The highest charting woman on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs isn’t a country singer — it’s Bebe Rexha. She’s one of four women to appear on the chart, which is the same number of male artists named Chris with charting songs. The genre that birthed Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn now only claims a handful of female artists, and modern solo acts relevant enough to be played on the radio can be counted on one hand. Of these women (Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Lauren Alania, Carrie Underwood), only two have received a number-one song in 2018 and many of them have been accused of abandoning the genre for pop collaborations and country albums that sound more like Laurel Canyon rock.
Casual listeners may not remember a time before "bro-country" artists like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton dominated the genre, but country's current iteration of beers and bros didn't fully blossom until the early 2010s, when Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" debuted in 2012. Time calls "Cruise" the turning point when feel-good music surrounding partying, trucks, and beer eclipsed the increasing pop-crossover sound of early '00s artists like Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift, in what could almost be called a reactionary takeover of the genre that once housed great songwriters like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. The Seattle Times also noted that bro-country is inherently exclusionary to female artists, despite women accounting for a large portion of country music listeners, a theme which inspired the viral hit "Girl In A Country Song" by Maddie & Tae.
The genre's lack of women is only getting worse as its stars pivot away from country radio, whether it’s in deference to pop stations that are more likely to play female artists or because female artists aren’t allowed the same creative growth as men in country music by gatekeepers such as radio DJs and middle-aged industry figureheads. Maren’s Zedd collaboration “The Middle” peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Only four of Maren’s songs have entered the top ten for country airplay and the Hot Country charts, and only two have equaled or surpassed the success she found doing a pop collaboration outside of her home genre. Kelsea has been heralded as country’s new Taylor Swift, but she’s only had five top ten songs on country radio since 2015. It’s no wonder she tried to replicate Maren’s success with a long-awaited Chainsmokers collaboration. After just one foray into pop music, Maren has been asked repeatedly by fans and the media if she’s planning to leave country music. When Florida Georgia Line released their collaboration with pop singer Bebe Rexha, no one assumed they’d be leaving the genre entirely, they were just able to flex creative muscles while racking up their fourteenth number-one hit on country airplay.
One of the few modern female country successes, Kacey Musgraves started her career on Nashville Star, the same show that launched Miranda Lambert (not that either woman won their respective seasons of the male-dominated show). Kacey dabbled in pop music with acoustic covers for Triple Pop and a remix of a Miguel single, but with her trailer park imagery and her small town blues, there was no doubt that Kacey was a country queen. Even if she wasn’t “Pageant Material,” singing about her love of marijuana and her support for the LGBTQ community, Kacey’s Grammy-winning first album Same Trailer, Different Park heralded the arrival of a country superstar. She spit out a quick follow-up album, then the typical country Christmas album, but didn’t achieve a number-one country single until the large collaborative mash-up “Forever Country.” Her latest album is country music at its farthest reaches. That's to say it’s really not country at all unless all acoustic music is country music these days.
The New York Times described the album as country turned psychedelic during a "Behind the Song" segment about the opening track of the tour-de-force Golden Hour, “Slow Burn.” “Slow Burn” became the mission statement for the album, an acid trip combined with the storytelling wordplay that characterizes country music. Listening to the song’s progression, it originally sounded like a classic Neil Young ballad before Indian-style strings and synths were added, taking it to what producers described as a “canyon scape.” If they meant that canyon to be 1960s Laurel Canyon, they’d be spot on. Even after stripping the song down, it still came out more reminiscent of Psychedelic Rock, with pastoral imagery closer to “Strawberry Fields Forever” than “Body Like A Back Road,” and musical elements taken straight from Jimmy Hendrix and Tame Impala. LSD country is just a nice way for Kacey to appease country radio while making something creative, shiny, colorful and new.
Anticipating criticism from country gatekeepers, Kacey commented on the new direction in a GQ article that describes her album as “So Gutsy, It’s Not Really Country.”
“You're going to have the people who compare this album to my last one and say, ‘You've changed. You've left country music," Kacey explained. “But I just don't think music works that way. You're always going to have Pageant Material in your car to listen to. That's not going away. You won't meet anybody that loves traditional country music more than me. I f*cking love it. I live it and breathe it. I love it so much. I grew up singing it. But I won't let that keep me even in that box.”
Kacey clearly didn’t mean to leave country behind but by accident, for now, she has.
Is the perception that Kacey has to be pigeonholed into one genre because of the antiquated idea that women are “less creative” than men, and therefore less able to have the freedom to expand, why people immediately assume she’s jumping ship? Is it because people are still touchy over Taylor Swift?
Scientific American described the creativity bias against women in a 2015 article, in which studies in both controlled and real-life environments showed that people were more likely to associate creative thinking to men, concluding that women “may be at an unfair disadvantage in workplaces where people at the top place a high degree of emphasis on creative and innovative thinking.”
