It’s 1999. I’m three years old and The Dixie Chicks hold the number one slot on Billboard’s Country Radio Airplay chart with “You Were Mine.” When my mom turns on the radio in the kitchen, the voices of Sara Evans, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, and Jo Dee Messina come through, familiar as my own aunties. This is the age of copycatting their sass and their twang, not tallying up representation. But if it had been, I would have known that nearly half of the top twenty spots were filled by female country artists.
Flash forward to 2019 and on that same chart, only Carrie Underwood and Kelsea Ballerini hold their footing – in the double-digits at that. The world in which Sara Evans could get more airplay with her ballad, “No Place That Far,” than Kenny Chesney’s beach-friendly (now-classic) “How Forever Feels” has completely vanished.
Where have the female country artists gone, one might ask? To the Grammys. Kacey Musgraves not only walked away with awards for the Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song but for overall Album of the Year. That “Space Cowboy,” the acclaimed country song of the year, peaked at number thirty and spent only six weeks on the charts is a glaring example of the discrepancy existing between what country radio will play and what the public values artistically.
Musgraves was not her genre’s lone female representative the night of the Grammys, either. Margo Price, Loretta Lynn, Maren Morris, Little Big Town, Kelsea Ballerini, and Ashley McBryde were all nominated for their talents. That they have found success in spite of radio support is a tribute to their drive as artists, yet this obstacle is only part of their stories because of gender.
By looking at Spotify’s “Hot Country” playlist, it is clear that their male peers are not having this problem. While the rise of bro-country hasn’t helped diversify the genre (and artists such as Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line are certainly present on this list), the variety of male voices on the Hot Country playlist such as an introspective Tim McGraw and the hip-hop dabbler Kane Brown shows that what’s considered “country” these days can be almost anything – as long as there’s not a woman in the vocal booth.
Musgraves’ Grammy recognition for her album Golden Hour isn’t just a turning point in her own career. Its success confronts country radio with the question that has been building in the minds of listeners for years now: will country radio continue to sideline an entire generation of talent or will it welcome these artists who have learned to find acclaim elsewhere? Golden Hour’s popularity shows that Country Radio’s good ol’ boys club may gatekeep the airwaves, but not a record’s overall success.
It’s 2019 and I still scan the radio hoping to land on strong female voices echoing those I knew so well in my childhood, even though I’m met with an interchangeable Blake Shelton hit more often than not. Musgraves’ night at the Grammys gives us hope that this will change soon.