The singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe recently got home from a tour of country-music radio stations on which she proffered material from an upcoming album called The Blade. It went OK, not great. Her last album, Like a Rose, was released on a major label to minor commercial appeal: Its first two singles — the quietly resolute “Like a Rose” and an airy noir called “You Got Me” — didn’t chart at all, while her third, “Weed Instead of Roses,” stopped at no. 39. Monroe, who is about to tour with the highly bankable Little Big Town and also plays with Miranda Lambert in a group called Pistol Annies, understands what commercially viable singers sound like in Nashville circa 2015, but she also seems to understand that — and maybe even why — she isn’t one. “Unfortunately, radio says I don’t fit the format,” Monroe says. “They say I’m too country.”
Monroe’s distinction sounds especially wry in light of a conversation that took place last month between a radio consultant named Keith Hill and a trade publication called Country Aircheck. Buried between routine comments about the value of software in keeping one’s music library organized and a taxonomy of Hill’s personal “sound codes” (“no-to-low twang, medium twang, and high twang”) was the observation that part of running a successful country station is keeping the ratio of female performers to male performers low.
“Trust me,” Hill said, “I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
It’s a good line, piquant and indelible — the kind of thing you might hear in a country song. Both lettuce and tomatoes responded swiftly. “I have now received death threats,” Hill told The Tennessean a few days later, adding that he was a marketer, not a social engineer, and tended to prefer ballads anyway. That Country Aircheck had produced a robust six-page special on the subject of women in the business of country music just a few months earlier suddenly didn’t matter. Controversy is more flammable than research, flinging more marketable than seeking.
One of the stranger omissions from the media’s version of the conversation — predictably reduced to Men vs. Women — was the matter of content. It’s true that in 2014, women voiced only 18 percent of country’s top 100 songs, down from 38 percent in 1998. It’s also true that the gap between men and women at the top of the country format is second only to rock.
But the size of the piece doesn’t say anything about the flavor of the pie. For the past few years, country music has been dominated by a soft, modern version of party music whose most successful artists — Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean — tend to sing about hanging out and/or drinking, unbridled by the responsibilities of family and work. If you squint, its anthems sound like pop or hip-hop, slowed by the occasional ballad whose vague passion seems borrowed from grunge, or at least grunge as brushed clean by Nickelback and Creed — bands whose styles have deeper roots in the triumph of Christian rock than the self-immolation of punk.
Men, who have always had a culturally wider berth than women when it comes to getting wasted and screwing off, sing most of this music.1
The biggest exception here is Little Big Town, a female-fronted band that puts party themes to good work while making light fun of them at the same time. See: “Pontoon,” a song that maps the masculine fantasy of joyriding in one’s Ford onto a very slow-moving boat.
And though these singers are men, they seem younger all the time. The notion of “the boys” — as in “I know how you get when you go out with those boys” — has been rendered literal: Cowboy hats have been replaced by baseball caps, boot-cut Wranglers replaced by the baroque stitching of True Religion jeans. Less and less will commercial country tell you about the joys of raising children or making a marriage work. Instead, it instructs you to play flip cup and enjoy the universal pleasures of chillin’.
Whether these artists are trying to cross over into wider markets or court listeners away from them is hard to tell. At times it seems like some of this music succeeds in part because its fans are spooked by the prospect of listening to actual rap. In any case, it is very different terrain from 1998: The sound is more commercially flexible, the image a lot younger. To say there are fewer women succeeding in commercial country now than there were then presumes they are working on the same terrain, and is as hypothetical as saying that fish would make great painters if only they had hands.
Which brings us to the question of radio, which for most people is still a literal black box. Kristina Carlyle, program director at KTGX in Tulsa, describes the current moment as a catch-22. “Our experience in the past is that women don’t like women” — shorthand for the dictum that women, a majority of country-radio listeners, tend to prefer listening to music by men. “But we’ve gotten so into that groove that we don’t let female songs through because we think that’s how it is.” What might’ve once been good reasoning has lapsed into a parental because-I-said-so.
The question of how this came to pass leads to wormholes. Sue Wilson, program director of WQMX in the Akron area, says that part of the issue has to do with how consolidated and risk-averse radio has become over the past 20 years. Unbound in part by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, companies like Cumulus and iHeartMedia (part of what was formerly Clear Channel) control huge swaths of the market and tend to make decisions with stiff uniformity, often waiting until a song is testing well before even giving it the time.2
Wilson’s own station is part of a small, Akron-area company called Rubber City Radio.
