Does ‘Woke Country’ exist? Is there a #MeToo moment happening on the country charts?
This week, a more perceptive colleague made the surprising discovery, finding thoughtfulness right there in the middle of the mainstream on the tightly formatted playlist of WXTU-FM (92.5).
The song she heard with a mature anti-macho perspective is “Drunk Girl” by Chris Janson, a Missouri-born up-and-comer whose debut single, “Fix a Drink,” closely hewed to the pop country playbook of boozing it up down by the swimming hole that’s paid off for stars like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean.
“Drunk Girl,” however, turns expectations on their head. It’s a sensitive, sitting-at-the-piano song about spotting a three-sheets-to-the-wind woman in a crowded bar, and resolving to taking her home. Not to take advantage of her, though, but to treat her with respect. “Let her sleep all alone, leave her keys on the counter, your number by the phone.”
OK, he’s still hoping for a callback. But give the guy a little credit. He wants to make sure “she knows the difference between a boy and a man,” and that he, for one, is evolved enough to do the right thing, rather than commit sexual assault.
Is “Drunk Girl” part of something bigger? A woke counterpoint to what jammy country act Zac Brown derisively once called “tailgate-in-the-moonlight Daisy Dukes” songs?
It seems so. There’s chart action right now for songs that exalt women as paragons of virtue. Tough guy Dierks Bentley’s new single “Woman, Amen,” is a tribute to his wife, Cassidy Black.
And Keith Urban’s current “Female” is a list song written — by three people, including one who is female, Nicolle Galyon — after the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault revelations last fall. “Sister, shoulder, daughter, lover / Healer, broken halo, Mother Nature,” the Aussie married to Nicole Kidman sings. “Virgin Mary, scarlet letter / Technicolor river wild, baby girl, woman shine … Female.”
Taken together, all three of these songs getting play on country radio — the dominant format across the United States — would seem to be a reaction against the “scoot-on-over-here, honey” cliches of bro-country offenders like Bryan’s “My Kind of Night.”
Heck, even good ol’ Bryan himself is thoughtful on his new single, “Most People Are Good,” whose title rhymes with “most Mamas oughta qualify for sainthood,” and expresses LGBT-friendly sentiments: “I believe you love who you love / Ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of.”
But there’s another thing you might have noticed about all the open-minded supportive-of-women consciousness-raised examples cited so far: They’re all sung by dudes.
Naturally, you might say. Aren’t all country songs sung by men? Are women even allowed to sing country music?
I’m joking, of course. (As was Stephen Colbert when he mocked the mansplaining point of view of Urban’s “Female” at the time of its release.) But it seems that way, sometimes. Take a look at the country charts. On the Billboard Hot Country Songs dated March 24, there are a total of two women’s names listed in the entirety of the Top 30.
That’s it! A grand total of two, And, frankly, neither of those really count. They’re both guest vocalists on pop country amalgamations that sound like they were cooked up in audience-expanding marketing meetings. EDM-schooled singer Bebe Rexha’s “Meant to Be” collab with duo Florida Georgia Line is in the top spot. And “Take Back Home Girl,” by Chris Lane with pop singer Tori Kelly — about finding a woman you can take home to mom — is at #20.
The rest of the chart is made up of songs like Thomas Rhett’s “Marry Me” and Jake Owen’s “I Was Jack (You Were Diane),” that in most cases are about women. Just not by them.
The shortage of women on the country charts is shameful. But it isn’t terribly surprising, considering the genre’s well-documented history of gender discrimination. Last year, Taylor Swift won a court case against a country DJ in Colorado whom she accused of groping her in 2013. And Rolling Stone Country’s “Inside Country Radio’s Dark Secret History of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct” from earlier this year suggested there was widespread evil throughout the business.
To be fair, the nearly absolute absence of women is a bit of an anomaly. There’s a long history of feminist heroes in country music, dating to Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” in the 1950s and Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” in the 1970s. Young artists like Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris have found favor in recent years, and if Carrie Underwood — who has her own feminist anthem in “Before He Cheats” — had a new record, you’d surely see her name up there.
But at the moment, there’s a particularly rich abundance of top-shelf new music being made by more-than-worthy female songwriters. Some are a little bit country, some are a little rock and roll. And you won’t find any of them played in heavy rotation on country radio.
Along with Margo Price, whose excellent, topical All American Made topped critic’s lists last year, the most obvious example of a popular artist you might think would fit in is Kacey Musgraves, the sly country-pop alchemist whose album Golden Hour comes out Friday.
Musgraves, who will play the Wells Fargo Center June 15 with Harry Styles, told Entertainment Weekly in December that Golden Hour is about her many selves and multiple female archetypes: “The lonely girl, the blissful girl, the new wife, the girl who’s missing her mom, the angry girl, the sarcastic girl, the ’60s-sequined Cruella De Vil with the beehive… they’re all characters on this record.”
But as inviting as Musgrave’s music is, “Space Cowboy,” the lead single from Golden Hour, has already peaked and fallen out of the Hot Country Top 50.
March 30 will also bring the release of Girl Going Nowhere by tough-talking Arkansas singer Ashley McBryde, a protege of self-styled outlaw Eric Church. She has a shot at the kind of mainstream success “Redneck Woman” Gretchen Wilson achieved in the ’00s. And her namesake Ashley Monroe, who, along with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley, is a member of the supergroup Pistol Annies, is back with her fourth album, Sparrow, on April 20. Lambert is a case in point about how sexism dictates the makeup of country radio. She’s embodied a fiery feminist viewpoint for her entire career but has been denied the full-on superstar status of less-talented hunks, like her ex-husband. “Keeper of the Flame,” her new single from her album The Weight of These Wings, is being released to country radio next month. We’ll see if she can break up the boys club.
Other, grittier artists, like Canadian singer Lindi Ortega, whose three-part opus Liberty also comes out March 30, are identified with the more independent-spirited Americana categorization. The same goes for such like-minded and formidable artists as Australian Ruby Boots, who plays MilkBoy Philly on April 11. And North Carolina’s Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, self-described as “a country band with a sneer, a bite, and no apologies” release Years on April 6 and play Dawson Street Pub on April 27.
The twisted logic behind keeping women off the radio was revealed when Texas radio consultant Keith Hill caused a brouhaha in a 2015 interview in which he cautioned against playing back-to-back songs by female artists, arguing that most country radio listeners are women, and “women like male artists.”
Hill’s infamous pull quote was that “women are just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, and Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of the salad are the females.” (Forget the offensive absurdity for a second and answer me this: Who doesn’t want more tomatoes?)
You might think all the bad press that Hill’s proclamations received at the time — coupled with the culture shift as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have gained strength in recent months — would have resulted in more respect paid to women on country radio. In fact, that has happened, and a conversation is taking place. It’s just that, as usual, men are doing all the talking.