A Woman’s Place Is On The Road: Breaking The Glass Ceiling With Touring

On the Road Again:
Michael Marks / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
– On the Road Again:
Dolly Parton in front of her tour bus before performing in Sept. 1977 in Detroit, Michigan.

People act like country music’s “girl problem” started when some radio programmer made a comment about female artists being “tomatoes” in 2015. But the truth is country radio had become a female desert as the rise of Bro Country intersected with Taylor Swift’s increasing pop lean. It happened quietly, over time – and had the comment heard ‘round the world not been uttered, perhaps no one would’ve noticed.

Once upon a time – long after legends like Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Barbara Mandrell, Tanya Tucker and even Rosanne Cash were radio regulars –  Reba McEntire, the Judds, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Suzy Boggus, Wynonna Judd solo, Tanya Tucker again, LeAnn Rimes, Deana Carter, Terri Clark, Jo Dee Messina and Gretchen Wilson  were all over the airwaves. Competition was so fierce for Female Vocalist of the Year, being nominated was almost considered a win.
Don’t forget the Diamond-certified 10-million-sellers: Shania Twain, whose country had an arena rock tilt, Faith Hill, whose fresh-faced sexuality crossed her massively, and the Dixie Chicks, whose militant country traditionalism packed a punk intensity. And two of these three Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year nominees went on to win the genre’s most coveted award.
Then slowly, things began to erode. People didn’t really notice the thinning of the herd. Carrie Underwood’s ubiquity, Miranda Lambert’s raw intensity and Swift took up a lot of space as Sugarland, the Band Perry and Lady Antebellum put female voices on the radio. But slowly, opportunities started drying up. No one really noticed the lack – until TomatoGate.
Launching scads of editorials, teeth gnashing, hand wringing, very little actual change has happened Writing in The Tennessean in June of 2018, Cindy Watts, who’s covered the beat closely for over a decade, noted, “The percentage of purely female country songs charted by Country Aircheck dropped to 10.4 percent last year, down from 13 percent in 2016.” 

Kacey Musgraves
John Davisson
– Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves ignites the audience during Coachella’s second weekend on Friday, April 19, in Indio, Calif.
In the process of reporting what she’d hoped would be progress, the veteran reporter today recalls her surprise at the results. “I thought it might show some progress, I wouldn’t say a ‘Victory Lap,’ but was surprised to realize it had actually gotten worse.”
Watts also noted that while both Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini were finding more of a home on radio – “Kelsea had had three No. 1s in a row with ‘Love Me Like You Mean It,’ ‘Dibs’ and ‘Peter Pan,’ then ‘Legend’ off her next album also did, while Maren Morris had critical success, plus ‘My Church, ‘80s Mercedes’ and ‘Rich,’ her first No 1 was a duet with Thomas Rhett, then she had her own No. 1 with ‘I Could Use A Love Song’” – the breakthrough wasn’t quite what it appeared. She explains, “It hasn’t been transformative. With all of their successes combined, they’re barely at the level of most successful young male artists.”
What the recent USC Annenberg No Country For Female Artists study reinforces is that not only is there a gap between men and women on the country charts, the level of success between the most successful of each gender is profound. While Luke Bryan’s 16 credits and Blake Shelton’s 14 credits in 2014 and 2018 almost double Carrie Underwood’s 9 and Miranda Lambert’s 7, the top 6 men outperform Underwood – and the men tied at 7 match her. Not great, but hold on.
Ballerini at 6 and Morris at 5 are the third and fourth most successful women, followed by Lauren Alaina’s 3 credits – and RaeLyn, Cam, Carly Pearce and Kacey Musgraves stacking up a whopping 2 credits. The data includes featured performances, which means Morris’ appearance on Rhett’s “Craving You” and Zed’s “The Middle” are shared credits. Think about that.
While noted programmer RJ Curtis, the incoming head of the Country Radio Board, is attending myriad events Nashville’s frontline Change The Conversation organization is staging, little is developing in terms of a protocol or action plan to turn women’s music into airplay. Song Suffragettes, the all-female songwriters showcasing collective, has seen several of their young women – including Carly Pearce whose SiriusXM-starting “Every Little Thing” topped the terrestrial Country Airplay charts – get record and publishing deals. 
But if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it ever exist? Indeed, until Kacey Musgraves swept this year’s Grammy Awards – including the all-genre Album of the Year – country radio turned up its nose, as it did with the sprightly “Got My Name Changed Back” by Pistol Annies, Miranda Lambert’s girl group with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley.
While Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris getting to the Top 10 and 20 quicker than most young women might suggest things could be on the verge of loosening up, consider the above.
Even headliners Underwood and Lambert are not automatic ads, occasionally finding their singles “work records.” It makes country radio a slippery slope for women.
Watts laughs ruefully when asked about what this means in actual terms. You can hear the sadness and exhaustion in her voice when she says, “After years of reporting on this, I only recently saw it in a real light when my 9- year-old daughter told me she wanted to sing ‘Let It Go’ from ‘Frozen’ at the school talent contest. Because her radio listening experience, her streaming and playlisting don’t really give her access to real women’s voices, she thinks a cartoon is what her voice is. When I was growing up, you could get Reba, the Judds, Martina, Patty, Pam, Trisha and so many more just by turning on the radio, it didn’t hit me how normal it was … or how hearing female artists any hour of the day was just like real life.”
As dire as the Annenberg Study is, there’s one thing people not living the beat couldn’t possibly be expected to know: the unspoken reality beneath what’s reported. Watts, who covers the genre every day, has meaningful relationships. “The people who did know, who could speak from real knowledge and confidence wouldn’t for fear of retribution. People have lots to say off the record, but not on the record, not even people who were having success with women at country radio.”
So, in a world where people are afraid to speak truth to reality, a reality where even if a young woman gets a single past the gatekeepers and into the Top 20 or 30, it doesn’t mean it’s going to get any easier. Maddie & Tae, who caused a sensation from mainstream media to country radio with the female objectification-skewering “Girl In A Country Song,” have spent their time since struggling for airplay. 
Even with the studies, the advocacy groups who keep the story alive in The Washington Post, Elle, PBS Newshour, the CMT Country Music Television support, women aren’t breaking through the gridlock. So, leave it to country’s biggest women to take matters into their own hands. 
Rather than talk, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert are putting their feminism where their tours are. And neither is making a big proclamation, either. But make no mistake, these two platinum – literally and in RIAA terms – blondes know exactly what they’re doing. Underwood laughs, “This will probably be the most drama-free tour I’ve ever done. Everyone will be on time, sharing with each other and singing with each other onstage and backstage, too,” while Lambert offers, “I think you’re going to see people coming early, because they know these artists are people I like – and they’re going to walk out fans.”
Granted these headliners will sell tickets with or without a current single. 
They have a body of work, but even more importantly, a fan base invested in their musical journey, because both artists have always put a deeper cut of life into their songs. People can’t know what they don’t know, and in the infinite pool of music discovery, it’s hard to even begin. More than anything, think of this as music curation with a backbeat, a reason to get out of the house with a few big girl drinks – or Cokes – thrown in.
Lambert and Underwood are taking matters into their own hands. Knowing they can draw the traffic to put butts in seats, they’re jetting their fans past the roadblock, straight to the music.