Where have all the cowgirls gone?

Posted 8/17/18

"Girl in a country songHow in the world did it go so wrong?"— Maddie & TaeOnce upon a time there were women in country music.They suffered through the heartbreak of D-I-V-O-R-C-E. They told …

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Where have all the cowgirls gone?


"Girl in a country song

How in the world did it go so wrong?"

— Maddie & Tae

Once upon a time there were women in country music.

They suffered through the heartbreak of D-I-V-O-R-C-E. They told their men not to come home a'drinkin if they wanted any lovin'. They bemoaned bosses who worked them from 9 to 5 and never let them get ahead.

Their songs, fueled by struggle, were part of the lifeblood of country music. 

When I came to country music a generation later, the female voices on the radio belonged to Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Faith Hill and Shania Twain. They were followed in the late '90s by Jo Dee Messina, Lee Ann Womack, Terri Clark and the Dixie Chicks.

As I started high school in the early 2000s, little did I know that I had just witnessed the glory years for modern female country artists.

According to a 2015 study published in Billboard, 41 new sole female artists were introduced by major labels between 1992 and 1999, and 18 of them had a top 20 hit.

From 2008 to 2015, labels introduced 31 women and only 10 of them had a top 20 single. 

None of the women who found success followed it up with a second top 20, compared to 89 percent of their '90s counterparts.

In contrast, 51 new male acts appeared on country radio between 2008 and 2015, 29 of them had a top 20 hit and 22 of them had back-to-back top 20 hits.

In 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill advised country programmers to "take females out" if they wanted to boost their listenership.

"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,” Hill told "Country Aircheck."

Hill's comments infuriated artists like McBride and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles.

"Wow.....just wow," McBride posted to Facebook. "Do you not like to hear other women singing about what you are going through as women? I'm really curious. Because to me, country music is about relating."

Hill's controversial remarks were based on the assumption that women, a significant portion of the listenership, don't like to listen to other women. 

Miranda Lambert, one of only three women in the top 30 most played acts on country radio in 2016, has been predictably blunt about how difficult it is for women to get their songs played.

"It's B.S., straight up," she said in a 2017 Redbook article. "Carrie Underwood still struggles, and that just blows my mind because she's got a million hits and she's Carrie Freakin' Underwood. I tell them at radio stations, 'Just play one of us; it doesn't have to be me.' Then we all win. I'll fight for it until I can't no more."

Lambert broke into country music about the time that I started drifting away. Actually, to steal a line from politicians, country music left me as much as I left it.

I can pinpoint the moment that the relationship began to fracture.

In March 2003, the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines told a London audience on the eve of the Iraq War that "We don't want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States (George W. Bush) is from Texas."

Maines made the remark before the band performed "Travelin' Soldier," a song about a young man who dies in Vietnam and the young girlfriend he left behind.

The band's music disappeared from the airwaves. Fans destroyed their CDs in protest. There were death threats.

Toby Keith had already given country music fans what they wanted with 2002's "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue." He followed it up in 2003 with "American Soldier." While Keith backed up his lyrics with real actions in support of the troops, I saw a trend of other artists assuming these macho personas that really turned me off.

While I understood the anger at Maines' remarks, the sobering lesson I took away from the incident is that loud-mouthed females had no place in country music. Unfortunately, those are the ones I've always liked best.

I was long gone by the time that "bro-country," with its cliches about girls in short shorts riding around in pickup trucks, came along in the early 2010s.

Female duo Maddie & Tae parodied how far women had fallen in their 2014 single "Girl in a Country Song" — "We used to get a little respect. Now we're lucky if we even get to climb up in your truck, keep our mouths shut and ride along and be the girl in a country song."

Lambert was my only connection to country music during the years that I became an adult.

Keith's "Red Solo Cup" and the like had nothing to offer me as I adjusted to life in the real world. Lambert's "The House That Built Me" did.

Lately, I've found myself turning to the music of Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves and Pistol Annies (of which Lambert is a member) when I'm in need of catharsis. Like the greats who came before them, all sing about things women actually experience as opposed to male fantasies about women. 

One of the tracks on Lambert's most recent album, "Weight of These Wings," is called "Keeper of the Flame." In it, she acknowledges the females of country music who "blazed this trail I'm treadin' on" and accepts the responsibility of being the keeper of the flame and teller of the stories for a new generation — "I'm not doing it for the glory but for those little pilot lights waiting to ignite like fireflies in the rain."

To be clear, Lambert doesn't make music for women; she makes great music period. But she obviously knows how important her success is to women singers, songwriters and fans. 

Women don't only listen to other women; they get inspiration from them.

If this is a topic that interests you as much as it does me, check out the essay collection "Woman Walk The Line: How The Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives" by Holly Gleason.  

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.