WP Popular Music Studies major Sarah Dinetz (she’s actually a double-major, adding English as well) recently completed a project in which compared the success of women in Country music. Read on to discover her findings.
Women in Country Music: From 2000s to Today
By: Sarah Dinetz
Imagine living in a world where men and women equally ruled the Billboard charts, had the same success in touring, and saw the same record-breaking album sales. In today’s country music, this seems like such a foreign concept, but that wasn’t always the case. Just fifteen years ago, seven different women held the number one spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart during a one-year period, 1999 (Billboard). Times have changed greatly, with female artists struggling to make their mark in country music in this male-dominated genre. It’s important to look back and see when and how that change occurred, and if this dry spell for women in country music can be broken.
Women have been icons in country music for years, from Loretta Lynn, to Kitty Wells, to Patsy Cline, but there was an undeniable surge of female country stars in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A look at the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts reveals shocking information. In 1999, Terri Clark, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina, Sara Evans, Dixie Chicks, Chely Wright, and Faith Hill all had number one country songs (Billboard). In 2001, Jessica Andrews was just seventeen years old when her song “Who I Am” reached the top of the country charts (Billboard).
Chuck Dauphin, a country editor for Billboard and recipient of the CMA Media Award, says that was “the beauty of the business” back then. Dauphin explains that country music was in a different place back then, and there were more opportunities for unknown, unsigned singers to make a name for themselves. From his years of experience within the genre, he attests to the fact that female artists were dominating in the 1990s, but that eroded quite a bit in the early 2000s, with artists like Shania Twain and Faith Hill seemingly backing off from the music scene. Dauphin cites Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan as the two artists that seem to have spear-headed this shift to what many refer to as “bro-country”, a popularity of male country artists singing about similar topics.
Starting back in 1999 and looking forward, the top country songs and the decline in women’s presence is undeniable. In 1999, seven female artists and one all-female group held the number one spot of the week on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. The year 2000 started off strong for women, with Faith Hill’s “Breathe” holding the top spot for the first five weeks of the year. Four other women had number one songs that year. Five women held the number one spot a total of six different times in 2001, and 2002 saw a decline with only two women having number one songs.
The year 2003 was the exception to women’s presence on the country charts. In 2003, which was dominated by two Toby Keith singles and a popular Alan Jackson/Jimmy Buffet collaboration, the only female act to top the charts was Dixie Chicks. But women came back strong in 2004, with Gretchen Wilson topping the charts for five weeks, along with four other women who had number one country songs. Each year from 2004 leading up to now, at least two women held number one spots on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. However, as of November 15th, the only female artists to have a number one song in 2014 were Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, with their collaboration on “Somethin’ Bad” (Billboard). The song topped the chart for just one week, making way for another stream of male artists’ songs.
Taste of Country’s new article, “The Women in Country Music Problem Isn’t Getting Any Better”, explains it all. Unlike those trends in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the opportunities for women in country music seem to be few and far between. In the article, they cite an interview with Trisha Yearwood, in which she said, “I feel like Reba McEntire came in and stormed all the doors and opened all the doors, and somehow, in the last ten years, somebody started closing the doors back” (Taste of Country).
Numbers throughout the article related to female country music releases in 2014 support that idea that Yearwood brought up. Jamie Lynn Spears released her debut single, “How Could I Want More”, and it peaked at number 55. Lucy Hale of Pretty Little Liars released a catchy tune called “You Sound Good to Me”, which only hit number 47. Even with large fan bases, these women haven’t been able to make their mark on the charts. The same goes for Kelleigh Bannen, Maggie Rose, Leah Turner, and Danielle Bradbery, among others. Even Jennifer Nettles, who had eleven top 10 songs as part of the duo Sugarland, only reached number 50 with her solo single, “Me Without You” (Taste of Country).
Trends within album sales definitely favor the idea that women no longer hold a candle to men in country music. According to CMT (Country Music Television), the best-selling country album for the first half of 2013 was Blake Shelton’s Based on a True Story, while the top-selling songs were Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” and Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” (CMT). The number two album of the year was Taylor Swift’s Red, with it continuing “to sell well due to significant pop exposure” (CMT). Out of the rest of the top ten albums, five of the eight were males, including Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan, and the other three were groups.
