This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, we take a look at what a phenomenal year 1998 was for women experiencing blockbuster success in country music, and wonder why the landscape for female country stars seems so much less fruitful 20 years later.
Whether it’s chart data or festival lineups, the question “Where are all the women?” has been a recurring issue for nearly all genres in recent years. Female representation became an especially prevalent topic in country music thanks to controversies like 2015’s “Tomatogate” in which a radio consultant deemed women on country radio compared to tomatoes in a salad: used sparingly.
Even before the controversial comment, the 2000s and 2010s have seen a major decrease in songs by women on country radio. “You were almost penalized if you were a female, right off the bat,” says Carly Pearce, whose debut single “Every Little Thing” proved naysayers wrong by going No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart last November.
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.”
Galante points out that part of the magic of this era of tunes was the troops behind the scenes. Not only were there fewer people “stirring the pot creatively,” as he puts it, but these artists had their trusty go-to producers: Twain developed her poppier sound with Robert “Mutt” Lange, Byron Gallimore helped Hill and Messina’s ‘98 albums soar (he produced Faith and I’m Alright, which each spawned two No. 1 Hot Country Songs singles), and Paul Worley both discovered the Dixie Chicks as well as produced the trio’s first two albums.
Whether their songs were penned by the stars or not, Twain, Hill, McBride and their fellow females were relatable because they both sounded and looked like the audience they were singing to. While they were all stunningly beautiful and unquestionably country, each singer’s style wasn’t quite as polarizing for casual audiences as a pair of cowboy boots or a fringed Western jacket may have been.
“If you look at country stars from the ‘80s and even the early ‘90s, they dressed like country stars,” Beverly Keel, who was a music writer and a professor of recording industry at Middle Tennessee State University (where she is now chair of the department), says. “They weren’t wearing what you’d see on the runways or on the red carpets. Faith Hill and Shania Twain changed all that. They weren’t angry like Alanis Morissette, they weren’t sexually suggestive like Madonna — they were very appealing to fans outside the traditional country audience because they seemed like ‘normal’ women.”
“The ‘90s were the first generation, in my mind, of women that looked more like the audience,” Galante adds.
Twain’s boundary-pushing wardrobe of midriff-baring tops and cheetah print ensembles (see the “That Don’t Impress Me Much” video) were particularly impactful. “Her image made us address stereotypes about women in beauty, success and artistry,” Keel says. “Because she did encapsulate many of the desires, quandaries and contradictions of young, independent women.”
Imagery was one of the most important keys to the female empowerment at the time, both in videos and personal appearance. Twain was really the first to push the envelope in ways country hadn’t seen, sporting a midriff-baring cropped denim vest as early as 1995 in the “Any Man of Mine” clip, and busting out purple eye shadow in the model-esque video for “Love Gets Me Every Time” in 1997. “That was also the age of video,” Galante says, “and some of the videos along with those songs helped paint a picture that I think reverberated the consumer marketplace.”
Twain’s “unapologetic sexuality,” Keel calls it, was unusual for female country music videos, but paid off for Twain in January 1998 when she released the blue-tinted beachside video for “You’re Still the One.” The sensual clip (which ends with a teaser of a bedroom scene) became Twain’s first crossover video success, landing her on VH1, MuchMusic and MTV, where she was nominated for a 1998 MTV Video Music Award, a rarity for country artists at the time.
With Twain’s acceptance came more music-video boundary pushing, whether it was Messina’s sassy “Bye, Bye” video, Dixie Chicks’ kaleidoscopic “There’s Your Trouble” clip, and Hill’s award-winning mind trip for “This Kiss.” Though Hill’s most show-stopping moment came in 1999 with the release of the sultry in-the-sheets visual for “Breathe,” she and her female peers were already heavily investing in their visuals.
“They were conscious of having stylists involved, so it wasn’t just, ‘Let’s go out there and sing something’ — there was a concept behind it,” Galante says. “And they were part of the development of all those concepts. You were hitting them from not just on the radio but what they were seeing in the videos, on the award shows and TV performances, and that really propelled them. They were cutting through.”
Their bold moves (physically and vocally) redefined what it means to be female in country, while also representing independent strength — a combination that saw Twain, Hill and the other ‘90s ladies achieve more crossover success than their predecessors. “Yeah there was the beauty aspect of it, but they had that firm foundation,” Galante says, “and I think that translated to the audience.”
“It was thrilling to see female country stars like Faith and Shania being embraced on a national level without stereotypes,” Keel recalls. “A lot of times, when the national press write about country artists, they hayseed ‘em up, if you will. They have a little asterisk by them like, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute, they’re country!’ They’re either different or less than. With Faith and Shania, they were fully-formed artists who were accepted by everybody.”
