New York Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone Country called it “Country Music’s Women Problem.” The New York Times used more incendiary language — “Country’s war on women.” At this point, it’s a common refrain: there is a serious gender imbalance in country music.
This is one of the few narratives attached to the genre, which still does not receive the same amount of press attention as “indie” rock, hip-hop, and top 40 pop. Of course, unequal representation of women is not a problem that’s unique to country. Rock, rap, and EDM are all male-dominated as well.
Has country’s gender imbalance always existed? Are woman in country music worse off now than they were a decade ago?
At the end of each year, Billboard compiles several measures of the most successful artists in country. The year-end “Top Country Albums Artists” category, for example, ranks acts according to the cumulative chart performance of their albums in a single chart year. In contrast, “Top Country Albums” ranks the most successful albums of the year individually, without grouping them by artist.
These two measures capture slightly different aspects of a singer’s success: the ability to release one big album vs. the ability to keep a series of releases on the charts simultaneously. (At least 25 Albums Artists and 50 Top Albums are ranked at the close of each year; Albums Artists captures a wider group of releases because each individual entry may be responsible for several albums.) The same difference applies to two other year-end Billboard measures of interest: the “Hot Singles” chart reflects the primacy of the lone hit, while the “Singles Artist” chart suggests an artist’s ability to keep multiple tracks on the charts at the same time.
Starting in the mid-90s, more women appeared on both charts. At the end of the decade, the number of female “Albums Artists” continued to rise, though the number of individual charting albums by women started to fall off, suggesting that a number of women had built up durable back catalogs, but fewer new stars were entering the field. After ups and downs during the ’00s, 2013 and 2014 have seen only a handful of charting albums made by women.
The percentage of women with charting singles in 2014 was the same as it was in 1991, 8 percent. The peak? Just 16 percent. The “Singles Artists” line shows a serious decrease in recent years. After reaching 32 percent in the late ’90s, it fell to 12 percent by 2014, matching a previous low in 2003. This implies not only that few women enter the field with successful singles, but also that women’s ability to chart a second or third single has diminished over time relative to men’s.
Overall, a few things seem clear. Women have never gotten close to parity on the year-end Billboard charts. The late ’90s and early ’00s appear to have been the most supportive of singles and albums from female singers; after that period, the gender composition of the year-end charts has been volatile. Finally, three of the four year-end measures suggest that 2012, 2013, and 2014 have seen a decline in the proportion of women on the charts so that the current level is comparable to — and in a few cases, lower than — historical nadirs in the Nielsen Soundscan era.
What happened, and where did the women go?
Most of the new female country singers to get attention in the last few years — artists like Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, and Ashley Monroe — spent years working behind the scenes on tunes for others before getting attention on their own. “You know where you’ll find the most awesome female artists in Nashville?” asks Natalie Hemby, who has credits on hits for Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, and Lady Antebellum. “Most of ’em are songwriters.” Many songwriters have released, or attempted to release, solo albums at some point during their careers before settling in as hit-makers, which gives them a unique perspective on the movements behind the charts.
Take Jessi Alexander, who has lived through the ups and downs of the graphs since moving to Nashville in 1999. Just as she released her debut album, Honeysuckle Sweet, in 2005, the climate in Nashville started to change. “We were exiting a soft phase with a lot of ballads, a lot of big female vocals, a little more pop flair,” Alexander remembers. “My label-mate was Gretchen Wilson, who released ‘Redneck Woman‘ literally the same week as ‘Honeysuckle Sweet,’ my single. I was more of a folky-songwriter artist — probably what would be considered now Americana. And obviously it’s pretty far from the redneck kind of movement that had begun. In one sense I didn’t have what it took to be a superstar. But I also didn’t really have time on my side, or luck.”
“You know where you’ll find the most awesome female artists in Nashville? Most of ’em are songwriters.”
Hemby recalls a more extreme shift. “Gretchen [Wilson] came out and exploded onto the scene, and then all of a sudden she just couldn’t get another hit. Even Faith [Hill] stopped making records, Martina [McBride] kind of trailed off, and nobody was really coming up. And if they were, they were getting shot down immediately.” Nicolle Galyon, who has written for Keith Urban and Lambert, among others, noticed “in the first couple years of [her] publishing deal was that there were just becoming less and less women to write for.”