The only solo female artist in the top ten was Taylor Swift, whose tendency toward pop music had her almost in a genre of her own on her Red album. The trend with top 10 singles and albums has continued into this year, as “only one female artist that has released a song this year – [excluding Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, the top two female singers in country music]—has cracked the Top 30” (Taste of Country). It makes one wonder if it’s even possible for a female country artist to claim one of those top ten spots.
Social media statistics are also a more modern way to tell how artists are doing as far as creating fans and promoting their music. Take the men and women nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year at the 2014 CMAs (Country Music Awards). Each of the men nominated, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, and Blake Shelton, have over one million Twitter followers. However, only three of the five women who are supposed to be the most popular, most widely-listened to female artists of the genre have over one million Twitter followers. Martina McBride has just 600,000 followers, while Kacey Musgraves is sitting at just over 250,000 Twitter followers. This is just one small representation of a larger pattern within the genre.
Tour sales and bookings within country music show a similar idea. In country music, a newly popular concept for concerts is the MegaTicket. The MegaTicket is promoted by various country stations across the country, with the idea that you pay a certain price and gain access to all of the designated country concerts coming to the area during that summer, generally between six and eight concerts. 94.7 QDR, a popular country station in North Carolina, offered the MegaTicket this past summer, and out of all eight concerts, only one was a female artist, Miranda Lambert.
It was more common to see female artists’ names as opening acts, such as Sheryl Crow opening for Rascal Flatts and Cassadee Pope opening for Tim McGraw (QDR). It was a similar situation with the St. Louis, Missouri MegaTicket, only in this situation, there were no female headliners. The artists performing included Luke Bryan, Toby Keith, and Dierks Bentley, but the only female artists on the bill were openers Sheryl Crow, Leah Turner, and Cassadee Pope (KSDK).
Chuck Dauphin believes that these artists should strive to “want to add a little bit of everything to a concert bill”, and he’s not certain that these big name, headlining artists are doing that. He does acknowledge that male artists seem to be bringing mostly other males artists on tour, with the two biggest country tours of 2014 being Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, each with two male opening acts.
Over the past year, numerous country acts have toured, and the ratio of male to female artists supports the idea that women are no longer as dominant in country music. Luke Bryan played sold-out shows across the country on his That’s My Kind of Night Tour, with openers Cole Swindell and Lee Brice. After a long break from touring, Garth Brooks started up a new tour, with his wife, Trisha Yearwood, opening some of the shows. George Strait, hailed by many as the “King of Country,” toured across the country with big name openers such as Miranda Lambert, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, and Eric Church opening various shows.
Tim McGraw brought along openers Kip Moore and Cassadee Pope on most dates of his year-long tour, filling in some of the other shows with opener Jana Kramer. Following the release of his album, Old Boots, New Dirt, Jason Aldean set out on tour, bringing along Florida Georgia Line and Tyler Farr to open the show. However, despite the clear abundance of males in country music touring, females did not show the same presence on tours in 2014.
Lady Antebellum, a trio composed of two males and one female, continued their Take Me Downtown Tour, alternating between Kacey Musgraves, Kip Moore, Billy Currington, David Nail, and Joe Nichols as opening acts. Other tours throughout the year included Dierks Bentley and Jake Owen, with both tours having only male opening acts, including Chase Rice, Cadillac Three, and Jon Pardi.
The only female country artist to headline a major tour in 2014 was Miranda Lambert, whose opening acts were Justin Moore and Thomas Rhett for most shows (GAC). This is a far cry from just over a decade ago. In 2000, both of the top two highest grossing country tours contained female headliners. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s Soul 2 Soul Tour was number one, bringing in $49.6 million, and the Dixie Chicks’ Fly Tour was second for the year, grossing $46.1 million (CMT).