But though these outspoken women shot to superstardom in 1998 largely thanks to their boldness, it ultimately hurt many of them within the industry. The Dixie Chicks, in particular, found themselves in the middle of a political firestorm in 2003, when lead singer Natalie Maines declared that the group was “ashamed” to be from the same state as then-President George W. Bush, as the invasion of Iraq began. Maines’ comment was immediately criticized by country fans, igniting a boycott that led to a rapid decline of their sales and chart success — and a protest that included burning their CDs.
“It’s very hard to be in a format where you feel like you can’t be open-minded, you know, speak your mind,” Fram says. “But I feel like they were very outspoken — calling them rebels is appropriate.”
Keel agrees that the Dixie Chicks and their outspoken contemporaries ultimately got a raw deal: “They were our best ambassadors and they had the hardest time within the country music industry.”
At the top of 1999, Nashville’s Music Row — home to all of the major country record labels — already began to see a stark difference in success. As promotional costs began to rise in the wake of a visual-driven era (“It wasn’t just, like, a good hit is recognizable — you had to play the game,” Keel says), album sales began to decrease, with a roughly 8 percent decrease in sales by the end of the year. Though Twain, Hill, Dixie Chicks and Rimes’ sales weren’t as greatly impacted, some of the industry’s biggest acts saw a 25-to-40 percent drop in sales.
Publishing house Sony/ATV/Tree cut its roster in half, and new artists were scarce until what Keel dubbed the “Class of ‘99”: Brad Paisley, Andy Griggs, and Montgomery Gentry and SHeDAISY — the latter marking the only promising new females that year.
Indeed, female representation on the Country Airplay chart continued to dwindle as the 2000s turned into the 2010s. Twenty years after 1998 saw No. 1 singles from female artists for 21 of the year’s 52 weeks — including entries from 9 different women — only 18 weeks in the last two years combined have seen females topping the chart (which includes women as featured artists with men, in groups like Little Big Town, and pop collaborators such as P!nk and Bebe Rexha). Even on the most recent Country Airplay chart (dated June 2), you won’t find a female until No. 12, and that’s pop singer-songwriter Julia Michaels as a guest on Keith Urban’s “Coming Home.”
Unfortunately, the reasons for the fall of the country female aren’t quite as easy to pinpoint as chart stats. “I don’t think anybody has a clear answer as to what’s happened. I think we’re all perplexed by that,” Fram says.
In Keel’s eyes, the issue is lack of exposure. “The music made by women just needs to be heard,” she says. “Whether that’s YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, radio, social media — the audience is out there, but it hasn’t been getting the exposure it needs.”
Carly Pearce is a prime example of Keel’s theory, as “Every Little Thing” was essentially a fan-voted hit after she released it independently on SiriusXM in 2016. “Two weeks prior to that, people told me, ‘That song’s never going to break through,’ ‘This music’s not going to get you where you want to go,’ ‘It’s not unique enough,’ ‘It’s not strong enough,’” the 28-year-old recalls. “I put it out with XM, and overnight, people who point blank told me that this music was not going to move the needle [were] slamming on my door wanting to be a part of it.”
She continues, “I got my record deal because the country music fans reacted to ‘Every Little Thing’ — and that’s powerful.”
The Kentucky-born singer cites Shania Twain and Faith Hill as her biggest inspirations, especially because their peak years in the late ‘90s were when they were each in their early 30s. “I celebrated my first No. 1 at 27. They are the reason that I’ve been able to not let age be a hindrance and look at it as an asset,” she says. “They really embraced that woman mindset in their songs, and the way that they connected with listeners both in their music and visually… I feel like we haven’t seen that [again] until now, really.”
Pearce is one of the many female artists making waves in today’s country scene, including her Country Airplay-leading comrades Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris and Lauren Alaina. And there’s plenty more where they come from: Along with Pearce, Morris and Ballerini, fresh country females Lindsay Ell, Ashley McBryde, Danielle Bradbery all appear on the June 2-dated chart — just not yet in the top ten.
“I sort of feel this resurgence coming on, because there are a lot of women that are speaking their truth, writing their own songs, and performing their own songs,” Fram suggests. “Twenty years from now, we want a new crop of artists to be able to be influenced by Kelsea Ballerini and Lauren Alaina. Back then it was that perfect storm, and maybe that can happen again.”
“We all are genuinely rooting for the girls,” Pearce adds. “Because we want to see more women like that era of country music that made us all fall in love with it.”