#TomatoGate Changes the Conversation a Year Later

‘Tis the Season for Women in Country Music

The lack of female acts being played on country radio was brought to national attention last year with a big foot-in-mouth moment from radio consultant Keith Hill. His quotes printed in Country Aircheck the day after Memorial Day 2015 comparing the format to a salad ignited a proverbial tomato bomb in the country music industry.

“If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” Hill said. “Trust me, 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, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”

Martina McBride and Jennifer Nettles were the first tomatoes to fire back. T-shirts were made, hash-tags were shared and the gender issue went viral. Looking back, #TomatoGate was a huge gift.

“More than anything else, it’s been a better awareness of trying to achieve a balanced mix of all sounds and genders into our format,” says R.J. Curtis, country editor of the radio news outlet All Access. “I think radio programmers are more in tune with that than a year ago. But I also believe the music cycle is shifting back toward stronger female artists

“It’s been promising to see the iHeartMedia Country team put artists like Cam and Maren Morris on its On the Verge program. That’s a positive move, and I wish they would do a better job of following up by making a longer commitment to the artist, rather than the song.

“Beyond that, I also believe radio is trying to incorporate promising new female acts onto its playlists and listener appreciation shows, too,” Curtis says. “I also think you have to give the gang at CMT kudos for their efforts on exposing a very diverse group of new female artists for the public to be exposed to and decide which of them they will connect to.”

On the road, CMT’s Next Women of Country program continues to support rising female acts. Kelsea Ballerini and Jana Kramer co-headlined the first Next Women of Country tour in fall 2015, while Nettles helmed the 2016 trek with Brandy Clark, Lindsay Ell and Tara Thompson.

The CMA and ACM’s female vocalist of the year Miranda Lambert also did her part to expose new talent on the road by headlining an all-female lineup with 2015’s Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars tour. The bill included Ashley Monroe, RaeLynn, Clare Dunn and Courtney Cole.

Monroe, Lucie Silvas and Kelleigh Bannen supported Little Big Town on the band’s Pain Killer tour.

Carrie Underwood just wrapped the spring leg of her biggest tour to date. The Storyteller tour drew nearly 600,000 fans with sellouts in major cities in the U.S. and Europe. Since 2008’s Carnival Ride tour, she has played for more than 1 million fans.

The Dixie Chicks started the U.S. leg of their MMXVI tour Wednesday (June 1) in Cincinnati with a mix of openers representing roots, rock and soul, including Anderson East and Vintage Trouble.

CINCINNATI, OH - JUNE 01:  Emily Strayer, Natalie Maines, and Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks perform onstage during the DCX World Tour MMXVI Opener on June 1, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for PMK) Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for PMK

In Nashville, the weekly Song Suffragettes writer’s night has helped several new female songwriters such as Kalie Shorr get discovered with sellouts at every show.

“More females are getting signed and more are getting exposure on country radio, satellite radio, streaming services and in the ‘live’ space,” says CMT senior vice president of music strategy and talent Leslie Fram. “The more females who get publishing and label deals, the more music is released and available to be exposed. … Radio execs are fighting for ratings and multi-tasking on a daily basis. The more female artists they have to work with and play will help this situation.”

And the message is clear female collaborations are the new norm. Dierks Bentley just released his new single “Different for Girls” with Elle King. Morris guests on Bentley’s Black track “I’ll Be the Moon.” Keith Urban’s new album Ripcord features the Underwood duet, “Fighter.” Luke Bryan and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild share their first No. 1 with “Home Alone Tonight,” which was co-written by Jaida Dreyer, Tommy Cecil, Jody Stevens and Cole Taylor. Chris Young and Cassadee Pope hit No. 1 in May with “Think of You.”

“I had no idea what was going to happen with that song,” Pope says. “I got the song in an email, and I was asked if I wanted to be part of it. I, of course, said yes. I remember singing that song with Chris actually face to face in the vocal booth and just feeling like it was so special. There’s this chemistry when we sing together. It was so strong right off the bat before we even knew each other really. And seeing the song fly up the charts was really crazy.”

Women continue to write some of country’s most compelling music.

Hitmakers Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey co-wrote Little Big Town’s Grammy-winning smash “Girl Crush.” Heather Morgan picked up a BMI song of the year award for co-writing Brett Eldredge’s “Beat of the Music,” which was the performance right organization’s most played song of 2014. Within the month following Hill’s comments, Ballerini hit No. 1 with her debut single “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and The First Time’s follow-up single “Dibs” went No. 1 in February.

Hitmaker Josh Kerr, who co-wrote both Ballerini’s first No. 1s, believes creating music with female acts gives male songwriters creative license to explore more elements of the human condition.

“There’s just this ability to sing about more and to be emotional,” Kerr says. “It’s so exciting for me to write with women just because of all the opportunities of what you can write. I think Kelsea’s been a huge part of opening that door, which is cool because we were just writing whatever we wanted to write. I get to do that most often when I’m in the room with really talented females. It’s fun. I love doing it.”

On the albums chart, Cam had 2015’s highest-selling debut country album with Untamed, a project featuring the Grammy-nominated smash “Burning House.” Underwood co-wrote every song on her No. 1 album, Storyteller, which has yielded back-to-back No. 1s “Smoke Break” and “Heartbeat,” plus her rising smash “Church Bells.”

Country women have also starred in the year’s most talked about music moments. In December, Ballerini picked up Billboard’s Rising Star award at the annual Women in Music event in New York. Margo Price made her Saturday Night Live debut in April. The ACM Party for a Cause in Las Vegas kicked off with an all-female lineup led by Underwood, Cam, Ballerini, Bannen, Kramer, McBride, Kellie Pickler, Maddie & Tae, Lauren Alaina and Brandy Clark.

And the future is bright with new music out this month by Clark, Morris and Pope.

“I hope 2016 will be remembered as the year that things turned around for women in country radio,” says Beverly Keel, chair of Middle Tennessee State University’s recording industry department. “I think Cam, Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris and Brandy Clark are going to have long careers in music because they are talented artists. I am delighted to see that the new women breaking through in country have different musical styles and personalities.

“I believe consumers have the desire and interest to hear different musical interpretations and voices,” Keel adds. “There is plenty of room at country radio, as evidenced by the 1990s, which is the era that saw the success of artists ranging from Wynonna Judd, Reba, Faith Hill and Shania Twain to Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, all of whom were very different from the others.”

When Reba McEntire turned 61 this spring, she did a live Q&A at a sold-out Bluebird Café in Nashville with the local coalition Change the Conversation. The organization works to raise awareness on gender issues in country music, and that night, the audience made up of both men and women hung on McEntire’s every word.

“I think women have a lot of messages to give and to sing about,” she said. “I think if you’re singing a very powerful song that’s going to touch the hearts of other women, you’re helping them get through a bad situation or a bad time in their life. That’s so much more important than a No. 1 record.”

But it’s important to be reminded that in entertainment everyone wants to be top dog, and top dogs have to be tougher than the rest. There’s no room for cattiness, entitlement, bad attitudes and trash talk, in general.

“I don’t care if you’re a man or a woman,” McEntire said. “You’ve got to find the greatest song you can possibly find and then go work your lily-livered butt off promoting it. I don’t care who you are. Besides that, tomatoes are more nutritious than lettuce.”

“Radio is better served when it shows all sides of a genre,” Curtis adds. “Some of these can be texture records to compliment to core, mainstream hits. There have always been strong female artists on country radio. If we don’t do what we can to find some and expose them, we’re not serving our listeners.”

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.