Women Don’t Want to Hear Women? Country Music History Proves Otherwise
A common argument in favor of the lack of gender diversity on commercial country radio claims that women don’t want to hear other women’s songs. Most associate the notion with radio programmer Keith Hill's 2015 analogy on what drives radio ratings -- ”The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females” -- but Hill’s still-controversial take simply shared a preexisting notion that’d already spread throughout country radio, an influential business model that’s become increasingly homogenized since the 1990s.
The "women don't want to hear women" argument, however, plays off false stereotypes about catty women looking for excuses to undermine their rivals or preferring negative gossip over mainstream success stories. While some fans may very well prefer listening to their favorite male heartthrobs, it’s beyond unfair to assume that all women onstage or in the audience represent this absurd expectation. Plus, looking at the recent research of Dr. Jada E. Watson for SongData, with consultation from WOMAN Nashville, it’s hard to believe that enough women are even getting airplay to properly judge their impact on ratings.
In fact, the history of country music tells of selfless women willing to help their peers, even at times when there were only so many spots for “girl singers” on tours, record label rosters and variety television shows. This welcoming attitude overshadows any normal, human senses of jealousy and establishes that groups such as the Highwomen carry on a campaign for a “Crowded Table” begun by Mother Maybelle Carter, Dolly Parton and other legends.
The history of country music tells of selfless women willing to help their peers, even at times when there were only so many spots for “girl singers” on tours, record label rosters and variety television shows.
Mother Maybelle held arguably the first spot carved out for a woman country star, and so many stories about her life and career paint her as a benevolent person with no signs of jealousy. Because of Maybelle’s status among great guitarists in popular music history and her cousin Sara’s influence as a vocalist, both women’s contributions still permeate most things defined as country music.
Beyond the Carter family legacy, such behind-the-scenes women as Jimmie Rodgers’ widow Carrie, songwriters Cindy Walker and Elsie McWilliams and industry insiders Connie Bradley and Frances Preston selflessly shaped the course of country music for all performers. Those four influencers alone make historic country music anything but a masculine art form.
Women became more prominent as country music performers in the 1960s, beginning with Patsy Cline's well-earned Nashville success. Instead of protecting her spot and snuffing out the momentum of others, though, Cline and her producer and ally Owen Bradley saw the advantage in helping such talents as Barbara Mandrell, Brenda Lee, Dottie West and, most famously, Loretta Lynn.
The Cline-Lynn friendship plays a big role in country music history, and it inspired Lynn’s own openness to helping up-and-coming talents. In her own, blunt way, Lynn put over Cline’s kindness in the 2016 PBS documentary Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl: “She’s given me a lot of clothes,” Lynn explains. “That might have been what she was trying to tell me: dress better. But I wore a pair of panties she gave me for four years, and I don’t know how long she had them. I never did wear these panties out. I finally just kept them. There ain’t no way to wear them out.”
The value of these support systems goes beyond the benefits of friendship and peer support, though. The highly publicized sexism faced by Taylor Swift and others in the music business existed back then as well: For example, Tammy Wynette — a future friend to Faith Hill — encountered at least one indecent proposal while shopping for a record deal, and “Harper Valley PTA” singer Jeannie C. Riley once had a producer shorten her dress without her consent before an awards show. In retrospect, Cline and Lynn’s offers of friendship likely helped women know of industry slimeballs in advance. Sadly, such advice would still suit a lot of businesses today.
Beyond harassment, women were often slotted into a secondary “girl singer” role on television shows hosted by men, with examples including Lynn on the Wilburn Brothers’ show and Parton’s partnership with Porter Wagoner. Many stars like Wagoner, a mentor to Chely Wright and others in future decades, meant well, even if they benefited from lingering and limiting expectations for women. As recording artists, the varied talents of women including Connie Smith got overshadowed when record execs stuck them with childish album titles (for example, Cute ‘n’ Country).
Since the ‘70s, some of the better examples of women banding together come in the form of vocal groups. The Trio project teamed cross-genre celebrities Parton and Linda Ronstadt with country traditionalist Emmylou Harris in a sign of solidarity. That group and Lynn, Parton and Wynette’s 1993 album Honky Tonk Angels involved stars of equal footing, so they said less about successful women uplifting potential stars than a couple of recent examples; on the other hand, both all-star teams proved that jealousy doesn’t necessarily run rampant among superstars.
With the Pistol Annies’ 2011 debut, Miranda Lambert selflessly offered lesser-known friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley an enviable spotlight. Currently, worthy songwriter and singer Natalie Hemby is gaining immeasurable exposure and credibility from her fellow Highwomen: crossover pop sensation Maren Morris, Americana tastemaker Amanda Shires and critical favorite Brandi Carlile. And those are just two high-profile examples of famous women using their platform to help other talented women get heard.
Beyond groups, some bigger names selflessly used their solo platforms and bands in the post-Patsy-and-Loretta landscape to help others. For examples, see Parton’s very existence and Alison Krauss’ kindness toward the Cox Family, Sierra Hull and others.
In 2019, the fight for equality finds younger stars helping legends in a business notorious for ignoring older recording artists: Margo Price producing a forthcoming album for Jessi Colter and Carlile’s work with Tanya Tucker, for example. For busy artists like Price and Carlile, it would be easier to dismiss these legends and claim their spots than to do the right thing. Fortunately, both continually prove their desire to hear more women.
These examples plus numerous untold stories of women in country music should bolster recent positive gains, from the all-woman co-hosting team assembled for this year’s CMA Awards to the encouraging inclusion of Lambert and Carrie Underwood in 2020's Country Radio Seminar, while dispelling a particularly ugly and false conception.
Lambert in particular serves as a great final example of women wanting to hear other women: "We’re just asking to be heard, that’s not that much. It’s just being heard in [prime listening hours] – that’s all it takes," Lambert shared with Pollstar earlier this year. "Because if people really hear it, they know; they remember and respond. We’d love to have that radio play, because it helps a ton.
"And if you get on board with the new artists, especially for the young girls listening," Lambert added, "you give that [music] to a lot of passionate women looking for their own lives [on the radio].”
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