A few women stepped up in their place — Carrie Underwood, Sugarland (featuring the vocals of Jennifer Nettles), and Taylor Swift, for example, all charted in 2008 — but at the same time, other long-successful female singers dropped out of the game. The Dixie Chicks went on hiatus after 2006; Trisha Yearwood put her last album out in 2007 (last year’s Prizefighter contained a few new songs); LeAnn Rimes started waiting longer and longer in between albums; it took Lee Ann Womack six years to put together the follow-up to 2008’s Call Me Crazy.
One Nashville publisher argued that the recent rise of female-fronted mixed-sex groups — the Band Perry, Lady Antebellum, and Little Big Town — has offset these departures and delays somewhat. But it hasn’t prevented the above graphs from dipping, even though all three groups are included in the data since they have female lead vocals and this is an attempt to measure the prevalence of female voices. If these and similar groups hadn’t been included, the drop in the graphs would have been even sharper.
There are a number of theories that attempt to account for the declining prominence of female artists in Nashville, though the simplest — discrimination — is not directly posited by anyone Billboard spoke with. “I don’t think there’s any conspiracy or anything,” Gerry House says. House has been in the country music business for a long time as a songwriter and radio programmer; recently he published the book Country Music Broke My Brain, an engaging catalog of his experiences in Music City.
House believes in the power of the special song. “That’s usually how somebody becomes a star,” he says, “a great song.” He points to McBride’s “Independence Day” and Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” as career-makers. There’s only a few of these in any given year. House remembers a “great producer” telling him, “‘I listen to thousands of songs in a year. There’s only about 4 or 5 that come across the desk in this town that are those kind of songs every year. Maybe 3.'”
“There are guys out there who may start out with a less than perfect project, but they’re given the benefit of the doubt that they may grow into the artist that one day may help to carry on the genre.”
This line of thinking would suggest that female artists in Nashville just haven’t landed those big songs in recent years. But the Great Song Theory doesn’t leave an artist much agency, and in a world where 80 percent to 90 percent of charting singles are made by men in any given year, surely there’s a double standard at work — either the hits aren’t finding their way to women, or their output is being judged very differently.
House admits as much, noting, “It doesn’t mean that the guys are all recording great songs.” Shane McAnally, one of the most consistently successful songwriters in Nashville during the ’10s, echoes this sentiment. “There are guys out there who may start out with a less than perfect project,” he explains, “but they’re given the benefit of the doubt that they may grow into the artist that one day may help to carry on the genre.
“It’d be really hard right now for a female to break through just on hit songs,” he adds. “There are hit songs available, but I think [women] have to have a real point of view. I’ve heard so many people say with a good female song, ‘yeah, that’s good and she’s pretty, but who is she?’ They don’t do the same to guys — they’re just like, ‘well that’s a hit song, he’s a good looking guy, let’s go.'”
The extent of this double standard may even negate the Great Song Theory completely. Lambert did manage to pull of one of those career-making songs — “The House That Built Me” from her 2009 album Revolution — but still “has to work for it every time,” McAnally believes.
Most of the new crop of female artists furnishes their own material — House, who has an impressive talent for condensing anything into a pithy proverb, quips, “you’re first in line if you wrote it.” Many female artists getting attention — if not hits — in recent years have followed this path. In addition to the oft-mentioned Musgraves, Monroe, and Clark, Angaleena Presley, Sunny Sweeney, RaeLynn, Kelsea Ballerini, and Maddie & Tae all have writing credits on the majority of their recent songs.
And this isn’t just a coincidence: It’s increasingly essential for female artists to write their own songs. As the number of female singers in town decreases, that is also likely to impact the number of people writing songs for women. (Female writers don’t only write for women, but they’re more likely to write for a female artist than a male writer.) Female writers seem close to achieving token status. McAnally says, “It’s funny when you talk to a publisher in town and they say, ‘well, we already have a girl songwriter.'” Alexander shares a similar story. “It’s even to the point where pretty much at every publishing company, you’ll hear them say ‘we have our girl.'”
The young men in country don’t face a comparable problem finding songs. Take for example Dustin Lynch, Frankie Ballard and Thomas Rhett: they’re all just one or two albums into their careers, they each landed a single in the top 25 on the year-end Hot Country Songs chart in 2014, and none of them have a writing credit on those hits. The first young (meaning relatively early in their careers) women on the year-end chart, Maddie & Tae, appear down at No. 44 — with a self-penned track.
“There’s a little bit of fear in writing for women.”
