"If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out."
That was radio consultant Keith Hill’s advice in a May 2015 interview for Country Aircheck, a Nashville-based industry journal. He went on to say that "the lettuce in [our salad] is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females."
It was another comment on the pile against women in country music, a topic that’s been referred to as "country’s war on women" or country music’s problem with women. The articles all point to the signs: women aren’t well represented on country radio, in award recognition or taken seriously in a genre that includes the term "bro-country." There are plenty of women in country music — they’re just being pushed back.
Ontario-born/Nashville-based Lindi Ortega was not having it after reading Hill’s interview. She penned an op-ed titled, "I Say, Include Women," stating, "There comes a time when ethics must outweigh capitalistic interests."
Ortega has long been outspoken on this (we interviewed her for a story a couple of years ago called "Country music's 'year of women' myth"). With the Canadian Country Music Association Awards in Halifax this weekend, we asked Ortega to come into the studio for a conversation with fellow Canadian country star Kira Isabella about being called the tomatoes in country music’s salad — and why we still need to talk about "women in country" in the year 2015.
I want to get right into it, I was hoping you could talk about this thing that's been called "the war on country music," which is pretty heavy. I want to know what you two have experienced, personally.
Kira Isabella: Looking at it from the perspective of spending most of the beginning of my career in Canada and then going over to Nashville, I think that there's something to be said about the Canadian industry right now that's really exploding and I think that it's accepting women a little bit more than it maybe used to. I'm not sure how I feel about the States. I think the country demographic, for some reason we have this mindset that we're performing to women, that women are the ones who are gonna buy the tickets and come in, buy drinks at the concert and be the fans, be the really die-hard fans. Women that are freaking out over Luke Bryan, or whomever. And I think that maybe we're thinking that we have to gear this music toward women, so that’s why there's so many men on the radio. From writing in Nashville there's so many women writing and doing amazing things. Why aren't we hearing more of them on the radio, why aren't they on the chart?
Ortega: Country music up until the 1950s was a good ol' boys club and it was women like Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn that started speaking about women issues and women were relating to those issues. And they were talking about divorce and the pill and stuff like that and it seems that the content has shifted so much and I find it so crazy that the idea that is being purported by people like radio programmers like Keith Hill, who are saying that [men] is what women wanna listen to, and it's like I don't believe that. I think that women actually would love to hear other women speak about issues that are affecting them and women experiences for sure.
Isabella: Totally, oh my gosh. [Ashley Monroe], I love her, she's one of my favourite examples of that. She has a song called "Weed Instead of Roses" and it's like, why is it that I only can sing about goin' out and tailgating at night and lookin' cute for my man and wanting to do this? Why do I just have to sing about that? Why is it so shocking when I put out a song like "Quarterback"? Why is it such a big deal that we cannot touch on a subject like this because I'm a woman? Because I'm this fragile, dainty whatever, but I'm not. It's so frustrating.
Ortega: Well I think they look at it in the radio world like you're taking such a big risk and it was also seen as taking such a big risk back in the '50s, '60s, '70s, but people did it and it was accepted and people wanted to hear it and I think the difference is that, in country radio, when you have radio programmers espousing this rhetoric of take women out —
Isabella: — and being the only ones who have that opinion and have that control.
Ortega: They talk about it as if, OK, it's a trend, this bro-country thing is a trend or whatever, and if there's the pendulum, they're taking out the whole other side, so there's no way that it can swing to the other side if it's being manipulated by radio programmers like Keith Hill. Sorry, I keep bringing him up but he was the one who said that women are tomatoes in the salad of country music —
Isabella: — we're the Canadian tomatoes apparently.
Ortega: Yeah but I just think the whole idea, that whole phrase, "Take women out," is so damaging to not just country music and to the genre itself, but to women in general and equality. I mean the fight's not over for women in equality. We're still fighting. And maybe when that fight's over, then there could be a trend of "only men in music" and it could go for a certain number of years or whatever, but that fight's not over so I think we can't afford to perpetuate that message.
Right, so when you're sitting on this side of things — you're making the music, you're trying to push forward but then you have programmers who say, "I can't play two songs in a row that are by women" or "I can only have five songs in an hour," that sort of thing. How do you put women back in?
Ortega: Well I think you have to equate that to other issues that might sound a little bit more hard-hitting, but imagine if it was a race thing. It's like, how is it any different? If somebody said, "Oh, we can't play two songs by a black person back-to-back?" It's still as damaging, to be able to do that. And I think it's up to the consumer, the person listening to the music, to not let the programmers sort of manipulate country radio and they have to demand that they want to hear women and they want to hear songs that are speaking to them in other ways.
Isabella: Yeah, I think that they do. Speaking back to my experience in Canada, as well, it's this funny mentality that women have, that girls have, that other girls aren't going to like them. Especially if I'm going up there and I'm singing my butt off and I'm really working at what I'm doing and for some reason there's always a girl in the audience who has her arms crossed who doesn't like it. What I experienced when I started touring across Canada is that women want to accept women. Women feel empowered by other women up there doing it. And it's a really, really exciting thing. And I think that women need to speak up more.
Ortega: Women need to but country radio listeners need to as well. When they talk about statistics — and that's what Keith Hill's whole thing was — and it's like OK, but statistics aren't set in stone, they're always changing. Because the music is constantly changing and evolving and so I mean, if you look not long ago when Shania Twain and who's the other —
Isabella: — Faith Hill, Martina McBride. There's that whole wave. That's what inspired me to write.
