It’s 85 degrees out as dusk lowers itself onto downtown Nashville. A breeze slowly wends its way through the crowd, roaming around the hordes of young women in short-shorts, every article of clothing possible covered in fringe, perfectly curled hair rolling down their backs, blindingly white grins open wide as they take selfies. Almost as many fully grown women are wearing similar outfits—no black, only bright colors and tiny purses, per the bag rules of the football stadium they’re queuing up to enter. The men are less interestingly garbed (as is usually the case), donning cargo shorts, flip-flops, trucker hats, and American flag cut-off t-shirts. There are cowboy boots everywhere.
It’s the first night of LP Field shows during CMA Fest, the Country Music Association’s annual festival devoted to, yes, country music, and basically everyone’s tanked and feelin’ good. The energy’s high after a day of free concerts and mostly sunny skies, and that doesn’t change as the night goes on: the atmosphere mimics the songs entertaining the crowd, about drinking and partying and having a good time with someone you love (or at least like a lot). Radio newbie Sam Hunt croons his way through crossover hits; Rascal Flatts sweat their way through songs like “Life Is A Highway”; Dierks Bentley displays his best pelvic hip thrusts and odes to alcohol; Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line struggle to take “the biggest selfie in the world,” something several other acts that weekend will go on to have a hard time with as well, obviously by request from the powers that be. (“You can’t give a redneck a technology stick and tell him to work it in front of 70,000 people! That don’t work,” one of them says.)
The evening ended with Jason Aldean, known best outside of the country world for taking his music off Spotify and joining Jay Z’s TIDAL, claiming that his success wasn’t entirely a sure thing. “I don’t think it’s any secret that sometimes we put out songs that are a little left of center, not right down the middle,” he said. This is a man whose last number one hit was a softly-sweet but sexy ode to a woman he wants to fuck. Sure, it has nary a mention of a tractor, but perhaps its only in country music that a song like “Burnin’ It Down” could be described, however vaguely, as “a little left of center.”
That first night, my closest seating companions were a pair of drunk men nearby, who spent their time whispering obviously to each other about what on earth this twenty-something wearing mostly black and sipping, not chugging, a Bud Light tallboy was doing at this show. But other than those bros, women were everywhere; screaming for Dierks Bentley, sighing over Sam Hunt, singing along with Jason Aldean.
None of the women were onstage, though. Not this night.
“We’re just hanging around/Burnin’ it down/Sippin’ on some cold Jack Daniel’s/Jammin’ to some old Alabama with you, baby/Laying right here naked in my bed” —Jason Aldean, “Burnin’ It Down”
The past few years have seen a proliferation of articles about where, exactly, the women are in mainstream country music. They’re around, for sure, but they’re not getting the attention they want or deserve en masse, critics of the industry say—the attention artists like Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton or Faith Hill or Reba (depending on your generation) once had, most especially on the radio, which drives sales.
CMA Fest is a hallowed tradition in Tennessee; it started in 1972 as an event called Fan Fair, where country music fans would line up to meet and greet their favorite stars, grabbing autographs and pictures. Hosted by the Country Music Association, the event has expanded drastically in size, including the televised CMT Awards, four nights of ticketed concerts at LP Field featuring extensive lineups of country’s biggest names, plus free shows all day long at a variety of stages starring smaller acts and many big names as well. The LP Field shows aren’t the most important or noteworthy parts of the festival by far, but the money from them goes to fund music education programs. All artists perform at CMA Fest for free, and according to the CMA Foundation, they’ve donated over $11 million to such programs since 2006. This year, tickets sold out historically early.
If you look at just those LP Field shows, this year’s CMA Fest was nearly identical to last year’s: 14 of the 21 performers scheduled to perform were on the lineup last year, as the Nashville Scene pointed out in March. At that time, a measly four women were on the docket; in the ensuing months, a few more artists were added, bringing the total up to 25 acts, with eight women performing, including Saturday night’s headliner, Carrie Underwood, though Underwood would be the only woman finishing out one of the nights. (Neither Thursday nor Sunday had any women whatsoever—excluding back-up singers and band members, of course).