So a feedback loop develops: with fewer female artists, there are fewer opportunities for female writers, leading to fewer songs for female artists. “There’s a little bit of fear in writing for women,” House believes. “Guys say to me, ‘this sounds like a woman’s song,’ and that immediately decreases our chances of getting it cut. Everybody plays the odds — it’s a business.”
When there’s a paucity of women around to cut a song, a female writer either has to land a lot of tracks with the few who are left, or she has to adapt and start writing songs for male artists. Galyon calls this going “into survival mode.” She adds, “If you want to write songs for a living, you’re going to have to figure out how to write within this market, and this market is primarily men.”
Alexander describes this realization as the crucial moment in her career: “I decided in 2011 that I would not write with any females. I wasn’t going to write more female songs.” Alexander’s new plan worked. “I came back that year on a vengeance. I’m going to write for men. I’m going to prove to my men cowriters that I can write for guys. That’s what I did. The 1st or 2nd week of that year I wrote “Drink On It” [a hit for Blake Shelton] with Rodney Clawson and Jon Randall.” She followed that with a hit for Lee Brice, and later, another one for Shelton, which is great for Alexander, though another potential blow for a female singer looking for a track.
In addition to writing their own songs, the female frontwomen who remain share another trait: they have largely resisted adapting to the modern country sound. In general, country has moved closer to the sound of the pop mainstream. But the ladies to emerge with new records in the last few years have ignored this trend. Their albums mostly sound like they could have been made in the ’70s. (House puts this succinctly: “Not a lot of click tracks.”)
This leads to another possible theory: maybe these ladies’ songs are great, but they’re just out-of-step with the current climate. “I’ve been in this town a long time,” House says. “All I’ve ever heard is, ‘gee, I love classic country, that old sound, Patsy Cline, Tammy [Wynette].’ That’s the stuff that they love; that’s not the stuff people buy. If you go to friends’ houses, they’re either listening to old soul or they’re listening to modern stuff like Bruno Mars. I never go to anybody’s house and they pop on George Jones.”
“I decided in 2011 that I would not write with any females. I wasn’t going to write more female songs.”
However, traditionalism plays well in country — which is routinely straying from its roots and then returning to them with renewed vigor — and in pop more generally. As House suggests, everyone loves old soul, and straightforward modern repackagings of classic R&B by Adele or Sam Smith have been some of the biggest success stories in the last decade in pop. Similarly, the press has consistently shown a fondness for old-sounding country — not only from Monroe and co., but also from Sturgill Simpson or Jason Isbell — though that music hasn’t had nearly the same commercial success as juggernauts like Smith.
So are female singers torch-bearers for the genre’s history, out of step with the present, or something else entirely? The women making the music aren’t even thinking about it: It’s just what they want to play. “That’s just the music they love,” says McAnally, who has worked closely with Musgraves, Clark, and Monroe. “They’re making the records that they would listen to. No one’s saying, ‘how are we going to get on radio?'”
That nobly defiant approach has earned the ladies a lot of admiring press, but so far, not much in the way of hits. House isn’t surprised. “I’ve heard several new female artists who are really modern sounding who I think have the best chance [of getting a hit],” he says. “There’s no other format where you record something that sounds 50 years old. Maybe ‘All About That Bass.'”
Funnily enough, the singer and co-writer of “All About That Bass,” Meghan Trainor, was a Nashville-based songwriter before that breakout hit (though she didn’t have many country credits), which again suggests that the retro approach can break through.
Of course, one of the problems with the old-fashioned sound is the difficulty of getting it on country radio. The format takes a lot of flak for monolithic programming, and comments like those found in a recent Country Aircheck Weekly article — “If you want to make ratings in Country radio, take females out” — haven’t helped its case. But Hemby doesn’t think that’s the source of the problem: she sees radio falling into line after everything else. Lori McKenna, who has written for Faith Hill and Little Big Town, echoes this point, claiming that her friends at radio “don’t feel like they have that much control over it.” “Kacey’s a great [example],” Hemby explains. “If you’ve got a great manager and you get on some good tours and you build a fan base, eventually radio’s going to have to play you.” That being said, Musgraves’ biggest hit, “Merry Go Round,” didn’t crack the top five. Hemby also points to Eric Church‘s career. “[Radio] didn’t play him all the time, but he toured his butt off and built the whole fan base and now you can’t ignore him. It almost has to be more grass roots.”
“It’s up to the program directors to keep an open mind. Nashville will produce what we will play.”
