To paraphrase George Strait’s No. 5-peaking Hot Country Songs hit from 1992, when it comes to the current state of country radio, female artists are about as gone as a girl can get.
For a second consecutive week, no songs by women billed as lead acts or unaccompanied by a male duet partner rank in the chart’s top 30.
How rare is such a female drought in the 60-position chart’s top half?
While country radio traditionally has been dominated by male singers, it’s actually unprecedented, dating to the list’s adoption of Nielsen BDS data the week of Jan. 20, 1990.
Of course, female vocals aren’t completely absent from the top 30: Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott sings on “Just a Kiss” (No. 4); Carrie Underwood shares vocals with Brad Paisley on “Remind Me” (No. 9), as does Grace Potter with Kenny Chesney on “You and Tequila” (No. 10); and, Thompson Square, the duo of husband and wife Keifer and Shawna Thompson, bullets at No. 21 with “I Got You.” But still, what gives?
According to WUBL (the Bull 94.9 FM)/Atlanta APD/MD Lance Houston, timing is the main culprit for the current dearth of women on country radio.
“Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Ashton Shepherd, Reba McEntire, Taylor Swift, Kellie Pickler, Sara Evans and LeAnn Rimes are either between singles or just getting started,” he said.
“It also doesn’t help any that a few of the great females in our format in recent years, like Faith Hill and Shania Twain,” have been inactive (Twain) or more prominent on adult radio (Hill).
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Although it would be plausible to blame such a shortage of charting solo females on timing and leave it at that, there are other current and retrospective factors to consider, not the least of which is the fact that country radio is and has always been dominated by men.
That gender disparity came closest to parity during the boom period the genre experienced in the first half of the ’90s, when it was not uncommon for the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Reba McEntire, Pam Tillis and Trisha Yearwood to reach the chart’s summit.
When the format cooled in the mid-’90s — parallel to the slowdown in output of Garth Brooks’, Nielsen SoundScan’s all-time best selling album artist with 68.5 million units to date) — women lost much of the ground they had gained during the decade’s earlier explosion.
Country radio experienced a second, although less sustainable, boom following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but the format’s female acts took a back seat to the testosterone-fueled themes of jingoistic isolationism and wistful longing for a return to cultural and religious fundamentalism. In fact, over a two-year period in that period (2002-04), not one solo female act topped Hot Country Songs.
Conventional wisdom along Nashville’s Music Row holds that women are excruciatingly difficult to break as artists — although when they do emerge forcefully, the payoff can be astronomical, as in the careers of Shania Twain in the ’90s and Taylor Swift today.
Throughout the entire history of country-formatted radio, however, music made by women has been largely viewed by programmers as experimental and non-essential. Perhaps new thinking by the format’s gatekeepers is needed for more women to grace current, and future, country airwaves.
“I think men forget that the role of women in America has changed tenfold from a decade or two ago,” says KKGO (Go Country 105 FM) Los Angeles PD Tonya Campos. “Men’s roles in society, arts and music have basically maintained forward movement while many, many women have gone from the kitchen to the mainstream workforce.
“The lack of women on the country chart has more to do with song selection and subject matter than it does with talent,” Campos theorizes.
“There are so many talented women in country music that I find it hard to comprehend why more of their music is not making it to the top.”
Technology may also be impacting women’s overall lack of current chart momentum.
Country radio’s audience composition is heavily dominated by adult women and, more often than not, they prefer tough-but-tender male singers over attractive female acts to deliver the messages that speak to them most effectively. As Arbitron’s Portable People Meter (PPM) continues to be more broadly deployed, programmers are measuring tune-out minute-by-minute, not on a quarter-hour basis per the decades-old diary recall system – and that new ratings measurement methodology makes many of radio’s programmers skittish about alienating the adult females who are so attractive to advertising clients.
Still, Campos believes that female artists, although outnumbered and disproportionately scrutinized by many programmers, are essential to mass-appeal radio programming.
“When you see a song like (Evans’) “A Little Bit Stronger” or (Lambert’s) “The House That Built Me” performing extraordinarily well [both tracks topped Hot Country Songs since the start of 2010; in that span, just 11 of 42 leaders have sported female vocals, including hits by groups – Lady Antebellum, the Band Perry – featuring women singers], you start to piece together that songs speaking about the strength of women, or women becoming someone they can be proud of, are the messages that cut through.”
The paucity of women in the chart’s top 30 should end next week: eight songs by solo female artists place in the bottom half of the chart, led by Swift’s “Sparks Fly,” which looks likely to break into the top 30, as it ignites 39-31 in its third frame this week.
Pickler’s “Tough” follows at No. 34, Evans’ “My Heart Can’t Tell You No” bullets at No. 41 and Sunny Sweeney’s “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving” – another song about women’s empowerment – rises 43-42.