Kacey Musgraves, whose new album is out and has been breathlessly heralded as country music’s saving grace, was in Tennessee that weekend, but she was playing Bonnaroo, not CMA Fest. During her show, Musgraves reportedly remarked that her first single of the record, “Biscuits,” wasn’t getting radio play. “They just pulled that one off the fucking radio. I don’t know what that means. I guess they don’t like biscuits,” she said of her song, whose chorus goes, “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.”
Things were different outside of LP Field. Friday during the day I caught Kellie Pickler (“Was she on American Idol?” a woman near me wondered to her friend), and witnessed swarms of young women leaving Kelsea Ballerini’s set, an artist recently tapped by Taylor Swift, whose song “Love Me Like You Mean It” has made her one of only ten women in country music ever to score a Number One hit with their first single. It’s also, according to a press release, “the first time a solo female has landed at #1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in nearly three years since Carrie Underwood’s ‘Blown Away; on Nov. 3, 2012.”
Ballerini played the same stage as Jamie Lynn Spears, sister of Britney. Jamie Lynn had a Saturday morning slot; I overheard one girl telling her surprised friend Spears is “a good little country singer,” despite what the world may think (or not think) of her. There was also RaeLynn, who might have looked slightly rockabilly in her Doc Martens but ended her set with her less-than-revolutionary anthem “God Made Girls.” “Thanks to amazing fans like you guys, and to country radio, this song has sold over 1 million records,” she told the crowd.
Inside LP Field, however, the status quo mostly remained the same; a long procession of men, but with hints of something greater brewing. Maddie & Tae, a duo of women credited with shaking up “bro-country” country music with their track “Girl In A Country Song,” got to sneak in for two songs. “This is the biggest crowd Tae and I have ever played for,” Maddie said, which was certainly true: most of her audience probably didn’t know who the duo was a year ago. The rest of the night was occupied by Lee Brice, who spent most of his set thanking military veterans; Randy Houser, who asked the audience, “Do we have any country-ass people in here tonight?”; Zac Brown Band, who brought out a vet of their own and said, “We live in the greatest country in the world,” and Lady Antebellum. Of the latter, female vocalist Hillary Scott’s clear vocals rang out into the dark night sky more powerfully than most performers’ that evening.
Fittingly, Luke Bryan ended the evening. Wearing a shirt that appeared to have a pattern of a fake gun holster on it, Bryan belted his way through his greatest hits with minimal commentary. Bro-country was certainly alive and well at this stage.
“All week long it’s a farming town they’re making that money grow/Tractors, plows with flashing lights backing up a two lane road/They take one last lap around/That sun up high goes down” - Luke Bryan, “Kick The Dust Up”
A few weeks before CMA Fest, one man touched on the “women in country radio” issue in a way that sent shockwaves through the industry. Keith Hill, a music consultant, told a trade publication that to make good country radio, you have to be careful with how many women you play. From Country Aircheck:
Finally, Hill cautions against playing too many females. And playing them back to back, he says, is a no-no. “If you want to make ratings in Country radio, take females out,” he asserts. “The reason is mainstream Country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75%, and women like male artists. I’m basing that not only on music tests from over the years, but more than 300 client radio stations. The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component. I’ve got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19%. Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
The salad analogy hit a nerve, sparking commentary from big country music stars, from Sara Evans to Miranda Lambert to Martina McBride to Jennifer Nettles. Even Maggie Rose, known for “Girl In Your Truck Song”—an ode to being the girl bros sing about—published a missive against Hill on her website.
“The naive would say ‘Well, that’s selling out,’ but breaking through at Country radio required me to run in such a narrow lane and our success was based on very specific, strategic choices like the four singles I promoted that were more ‘radio friendly’ than they were personal favorites or best works,” she wrote, before admitting that “nine months ago, the David and Goliath element of Country radio—and I’m not simply referring to the gender imbalance specifically—forced me to step back and reassess my direction as a writer and an artist.” Rose, who would perform to a dwindling crowd due to a flash rainstorm at CMA Fest Saturday, launched #TomatoTuesday, where she said she’d be promoting new woman artists on her SoundCloud account each week during the summer.
