NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Welcome to “Dr. Phil Country”

Are Songs About Caring, Feeling, Sensitive Men Coming Back?

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

I was reading recent research from Country Aircheck’s music edition which reports that — surprise! — male singers continue to dominate country radio airplay. It’s always been thus, given that the target radio audience is women. They do most of the shopping, and radio wants loyal consumers. But what’s interesting is the continued concentration of airplay success by a few artists. Almost a third of country radio airplay comes from the top eight male artists (Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, George Strait, Rascal Flatts, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban).

By contrast, the top eight female artists account for only 11 per cent of country airplay. (They are Sugarland, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Taylor Swift, Sara Evans, Jo Dee Messina and the Wreckers.) The duo Sugarland are classified as a female artist because Jennifer Nettles does the lead vocals, say the researchers.

So … women listeners clearly prefer to listen to male artists. But then does it naturally follow that songwriters will consciously tailor new songs to cater to women listeners? In recent years, I would have to say that is the case — to a great extent. Remember “sippy cup songs” from not so long ago? Remember wimpy songs of almost unbearable male misery that can only be alleviated by a woman’s love? They’re never far from the surface.

Miranda Lambert and others never got the memo, of course, and keep on writing and singing songs of anger and revenge and drinking and suicide and fighting and the like. And groups such as Confederate Railroad never even heard of the memo. Remember their recording of “Trashy Women”? Consider:

Yeah, an’ I like my women just a little on the trashy side.
When they wear their clothes too tight and their hair is dyed.
Too much lipstick an’ too much rouge,
Gets me excited, leaves me feeling confused.
An’ I like my women just a little on the trashy side.

No wonder you don’t hear much about Confederate Railroad anymore. I don’t think they got the female listeners’ seal of approval.

But, trends and subjects go in and out of favor in country. Pop gives way to traditionalism and back again, Outlaw gives way to Urban Cowboy, which in turn gave way to the New Traditionalists and on and on. However, if one thing endures, it’s the subservient male:

But there she goes,
Baby in her arms.
World on her shoulder when her day starts.
Working a job that don’t pay much,
But she thanks God it’s enough.
There she is
On her own two feet.
He walked out
But she’s still got dreams.
Tries to laugh when she feels like crying.
Nobody’d blame her if she quit trying.
But she’s got a heart that gives and gives.
Now you tell me who the strong one is.

Clint Black with his new single “The Strong One” puts a dramatic exclamation mark on what might be dubbed the new era of “Dr. Phil Country.” Caring, sensitive male singers who listen. And who feel and who aren’t afraid of showing their feminine side. It’s a really good song, mind you, and I’ve long liked Black’s work. But I think “The Strong One” signals that country music — some of it anyway — may be turning into “Dr. Phil Country.” Sensitive and caring. And wimpy, maybe? Honi soit qui mal y pense. That is, evil to him who evil thinks.

Craig Morgan’s current single “Tough” carries a similar theme of subservient tenderness, but the man in question here has a reason to be caring: His woman has just had breast cancer. But she’s strong, too:

She’s strong, pushes on, can’t slow her down.
She can take anything life dishes out.
There was a time
Back before she was mine
When I thought I was tough.

Jack Ingram’s new “Measure of a Man” approaches the man-woman relationship as more of a partnership:

She stole my heart on this highway.
She taught me to love through the hard days.
Yeah, she’s cool when I’m not, she’s as steady as a rock.
She’s as solid as the ring on my hand.
That’s the measure of a man.
Yeah the measure of a man.

Brooks & Dunn’s new “Proud of the House We Built” takes a similar tack about an equal partnership:

I’m proud of the house we built.
It’s stronger than sticks, stones, and steel.
It’s not a big place sittin’ up high on some hill.
A lot of things will come and go, but love never will.
Oh, I’m proud.
I’m proud of the house we built.

Male artists used to live in abject fear of losing their woman. Floyd Tillman’s “I Love You So Much It Hurts” from 1948 is typical of the sentiment of the times:

I love you so much it hurts.
Darlin’, that’s why I’m so blue.
I’m afraid to go to bed at night,
Afraid of losing you.

Even more pathetic was Johnny Paycheck’s “She’s All I Got.” Tracy Byrd later covered it, singing:

I’m beggin’ you, friend.
Don’t take her she’s all I’ve got.
She’s everything in life I’ll ever need.

Compare that with Steve Holy’s much less politically correct viewpoint with his new “Men Buy the Drinks (Women Call the Shots).” I don’t think he’ll make it onto Dr. Phil’s show:

’Cause it’s a woman’s world.
Might as well face it.
Yeah they got what we want and we’re willing to chase it
Yeah, it’s a woman’s world, boys, like it or not
Men buy the drinks, girls call the shots.

Remember “Good Hearted Woman”? Waylon and Willie’s co-written song had a whole different view of the man-woman thing:

She’s a good hearted woman in love with a good timin’ man.
She loves him in spite of his ways she don’t understand.
With teardrops and laughter they pass through this world hand in hand.
A good hearted woman, lovin’ a good timin’ man.

Willie and Waylon wouldn’t be invited to be on Dr. Phil’s show. But then, why would they want to be?