2018 In Review: Country Music’s Woman Troubles Were Americana’s Gain

Dec 11, 2018

It’s a time in America when fights that felt settled, struggles that felt vindicated, are back. Maybelle Carter, Loretta Lynn and Reba did not travel and travail to leave to their heiresses a country music business that looks like it did in 2018. Women in Nashville aspiring to write and record country music for a living end the year incredulous and exasperated.

Billboard published a country airplay chart last week with no women in the top 20 for the first time since its inception in 1990. A few weeks prior, the industry convention Country Radio Seminar put forth a slate of nominees for its coveted New Faces show in early 2019. It featured 12 men and one woman eligible for what is regarded as a vital career stepping stone in the industry.

These twin debacles followed years of media coverage of and public outcry about country music’s systemic sidelining of female artists. Country radio leaders knew they were in the spotlight and on the hot seat. Yet their biggest trade association, instead of showing some effort to leap over an already low bar, managed to limbo under it.

“How could you look at that (New Faces) list and not see a red flag – that you were going to get heavily criticized for having one female?” said CMT’s senior vice president of music and talent Leslie Fram. “No one on that board said this is an issue?”

Fram’s become one of the industry’s authorities on this hot topic. Nearly four years ago, along with MTSU Department of Recording Industry Chair Beverly Keel and music publisher/artist manager Tracy Gershon, Fram founded Change The Conversation, an advocacy group “to improve the environment for women in country music.” It has spearheaded showcases and panel discussions, partnered with the talent development group Song Suffragettes and fostered media coverage of systemic industry discrimination.

In a joint interview with WMOT, Fram and Gershon said while their efforts have empowered a talent community, the industry is backsliding compared to a decade ago, in a kind of race to the bottom between radio and record labels. “We’ve kind of depleted our inventory,” Gershon said “When the labels stopped signing so many women we didn’t get as many women superstars, so now we have a lot of new artists. So we have to catch up. And how’s that going to happen? Somebody’s going to have to take some steps. Diversity comes with action.”

Today’s gender equity consternation puts the distance and difference between country music and Americana in starker relief than anything since the genre debates around O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the early 2000s. Records by women are playing on country radio about one tenth as often as men, shedding new light on the old question of what country music is and how it functions in the larger Nashville music ecosystem.

For years, young artists migrating to Music City to seek a career in writing and performing have faced an awkward dilemma, a fork in the career road. The commercial country music format and major label system has historically offered the highest upside for fame and wealth, only through a narrowing set of gatekeepers and stylistic restrictions. The other direction, signified by independent music companies and exposure through Americana, folk or bluegrass, encourages far more artistic freedom and offers a more plausible path to a sustainable long career but fewer discernable paths to arena scale stardom.

At some point, country music’s confines were bound to make Americana become the obviously more viable career path for women with ambition. Jessie Scott, WMOT’s program director and a radio industry veteran, says that’s been happening and that country’s oversights are increasingly Americana’s gain. “Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark – a whole lot of ladies – kind of hit their heads against the country music wall,” Scott said. “They could not make an impact. Could not get airplay. And they gravitated to Americana, where we have opened up our arms.” 

Scott says when she created satellite radio’s first Americana channel in the early 2000s, the genre had only a handful of signature female artists, including Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Nanci Griffith. But the ladies’ bench wasn’t deep, and some listeners complained that the playlists skewed male. But the field was fertile for talent development, and women began riding it to career success, including recent breakouts like Amanda Shires, Margo Price and Brandi Carlile, outspoken feminists all.

The Americana professional community is generally politically progressive and vocal about a desire for equal opportunity for all. Whether that translates into actual gender parity in the business is another question. A randomly-selected three-hour morning block from last week on WMOT featured 29 men and 13 female or mixed duo acts. A late November Americana singles chart got the attention of journalist and broadcaster Kelly McCartney. She took to Instagram with an image of the chart and the commentary: “It makes me crazy that, of the 20 artists on this week’s chart, only 4.5 are women…It’s not hard to feature great female artists. It’s not hard at all. They are making some of the most exciting roots music out there.”