Hill responded to Rose’s post: “Maggie... Let me be the first to wish you luck and support. Your Friend. Keith Hill”
By CMA Fest time, that drama had not died down; Hill’s comments were still being referred to as “Saladgate” or “Tomatogate” and many woman artists at CMA Fest were asked to comment on them. At the CMT Next Women of Country panel, Ballerini, Danielle Bradbery, Cam, Angaleena Presley and RaeLynn all weighed in on on the women that shaped them. As Rolling Stone reported:
The five of them were models of mutual admiration through two rounds of songs, quietly singing along with lyrics they knew, sometimes even piping in with unrehearsed harmonies, and expressing appreciation for each other’s performances and perspectives.
“We can’t get by coasting,” Cam said of the challenges they face as women in the industry, “so even if we wanted to be mediocre, we couldn’t.”
Presley, who’d been in Nashville the longest, was even more pointed: “I’m not a tomato. I’m a hard-working, sophisticated woman. My mama didn’t burn her bra for nothing. I’m here to stay.”
Evans had been asked the same thing the night before, at the CMT Awards, and she was optimistic about the future of country. “I’m excited to hear any song that’s not about drinking, or beer, or trucks, or partying, or jeans... or beer,” she said.
“Now that all of this is being discussed, I think it’s very positive,” she says, noting that the best thing her fellow female artists can do is to speak up on the topic—and not be silent because they think it’s safer. “I don’t think Patsy Cline would be ok with that. I don’t think Loretta Lynn would be ok with that. I grew up on a farm; I grew up in country music. For me to now feel like they’re not allowing me to be a part of this genre? What do you do?”
And when the news broke about Ballerini’s single hitting number one, she also touched on Hill. “So many people were taken aback by that comment,” she said. “I think people really wanted to step up and help women, and I’m excited I was part of that.”
Others have a larger perspective on the whole thing. “There are bigger issues going on in the world than being called a tomato,” Kellie Pickler told Rolling Stone. “I’ve been called worse! If our biggest thing is fighting to get on the radio, then that’s a good problem to have, considering what other women are dealing with around the world, who would do anything to trade problems with women in country music.”
There’s anger in the responses from these artists, famous and less famous, but there’s also a lot of hope, an excitement for something tangible to rally around. And it’s an energy that has been percolating for some time now. This spring saw the launch of CMT’s Next Women of Country Tour, an extension of an initiative started in 2013. A group of women, including Tracy Gershon of Rounder Records, music journalist Beverly Keel and CMT senior vice president Leslie Fram, founded Change the Conversation, a group whose goal, Keel wrote, “is to increase the number of women played on country radio, signed to label and publishing deals, nominated for major awards and selected for LP Field performances during CMA Music Festival and other high-profile events.”
“The Tomato-gate just accelerated it because it really brought forth what people knew but nobody was talking about,” Gershon said in an interview with Keel. “When I was shopping female artists, several labels said, ‘We don’t sign females,’ or, ‘We already have too many females and they are too hard to get on radio,’ or, ‘It is too hard to find songs for females.’ We had to find proof that that isn’t true.”
On Saturday at CMA Fest, Song Suffragettes—the self-ordained group of women who have been performing in a showcase just for female artists at The Listening Room in Nashville every Monday for a year—took the stage to discuss music and play some of their work. A venture that songwriter Kalie Shorr said, “started with 15 people in the back room of 3rd and Lindsley” (a bar in Nashville), it’s come far in just twelve months. Joined by Deana Carter, who penned the Kenny Chesney song “You And Tequila,” as well as Kristen Kelly, the women played songs while temporary tattoos that read #LETTHEGIRLSPLAY were passed out to the crowd. “Request girls on country radio!” Shorr asked/commanded the audience before they adjourned.
Readily referring to themselves as “tomatoes,” the Song Suffragettes have gotten support from a variety of places, like the website Taste of Country, who noted that they’re “a proud partner in this effort. During the first week of every month, one #LetTheGirlsPlay artist will be featured in depth, turning a light on the next generation of great female singer-songwriters.” The women were featured at CMA Fest again the next day, but on Saturday, another lady-focused musical event took place: Diva Jam, also held at The Listening Room, hosted by artist Olivia Lane.
