Throughout the last decade, if you were a female country music singer and your last name wasn’t Swift, Underwood or Lambert, you probably weren’t going to hear yourself on the radio. In the last couple of years, if you aren’t Carrie Underwood, you probably weren’t going to hear yourself on the radio. In 2015, thanks to country music radio consultant Keith Hill’s ridiculous comments, “My job is to trick people to listen longer. You know how I do that? I never give them onion, onion, onion. I never give them carrot, carrot, carrot. I never give them a half hour of lettuce, lettuce, lettuce. And guess what? I never give them tomato, tomato, either. It’s just a strategically measured mixing,” this problem was finally brought to the forefront.
Females in country music were selling albums, tickets and winning awards, but were not on the radio. Since #TomatoGate, Kelsea Ballerini notched three No. 1 singles, Cam and Lauren Alaina got one, and Underwood’s Storyteller album raked in four. Maren Morris won a GRAMMY and CMA New Artist of the Year, but “My Church” stalled out in the Top 10. Cam’s other singles barely charted, as did Lambert’s, save “Vice.” RaeLynn dropped a No. 1 album, but the poignant “Love Triangle” only made it to No. 26 on the Country Airplay Chart. Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Ashley Monroe delivered GRAMMY-nominated albums, but no country station would play them. (For brevity’s sake, I’m not going to take a deep dive into the catalogs of Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose, Natalie Hemby, Sarah Buxton, or Nicolle Galyon, but they are the most successful current female songwriters).
In 2016 there 40 different songs that topped Billboard‘s Country Airplay Chart, only eight of those songs had a female co-writer or writer on them. Ballerini and Underwood notched their No. 1s as solo artists, Karen Fairchild and Cassadee Pope were featured artists.
To date, in 2017 there have been 22 songs atop Billboard‘s Country Airplay Chart– only four had a female writer credited. Alaina was the lone solo female artist, with Morris recently picking up a No. 1 for “Craving You” with Thomas Rhett.
So, not only are female country music singers not being played on country music radio– songs written by females aren’t being played on the radio– at least not at the same level of their male counterparts.
The current chart features five female writers on six songs in the Top 40 (No. 42 and 43 had female co-writers). However, only one female artist is in the Top 20 (Lady Antebellum is in the Top 10). From there, Morris and Lambert are in the Top 40, with Ballerini likely breaking through in the next couple of weeks.
When you stack the female artists up against, say the males currently in the Top 10, only half of the artists wrote the song. Underwood is just about the only solo female artist that uses music from other writers, but she has been a co-writer on 12 of her 24 No. 1 singles.
Since 2011 the CMA Song of the Year winner has been won by a female (some had male co-writers). In 2008, 2011 and 2016 a song written by just one writer has won and each of those writers was female.
Eight of the last 10 winners for GRAMMY Country Song of the Year featured female writers (three were solo writes). This year, was the first time a female won ACM Songwriter of the Year.
Critics love female country music artists and female songwriters, so why is radio airplay still an issue? I think it’s because females are writing, producing and releasing songs with more substance. Underwood’s last two No. 1s were about domestic violence and a cheating man. Ballerini took a hard look at boys who refuse to grow up. Lambert took such a sad, hard look at life and love she can win every award possible, but never get radio play.
Do country radio listeners only want to hear about beer and girls? Do pop stars have to be featured? If country music is based on three chords and the truth “Love Triangle” should have had at least half of the success “Body Like a Back Road” has garnered.
This is not to say that male writers can’t be poignant or sincere, but look at the latest No.1 singles and then tell me why Chris Stapleton or Eric Church aren’t consistently celebrating No.1 songs. I can tell you– they focus on writing songs, not writing hits.
In really, really simple terms, think about it like this: in 2015 when Blake Shelton and Lambert announced they were divorcing, they were both due for an album the following year. Shelton released one of the highest-selling albums of the year, If I’m Honest. He said it was the most personal album he had ever released– he co-wrote two of the songs (with two females). Lambert cut 24 songs for the project, The Weight of These Wings, and she co-wrote 20 of the tracks. Lambert didn’t do interviews for an entire year and told people if they wanted to know about her personal life they should listen to the album.
So far, Shelton has three No. 1 hits from his album.
The more raw and vulnerable a track is, the less likely it is to be play on country radio. Especially if a female is singing it.