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The Women in Country Music Problem Isn’t Getting Better – What Needs to Change?

Lindsay Ell, Kacey Musgraves, Kelleigh Bannen
Rick Diamond / Jason Kempin / Michael Loccisano, Getty Images

Last month, Miranda Lambert’s ‘Somethin’ Bad’ quietly fell from the radio airplay charts, peaking just inside the Top 10. The powerhouse duet with Carrie Underwood was as close to a sure thing as you’ll find in country music, yet it somehow failed to break country’s two-year drought.

Yes, two years — that’s how long it’s been since a female solo artist topped the Billboard Country Airplay chart. Underwood’s ‘Blown Away’ was last to do it (Nov. 3, 2012), and she may be next, as ‘Something in the Water’ is rocketing up the charts (No. 12 on the Nov. 29 chart). The same was said of Lambert’s bad-girl anthem, however, and her first single from ‘Platinum.’

*Note: ‘Automatic’ did hit No. 1 on the Mediabase chart (explained further here) but ToC’s initial research (watch below) was based on the Billboard chart. Lambert’s song peaked at No. 3 on Billboard.

As for other female solo artists who’ve released new music in the 2014 calendar year …:

Jamie Lynn Spears, ‘How Could I Want More’ (peaked at No. 55)
Lucy Hale, ‘You Sound Good to Me’ (peaked at No. 47)
Kelleigh Bannen, ‘Famous’ (peaked at No. 49)
Jennifer Nettles, ‘Me Without You’ (peaked at No. 50)
Maggie Rose, ‘Looking Back Now’ (peaked at No. 46)
Kellie Pickler, ‘Closer to Nowhere’ (peaked at No. 59)
Kacey Musgraves, ‘Keep It to Yourself’ (peaked at No. 32)
Cassadee Pope, ‘I Wish I Could Break Your Heart’ (peaked at No. 32)
Danielle Bradbery, ‘Young in America’ (peaked at No. 49)
Leah Turner, ‘Pull Me Back’ (peaked at No. 52)
Jana Kramer, ‘Love’ (currently at No. 34)
RaeLynn, ‘God Made Girls’ (currently at No. 21)
Lindsey Ell, ‘Shut Me Up’ (currently at No. 51)
Kelsea Ballerini, ‘Love Me Like You Mean It’ (currently at No. 47)
Trisha Yearwood (Feat. Kelly Clarkson), ‘PrizeFighter’ (peaked at No. 44)

That’s not all of them, but it’s most, and none of the rest (songs by Kira Isabella, Gwen Sebastian) have charted higher. A short recap: only one female artist that has released a song this year — Lambert and Underwood being the exceptions — has cracked the Top 30.

The Top 30?!

This excludes Maddie & Tae, as they’re technically a duo. But if you want to include them, then two other artists have cracked the Top 30; ‘Girl in a Country Song’ is currently No. 5 and rising. Their deserved success hardly waters down the point. Even established hitmakers like Sara Evans are struggling. Evans has released two singles from ‘Slow Me Down’ this year — the first was ‘Can’t Stop Loving You,’ and it never charted. The other is ‘Put My Heart Down.’ After one, month it’s finally cracked the Top 60.

“I feel like Reba McEntire came in and stormed all the doors and opened all the doors, and somehow, in the last 10 years, somebody started closing the doors back,” Trisha Yearwood told Taste of Country recently, admitting she was amazed at the scope of a problem she discovered upon getting serious about a new album.

"A short recap: only one female artist that has released a song this year — Lambert and Underwood being the exceptions — has cracked the Top 30."

If you’re looking for a silver lining, you won’t find it here. One of country’s most reliable females just left the format, while another is preparing to have a baby. It’s not clear how that will affect the pace of Underwood’s career moving forward, but it’d be understandable if she took her foot off the gas some. She’s earned the right to slow down.

A common explanation from radio programmers is that female artists don’t research well with listeners. That means when a slice of any station’s audience (typically a few dozen people) is asked to rate a song (often on a 1-5 scale), those by female artists do worse than male artists. To some extent, this has always been true. What’s changed is how programmers use and rely on that research.

During difficult times — like a recession, when staff is getting trimmed nationwide — falling back on research is a safe choice. Doing so removes culpability if ratings take a nosedive. In radio, losing a job means searching for another in a new city or state, which means selling your house, relocating family etc … It’s a pain in the butt that grows old quick.

Blake Shelton RaeLynn
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

No, no one is consciously not playing Jana Kramer because they’re afraid of getting fired, but the climate from 2008 to 2011 (and later, in some instances) made fear an engrained part of the culture. It was a bloodbath, especially within larger companies. It’s easy to understand why programmers quit taking risks.

There’s blame to spread around — after all, radio is only one piece of the puzzle — but more interesting is what can be done to fix the issue in 2016. Yes, 2016, because the winds of change blow very, very softly in country music.

Superstar artists are in a position to do the most good, and Blake Shelton has been God’s gift to women when it comes to this issue. Danielle Bradbery, Cassadee Pope, RaeLynn, Sebastian … he’s actively helping all four of these country newcomers and cheering on many others. Sebastian actually is a female artist with a No. 1 hit in 2014, sort of. She sang harmony on ‘My Eyes,’ Shelton’s chart-topper from July.

Lambert has been equally influential, introducing one of the most important acts of the last decade in Pistol Annies.

“I’m actually working on it now,” Lambert tells Taste of Country of this issue. “I’m taking female friends of mine that are artists out on tour with me next year. RaeLynn, Ashley Monroe, Sunny Sweeney, Danielle Bradbery — I just want to bring them to the forefront because I think we’re just missing something right now.”

“There are so many amazing talented females out there,” adds the star. “If I can have any part of them getting heard, I want to.”

There are others. Jennifer Nettles can’t find a solo hit, but she’s doing what she can to introduce Brandy Clark to the world. Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert quietly did what they could to help a newcomer named Rachel Farley in 2013. The effort is what’s important, and country radio needs more of it.

"There is some meat on those country chords … and if you gave a half-dozen others a shot, you’d find a few to come back to."

For awhile, women weren’t doing themselves any favors by releasing flavorless, uninspiring pop-country cuts in the shadow of Swift. But that’s changed. Just a look at that list above! There is some meat on those country chords. Songs like ‘How Could I Want More’ and ‘Me Without You’ are built to wreck a fragile fan’s tender heart, and if you gave a half-dozen others a shot, you’d find a few to come back to.

Quality isn’t an issue any longer. But is there anyone willing to notice?

Country fans need to step up, as well. If you’re only relying on the radio to discover new music, you’re missing artists like Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, Lee Ann Womack and guitar slingers like Lindsay Ell and Clare Dunn. In some ways, finding new music is like finding a meal at a gas station. Sure, you can grab a candy bar at the front counter, but if you walk to the back of the store, you’ll find something hot that will hold you a little longer.

More Startling Facts About Women in Country Music

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