"My life is like a lemon drop. I'm sucking on the bitter to get to the sweet part. I know there are better days ahead," I scream in silence inside my throbbing skull, as I flick the radio nob off in my 1996 Subaru Legacy. It wasn't much, but it was something I could afford. But what I couldn't afford was one more sexist bro-country anthem about daisy dukes, beer runs or dancing on the red-dirt tailgate underneath the shimmery moonlight. The roots-driven and gutsy Pistol Annies track Lemon Drop seems a bit prophetic now in hindsight. it came well before the modern "bro-country" curve, but it contained all the elements that could well serve as a missile directly targeted at the eye of the storm. The female three-piece, comprised of the saving graces of Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashely Monroe, struck a compelling chord in the mainstream. Despite rumored inner turmoil, a canceled string of shows and their ultimate disbandment, the gritty vocalists delivered some of the richest full players in recent memory. Regardless, even their solo work—Monroe's Like a Rose, Lambert's Platinum and Presley's American Middle Class are notable additions to the overarching female perspective—has pierced culture with a finely-sharpened blade of realism and unapologetic tales of the down-trodden wife, lover, mother and daughter. They seek out fiercely intoxicating vehicles with which to deal with their pain and breach the gap between the classic and romantic. As the #SaladGate riot bubble pops our culture's sense of entitlement and self-reliance with a pinpoint precision, country music's very conscience is being called into question.
Late last week, radio consultant Keith Hill made brazen and utterly sexist remarks that befuddled and angered the masses, particularly those that have championed outstanding female talent from the start.“If you want to make ratings in Country radio, take females out,” he shamelessly proclaimed in the May 26, 2015 issue of Country Aircheck. “The reason is mainstream Country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75%, and women like male artists. I’m basing that not only on music tests from over the years, but more than 300 client radio stations. The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component. I’ve got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19%." Those were only the warning shots, setting flame to the very fabric of country music, with roots stretching way back into the '20s. The early pioneering work of such storytellers as Minnie Pearl, Jenny Lou Carson, Sara and Maybelle Carter of The Carter Family, Patsy Montana (the first solo female to sell one million records) and Goldie Hill chiseled gorgeous melodies and grounded lives out of the cold earth. Much later, the impressive songbooks of Kitty Wells (the first female to notch a No. 1 on Billboard with her Hank Thompson-answer song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels"), Jean Shepard, Patsy Cline, Lynn Anderson, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton set in motion the barn-burning and authoritative female voice. Of course, that is only scratching the surface of the many influential women who have dared to retaliate in song to their domineering male counterparts. That's not to discredit the work of such powerful men as Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzel, Hank Williams, Red Foley, Webb Pierce, Ernest Tubb and others. It's extremely important for the sake of gender equality here to note both sexes and their impact on the storytelling medium.
But Hill's illogical comments didn't stop there. "Trust me, I play great female records, We’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females." Oh, I don't know about you, but it's the tomatoes and other various toppings that give salad the kind of zip that makes it satisfying. If, perhaps, Bryan, Shelton, Urban, Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean are, indeed, the lettuce of the format, you might want to check 'em for brown spots. I know when I'm taking inventory of my refrigerator and jotting down my grocery list, I make sure to toss out all the questionable leafy greens. Tomatoes, however, will make delicious pasta sauce, homemade ketchup or serve as the base for Bloody Marys later in the day. It's not that we don't need lettuce, it's just that we don't need as much of it to get the vital nutrients to live sustainable and happy lifestyles. Cutting back would be essential. That way, you can even add in some freshly sliced cucumber, juicy purple onions, warmly-baked croutons or a supple squeeze of lemon juice. Salad metaphors aside: it is this gross mentality that has deteriorated our culture, not only country music.
