(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
There is no equal opportunity for women in country music today. But, then, there never has been.
Open to almost any page of the groundbreaking book, Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music by Mary Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann, and you will find a woman’s drama. As one example, here’s a section of Jan Howard’s story: “Her saga includes rape, wife beating, bigamy, poverty, war, teen suicide, cheating, divorce, thievery and mental collapse.”
The recent furor over the revelation that the Top 30 of Billboard’s hot country songs chart had no solo women artists for the first time in recent recorded history comes as no huge news. One main reason: There are relatively few solo women working successfully in country music today, just as has always been the case. To cite a few random years, in both 1950 and 1960, no women notched No. 1 country singles. In 1970, there were four female No. 1 songs (plus one by a duet with a woman member). In 1980, there were 10. In 1990, there were five, plus one group member. In 2000, there were three, plus one all-female group (the Dixie Chicks), and one duet member.
This most recent Top 30 category does not include the woman-in-a-group category, whether it’s Kimberly Perry in The Band Perry, Hillary Scott in Lady Antebellum and the like. It also doesn’t include women as duet partners — Carrie Underwood with Brad Paisley, for example, or Grace Potter with Kenny Chesney.
In the case of recent history, the main surface reason is that the hottest solo women country artists’ career cycles were not then geared to releasing a current single. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert were between scheduling new releases. Taylor finally entered the Top 30 this week at No. 25 with “Sparks Fly.” But there aren’t many Taylors, Carries and Mirandas.
Radio and record labels essentially have little place for women and never have — except as customers. It’s not been so long ago that female country artists were called “girl singers” and were treated as girls, not as women. Women couldn’t wear trousers on the Grand Ole Opry stage. They couldn’t tour on their own.
By a comparison, let’s look at that recent Top 30 song lineup. It reads like a series of mini-scripts for manly TV commercials about pickup trucks and drinking beer and driving back road dirt streets looking for fishing holes. It’s mainly a bunch of songs about boys acting up. It is, in the main, nostalgia for suburban wannabe country boys who have never seen and never will see a dusty back road or a bucolic fishing hole. It’s a boys’ club, with a race to out-macho the next guy. If you’re country, then I’m 10 times as country as you. Oh, yeah? Well, I’ll kick your ass.
The women who have been signed to major country labels in recent years have been largely of the young, glitzy babe, tarted-up variety. The sort that Madonna and her “boy-toy” phase unfortunately set the stage for. The women show a lot of skin and writhe around on stage and do not actually do much in the way of the song category. Remember when some people thought importing the pop tartlet Jessica Simpson would be a slam-dunk as a new country star? The country audience gave her a chance. And then it slammed the door and rejected her once country fans got a look and a listen.
One of the best albums of 2011 is the Pistol Annies’ self-titled debut CD (due Aug. 23). With all due respect to the all-female trio, they wouldn’t be positioned commercially where they are right now if Miranda Lambert — and her high profile and commercial and popular success — weren’t in the group. That’s just a fact of life.
Another of the best albums of this year is Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields. It took Kenny Chesney and his commercial clout to deliver one of her songs (co-written with Deana Carter), “You and Tequila,” from that album into hit radio territory. Good as she is vocally, Berg doesn’t fit the radio image. Additionally, Berg has no massive record label machinery behind her. Chesney does.
By and large, women solo artists have not had the massive record label push behind them that is essential for a major country hit.
Look at Reba, you will say. Indeed. Reba is a special case. She’s over 50 (56) but by dint of accomplishment and sheer will power continues to succeed. It also hasn’t hurt that she has had the forceful music executive Scott Borchetta behind her for much of her recording career (as has Taylor Swift). But age-wise, 50 is a dangerous year. George Strait, now 59, is in his own untouchable category. On the other hand, Ronnie Dunn has been privately criticized in the industry for daring to try to start over at age 57.
For my money, the best country songs so far this year have been Dunn’s “Cost of Living,” Chesney and Potter’s “You and Tequila,” the Pistol Annies’ “Housewife’s Prayer” (an album cut off their debut CD), Eric Church’s “Homeboy,” Ashton Shepherd’s “Where Country Grows,” Bradley Gaskin’s “Mr. Bartender” and Laura Cantrell’s “Kitty Wells Dresses.”
None of these songs has been in Billboard’s Top 10, save Chesney’s version of “You and Tequila,” which is now at No. 9, up from No. 10 after 13 weeks on the chart. There is also an oddity of the world of country radio that this week’s holder of the No. 1 album on both the all-genre Billboard 200 and trade publication’s country albums chart, Eric Church, has never had a No. 1 country radio hit. (His “Homeboy” is now at No. 15, down from No. 14, after almost six months on the chart. What does that say about a major disconnect somewhere in the system?)
Cantrell’s “Kitty Wells Dresses” is one of the most charming songs I’ve heard this year. It’s a lovely song, but it has absolutely no commercial potential. Why? Because Cantrell is not a mainstream country artist and because today’s country radio audience largely does not know who Kitty Wells is. Or what Wells means to country music. It’s a damn shame, but it’s a fact of life.
Tammy Wynette was once asked by a young artist why she — Tammy — didn’t move aside to give younger artists a chance to take her place. Tammy just looked at her and said, “Move me!”