Lane’s single “You Part 2” is newly out, and there were posters for it all over the Nashville, on Broadway and even at the airport. She’d actually gotten the chance to meet Hill a week after his comments blew up, when he came to a showcase of hers.
“He wasn’t wrong,” Lane told Jezebel of Hill’s comments. “It’s the way he said it.”
“He comes to my showcase, and my radio rep—you always need to have people around you who believe in you and who will help you maneuver this crazy business—my radio rep comes up to me and she was just like, ‘I know what you want to say, you’re not gonna say it, but here’s what you can say.’ So I went up to him and I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll be a tomato, as long as you put me in the salad!’ So you just kind of have to take it with a grain of salt and poke some fun at it.”
“I think it was an interesting metaphor, to say the least,” said Lane with a small smile. “But, you know, that’s the battle that you’re up against: you’re up against all of these guys that have different opinions, in radio have different opinions, and at the end of the day, as an artist, whether it’s male or female, you just have to be true to who you are. I think as a female, if we all come together—like this event, like a Diva Jam—if we all come together, and rise up above it, and we just ignore it, then we can do such amazing things.”
Lane has the irrepressible energy of a woman who really, really wants to make it, and she seemed unwilling to let Hill or anyone else tell her that she can’t do what she wants to do.
“I really wanted all the girls to sort of come together and do a show together because all the bros hang out, they write together, they just hang out,” Lane said of the origins of Diva Jam, which is in its second year. “So I was like, why don’t we have a performance where the girls can come together and network together and become friends and write with each other hopefully, and it sort of turned into this big CMA Diva Jam event. I’m really really excited about it because there’s so many amazing females out there, and I just want us all to be friends.”
Lane supports the theory that the current lack of women on the radio is a cyclical phenomenon, not locked in forever.
“Right now in pop music, women are totally dominating the charts. So, I honestly really feel like this whole bro-country thing was such a big trend and maybe it’s on the out, maybe it’s not, but I hope that radio is, there’s room for all of it now.”
“Things are definitely changing,” she added. “There’s too many amazing females out there for it not to. And females are starting to work now, which is great,” going on cite Ballerini’s rise to the Top Five as proof of that shift.
Lane has high hopes for Diva Jam; she said she hopes it will move to an even larger venue. But she and the Song Suffragettes won’t just stand back and let it happen; they’re using the drama around #Tomatogate as a peg, free publicity to get people out to see them perform. “I think it was an amazing thing in the conversation of females at country radio,” Lane said. “Because it just propelled Martina McBride to get involved, and Sara Evans to get involved, and Miranda Lambert to get involved, and if those artists can support up and comers like myself, then that’s just where it starts.”
“You know I’m a firm believer that significant change takes awhile. It takes a long time for it to be, especially set in stone. Trends come and go, but this has been a long time coming and I think we’re about to see, especially next year, it’s gonna be so female dominated.”
That’s not to say there isn’t a hint of frustration and doubt there. One woman at Diva Jam who has a songwriting deal with a record label spoke of her experience getting pitch sheets of what artists are looking for.
“Most of them are guys—this song started off as a guy’s song,” she said, before launching into a jam about a “hillbilly lifestyle.” “It’s like bro-country, but we turned it into bra-country,” she laughed.
“The clothes I’m wearing from now on won’t take up so much yardage/Miniskirts hot pants and a few little fancy frills/Yeah I’m making up for all those years since I’ve got the pill” - Loretta Lynn, “The Pill”
How did we get to a place where mainstream country music is easily divided into categories like bro-country or bra-country? The ‘90s, as many will quickly point out, were chockfull of woman country music stars. As Country Aircheck, the trade publication Hill spoke to, outlined in February, it’s not that there aren’t woman country musicians, it’s that they’re not getting airplay on country radio, and if they don’t get played on the radio, it’s hard for them to sell at high rates. (See the diagram at left for those numbers broken down, via Country Aircheck.)
But why they’re not getting played is more complex than just blatant sexism from DJs. For one, what’s considered country music is has changed. A trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which currently has a small Luke Bryan exhibit, is all you need to understand how bro-country developed, and why it’s stuck around.