This music editor wasn't the only one whose feathers were ruffled beyond recognition. Country singers Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Jennifer Nettles, Kellie Pickler, Kacey Musgraves (among others) and Nashville songwriting titan Shane McAnally lapped their witty tongues into the metaphor milk for some slicing barbs via social media here, here, here, here, here, and here, respectively. Not Jake Owen, though, did sum up country radio's mantra rather nicely:
"Bro's Before Ho's" - Country Radio— Cake Bowen (@NotJakeOwen) May 29, 2015
Of course, Hill's dust-up was only beginning to clear when a radio personality named Carson Johnson, of WPCM 95.1 FM out of Burlington, North Carolina, made some bold comments of his own. "The fact that these women are so offended by this just shows that they don't even understand the industry in which they supposedly work," he had posted in the comments section on The Tennessean's own #SaladGate report. "Not playing two females back to back is not a new concept and it's not limited to Country Music. It's radio 101 in every format but CHR. It's not sexist, it's called playing what people want to hear, though Keith Hill did get his reasoning wrong. By playing two females back to back you burn your strong female songs in one place and they ultimately are heard by fewer people. Male listeners will flip the station if they hear too many females back to back, and yes, many women will react the same way. So if Jennifer Nettles, Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert, and all the others who are so righteously indignant would kindly get off your high horses and do your job- making good country music, I'll do my job- digging through the crap you send me to find the good stuff and playing it in a way that listeners will actually hear it with out flipping the station."
In a request for comment, Johnson so graciously shares a lengthy and honest response via email. The underlining problem can be traced to a far grander (and even more overwhelming) scale than at first thought.
Here is Johnson's complete, unedited statement:
First, I'd like to apologize a little, because I reacted quickly and strongly and then didn't explain my reasons. I didn't mean to imply that Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, or Jennifer Nettles are making bad music, but radio stations receive a LOT of new music and have to dig thru it all to find the gems. One only has to look at the string of hits each of those artists have to see that they are amazing artists. The artists quoted in the Tennessean made some pretty strong statements and I think they have every reason to be angry, but their anger is directed in the wrong place. They were effectively shooting the messenger. I think they reacted to the wrong problem and I think I reacted too quickly because what I saw was a fundamental misunderstanding of how the radio industry works. First, a little about why there are fewer females than males played on the radio.
In the Tennessean's follow up article I think Keith Hill did an excellent job of explaining how things work. A radio PD's job isn't effecting social change, but to play songs in such a way as to gain the most possible listeners. There has been a lot of time and money spent researching how best to do this. Hill gave a percentage that country station's libraries are only composed of about 15 to 20% females, and I think that's fairly accurate. It's not sexist on the part of the radio stations: a quick glance at the itunes top 100 charts shows that only about 18% of the most downloaded songs are female. The percentage of album downloads is even lower. That's not a subjective number, that's the music listeners are actually buying, not what a radio station PD thinks they want to listen to. If consumers are listening to 18% female artists then radio stations are only going to play about 18% females and to do that there has to be separation between songs to avoid burning them all in one place.
Do I wish it were different? Yes. I love female artists. They tend to be more versatile than most males, doing both ballads and hard rocking songs very effectively, but there is currently a shortage of them in country music. Are there a lot of good female artists out there not getting played on the radio? Yes, just as there are a lot of males not getting played.
There are a lot of factors that go in to artists getting played on the radio. A lot of it has to do with the record companies- starting with who they sign to which artists they decide to push heavily and how much money they have to promote them through tours and advertising. After that comes the way people listen to the radio and the way stations measure ratings. Most listeners don't want to hear a lot of songs by artists they don't know-they want to hear the big current hits- so new artists and songs have to be eased in to the play list. A lot of them don't make it past a few months of air play.
It doesn't always work. There are a number of artists that I keep scratching my head about why they don't get radio play, but unfortunately small stations in Piedmont North Carolina don't drive the Billboard Country Charts. Kacey Musgraves is a Grammy winning artist but she only has one top 10 hit. Aaron Watson recently caused a bit of a stir when Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton said "If you're not on country radio, you don't exist." Watson's album "The Underdog" then went to number one on the the Country Album Charts with very little radio play. He tweeted "hi, my name is Aaron Watson. I don't get played on the radio, but I've got the number one record in the country. I'd say I exist." And he is absolutely right. The question we should be asking isn't "why aren't females getting played as much as males on the radio". We should be asking "why aren't great artists like Kacey Musgraves and Aaron Watson, and the countless others getting played on the radio." I do my best to play these artists, but again, there's only so much a small station can do. The pressure needs to be put on the record companies and the stations in Nashville, New York, Dallas, Miami, and Los Angeles to to take a chance on them. That can only be done by the listeners. If they call their local stations and begin requesting these bands, the stations will begin to hear them.
