The return of women to country music

You wouldn’t necessarily know it if you listen to country music radio stations today when three out of four songs are male singers belting out homages to dirt roads, pickup trucks and girls in tank tops, but not so long ago there was a golden era of success for female artists in the genre. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw an explosion of high-charting singles by women like Shania Twain, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Martina McBride, and of course The Dixie Chicks. But it didn’t last, and in Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be (2022) journalist Marissa R. Moss lays out a case for why that starts with brute capitalism and ends with our old friend sexism with the obligatory soupçon of racism.

The consolidation of radio stations around the country under the umbrella of just a couple of big corporations — primarily Clear Channel Communications — meant that instead of local deejays at each station choosing music that most appealed to them and their listeners, programming was centralized. And the use of computer algorithms to construct those playlists made things worse. A programming operations manual spelled it out clearly:

I don’t want more than two ballads in a row. I want to avoid having more than two female singers in a row.

When you limit the number of tracks by women in any given hour to just a handful, that leaves a lot of talented artists fighting for just a few seats at the table, and it means especially that women of color are largely left standing out in the hall, not even in the room.

The sexism was best illustrated in 2015 by a deejay who said that women were the “tomato” in the country radio salad, while the biggest male stars were the “lettuce.” It’s a bad sign when an industry is so sure of its monopoly that it no longer has to hide how the sausage gets made.

The answer, so far, has been for female artists to stop trying to appeal to the chauvinists in the country-music establishment and especially the all-powerful country radio wing (where they were expected to endure men ogling them and making crude remarks about their physical attributes, and occasionally looking for other “favors”) and to appeal directly to audiences through Spotify and other streaming services as well as live shows. Moss gives readers a look at how some of the biggest names today (Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert, Mickey Guyton) have found success by refusing to compromise their artistic visions to placate an industry that wouldn’t want them even if they followed all the rules.

This is an engaging read, very breezy in style, and I would have finished it much more quickly if I hadn’t kept stopping to open up Apple Music and search for tracks by women artists that I wasn’t familiar with. I’m not going to lie: While I found a lot I like, others of these women make music that doesn’t particularly appeal to me, for all I admire their ability to create their own success. But that’s sort of the point: When you make room for more women, you make room for music that doesn’t all sound alike and doesn’t cater to the same narrow band of listeners.

The biggest critique I have is that this book really could have used an index. Moss tells the story of the artists she features in roughly chronological order, but that means any one person’s story is scattered across the whole book. It would have been useful to have a way to hone in on a particular artist or song or event without having the skim the whole book.

For me, as a fan of country music who has no interest in modern country radio, the takeaway from Her Country was to stop thinking of radio or chart success as the harbinger of quality. There’s lots of great music getting made out there, and pretty much all of it can be found on streaming services. And when you listen that way, you don’t have to put up with constant advertising interruptions or inane deejays breaking the spell.

(Note: I received an advanced copy of this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a fair and honest review.)

Published by Julia

I learned to read before I started kindergarten, and I haven't stopped yet.

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