I grew up listening to women on country music radio, from the mid-90s to the early 2000s, the heyday of Shania Twain, Terri Clark, and Martina McBride.
My mother’s country music fandom intertwined with her ardent feminism, and she used to teach me about issues like domestic violence, broken hearts, and the crisis of unpaid labor. We would trade off music in the car—I grew up in the suburbs and went to school far away, so we were in the car a lot, my identity grew connected to, and in opposition to, what was playing on the radio.
Today I live in the city and don’t have a car, but while my listening has strayed outside of commercial country, I still try to keep up with what’s on the radio. And wherever I am, I can listen to country stations for more than an hour without hearing any female voices. It’s the same with concerts—from the small indie gigs to the big festivals, nearly all the headliners are men, and most of the opening bands too.
WOMEN Nashville, an organization trying to work through this institutional misogyny, recently tweeted: “As 2019 singles continue to make their way up, it’s encouraging to see more women represented in higher percentages at the top of the chart. Solo/all-women: 23% Mixed: 6%.” The tweet was celebratory, progress from months where the chart had no women in the top 10. In an article for NBC News, country music data scientist Jada Watson noted that between 2000 and 2018 there had been a significant rise in disparity in the total plays accorded to songs by men and by women over the past two decades—increasing from a 2 to 1 ratio in 2000 to 9.7 to 1 in 2018.
However, it doesn’t mean that country music cannot still be a wily genre—that for all of its reactionary reputation, it can buck wildly when caught in a corner. Audiences exist outside of country radio’s conservative borders, and there are country women who address them by making difficult, genre-pushing work—including right now, the Dixie Chicks, Brandy Clark, Mickey Guyton, and Ashley McBryde.
The Dixie Chicks aren’t ignoring radio as much as radio is ignoring them. Once they were one of the most successful groups in Nashville, pushing narratives of women’s lives that had been ignored or avoided since the 1970s. They sang about domestic violence and teenage heartbreak and other things that people like Alan Jackson or Joe Diffie didn’t know or weren’t paying attention to. At a concert in London, during the ramp-up to the Iraq War, Natalie Maines told the sold-out stadium crowd that she was ashamed that the warmongering George W. Bush was president. The Chicks disappeared almost overnight, as radio stations hired asphalt rollers to destroy hundreds of their CDs in displays of public censure.
Three years later, the Chicks responded with an album that included the furious single “Not Ready to Make Nice” and a documentary called Shut Up and Sing. The documentary suggested a new road for the Chicks—they turned their backs on a genre that turned back on them, and started telling tales out of school. The new single “Gaslighter” lacks any of the country signifiers that their previous music had. Even more telling, it is produced by Jack Antonoff. who has become fashionable for people wanting to slide out of genre boundaries like Taylor Swift or St Vincent. The single is less angry than “Not Ready to Make Nice.” But they were right about Bush, right about Trump, and right about country music—if anyone has earned the right to tell the world “I told you so,” it’s the Dixie Chicks.
If the Chicks have to negotiate post-fame, then Mickey Guyton has to live continually in a world of what might have been. Guyton has been declared the next great artist in Nashville for almost a decade. Charles Hughes, the country critic, said as much in the Washington Post in 2015 . Living up to that hype means recording sweet songs, romantic songs, Christmas songs, and for all that work, her best chart performance of all time was “Better Than You Left Me,” which reached No. 35 five years ago. Guyton’s new single, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”, was delivered at the very center of Nashville, at the Ryman Auditorium, during the Country Radio Seminar, an industry conference where programmers and directors gather to hear new product. Guyton sings about racism, misogyny, homophobia, and how her daughter won’t be president, won’t really be safe, and isn’t going to get any “ever afters.”
Guyton got a standing ovation in Nashville, but it’s too early to see how the single will do. Guyton is making the best music of her career, and this single should be played and heard accordingly. Figuring out if the sales matter when the work is so good is an ongoing struggle for Nashville women—as a listener can hear in Guyton and the Chicks, but also with Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark.
Clark is the best story songwriter in Nashville today outside of maybe Jason Isbell and Shane McAnally. Though Clark has written for Keith Urban and Toby Keith, her best work skews to women’s stories and voices. She’s written the high Southern gothic found in the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” and the almost Sirkian melodrama of Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” two of the rare radio hits written and performed by women, as well as the masterful yet sadly underperforming “The Day I Got Divorced” for Reba McEntire.
Clark’s storytelling is first rate on her new album,Your Life Is a Record, but it’s more nuanced, trying to succeed both in Nashville and Americana circles. Her previous two records as a solo artist, 12 Stories from 2013 and 2016’s Big Day in a Small Town, were harsher and funnier, but this new one is lush, thick with a desire brought on by age and experience. Country music used to share tales of working-class pleasures, including working-class sex, which refused tidiness. Clark, in songs like the countrypolitan-hinting “Love Is a Fire,'' with its chorus of “We're already lit/So who needs a match/Just kiss me like kerosene/And let the whole damn thing catch,” returns that messiness to Music Row.
If “Love Is a Fire” is about letting desire take over, about making bad choices, “Pawn Shop” is just pure domestic sadness. Functionally it’s a reworking of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring,” centering on selling a wedding ring and later a guitar, as a tale of both loss and liberation. The work is deepened if the listener knows that Clark recently went through the breakup of a 15-year old relationship. But it’s also formalist and traditional: The best songs on Your Life Is a Record are more about remembering what country music can do than about Clark’s own heartbreaks.
Ashley McBryde's new album, Never Will, pushes against Nashville radio conservatism by embracing another kind of Americana sound. The debut single, “One Night Standards,” is again about adult pleasures—ambivalent, and positioned explicitly against the kind of no-strings dumbness of bro-country’s pleasure seeking. It’s a brave song, made braver by how disreputable the market finds these kinds of adult voices. McBryde also has a Southern gothic anthem of sex, called “Velvet Red,” about a moonshiner, which makes the back woods almost sinister—more Bobby Gentry than anything contemporary. McBryde’s work returns adult pleasures to a Nashville scene that has been populated recently by teenage boys.
What becomes most frustrating about listening to these four brilliant, quite different, and quite experienced artists, is knowing that they aren’t being given their fair chance—like the dozens of other talented performers who are treated equally badly, including Cam, Maren Morris (who had enormous pop crossover success with “The Middle”), Rae Lynn (one of the great torch singers, given the chance), Maddie and Tae (who are funnier than anything else on the charts), Yolo (black and English, she burns the line between country and soul), Ashley Monroe (speaking of adult pleasures, listen to her song “Hands On You”), or Whitney Rose (whose new single is hauntingly about women and incarceration).
But these are all artists you have to make an effort to find. Today’s radio listener doesn’t get the feelings that I remember from my mom listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” when she was working 13 hours a day or Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” or singing along together to Pam Tillis or Terri Clark or Reba McEntire. When such voices are missing from the radio, listeners don’t get those kinds of choices.