I hope I've explained things a little more clearly, and I don't know if I've even scratched the surface of the problems here. There won't be a quick fix, it took years for things the get this way through a lot of contributing factors and it will take year and a lot more contributing factors to fix it.
Johnson brings up an interesting argument here: the larger issue is that of quality not getting a fair shake on the airwaves. As he pointed out, Texas red-dirt singer Aaron Watson's latest album The Underdog defied all odds, despite no mainstream terrestrial radio support and former Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton's own groundless "If you're not on country radio, you don't exist" torpedo, and launched at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums with 26,000 copies sold. This feat, in an age when streaming has nibbled away at the sales cookie, is an impressive one and speaks profoundly to the aching need for radio to realize the err of its ways.
Of course, you can't completely omit the female component of this problem. The lack of female support is a black plague that has only worsened in 2015. On the most recent Billboard Country Airplay Chart (June 6, 2015), there are only four female voices to be found in the Top 20: two of which are solo entries (Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini), one female-led group vocal (Little Big Town) and one guest performer (Grace Potter on the Kenny Chesney-helmed hit). Further down, you'll find Gloriana (#26) and Maddie & Tae (#28) songs the only other female-focused tracks to land within the Top 30. Meanwhile, extensive data research (as compiled expertly by MjsBigBlog writer Windmills Music) of radio surveys (encompassing negative, positive, passion, etc., scores) and this album sales snapshot of the past 20 years (thanks to the minds over at Country Universe) paint a rather different picture. There is a slice of the consumer audience that is rising up to be heard, and they won't go down without a fight. But despite Musgraves (as a lead example here) and all her work to reach well outside the Music City bubble to find a loyal fan base (such as a slot last August on pop singer Katy Perry's Pristmatic World tour), radio remains slow on the uptake. Her sales have trended well ahead of her male contemporaries, even with significantly lower airplay—she's managed a Top 10 radio hit (with her debut Merry Go Round) as well as a Top 10 single on the Hot Country Songs sales/airplay/streaming hybrid with Follow Your Arrow (which didn't even crack Top 40 on radio). That's a problem, and it doesn't just affect Musgraves and A-listers, especially if you've ever gone to a country show in Nashville.
The amount of talented females getting their hands dirty just to be heard is astounding. There is very little payoff for many of them, destined to live a life down on the honky-tonk strip each and every Saturday night for drunk tourists who probably could care less which Shania Twain cover song they're performing. Johnson's follow-up statement certainly cracks open a whole other can of rotten worms, which may take 10 or 15 years to eradicate, but the circling smoke cloud remains the same: this jarring self-fulfilling prophesy (that of unfamiliar female-voiced songs "seemingly" not testing well and thus being forced down in playlists) is not only detrimental to the female spirit but country music's rich history. The vibrant and groundbreaking work of Lynn, Wells, Anderson, Parton and many others would never have blasted through that barrier without radio, and the vast musical institution would only be that of someone's imagination.
How do we exact change on a format that is the very thread of American lifestyle and is as hard-headed as a bull plowing down main street? Well, championing fantastic and deeply-rooted females is a good place to start. The machinations of corporate country radio might never subside, but by seeking out and supporting great music, you give a voice to those who may not have had a working bullhorn to begin with. I suggest supporting and (most importantly) buying music from any of the following women:
Caitlyn Smith [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Meghan Trainor's Like I'm Gonna Lose You, Cassadee Pope's Wasting All These Tears, Garth Brooks' Tacoma, her own Grown Woman, Novocaine & Everything to You
Emily West [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Games, Bitter (below), Made for the Radio
Maggie Chapman [iTunes]
Notable tracks: It Should've Been You (below), Give Me a Minute, Unbreak
Kalie Shorr [website]
Notable tracks: Smoke and Mirrors (below), Young and Restless
Danielle Bradbery [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Heart of Dixie, Wild Boy, Talk About Love
Lauren Alaina [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Same Day Different Bottle (below), The Locket, Eighteen Inches