It is interesting to see how the trends have changed, and how it is less common in today’s country music to see a slew of female country artists have chart-topping songs, massive tours, and large fan bases. Nowadays, there seem to be three main female artists who dominate the country charts: Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Taylor Swift. With Swift making a genre shift to pop music, the question remains: who will take over that spot, or rather, will anyone? Can country music still produce another female superstar? Or is the genre already too male-dominated?
Chuck Dauphin believes that it will take time, but someone will eventually come along and “break down that door” like Taylor Swift did when she stormed onto the country music scene. Dauphin has realized throughout his time in the industry that “no one ever sees the next big thing coming” (Dauphin).
Something interesting to consider is the effect that singing competition shows, such as American Idol and The Voice, have played a part in launching these women into country music careers. Carrie Underwood won the fourth season of American Idol, launching her to superstardom, having released eighteen Number 1 songs (Rolling Stone). It is also important to note that Miranda Lambert got her start on Nashville Star, placing third in the show’s first season. Nashville Star was a show similar to American Idol, but specific to the country music genre, that ran from 2003 to 2008 (Country Weekly).
Cassadee Pope, one of country music’s rising stars, won season 4 of The Voice, and saw her first single, “Wasting All These Tears”, peak at number 5 on the Billboard Hot Country songs charts (Billboard). This was a remarkably high debut for a solo, female artist, and one that many attribute to her fan base from the hit TV show. She was also chosen as an opening act for Tim McGraw’s Sundown Heaven Town Tour in 2014, a spot that thousands of artists dream of having. Other female country singers from these TV shows, including Kellie Pickler, RaeLynn, Lauren Alaina, Danielle Bradbery, and Gwen Sebastian, have continued to try their hand at country music. But, one has to wonder: what does a girl have to do to catch a break in country music?
RaeLynn’s career after her singing show experience is a prime example of how post-show careers have changed since the days of Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. RaeLynn auditioned for season two of The Voice and became an instant favorite. Although she didn’t make the finals, she had the backing of Blake Shelton after the show ended, and eventually signed with Republic Nashville (Billboard). She has over 100,000 Twitter followers and was invited to open for Miranda Lambert, Blake’s wife and one of the three main female country music stars.
Yet, RaeLynn’s debut single, “Boyfriend”, peaked at number 32 on the US Country charts (Roughstock). In contrast, Swon Brothers, a duo that competed on season four of The Voice, found their debut single, “Later On” reaching number 13 on the US Country charts, selling over 200,000 copies (Roughstock). Why is that? Is it due to the general tendency of country music listeners to buy music by male artists?
One has to wonder if this is a trend that is only occurring in country music, or if all genres of music are dominated by male artists. Chuck Dauphin believes that “pop [music] seems to have a more equal footing” (Dauphin). This is backed up by the current Hot 100 Billboard Charts, where top 10 spots are held by Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off”, Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”, Selena Gomez’s “The Heart Wants What It Wants”, Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High)”, and Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder” (Billboard).
Female artists, including Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, and Adele, have seen hits in recent years, and newer female artists, including Meghan Trainor, Tove Lo, and Iggy Azalea, have gained traction and had top 10 hits within the past year. No such thing can be said for new, female country artists, with artists like Maggie Rose, Leah Turner, and Lindsey Ell struggling to make their mark on the country charts.
Maddie & Tae, a new country duo, saw success with their debut single, “Girl in a Country Song”, a song that pokes fun at the typical topics covered in male country artists’ songs. The success of this song, Chuck Dauphin explains, proves that there is a cry from country music listeners to “hear something different from songs about trucks and tan lines” (Dauphin). The song’s high debut on the charts may be a sign that country music is ready for change.
Looking over the past two decades, there is no single way to tell why country music has gone down the path it is on. From the days of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, to the current superstars, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, the role of women in country music has changed greatly. Country music was always a genre that was inviting to women, seeing the likes of Martina McBride, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Sara Evans, and Dixie Chicks emerge in the 1990s and 2000s. Singing competition shows seemed to help these emerging female stars, but now it seems that even these top-ranking show finalists can’t break into the genre. In today’s country music industry, statistics, chart rankings, tours, and album sales all contribute to the idea that country music has become a male-dominated industry, and we’ll just have to wait and see if this trend can ever be broken.
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