In new book, Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be, journalist Marissa Moss chronicles the way that the country music industry has proved inequitable for women artists, and especially women of color. Though she provides a broad history of women in country music — including the ongoing influence of pioneers like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, and a fond look at the early-’90s heyday when women artists achieved near parity with their male counterparts on radio — she primarily looks at the contemporary scene, through the careers of Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Mickey Guyton.
Despite their overwhelming talents, Lambert is the only one of that trio of artists whom country radio has largely embraced — and even that embrace is at times tentative, in an atmosphere that can be very bleak for women artists. Between radio consolidation and consultants insisting that listeners do not want to hear women with any frequency on terrestrial radio stations, women artists still lag far behind their male counterparts. For example, only two solo women topped Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart in 2021 — two others reached No. 1 as part of a male-female duet, and one as part of a co-ed trio.
Below, Moss (who is a Billboard contributor) discusses her book, published by Henry Holt, and the outlook for women artists moving forward.
What is a theory that you went into researching the book that you expected to prove true that ultimately did not — and what else did you learn while writing this book that surprised you?
I don’t know if I was expecting a smoking gun, and while I certainly did find a few (namely some radio programming manuals online that explicitly advised against playing women back-to-back), what became clear is less an environment where you can point one specific finger and more a systematic failure where so many people have maintained the status quo.
On a brighter note, I found out so many awesome tidbits and intersections – how Amanda Shires and Maren Morris actually met when they were teens at a chili cookout in Texas, how Maren opened up for Sturgill Simpson at her first proper show as a Nashvillian; how they all passed through this house on Villa Place in Nashville where the Brothers Osborne lived with Charlie Worsham and others and made music and mischief, or Kacey getting high with Kree Harrison and Ashley Monroe. Or Hailey Whitters and Kacey getting into car troubles on the way to a Miranda Lambert event in Texas, or Mickey getting to know John Osborne back in 2013.
I don’t think we always hear these stories – we’re always so enchanted by the mystical life of the men of outlaw country (and rightly so! Those are great stories!) but there are so many other stories, too. I wanted folks to see these women as the extremely complex people and artists they are, and the artistic community they thrived in.
As you write in the book, radio consolidation and advice from consultants helped lead to the ongoing drought of female artists on the airplay charts. How can listeners who want to hear more women on terrestrial radio make their voices heard?
Radio stations aren’t taking requests the same way they did when I was a kid, calling up my local station asking them to play Fiona Apple for the 1000th time (and sometimes it worked back then!). But it certainly can’t hurt to try, or to speak out on social media. But again, this is a systemic problem, especially given that consolidation. I always thought a targeted campaign to radio advertisers would be useful. And these women, to be able to make a sustainable living outside of the framework of country radio, need to sell albums – so buy, don’t just stream, albums!
You quote a statistic in your book that Black women made up .01 percent of spins in country airplay in 2020. We’ve seen Black and bi-racial males including Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen and Breland have country airplay success. Does that bode well for the talented number of young Black female artists coming up like Tiera, Britney Spencer and Reyna Roberts or is there no correlation? We haven’t seen it help Mickey.
I do not want my default posture to be pessimism, especially since I think those three mentioned are not only insanely good, but incredibly radio-friendly in three very unique ways. But Black women in country music sit at the intersection of multiple oppressions – as women, and being Black. Centering their experience and freedom is so crucial to getting where we need to go in country music, and beyond honestly.
Streaming has helped level the playing field, as have streaming shows and playlists dedicated to inclusion, such as Rissi Palmer’s “Color Me Country” and Hunter Kelly’s “Proud Radio” Apple radio shows, as well as Spotify’s Country Latino playlist. How important is terrestrial radio play to a female artist still?
Well, it’s very important if that’s the career you want – and it’s the fastest and easiest route to success in many ways. And it’s also so many women in country music’s dream, as they grew up listening to Shania Twain and Reba on the radio. So that dream should be accessible if they want it. I intentionally told a story of mainstream country and women who wanted to be in that space, to show how difficult it is — and that there are other paths, too. And thanks to “Color Me Country” and “Proud Radio” and all the other Apple radio shows and SiriusXM and platforms like Gimme Country or even TikTok, there are some alternate routes that are really valuable.
You write about how in the ’90s Chely Wright received a smaller demo budget than a male artist, even though she was on a major label and he was not, because the built-in expectation was that she would not have a hit because she was female. Are we still seeing that staggering disparity that sets women artists up to fail, when they don’t have the same resources going into the recording process?