At the same time, playlists rely on fewer and fewer new songs (“15 to 25 max,” according to Wilson), and those playlists are compounded by generally narrower odds. “Every Monday — add day — we have a list of songs and artists in front of us to consider,” she says. “And there are simply far more solo male artists and all-guy groups and duos than there are women.”
One of the more interesting figures from Country Aircheck’s report was that in 2012, 214 singles were released to country radio, with 61 voiced by women, or 29 percent overall. In 2014, the percentage was basically the same — 28 percent — but the pool of songs had shrunk by 25 percent. It isn’t just women who have less of a chance succeeding on country radio now: It’s everyone.
But the logic of data is still just a shell for the mystery of taste and art — of why people like certain songs and not others. “Maggie Rose, Mallary Hope, Leah Turner, Ashley Monroe, Kristen Kelly, Cassadee Pope, Danielle Bradbery,” she says, unfurling the roll. “Jana Kramer, Ashton Shepherd, Kelleigh Bannen, the Jen Nettles solo project — we’ve played them all, and are currently on RaeLynn, Mickey Guyton, Maddie & Tae, and Kelsea Ballerini.”
Of the younger artists named, a few have actually managed to hit. The no. 1 song on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart is a breezy, self-assured piece of music called “Love Me Like You Mean It” by a 21-year-old Tennessean named Kelsea Ballerini; Wilson describes it as “fun, female-empowering, and with a touch of attitude.” (Wilson also compares it to Shania Twain, whose 1997 album Come on Over has sold 40 million copies and remains a thing of bewitching stature.)
And then there’s Maddie & Tae, who hit no. 1 last July with “Girl in a Country Song,” whose lyrics poked a sly and good-natured kind of fun at the clichés of male country without getting too impolitic.
The issue with everyone else isn’t a lack of talent, Wilson says, but of selling that talent short with the wrong material. “So many of them have songs we heard in the showcases when the labels first brought them to us that stuck out. [Songs] that were fun, up-tempo, had a little attitude — that felt like a hit.”
But come add date, Wilson says that artists who seemed viable on first blush end up offering a “deep, heavy, dark, angst-filled ballad” — the kind of song that few artists, male or female, are currently able to sell. What scans as a war on female country artists might just be market-based indifference to the kind of music they end up trying to promote. Or, as Wilson put it, “The songs that have done well for us by women have had some of the characteristics that the hit songs from men have.”
Occasionally, the machine hiccups. KTGX’s Carlyle mentions the case of Cam, a singer whose debut EP, Cam Country, pushes no particular boundaries but has a strong spirit: It’s rootsy but polished, a little rough without making roughness a talking point. “One weird, unwritten rule is that people don’t like to hear ballads in the summer,” Carlyle says. “They put four up-tempo [Cam] songs at us through iHeart, but the most compelling song she had was this ballad called ‘Burning House.’”3 When Cam visited The Bobby Bones Show (with 3 million weekly listeners) earlier this month, Bones requested that she play part of “Burning House” on-air, which was followed by the recording later in the show. It hadn’t been intended as a single but began selling wildly, and radio brought it into the fold. Conventional logic proved tired, and the tail wagged the dog.
KTGX is an iHeartMedia station.
But in general, the attitude about these issues is deep and institutionalized. At one point in our conversation, Carlyle says her work computer actually warns her when she schedules back-to-back songs sung by women. “You’re supposed to separate ballads, and I’ve always agreed with that,” she says. But the woman rule is harder to understand. “One might be up-tempo and one might be down-tempo,” she says. Content is suddenly immaterial: Fast or slow, a woman is a woman.
All of this raises the question of whether artists need the airplay to begin with. Two better-known female singers who seem to be trying to chart a path without it are Kacey Musgraves and Monroe. Musgraves is a sly throwback who exists in the unprecedented Venn diagram of having toured with both Willie Nelson and Katy Perry. Her lyrics are vivid and incisive, but her music can come off as country imagined for a children’s-show soundstage. Monroe is a traditionalist, too, but her sound is more mercurial; her music seems descended from singers like Lee Ann Womack, an artist whose subtlety and quiet toughness is almost totally absent in contemporary country.4
Womack’s 2014 album, The Way I’m Livin’, was released on Sugar Hill Records — her first outside the Nashville system.