The Americana Music Association replied to queries from WMOT about the issue generally with a statement that says the trade group: “has prioritized gender balance for many years. We have instructed committees within the organization to address this balance at the start of each planning cycle. With an office staff comprised of five women and two men, and a gender balance of 50/50 representing our board of directors, our decisions are made collaboratively to achieve our mission to advocate for the authentic voice of American Roots Music.” AMA also pointed to the many women who’ve been honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards (five in 2018 alone) and its ratio of more than 40% of its formal showcases performed by female acts last Fall.

The AMA produced "Pioneering Women of Americana," a special event in Brooklyn that paid homage to Patsy Cline, Bessie Smith, Carole King, Mahalia Jackson, Emmylou Harris and others through an all-star, all-female artist lineup. That was one of a number of events that marked 2018 as a year of consciousness raising and activism. In January, Rolling Stone published a long investigative piece by Nashville’s Marissa Moss about the institutionalized sexism that’s made radio tours degrading for up and coming female country artists. NPR ran a year-long Turning The Tables series spotlighting women from the past and present who merit more attention in the estimation of its female journalists and radio hosts. Brandi Carlile, newly feted with six Grammy Award nominations, organized the first Girls Just Wanna Weekend, a festival coming in January in Mexico with an all woman lineup.

Online, the issue trended all year, fueled by outspoken accounts such as @women_want_more and @BookMoreWomen. The latter focused on gender disparity at festivals, which are essential career builders. Her viral GIFs on Twitter and Instagram show festival posters morphing from their full lineups to only the female names, at which point many look rather sparse. “I was inspired to start doing this after the Firefly festival 2018 lineup was released in January,” said BookMoreWomen, who asked to remain anonymous, in an email exchange. “There (was) only one woman out of the first 23 acts listed.” She credits an Australian Instagrammer called @lineupswithoutmales for the concept, and she says she’s been bolstered by the support of artists and fans who’ve shared her memes. A regular festival-goer herself, she says “making these spaces more inclusive and representative is the ultimate goal for me.”

One of the most aggressive changes coming from inside the music business is taking place in the trade group for independent record labels, the A2IM. It recently announced that at its summer 2019 convention, “CEO Dr. Richard James Burgess will make sure that at least 50% of all positions during the week are held by women on all levels of employment, including: performers, presenters, all crews, speakers, panelists, janitorial staff, security, etc.” Burgess told WMOT the commitment answers the call of the PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative, an international campaign for voluntary parity at music conferences and festivals. “We thought this is a really great initiative and we know we can meet this deadline,” he said. “The deadline was gender balance in 2022, but I was committed to 2018, and we achieved it. My thing is, we’ve got the Time’s Up movement, and time’s substantially up. Honestly, I think this should have been done decades ago. I can’t change the past, but at least I can make a small contribution toward changing the future.”

Nashville journalist Jewly Hight said, “I look at 2018 as a year when awareness of the gross inequality of things like radio airplay in country music reached the point where even very casual observers were aware of it.” Hight is the author of Right By Her Roots: Americana Women And Their Songs and a top reporter on issues of gender and inclusion in music. This year’s advances, such as they were, are “a product of the fact that there have been conversations and initiatives that have been going on for years now.” Hight observed that while Americana artists and stakeholders may frame their concerns as a moral cause, the advocacy in country music tends to be about cold, hard business. “People are advocating for career opportunities,” she said. “They need to speak the language of numbers. Because people in the commercial radio industry are not concerned with justice or injustice or parity. That’s not what motivates them.”

Hard numbers are indeed among the developments to watch for in 2019 says Change the Conversation’s Tracy Gershon. “We kept hearing about (radio) research that said women don’t want to hear other women,” she said. “We don’t believe it and we haven’t seen any of it. We’re like ‘All right, maybe we need to get research that says that’s not true.’ And that’s what we’re working on. If people want to listen to research, and that’s what they go by, let’s give it to them.”