This suggests a classic chicken and egg situation. “Who started it?” Johnny Chiang asks. “Who knows?” Chiang, Operations Manager for Houston’s KKBQ (contemporary country) and KTHT (classic country), has been in radio since 1991 and country radio since 2004. He does not ascribe to the oft-cited theory that women in country are handicapping themselves with a traditional sound. “We probably played Kacey Musgraves more than anybody else,” he notes.
But unlike Hemby, who sees radio falling into line after everybody else, Chiang thinks it can actively guide the direction of Nashville. “It’s up to the program directors to keep an open mind,” he says. “Nashville will produce what we will play. If we keep telling them over and over that we’re not going to play something, then they’re going to stop producing that kind of music. If radio is a little bit more open-minded in terms of the sound of our format, the Nashville machine will follow.”
A recent article in Rolling Stone Country sides with Chiang — at least when it comes to male artists. “Without country radio, you’re not going anywhere,” the young singer Chase Bryant told Rolling Stone. “It’s all kind of up to them sometimes.” Ashley Monroe — who has only managed to crack the top 25 on Hot Country Songs as a featured artist (with Train and Blake Shelton) — remembers an encounter with a program director who didn’t share Chiang’s open-mindedness. “On my first radio tour I was singing the song ‘Used,'” she recalls. “The guy was crying and you could tell he was moved. And I was probably 19 at the time, and I was just so thankful — he gets it, the music is speaking to him! And as he was wiping his tears away, he said, ‘it just doesn’t fit our format.’ And that was the first time I saw that just because they like you or your music, doesn’t mean they’ll play it.”
“It’s been like eight years we’ve been saying it’s coming back around.”
What moves radio then? Some people believe the change is already happening. “The whole bro-country sound is cooling off a bit,” Chiang says. “It’s a sound in our format that’s here to stay, and I love it. But I think we’re shifting back towards a mainstream pop sound, a more traditional sound.” Hemby says, “It has to change over. People get sick of stuff.” Of course, this doesn’t guarantee more spots opening up for women. As McKenna says, “It’s always coming back around. And it’s been like eight years we’ve been saying it’s coming back around.”
Cautious optimism may be appropriate. While Musgraves, Clark, and Monroe spent years behind the scenes before gaining attention as solo artists, last year, two young female acts landed hits on their first try, Maddie & Tae and RaeLynn. (Galyon and McKenna are co-writers on Raelynn’s breakout hit, “God Made Girls.”) This year, Mickey Guyton has been noticed for her debut single, “Better Than You Left Me,” and Kelsea Ballerini’s debut single is at No. 8 on the latest Hot Country Songs chart. Musgraves, Monroe, and Maddie & Tae are all scheduled to release full-lengths this summer, and these records will test the extent to which the country landscape is actually shifting.
Most people — writers, artists, radio — seem unable to explain the current situation. But framing it as a chicken-and-egg situation strips away the historical context. The numbers suggest that the format has never been particularly welcoming for female performers, aside from a brief period in the late ’90s and early ’00s. At that time, the record industry was flush from profits on $18 CDs. There was a lot of money to throw around, which creates more opportunities. This was the case in other traditionally male-dominated genres as well: there were a number of high-profile female rappers back then, too.
“Someone should just start a tour with all these women — think about how great that would be!”
Increasingly, the late ’90s looks like an aberration when it comes to female country artists, and solutions — other than to wait for things to change — are in short supply. But McKenna suggests a creative way to show the importance of female country singers, an approach in line with Hemby’s theory that the development needs to be grassroots. “We kid around like somebody needs to start a country Lilith Fair,” McKenna says, referring to all-female-performers festival started by Sarah McLachlan and others in the late ’90s. “Someone should just start a tour with all these women — think about how great that would be!” she adds excitedly. “And then country radio will turn around and realize how important these voices are.” In an age of ambitious tour pairings and a never-ending parade of festivals, this seems like potentially doable — and powerful — way to draw attention to the importance of women for country.
The network for this may already be in place. “We have a lot of camaraderie between women,” Alexander says. “I root for Natalie. I root for Nicolle. I root for Connie [Harrington]. They’re all friends of mine. We all feel like if one wins, we all kind of win. If one female pulls something off or has a hit, it feels like we’re all getting somewhere.”
Monroe maintains a Zen attitude. “Everything comes and everything goes. I figure as long as I keep on doing what I’m doing and don’t give up, it’s going to come back around and it’ll be the right time. Hopefully before I’m 90! But maybe I’ll break when I’m 90. You never know.”