Both Musgraves and Monroe have albums out this summer. Musgraves’s, out now, is called Pageant Material. As an artist, she is often cast — and casts herself — as an easygoing kind of outlaw, the product of country culture but a realer and bygone version of it. Her previous album, Same Trailer Different Park, performed middlingly by Nashville standards but won two Grammys and vaulted her into the strange martyrdom of saving a genre from which she appeared to be trying to break away. Pageant Material, though, was heralded with a cover story in the slick and progressive-leaning music magazine The Fader and an in-store performance at a record store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — places friendly to country music for people who don’t like country music.
Monroe’s The Blade, which comes out July 24, is a brighter, more exploratory album than Like a Rose, but no less obvious a fit. Its first single, “On to Something Good,” has the neutral, healthy feel of a lotion ad, while its best songs — namely “The Blade” — are still like the best songs on Like a Rose: bittersweet, understated, a firm oar stuck in deep water.
When I ask why Monroe bothered touring radio stations when Like a Rose hadn’t fared well there, she offers the boilerplate explanation that radio helps music reach millions of people. But the trip seems to have inspired a certain reticence. During the course of our short conversation, she mentions a flurry of artists with whom she feels she truly belongs, including Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Musgraves — artists who posit themselves as honoring country by bucking its conventions. In this world, to be commercially misunderstood is a badge of honor — it tells you you’re skirting the fences of a pasture that has grown too small to roam.
Traditionalism is often cast as the antidote to the poison of the present, especially in country music, where humility bears out over glitz, where all roads lead home to the porch rocker, where simplicity is king and the relieving arms of God are ever-present whether invoked as such or not. Now will always be a time of sin and unnecessary complexity compared to the roseate past. So when Monroe says she’s too country for country radio, she’s playing into the sturdy old notion that those who carry the flame often do so quietly and without thanks, guided not by spoils of the present but a higher ideal.
Beyond being women, Monroe and Musgraves seem to have little in common with the Maddie & Taes and Kelsea Ballerinis of the world, which stands to reason: Just as female country artists in 2015 aren’t the same as those from the late 1990s, female country artists of 2015 aren’t the same as each other. They are playing different games with different ends. The irony of recent public conversations on the subject — a subject that comes up with sad, cyclic regularity — is that they’re had in the name of solidarity but end up reducing their subjects to an abstraction: woman with boots and guitar.
Part of what makes following the commercial side of country interesting is that its boundaries are clear and its business so tightly controlled that innovation — and transgression — is obvious. Like Hollywood, it’s a world of rules and formulae in which change is slow and creative spark is refined by the gantlets of market testing and image consultancy. Anything that breaks its surface has already burrowed such a long way that to emerge with any wit and spirit intact is miraculous — a bright red tomato on a deep green vine.
In 1947, the singer Red Foley released a spirited piece of music called “Never Trust a Woman.” “She’ll go through all the pockets in your pants,” Foley sings. “And if you object, there’ll be a big fight / And chances are it will last all night.” Other hazards include being driven to drink, being poisoned by gossip, and being hit on the head with a rolling pin.
The song was Foley’s 12th top-five country hit in three years. Its writer was a woman named Jenny Lou Carson, who, incidentally, was Foley’s sister-in-law. Carson, born Virginia Overstake in Decatur, Illinois, grew up playing music on a popular Chicago radio show called National Barn Dance before touring Texas as a performing cowgirl. “Versatility is one of her highlights,” Billboard reported in 1946. “Besides being a musician, she can do rope tricks, is an expert sharpshooter and makes her own cowgirl leather costumes.”
But most people know Carson — if they know her at all — for a song called “You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often,” which was performed by a man named Tex Ritter, whose catalogue featured such somber, gavel-banging hits as “You Will Have to Pay” and “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me).” Carson had written a song for Ritter earlier that year called “Jealous Heart,” but “You Two-Timed Me” hit no. 1 — the first time in country for a woman. “Nothing you can say or do will make me change my mind,” Ritter sings. “I found out the hard way that a man in love is always blind.”
Carson’s victory was both symbolic and material: She enjoyed a healthy career as a Nashville songwriter for most of the 1940s and ’50s and later retired to California, where she was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, near Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. There was, however, some confusion about “Never Trust a Woman.” Sandwiched between an item about Pee Wee King’s fiddle player and an ad offering “$$CASH$$ FOR USED RECORDS” in a late 1947 issue of Billboard is this report:
Jenny Lou Carson is the writer of ‘Never Trust a Woman.’ Red Foley, who does the tune on Decca, is not the writer, even if the Decca label credits Foley with the penning.
Mike Powell (@sternlunch) is a writer living in Tucson, Arizona.