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The Struggle of Women in Country Music

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Check out our takeaways from a South By Southwest panel about the obstacles facing female country musicians. 

Story and photo by Courtney Runn

The past decade has not been kind to women in country music. From the proliferation of “bro country” that reduces women to mere passenger-seat riders to infrequent radio play and exclusion from music charts, female musicians have struggled to return to the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s when Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes and the Dixie Chicks ruled the country-music airwaves. During the South By Southwest panel Country’s Struggle to Define Women, Rita Ballou, Beverly Keel, Lorie Liebig and Priscilla Renea discussed the obstacles facing female country musicians and the future of the industry.

DEFINING THE PROBLEM

Music journalist and moderator Liebig started the panel with some stats and definitions. According to her research, there have been no women ranked on the Top 10 country list so far in 2019, and in December 2018, Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart did not feature any female artists in its Top 20, a first since the chart was created in 1990. Seventy-five percent of solo female artists are not even in the Top 30.

While a complex problem, Liebig cited the rise of “bro country” as one reason for the narrative surrounding country women. She defined the sub-genre as “a style of country music influenced by hip-hop, rock and R&B and featuring male vocalists singing lyrics celebrating themes such as drinking, women and pickup trucks.”

One example is Florida Georgia Line’s 2012 hit, “Cruise,” which includes the lyrics “Yeah, when I first saw that bikini top on her, she’s poppin’ right out of the South Georgia water, thought, oh, good Lord, she had them long tanned legs.”

In 2015, the group Maddie & Tae directly confronted this narrative with their song “A Girl in a Country Song.” With the refrain of “How in the world did it get so wrong?” they recount the ways women are framed in country songs and point out “Conway and George Strait never did it this way back in the old ways. … We ain’t a cliché. That ain’t no way to treat a lady.” 

Despite breakout success stories like that of Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris, female country musicians aren’t getting much radio play. Even stars like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert aren’t getting the hits and attention they once received. During the panel, songwriter and musician Renea pointed out even Taylor Swift struggled to break into the country world and faced countless rejections, but when she left country music, she was treated like a traitor. This pervasive dichotomy holds women back. 

Keel, a music journalist, professor and co-founder of Change the Conversation, an organization that fights for gender equality in country music, worries what kids are hearing on the radio now, that they’re hearing “songs about women, not by women.” 

FIGHTING STEREOTYPES

“We have to stop knocking on the door of the gatekeepers and say, ‘Let me in,’ ” Renea said. “That is total BS that there aren’t good songs coming from female songwriters.” 

All panelists agreed female musicians can’t wait until the powers that be deem them acceptable to join the club. There is a stereotypical image of a female country musician: small in stature and weight, blonde, conservative. Singers like Musgraves and Morris are bucking this look, but even they fit the mold to some degree. 

“We’ve got to stop judging women on their appearances,” Keel said. “Let women wear whatever they want to wear and don’t talk about it. I don’t see stories about what Keith Urban and Florida Georgia Line wear onstage. Let’s get to the art.”

From fighting long-held Southern values that women should be in the kitchen and act and look a certain way to physically not being in the rooms where men are making decisions, the panelists agreed women need to create their own space and stay true to themselves. 

“It’s a battle to get in the room,” Renea said. “It’s a battle to be in the room.”

Radio hits still determine career milestones, so rejecting the radio industry is not a viable option. Many industry heads don’t believe women want to listen to other women, but Keel pointed to the pop world, where Beyoncé, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna dominate the charts. Some men acknowledge this, like radio personality Bobby Bones, who released his series Women of iHeart Country to champion unknown female voices in country music and local radio stations like KOKE FM that give more equal airtime to women. 

“We’re an anti-bro station,” Ballou said of KOKE.

FINDING A SOLUTION

While there is not an overnight—or even yearlong—fix, Keel said the best way to support women is to buy their music, buy concert tickets, buy merch and, perhaps most importantly, don’t attack them on social media. 

“You’re allowed to like Carrie and Miranda at the same time,” Ballou said. 

The panelists continued to come back to the importance of women supporting each other and connecting with each other in the industry to carve out their own space. While it might be a slow path to reclaiming that space, women in country music are slowly beginning their march back to the top. 

While Morris’ new album is already enjoying success and Musgraves won a slew of Grammy Awards, women in country music are still searching for their golden hour. 

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