Ortega: There was a huge wave. I feel like right now, it seems like it's such a big risk that people are taking to do something a little bit different, and sing about things that are a little bit deeper, as opposed to this frat-boy party scene that's happening all the time.
On that note, bro-country is giant. Do you think that it plays into the fact that women aren't heard as much on radio? Do you think those are two separate things? How do you experience that.
Ortega: I would just say that I feel that sometimes the message in bro-country is a little bit perpetuating negative ideals of women.
Isabella: No kidding.
Ortega: Like you gotta wear tight, painted-on jeans and basically be a decal for somebody's truck and I think that we — obviously you're listening to us talk right now — have so much more to say and we're not just sort of dumb arm-pieces for people.
Isabella: Yeah, and I think we have to present ourselves in a certain way, we're performers, and we need to look a certain way and I think that sort of plays into it as well a little bit. People kind of come and see me in my high heels and my big hair and a dress or fake eyelashes or whatever and they kind of think well, hmm, I've seen all that this person has to offer. That's kind of all that there must be, because of my outward appearance, and I think that there's so much more than that. I mean, look at Carrie Underwood, look at Miranda Lambert, look at Kacey Musgraves. I mean, I love what she's doing. I think she is doing some pretty incredible things for women in country right now. She's singing about so many things that I would love to, you know?
Ortega: And she's been getting really great press, and her profile has been rising so much and winning awards and everything which is great, it's sort of paving the way for things to change.
Isabella: And she's very girly, she has this amazing kind of old-school western country thing going on, but people are taking her seriously. Why can't we show that fun, endearing side of us but still be taken seriously as an artist?
Right, and it's in a country where you have Florida Georgia Line and Kacey Musgraves co-existing. Does Canada have something missing that it needs to push forward? There's no one giving that sort of profile attention to, say, either of you, to push forward what you're doing, as your music is different.
Ortega: I feel like Canada sometimes is a little bit reflecting of what’s going on in the United States in music, and I really wish Canada would absorb more of their own culture and their own amazing artists out there and push them more for what they're doing and what's unique to them and unique to being Canadian artists.
Isabella: That being said though, I think even the Canadian country industry, like my first CCMA I came to was five years ago, this is my fifth or sixth I think. And I was one of the only women on the carpet. At that point it was just Terri Clark and Carolyn Dawn Johnson and those women that were really kind of doing it. Dean Brody was out, Johnny Reid was doing his stuff, and then this whole new wave came, of Lindi and Jess Moskaluke and Mackenzie Porter and I. And I think that it really is kind of starting to become its own though, it's an exciting thing to see, but it definitely has been in the past years reflective of the [States]. But it's nice to see that I think Canadians are starting to really be a little bit more prideful of their artists and their industry.
Ortega: Well that's a good thing, that's definitely how it should be. I mean, obviously you'd know more about it than I do, for sure, because I exist I guess more in the roots world of country. But it's definitely encouraging to hear that there's a love for one another as musicians and female artists and hopefully everybody else picks up on that. And hopefully the U.S. will take note of us Canadians.
What was the first time that either of you experienced that you felt a little bit "other," where you weren't like all of the guys who were on the red carpet?
Ortega: I mean, not so much with country music itself but as a woman in music, I've had sound guys that won't even look at me or talk to me.
Isabella: Yeah, they'll look at our music director instead of us, you know, because we don’t actually know what we want or what we're doing.
Ortega: And then you make a suggestion because you've been touring and you know what the sound levels are supposed to be and what effects you want on your vocal and they look at you like you're from outer space. That's a bit tough because we are experienced and we work hard and we know our game. And we work it.
Isabella: And I think any woman could probably say that they've experienced it in every aspect of their life, in some aspect of their life, and it's not different for us. It's the sound guy, it's the promoter who just second-guesses your ability, you know what I mean? They've hired you to come and do this, but we want you to smile and look pretty but that's pretty much all.
In a genre like country — but also in music in general — how does it change? How do you approach that?
Isabella: I think it's the way that you approach it. I just don't let that happen to me anymore. I try not to think about it. I try not to think, “Oh this person must be thinking that I don't know what I'm saying” or whatever. I relay the message that I want to and then I stop thinking about it.
Ortega: I think you just have to prove that you do know what you're talking about.
Isabella: You've just gotta stand your ground, I think. You have to get your stage legs and be treated like that a million times and just learn how to deal with it. I'm fine with that, it's OK. I want to work up and work to my place in this industry.
Ortega: I just hope that there is a time that we come to where we don't have to discuss things like this. Because I don't think guys ever get asked the question, "What's it like to be a man in the country music world." We shouldn't have to be sitting here, this fight should be long over.
Isabella: This shouldn't even be acknowledged.
Ortega: This fight should be long over.
Isabella: We shouldn't even have to talk about it anymore. It shouldn't be a topic.
Though we still ask artists about it because we want people to realize oh yeah, this is a thing that we need to fix.
Ortega: Absolutely, that's not to say that we shouldn't be talking about it, we absolutely have to talk about it right now, it's just a shame that we are still, in this day and age, discussing how we are being pushed out of the radio world of country music in a world where we're still fighting for equality. And equal opportunity. And we're not getting it and it's unfair.