“Bryan’s good looks appeal to female fans, and his everyman demeanor and rocking tunes about beer, girls, and trucks draw guys to his shows,” the display copy reads, before outlining how Bryan rose up playing at Spring Break in Florida.
Released as a single, “That’s My Kind Of Night” challenged some listeners with its hip-hop loops and country rap style. “Nobody grew up more countrier than me,” Bryan said. “I had The Beastie Boys, Run D.M.C., and all forms of music through the years. I just think it’s all constantly blending together.” Bryan knew that people his age and younger grew up listening to a variety of music and believed that fans would respond to his mix of influences.
Country today isn’t the country of the ‘90s; it’s full of rap and hip-hop influences, which is fitting really, considering much of that music is also sourced from Southern culture. (“Might sit down on my diamond plate tailgate/Put in my country ride hip-hop mixtape/Little Conway, a little T-Pain, might just make it rain,” Bryan sings in “That’s My Kind of Night.”) A crossover in the way electronic music has influenced pop, or even the way hip-hop, rap and R&B have become more interchangeable as genres, was inevitable. With the popularization of a more hip-hop-influenced country sound, the male-dominated tendencies of mainstream hip-hop has come along too. It’s traditionally a hypermasculine sound and performance style, and there’s not much room for women in that small box of expectations. Conversely, the biggest crossover country stars are women, the Carrie Underwood’s of the world who can be treated as pop stars in their own right, or Taylor Swift, who may have left country musically but whose stamp is all over Nashville.
But this year was Bryan’s last Spring Break show, after seven years of doing it, and he’s said that his new album will be “country-er” than his last.
“’Kick the Dust Up’ is a big ol’ fun stadium, uptempo [song], but after that we have some neat stuff, with a lot of depth. Are there songs that show more maturity? Certainly. Are there songs that don’t? Certainly.”
As Bryan and bro-country stars shift their musical focus, older, more established woman country stars are coming back into the limelight as well. The Dixie Chicks will tour again in Europe next year, and Big Machine and Cumulus have launched NASH Icon Records devoted to supporting the careers of stars like Reba and Martina McBride. “It’s been a weird time in country music for females, and it’s in a trend now that I’m hoping is going to be more female friendly, for personal reasons,” Reba said at the news.
Saturday at LP Field, my last, felt like déjà vu; you can only spend so many nights watching tightly-handled, 25-minute sets of the top country stars before life starts flashing before your eyes. Wynonna Judd played, but following her were a series of slightly interchangeable young men: Chris Young, Thomas Rhett, and Brett Eldredge (whose mother I’m fairly certain was sitting in front of me).
Spirits rose when Little Big Town got on stage. Promoting their new album, with its “controversial” song “Girl Crush,” as well as their bro-country-sounding “Day Drinkin’” they sounded almost ethereal during a stripped-down acoustic version of the former song, thanks to the voice of lead singer Karen Fairchild.
But then they were off the stage, ready to introduce Carrie Underwood, the final performer of the night. Underwood’s been off the grid for a bit having a baby, which perhaps prompted this comment during her introduction: “Besides having the best body in country music, she’s got the best voice in country music!”
Country’s a rare popular music genre (or just music genre in general) that’s included women from practically the beginning. So to see it go the way of musical genres that have historically been less inclusive is, to put it lightly, disheartening. But it’s still the music industry. Women will still be held to a different standard, and people ultimately will still have their preferences, however unfair they are.
And not everybody likes what you think they will, which is a blessing and the curse for DJs and record executives who want to figure out listeners. The last two nights at LP Field, I sat next to a nice couple who’d driven in from UT Knoxville. She was in nursing school, he was ROTC. She was most looking forward to seeing Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan perform, she told me as we chatted during sets. Her boyfriend, for all he was a “bro” in that he was a large male, was less enthused.
“He doesn’t like the lady lovers,” she told me of her fiancé while he was in the bathroom. “He thinks they just pander to the single women.”
Bryan had just started up when said man returned. “You’re going to miss it, hurry hurry!” she jokingly called to him. “That was the point,” he replied, dryly.
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Photos via John Russell/CMA