NASHVILLE SKYLINE: News Flash: Women Still Recording Country Music

And -- Thanks to Gretchen Wilson -- They're Selling

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

So Gretchen Wilson just missed the Holy Grail. Barely. By only 1,200 or so CDs that didn’t sell, her debut CD Here for the Party missed landing at No. 1 on the big chart — the end-all of charts — the Billboard 200. (Of course, she nailed the No. 1 slot on country albums chart but lost the Billboard 200 chart position to Usher.)

But she has made a huge point. Going against the grain of conventional wisdom of Music Row, Sony Music Nashville and Wilson have demonstrated that people will buy real and gritty music from a young woman artist who is not a gussied-up diva. With first-week sales of about 227,000 CDs, Wilson proves that new artists can excite the public.

Not only is her single “Redneck Woman” sitting atop the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, it’s at No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (right between Jessica Simpson and the Black Eyed Peas), at No. 20 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart and at No. 14 on the Hot Digital Tracks chart reflecting Internet sales. Here for the Party also debuts at No. 6 on the Billboard Top Internet Albums chart.

Loretta Lynn has made the same point to a certain extent. With no video releases and no radio play to support the album, she has sold almost 100,000 copies of her new CD Van Lear Rose.

Mary Chapin Carpenter, also with no single and no video, has sold 50,000 copies of her new CD in three weeks. Between Here and Gone is her first release of new material since 2001’s Time*Sex*Love and is her best work in many years. As with Lynn, Carpenter’s got nothing to offer but great songs and a radiant voice. Clear-voiced as ever, Carpenter has never sounded better with this collection of 12 original songs.

Wynonna, who likewise has no current single or video, saw sales of her album What the World Needs Now jump from about 2,000 a week to more than 21,000 after appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s show last week.

So, at the least we’re seeing evidence that there is an enduring audience in country for women — and traditional-sounding women at that. At present, though, it’s a disproportionate amount. When it’s been two years since a female artist had a No. 1 country hit, something’s out of alignment. Out of the 75 CDs on the Billboard Country Albums chart this week, 17 are by women. Over at country radio — which tailors its programming to women — only 15 of the 60 titles on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart are by women artists. There’s one encouraging note: Reba McEntire is back on country radio, which means the audience doesn’t want just divas and dolls — which of course the success of “Redneck Woman” proves.

It’s heartening that there still seems to be room in country for women who are not record-label constructs. In pop, Avril Lavigne was looked at in a number of career option roles by her creators before she was finally unleashed as the anti-Britney. At one point, they considered trying to march her down the Shania Twain country path and had songwriters trying all manner of material.

Wilson, on the other hand, seems as genuine and down-home as they come. Country needs honest, forthright women artists to carry on the tradition of such strong, unbridled women as Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Tanya Tucker.

Postscript: I’m a little worried about Julie Roberts’ future on the road. Much as I like her music, I’m concerned about her driving. A sharp-eyed viewer tells me that in the course of her video for “Break Down Here” Roberts traverses the highway between mile markers 203 and 215 in just over four minutes. That means she was driving about 180 miles an hour. A truly fast chick, that Julie.