OK, this is getting ridiculous now.
Kacey Musgraves’ latest album, Golden Hour, has been an awards magnet, reeling in CMAs long before the Grammys took note earlier this month. As compulsively likable as Musgraves herself, who is currently the musician most likely to follow the phrase “I don’t like country but I do like...”, Golden Hour updates a traditional array of soft-rock/easy-listening sounds with modern production that adds lushness and warmth. It was the number-four album in the U.S., and the number-one album on the country charts. If, as the old radio maxim has it, the secret to ratings success is not to play songs that people want to listen to but to not play songs they feel compelled to turn off, Musgraves should be a programmer’s dream.
But Musgraves doesn’t have a home on country radio (or on pop radio, which is its own lost cause, but that’s a topic for another time). That’s hardly because she’s “not country enough,” whatever that means—and please do not read that as an invitation to tell us all whatever that means. Country music first went “pop” when Chet Atkins added strings in the ’50s, or when Bob Wills hired a drummer in the ’40s, or, hell, when Ralph Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers in the ’20s. There is no innate metaphysical quality that makes music “country.” Like all radio formats, the only real definition of “country” is tautological: Country music is whatever country music fans listen to.
Unfortunately, what country music fans currently listen to, at least on the radio, is men. So many men. Aside from Kelsea Ballerini and Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood (and one more notable exception we’ll get to later), you can listen for hours in vain for a female voice. You’ll find plenty of gender-ambiguous names on the charts, for sure. Jordan Davis? Riley Green? Morgan Wallen? Sorry, all dudes. And ideologically the songs themselves range from the innocuously heteronormative, like Scotty McCreery’s “This Is It,” to the downright paleolithic, with Luke Combs singing, “she’s crazy but her crazy’s beautiful to me,” noting how long it takes his lover to get dressed, and quipping “it kinda scares me the way that she drives” before adding “me wild.” Welcome to 2019, y’all.
Reigning commercial country duo Dan + Shay aren’t as bad as all that. Theirs is a milder, more subtly pop answer to Florida Georgia Line. (Unfortunately, that “+” does not mean you should draw a big heart around their name and imagine them k-i-s-s-i-n-g. ) On the duo’s big hit, “Tequila,” which rhymes the liquor with “see ya” and “need ya,” they’re just cute boys pining for the one that got away. Their other number-one this past year is “Speechless,” about being lost for words by a beautiful woman. Tellingly, there’s not much difference in their vocal approach on either. Sorrowful, smitten—it’s all the same to these fellas, who offer an unobtrusive kind of acoustic quiet storm for skittish young lovers.
The problem with Dan + Shay isn’t that they’re pop. The problem isn’t that they’re mediocre pop. Hell, the problem isn’t even Dan + Shay. They, like Musgraves, aren’t quite at the arena level, but where she played the Palace earlier this month, they played the much larger Armory last weekend. And that disparity in audience reach is the problem, because it’s anchored in a disparity of institutional support that consistently skews male. Country music journalists, particularly the great Marissa R. Moss, have shown repeatedly how country music structurally restricts female artists’ access to radio and to festivals, and, in conjunction with an ingrained culture of sexual harassment in Nashville, this holds female performers back.
Most of them, anyway. Last year, in a kind of Freaky Friday moment, pop singer Bebe Rexha, whose previous success had been limited, hooked up with Florida Georgia Line for the monster hit “Meant to Be.” It spent a record-breaking 50 weeks atop the “Country Songs” charts. Meanwhile, country up-and-comer Maren Morris dominated pop radio, appearing on the not even remotely country single “The Middle” with Zedd. This switcheroo demonstrated the porousness of genre and format in 2018, but also the lack of opportunities for female performers on either side of the fence, who required a male escort to get on the radio.
Morris’ 2016 debut, Hero, seemed like it had the potential to redefine country pop, but despite reasonable success it never quite did. She’s voiced her frustration with industry gatekeepers in the lead-up to her second album, Girl. The advance singles, a title track that’s a guitar-heavy pep talk doubling as a dogged feminist anthem, and a well-timed duet with Brandi Carlile have been brasher lyrically but more cautious musically, both less pop and less country-oriented.
What’s disheartening about these songs is that Morris is counterpunching against an establishment she might be better off discounting entirely. A lyric like “I don’t know what God is” would be a daring sentiment on country radio even in less commercially cautious and politically edgy times. The saddest thing is that their potential for controversy isn’t even the reason Morris isn’t getting airplay. Just sexist inertia.