We definitely are, and that bore out in my reporting. There is a base level of expectation for a man’s mainstream country album, and if a woman goes into a project with her label knowing the massive uphill battle, will they get the same resources? They often don’t. Women are also expected to look a certain way, have certain clothes, and that costs money too!
I think you also see this just in the way labels are reluctant to push a woman’s songs to radio with the same promotional campaign as a man’s… The labels [often] put the promotional dollars towards the dude, even when there is some bubbling momentum for a woman. So everyone has to get on board to make this change. I have spoken to a lot of frustrated radio programmers, too, who want to play certain songs but have trouble if it’s not properly serviced to them.
One thing that has changed dramatically over the last several years is that women manage many of today’s country superstars: Miranda, Maren, Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Thomas Rhett and Dierks Bentley all have female managers. How has that changed the playing field and helped women artists get treated more fairly?
I wrote about some of those women in my book, like [Lambert’s manager] Marion Kraft and [Morris’s manager] Janet Weir, and they absolutely make a difference — because they understand the unique challenges that women face, but are able to advocate for their artists in an authentic, and non-tokenizing, way. They are also just really damn good at their jobs, gender aside. Women are really damn good at their jobs!
Similarly, the heads of A&R at four of the five biggest labels in Nashville are female. How does that change the equation?
I mean, just look at Tracy Gershon – she was an early advocate for both Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. We are all so much better when we have different people with different perspectives scouting talent, to better reflect the country. These women look for talent, not just what goes on a conveyor belt. But even they have to be beholden to possible radio success, and that’s the real shame of it.
Mickey, Miranda and Kacey are among three of the most outspoken artists in country music when it comes to speaking out on diversity and inclusion — you even quote Kacey’s tweets after George Floyd’s death in your book. As we grieve in the wake of another devastating school shooting, few country artists have spoken out. Why are they still so reticent and is the fear of getting “Dixie-Chicked” (when the Dixie Chicks were dropped from country radio after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized then-president George W. Bush from stage in 2003), still real in 2022?
That fear is still so real. And like politicians taking money from the NRA, country music profits from these relationships in overt and subtle ways. I focused on “Dixie-Chicking” because it had such ripples to this day — but this was in the water before that event, too. As far as gun control is concerned, because country music speaks to rural people who enjoy hunting and responsible gun ownership, country artists are in a position of extreme possible influence, and I personally find it beyond reproach to not use your power in ways that can save lives, especially given the tragedy of [the] Route 91 [massacre in Las Vegas in 201 7].
I do not own a firearm myself, but I have spoken to many, many responsible gun owners over the years and they are all very different, but the one thing they do have in common is a belief in safety and responsible ownership. Imagine what a wonderful steward and agent of change someone in a position of power in country music could be with that point of view – good hunters don’t need an AR-15. Why wouldn’t you want a future where you can enjoy deer season but also keep children alive? Now THAT to me is good country values. I truly implore any country artist to think about this. Would you prefer to maybe lose three or four hundred loud fans on Instagram, or more children?
While the good old boy network is still in effect, it does feel like more male artists are giving women opening slots on their tours. We’re also seeing established male artists duet with up-and-coming females, like Cole Swindell and Lainey Wilson and Dustin Lynch and Mackenzie Porter. What other ways can male artists be allies?
It’s interesting, I was talking to a radio DJ the other day and he was saying that his friends in the industry were complaining of some difficulties with all of these male-female duets, because it’s so engrained that you can’t play two women back-to-back — so is it OK to do so when they are in duets? The fact that they have to ask that is very disturbing, but I hope there are some who are pushing back and doing so anyway, and maybe the idea of two women back to back won’t be such a crazy concept.
Taking women on tour and in the recording studio are both very important ways to push some change, and then we can look even deeper – getting more women in the writing room, more women producers and engineers, session players, anything that pushes back against that boys club mentality of just calling your pals, or your pal’s pal. And if we want real deep and meaningful change, it cannot only be white women.
Maren, Mickey and Kacey have all found ways outside of terrestrial radio to gain audiences and find their own paths. For young country female artists today, what do you hope they take away from the book as they plot their careers?
I know there is some despair in this book, and I needed to be honest. But I also hope that these women do not get discouraged and see that there are other paths, other ways to get their art in the world and reach and impact lives the way they want to. There is a rainbow coalition, as Allison Russell calls it. There are the paths that Maren and Mickey and Kacey have paved, and they are all willing and ready to help others tackle that path or carve their own in unique ways. Do not get discouraged by the good ol’ boys club, because we need your music to drown it out.