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The Marginalization of Women in Mainstream Country Music


Country radio doesn't want to play songs by women. That's been fairly obvious for years; the last time a new female solo act had two top 20 hits on country radio was in 2007. Still, programming consultant Keith Hill made an unpleasant splash last week when he seemed to endorse this status quo. In an interview with Country Aircheck, Hill said, "The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component…. 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 metaphor seems a little confused there; after all, who wants to eat bland lettuce when you could bite into a juicy ripe tomato? But at the same time, Hill's lettuce metaphor does resonate with country history. There are genres that see authenticity in terms of virtuosity, competence, and flash—Louis Armstrong in jazz or Mahalia Jackson in gospel are authentic and real in part because of their technical skill and artistry.

That's not completely foreign to country, as Bill Monroe's blazing mandolin can attest. More often, though, country has built its authenticity claims around eschewing sophistication. It has marketed itself as the simple music of rural men and women, who prefer rugged, independent, god-fearing salad without that pretentious citified tomato filigree. 

Sometimes, this has been expressed through an explicit rejection of supposedly cosmopolitan values, as when the Louvin Brothers frankly warned the hellbound, in 1958, "That word 'broadminded' is spelled S-I-N." Other country stars took a lighter tack. Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl played up their Hee-Haw lack of sophistication through sophisticated self-deprecation. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, in 1974, sang, "No we're not the jet set/we're the old Chevrolet set." This I'm-just-a-rube authenticity was gloriously, decadently perfected by Dolly Parton, who coupled full-on glam presentation with constant outright assertions of the fakeness of the blonde hair, the bosom, and the entire enterprise.

In all of these instances, authenticity is figured as a distance, ironized or otherwise, from a more corrupt center; real country is about belonging to a simpler, more rural, less affluent, and less powerful community. Both men and women can be part of that community, as Parton and Wynette and, say, Kitty Wells demonstrated. There have generally been more male than female country stars, but women, from Patsy Cline to Shania Twain to the Dixie Chicks, have been successful as well. There hasn't in the past been a connection between country authenticity and maleness, specifically. Women haven't been excluded. 

Recently, though, that's changed. As time has passed, the reference to a rural past has meant less and less to contemporary country audiences. Moralistic condemnation of the urbanites or joking assertions of white-trash bona fides have become less central to the genre. Jones and Wynette namedrop Athens, Georgia, and Paris, Texas, to proudly proclaim their déclassé distance from European high culture. Tim McGraw, on the other hand, sings about how he appreciates New York and Chicago, but still likes the South better. Or, more specifically, how he still likes Southern girls better.

Authenticity here isn't figured as distance from an inauthentic mainstream; instead it's presented as a consumer choice. And the product consumed, "sunburned lips" "cut-off shorts" and all, is women.

There's always been a country masculinity, of course—artists from Porter Wagoner to the Louvin Brothers to Johnny Cash to Dwight Yoakum have demonstrated their toughness and realness by singing murder ballads about killing women. Simple concupiscence is an improvement over domestic violence, lyrically speaking, but the fact that the male gaze has become so central to country's authenticity makes it difficult for women to find a place in the genre. It's no accident that Maddie & Tae's "Girl in A Country Song" parodies not just female objectification, but country authenticity. "I'm getting' kind of cold in these painted-on cut-off jeans," they sing, while men rather than women prance around in sexy overalls and tied off half-shirts.

Driving a flatbed through the whole idea of country authenticity makes for a brilliant one-off single, but it doesn't exactly provide Maddie & Tae, or other women, with a long-term strategy on country radio. So country women are forced to modify older approaches instead. "Seems like only yesterday I'd get a blank cassette/record the country countdown since I couldn't buy it yet," Miranda Lambert twangs on "Automatic,"— the lyrical reference to cassettes not coincidentally referencing a time  when women could actually get on that country countdown. Kacey Musgraves sings about trailer park poverty and small town alienation, a somber flipside to Jones and Wynette's goofy rural pride or an update to Dolly's "In the Good Old Days When Times Were Bad." And alt-country performers like Alynda Lee Segarra adopt old-timey and folk revival styles  and different themes with a freedom the mainstream can only dream of—as in the video below about Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman convicted of assault after she fired a warning shot to scare away her abusive husband.

But these strategies only emphasize the fact that women, to be authentic, have to be clever about it, while men can be stupid—and that the stupidity itself serves as a kind of authenticity. Hill's salad metaphor is so frustrating because it's so self-fulfilling. Women aren't seen as real country lettuce because country authenticity at the moment, at least on the charts, defined in large part by the performance of masculinity. To be normal, to be real, to be rural, to be unaffected on country radio, you don't have to take a stand against sin or know the difference between Paris and Texas. You don't even have to be talented or funny. You just have to be a guy who likes staring at women. Which is why women performers with talent and taste are sidelined, while bland male lettuce rules country radio.