Faith Hill [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Cry, There You'll Be, Secret of Life, Stronger
Angaleena Presley [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Pain Pills, American Middle Class, Grocery Store, Surrender
Kristen Brassel [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Like a Waylon Tune (below), Undone
Trisha Yearwood [iTunes and GhostTunes]
Notable tracks: I Would've Loved You Anyway, Walkaway Joe, The Song Remembers When, End of the World, I Remember You
Maggie Rose [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Better (below), Preacher's Daughter, Looking Back Now
Kristen Kelly [iTunes]
Notable tracks: He Loves to Make Me Cry (below), Ex-Old Man
Sunny Sweeney [iTunes]
Notable tracks: From a Table Away, Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass (below), Bad Girl Phase, Backhanded Compliment
Holly Williams [iTunes]
Notable tracks: The Highway (below), Waitin' on June, Drinkin', Railroads
Jamie Lynn Spears [iTunes]
Notable tracks: How Could I Want More (below), Shotgun Wedding
Brandy Clark [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Stripes, Get High, Hungover, Hold My Hand (below)
Jennifer Nettles [iTunes]
Notable tracks: His Hands, Me Without You, Good Time to Cry
Jamie Lin Wilson [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Just Like Heartache, You Left My Chair, Moving Along
Reba McEntire [iTunes]
Notable tracks: She Thinks His Name is John, The Greatest Man I Never Knew, Fancy, The Feeling of Being Alone
Lee Ann Womack [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Send It on Down (below), The Fool, A Little Past Little Rock, When I Come Around
Kree Harrison [iTunes]
Notable tracks: All Cried Out, You Would've Wanted It That Way (below)
Mickey Guyton [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Better Than You Left Me (below), Why Baby Why
Laura Bell Bundy [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Two Step, That's What Angels Do (below)
Wynonna Judd [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Love Can Build a Bridge, No One Else on Earth, Tell Me Why, Girls with Guitars
Sara Evans [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Stronger, Slow Me Down, I Could Not Ask for More, No Place That Far
Taylor Edwards [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Bad Blood (Taylor Swift stomp cover; below), Over You (Lambert cover), Lucky You (Jane Dear Girls)
Linsday Ell [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Shut Me Up (below), Trippin' on Us
Kellie Pickler [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Ring for Sale (below), Selma Drye, Where Did Your Love Go, (new single) Feeling Tonight
Allison Moorer [iTunes]
Notable tracks: A Soft Place to Fall (below), Easier to Forget, I Ain't the One, Hey Jezebel, Dying Breed
Mary Sarah [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Bless Your Heart (below), Heartaches by the Number, Crazy Good
Sara Beth [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Do What You Say You're Gonna Do, I'm Sick of It (below)
Kelsea Ballerini [iTunes]
Notable tracks: XO, Secondhand Smoke (below), Love Me Like You Mean It, Stilettos
Cassadee Pope [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Wasting All These Tears, Let Me Go (below), 11, Champagne, I Wish I Could Break Your Heart
Loretta Lynn [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Coal Miner's Daughter (below), Rated X, The Pill, Fist City, Don't come Home a Drinkin' (with Lovin' on Your Mind)
Notable tracks: My Mistake, Burning House (below)
Lucy Angel [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Crazy Too (below), I'd Be Lyin', Run with Me
Jana Kramer [iTunes]
Notable tracks: I Got the Boy, Whiskey (below), I Dodged a Bullet
Megan & Liz [iTunes]
Notable tracks: That Ghost (below), Grave, Switch Hearts
Jamelle Fraley [website]
Notable tracks: Right Amount of Wrong (an Underwood co-write; below), Pull That Trigger, I Will Never Forget You
Maddie & Tae [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Sierra, Fly, After the Storm Blows Through (below)
Lindi Ortega [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Hard as This, Voodoo Mama, Lived and Died Alone (below), Heaven Has No Vacancy
Brandi Carlile [iTunes]
Notable tracks: The Story, The Eye, Alibi, Heroes and Songs, Dying Day, If There Was No You
Olivia Lane [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Love Thing, Steal Me Away (below), Mama Raised Hell
Annie Bosko [iTunes]
Notable tracks: Crooked Halo (below), Making Me This Way
Lambert, who is mounting her Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars all-women tour in the fall (details here), leaves a final tomato of thought:
I am gonna do everything in my power to support and promote female singer/songwriters in country music. Always.— Miranda Lambert (@mirandalambert) May 28, 2015
Editor's Note: I reserve the right to add to this strong list of empowering women at any time.