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Country music's 'year of women' myth (excerpt from CBC Music Magazine issue 1)

Holly Gordon

Country music is good at hiding its woman problem. Rattling off a list of female superstars within the genre is easy enough — Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, as well as newer additions like Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood — as there’s no shortage of talent on the female country musician roster. But if you’re looking to find those names on the airwaves, or the names of chart newcomers like Kacey Musgraves and female-fronted acts like Lady Antebellum or the Band Perry, you’re looking for the needle in country radio’s haystack.

Of the first 48 weeks in 2013, zero solo female acts held the number one spot on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. Two number one songs during that period featured a female artist (Tim McGraw and Swift with “Highway Don’t Care” and Blake Shelton with Pistol Annies on “Boys ’Round Here”), for a total of three weeks at number one. Women in a group fared a bit better, with a total of five weeks at number one (the Band Perry, Lady Antebellum and Thompson Square). Over on the Country Songs chart, T-Swift managed to be the only female to hit number one in all 48 weeks. For one week.

Despite this, in June, NPR’s On the Record coined 2013 “Country Music’s Year of the Woman,” citing a handful of reasons, including the success of both Lambert (“The Lambert Effect”) and close-harmony duos and trios with female members (Sugarland, Lady Antebellum). NPR also listed ABC’s hit show Nashville as a factor, a show that boasts two female country superstars as the leads and passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.

The list of pros has grown with the passing months. The 2013 Country Music Association Award nominations were dominated by women this year: Musgraves, Swift and Lambert were at the forefront with six nominations each, two of Lambert’s for all-female group Pistol Annies. (In the end, Lambert won for female vocalist of the year, Musgraves for new artist of the year and Swift won two awards for her song with Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care.”) Musgraves became the first solo female artist in five years to open at number one on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, making her the seventh female to ever do that in the last 22 years, which is how long Nielsen SoundScan has been tracking the numbers.

But what’s dominating the charts is something Jody Rosen, a writer for New York Magazine’s arts and culture site, Vulture, coined “bro-country” earlier this year: “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” He’s describing Florida Georgia Line, a male duo that has been atop multiple country charts with “Cruise” — a song about bikini-clad women with long, tanned legs that make the two men want to “Cruise.”

Examining the spin history (the number of times a song is played) on multiple radio stations across both Canada and the States results in a similar top 20 ratio of songs added in 2013: nearly all 20 spots boast male artists’ names, with Lambert normally showing up once — though she often doesn’t even make the top 10. (In the States, Swift usually also makes an appearance.)

Country station JR FM in Vancouver has a top 20 spin history that starts at numbers one and two with Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean, respectively, and ends with Dean Brody and Small Town Pistols (which has a female member) at numbers 19 and 20, as of the end of October 2013. Lambert lands at number 11 as the only solo female on the list, and at number 18 as the featured artist on Keith Urban’s “We Were Us.”

For JR FM’s program and music director, Mark Patric, the spin history of songs added in 2013 comes down to weekly research numbers, and the analysis that female musicians don’t test well with the station’s audience, roughly 60 per cent of which is made up of women over the age of 40.

Spin history is not only influenced by research, but also what Clay St. Thomas, co-host of JR FM’s morning show, calls “the sheep effect”: stations are influenced by other stations’ rotation lists, and make decisions accordingly.

But in addition to market testing and the sheep effect, there’s the pre-women’s suffrage-sounding rule that you can’t play two female artists back-to-back on the radio. St. Thomas says it’s not country radio-specific — a version of this unwritten rule has existed at other stations he’s worked with — but it’s prevalent enough.

“When it becomes that black and white, where you can’t have two of them next to each other,” says St. Thomas, “well then it sounds like you’re just being sexist, right?”

Follow Holly Gordon on Twitter: @hollygowritely