In 2015, the TomatoGate scandal hit country music, causing major outcry and opening a wider conversation about the underrepresentation of women on the mainstream country charts. In a chat with Country Aircheck, radio consultant Keith Hill described women as the tomatoes in country music’s salad, men as the lettuce, insisting that songs by female artists should never be played consecutively. “If you want country radio ratings, cut out women,” he advised. “We’re expected to be primarily a male format with a smaller female component…they’re just not the lettuce in our salad.”
Unfortunately, the country industry revolves around radio: the United States has more country radio stations than any other genre, Billboard’s country singles charts use airplay data to compile their rankings, and the radio is still the first place many country fans look to find new music. Ergo, if the radio refuses to play women, women cannot appear.
It is no secret that the country has always been conservative; calls to “roll a joint” and “kiss a lot of girls if that’s something you like” saw Kacey Musgraves’ 2013 single “Follow Your Arrow” banned from country radio, and the band’s career to The Chicks’ success dropped dramatically after they announced in 2003 that they did not approve of the US invasion of Iraq and were “ashamed” that President Bush was from Texas.
“Since the turn of the century, the situation has deteriorated”
Despite these challenges, historically, women have been able to achieve superstar status in the country more easily than in some other genres. Even with then-controversial songs like “The Pill,” Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and others had countless hits from the 1960s onwards, breaking down barriers as they went. This trend continued into the early 2000s – in 1999, eight of the nineteen Hot Country Songs chart-toppers were female artists, and equality seemed close. But since the turn of the century, the situation has deteriorated. Last year, the ten most played artists on country radio were men, and only two women topped the Hot Country Songs chart – and one of them was Taylor Swift. So what happened?
Taylor aside, it should be noted that the turn of the 21st century produced two enduring female superstars in Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. Following her American Idol win in 2005, Carrie Underwood’s powerful voice and stash of country-pop hits saw her become the best-selling female country artist of the 2010s. Miranda Lambert’s career would reach similar heights: she is the most decorated artist of all time at the Academy of Country Music Awards, with a record nine consecutive wins for Female Vocalist of the Year, five for Album of the Year and Song of the Decade for “The house that built me”. But even in the mid-2000s, the road was not easy – Miranda recalled how Texas honky-tonks fired her, saying they “don’t play girls”, when her early singles were forced to compete for limited “girl spots” on radio.
Miranda Lambert is currently the most awarded artist at the CMAsYOUTUBE/MIRANDA LAMBERT
At that time, the doors of the industry were closing almost entirely to female artists. In the late 1990s, Keith Hill (and others) conducted a thoughtless thought experiment, intentionally reducing the number of women on their reading lists to examine the impact on their grades. Ratings rose, but Keith & co. disastrously chose to ignore other potential factors that could have had an impact – the crucial fact, for example, that country music had recently taken a decidedly pop turn, attracting a much wider audience to the genre. By the time these issues came to light, the damage had already been done, and the misogynistic undertones and immense popularity of the criticized “bro-country” subgenre in the early 2010s only got worse. things.
After the brutal slap that was TomatoGate, however, female artists began to take matters into their own hands. In 2019, four highly acclaimed artists and songwriters – Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby – joined forces to create the supergroup The Highwomen in a direct attempt to address the lack of female representation on radio. For one hot minute, they were everywhere: Their debut single was “Redesigning Women,” they performed with Dolly Parton at the Newport Folk Festival, they topped the country album charts, and they even won a Grammy — but despite that, not a single one of their singles reached the Top 40.
Another all-female supergroup – Pistol Annies – had already encountered these problems a decade earlier. Formed in 2011 and comprised of Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe, their singles also never cracked the Top 40. However, they racked up multiple #1 albums and their third, Interstate Gospel, placed nine on Rolling Stone’s 100 best albums of the 2010s. All the evidence shows that the women of the country make great music – the radio just refuses to play it.
“The game is changing: women can now make a name for themselves without even needing a success on the national charts”
But then again, maybe women don’t need the radio anymore. Kacey Musgraves became country music’s anti-heroine by bypassing the radio entirely on her path to success, paving the way for a new breed of country stars, those who speak their mind and refuse to toe the line. Only one of her singles reached the Top 20, but she would go on to become a superstar regardless; his 2018 album that mixes genres, golden hour, won the Grammy for album of the year and has millions of listeners on Spotify. The recent growth of streaming platforms is undoubtedly opening doors for many female artists – especially those catering to a pop-focused audience – but their struggles unfortunately don’t end there.
The top prize at the Country Music Association’s annual awards ceremony is the “Entertainer of the Year” award, officially given to “the actor who demonstrates the greatest skill in all aspects of entertainment.” . Well, apparently women are incompetent because since the award was established in 1967, only seven have won it. Seven. In fact, only one solo female artist has won the award this century – Taylor Swift – and since her win in 2011, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert are the only women to have even been nominated. Considering Carrie and Miranda’s respective achievements and contributions to the development of the country as a gender and an inclusive space, they are arguably both more deserving than almost anyone else, so much so that it’s become a recurring topic of discussion after the CMAs each year. Indeed, after Garth Brooks’ shock seventh victory in 2019, he withdrew from eligibility in 2020, likely out of sheer embarrassment, as the 2019 show had been described as “a celebration of women in country music. (a woman was nominated in every eligible category for the first time in history), and Carrie Underwood was called the shoo-in for the win.
For the moment, it is clear that women are still the target of country radio jokes. However, the game is changing: women can now make a name for themselves without even needing to hit the country charts, and as the more inclusive American genre grows and music scenes locals (notably those in Texas and Kentucky) continue to produce independent-minded stars, it becomes clear that one day the joke will be firmly on the Nashville establishment. They must catch up – and quickly – or risk becoming totally stale. And wouldn’t that be a sad sight to see.