This inadvertent bias can be seen clearly in country music as women aren’t often let back into country’s open arms after exploring different creative avenues. A Taste of Country article indirectly explored this after Taylor officially left country music for pop with “Shake It Off.” Labelling it “indefinable sexism,” the country publication showed country’s reticence to let in artists from other genres if they’re female — Jessica Simpson was rejected by country fans, and no female pop artists (other than, arguably, Kelly Clarkson) have been allowed to 'go country' in the last 30 years. Male artists like Kenny Rogers, Darius Rucker, Kid Rock, and Aaron Lewis were given the opportunity to try by country DJs and fans, and their success or failure was largely left to the quality of their music. Darius came to country from rock band Hootie & the Blowfish and scored a number-one single from his debut country album. Kid Rock, name notwithstanding, originally competed with Vanilla Ice and Eminem, and kept one foot firmly in the world of rock and rap when he began to pivot to his current country career where he's seen moderate success for moderately decent songs, no success for the truly terrible additions to his discography, and still managed to hit the top ten in all four of his country LPs. Meanwhile, the response to women trying to experiment in the country realm can be summed up in some of the more recent examples of gatekeeping, like when Beyoncé’s country single “Daddy Lessons” was rejected by the Grammy’s country committee while “Don’t Hurt Yourself” was readily allowed in the rock category. Lady Gaga’s Joanne was also a country-leaning album (more country than a lot of Kacey’s new album), but you won’t be hearing “A-Yo” on any country stations.
The Taste of Country article continues to describe backlash to Faith Hill’s transition to pop and subsequent stonewalling by the community when she tried to re-enter, Shania Twain’s lack of country staying power since her expansion and, of course, country radio’s disavowal of even Taylor Swift’s country backlog. The point here is that women aren’t allowed to come into country music, let alone come back in after stretching their creative wings. That is unless they’re at the legendary status of Dolly Parton. Looking at most of the post-’00s class of female country icons, artists like Miranda Lambert didn’t experiment outside of country, which could contribute to her longevity. Carrie Underwood barely crossed into true pop territory either, until this year with “Cry Pretty.” When the men of country cross genres, like the horrible trend of white rapping in “bro-country” songs, there’s rarely media backlash, and when there’s a glaring ‘offense’ like Florida Georgia Line’s massive amount of pop crossovers, their airplay is barely affected.
Kacey’s genre-bending doesn’t necessarily predicate a departure from country, unless the media insists that women can’t benefit from being a part of the “generation of writers and artists who listen to both [country and pop],” as described by Tom Corson to Rolling Stone.
Even up-and-coming artists in Nashville have seen the benefit of looking outside of Music City into the pop landscape. Taylor Noelle, a buzzworthy new artist based out of Nashville, recently decided to explore a soulful pop sound with her new single, "Words," because the genre allows for boundary-pushing production.
Citing Kacey's album Golden Hour as one of the country releases she's most enjoyed this year, Taylor described the gains that pop and rock have been making in a city that has been so synonymous with country music, exemplifying the phenomenon of pop and country melding together in the current landscape that Corson alluded to in his Rolling Stone piece. Taylor's generation of musicians are more likely to cross genres. Taylor cites HAIM and SZA as influences in the same sentence as Maggie Rodgers or Childish Gambino. Kacey has referenced Cake, Imogen Heap, the BeeGees as often as Jim Croce or John Prine.
"I have always been a songwriter, but I haven’t been quite as production-minded as I am now. Now, thinking about the production of a song is on my mind from the moment I start writing a song, not just when I’m finished," explained Taylor, whose earlier releases like the beautiful ballad "I Fall" fell nearer into folk music than pop. "My older releases were a good outlet for my early songwriting, but not a fully-fleshed out artistic vision."
Taylor's search for "compelling, creative" sounds is ubiquitous in both new and established acts, but while fresher artists can explore their musical callings, as Taylor calls them, the country music establishment hasn't allowed its female artists that same freedom.
Internal desires to expand their creative wings aside, the women of country might be better off seeking greener pastures regardless, judging by the stark lack of female radio time on country stations. Maren specifically has been outspoken about the lack of female airplay after her debut single, “My Church,” was initially rejected by DJs who said listeners only wanted to listen to women sing about men.
Artist Sara Evans described the current state of country radio as a “blatant stonewalling of female artists” on social media, describing how women could have a huge hit and still struggle to have their next single played, but their male peers don’t suffer from a similar issue. Citing artists like Danielle Bradbery and Carly Pearce, Sara laments how difficult it is for women to establish themselves in a genre dominated by men.
Organizations like the Song Sufferagettes have tried to level the playing field after comments made by a radio DJ named Keith Hall described women artists as the tomatoes in a salad of men and said he refused to play two women back-to-back on air, but country radio is still less than 25% female. This is a problem that’s somewhat specific to country music (although arguments could be made for a similar problem in rap), as pop music has a more equal playing ground. There are currently five women in the Hot Pop charts, and nine songs by women in the top twenty, and there were similar statistics noted by Chuck Dauphin during Taylor Swift’s pop transition.
The institutionalized gender inequality extends past radio gatekeeping and into awards as well, although it could be said that the former informs the latter. Maren’s Best New Artist nod came in the same year as Kelsea’s, marking the first time in CMA history that two women were nominated concurrently.
Maren, who’s received backlash for genre-blending since her debut, has stated that she doesn’t plan to transition to mainstream pop, but with such a hostile environment, it would be career suicide to entertain the idea. Taylor also held that she wasn’t planning on a full pop crossover, and maybe at the time that was true. The love for the music was there, but in a genre where women are seen as “tomatoes in the salad,” female artists could be left with no options but to seek out the people who will allow them to be heard.
“For a while there, there were roughly four females doing any kind of business: Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, and Faith Hill,” explained the Global News. “Taylor went off to do her pop thing, and that left three women.”
If country music isn’t careful, their new 'four females' will go off too, and they’ll be left with none.