Where Did Country Music’s Leading Ladies Go?

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It’s not a great time to be a female country singer. “Bro country,” often with sexist lyrics, dominates country radio, while women find it increasingly difficult to get a hearing.

No wonder recent remarks from radio consultant Keith Hill shook the country music scene. In an interview with Country Aircheck Weekly, the self-proclaimed “leading authority in music scheduling” advised country stations to avoid featuring too many female artists:

If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out…. Mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75 percent, 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….

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.

Leave aside for the moment the foolishness of the tomato analogy (foolish for two reasons: one, “tomato” has long been a slang term, and not a particularly nice one, for a woman; and two, a salad that’s all lettuce with a tomato or two sounds like the dullest salad ever made).

At one level, Hill is simply speaking the bleak truth. In recent years, few female country singers have regularly made it to the top of the charts. They’re the household names you’d recognize even if not a country fan: Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift—before Taylor left the genre for pop. It has been difficult for other female artists to break through.

Yet, the women of country music have reason to take issue with Hill’s remarks—and they are most definitely taking issue. It’s his job to strategize to raise ratings, so if male singers are more popular, if that’s what listeners are into, it makes sense he’d tell radio stations to keep playing them. However, by advising stations to “take females out,” to remove an entire gender from the airwaves, he reveals himself as a very shortsighted expert indeed.

From Kitty Wells to Patsy Cline to Loretta Lynn to Dolly Parton to Reba McEntire to Faith Hill and Shania Twain, women thrived on country radio for decades. If listeners—both women and men—liked female artists then, why don’t they anymore?