in the country “salad,” while the women are the tomatoes (far less plentiful, on purpose) — at least according to one guileless country radio exec, who recently used that ill-advised metaphor to explain the lack of women on his playlist.
But this past week, it’s been the women who are making the news. Kacey Musgraves, darling of blogs and mainstream country fans alike (how many artists can say they debuted their Redbook cover and did an in-store performance at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade the same day?) released her highly anticipated sophomore album Pageant Material to generally glowing reviews, and Kelsea Ballerini‘s very first single “Love Me Like You Mean It” hit the top of the Country Airplay chart. This is the first time a woman’s earned the top slot with her debut since 2006, when Carrie Underwood (who had just won American Idol) scored a hit with “Jesus Take The Wheel.” The last time a solo (indie, no less) female artist reigned? None other than a pre-crossover Taylor Swift, with “Ours” in 2012.
At first glance, the two artists seem to represent completely opposite visions of what being a woman in country means in 2015. Kelsea, with her long blonde hair and perma-cutoffs, could easily be the “Girl In A Country Song” recently described by Maddie & Tae in their tongue-in-cheek single. Her commercial appeal is matched by the textbook Nashville production on her debut album The First Time (released this May), a shiny veneer that almost (but not quite) disguises the depth of her songwriting talent. Kacey, on the other hand, has a nose stud, brown hair, and a decidedly “not like the rest” attitude — and it’s earned. Her standout songs about everything from friends with benefits to how small-town life can be a little rougher than its barbeques and bikinis made her debut album Same Trailer, Different Park one of 2013’s most acclaimed, across all genres. Though she’s not “Miss Congenial,” as she told Billboard, her songs are bright enough to bring her a mainstream audience as well as indie cred.
But they’re actually much more similar than first impressions would suggest — both got their start with songwriting deals in Nashville, precocious talents who wrote hits for other people before eventually proving they had the appeal to take the stage themselves. And Ballerini’s songs, even with their commercial bent, have the same level of depth and thoughtfulness that brought Musgraves to the forefront — depth that seems to, for Musgraves, fallen victim to the notorious sophomore slump.
“Oh hey,” Ballerini sings in the opening to “Love Me Like You Mean It” — “Boy with your hat back/Mmm I kind of like that/if you wanna walk my way.” This is “Call Me Maybe,” minus the hedging (no “this is crazy” here). Ballerini is reigning country radio with a song about being a young woman who’s openly expressing interest in a man — something that shouldn’t be a declaration of radical feminism, but kind of is, even in 2015. The song continues like a country version of the TLC classic “No Scrubs” — “I don’t have time to waste on the boys that are playing the games/And leaving the girls crying out in the rain.” This is the genre’s much-needed pro-hollering/anti-asshole anthem.
Ballerini’s next single, “Dibs,” is another song about hitting on guys, which Ballerini seems to do almost effortlessly. Instead of seeming insane or desperate, which is how women who make the first move are often portrayed, it’s a welcome addition to the country come-on canon. “Hey baby, what’s your status, and tell me, are you tryna keep it?” she sings to some anonymous man, whom she sums up as tidily with her “blue jeans and ball cap” description as all those oft-lauded country heroines in cutoffs and sundresses. She is, more or less, Cam’ron on “Hey Ma.” “Yeah Boy” is yet another variation on the theme — “Yeah, boy, I wanna take a little ride with you/Yeah, boy, I wanna spend a little time with you/Yeah, boy, I wanna sip a little wine with you,” she sings with a wink. It’s not that she’s consciously rebelling against the status quo, it’s that she’s smoothly stepping over it with so much skill that no one’s the wiser. She’s not perturbed by the idea of approaching a man — why should you be?
Her frankness and honesty are rooted in country’s long tradition of storytelling, a tradition that she deftly adapts to both 21st century and timeless concerns. “First Time,” “Sirens,” and the album’s strongest track, a post-divorce lament called “Secondhand Smoke,” have powerful narratives and are sung with the kind of conviction that’s earning Ballerini comparisons to her biggest cosign yet: Taylor Swift.
Musgraves, in contrast, seems to have let Pageant Material get away from her. Stuffed full of poor knock-offs of songs she’s already written (the only “mind your own business” anthem anyone should be listening to is “The Trailer Song”) and smug odes to coupledom (there’s a reason being happily in love is a topic most songwriters avoid), the new album lacks the bite of her earlier work. She commented during her Bonnaroo performance that the lead single “Biscuits” had been “pulled from radio” — considering the song’s fairly innocuous (if chiding) content, it seems unlikely to have been a moral issue.
Her laidback vibe, a strength in the consistently overwrought realm of Nashville, turns laissez-faire with didactic tracks that rely on dusty cliches, but shy from giving them any real-world context. All that on top of the fact that Musgraves insisting she’s not “pageant material” is about as believable as Beyoncé saying “pretty hurts.” “Die Fun,” “Dime Store Cowgirl” and her duet with Willie Nelson (which he wrote) “Are You Sure” show her spark — which will hopefully be brighter on her next release.
The very fact that there are two such incredible women leading the country discussion (maybe for just a week, but even so) is ultimately a sign of the genre’s vitality, and that it deserves more credit than the broader music community has recently given it. Kacey isn’t an anomaly, she’s one talented artist out of many — so it’s probably time to stop treating her like one.