“The tomatoes of our salad are the females,” proclaimed a country-music analyst. The reference to garnish angered a lot of female country singers. The remark shows that despite all the new talent, old attitudes are at work.
When Kacey Musgraves had her breakthrough two years ago in Nashville, she was, depending on the angle you viewed her from, an outsider hero or a savvy infiltrator. Her musical tastes skewed toward the 1950s and the ’70s, and her subject matter skewed liberal — even when she was singing about marijuana or same-sex love, she did it under a traditionalist cloak.
She sold about half a million albums, was played perhaps not as frequently as she should have been by country radio, and became a token country favorite for nonaficionados. And she won two Grammys and, less expectedly, awards from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, organizations that typically push the sort of mainstream country music Musgraves in theory served as a rejoinder to.
Musgraves has released her second major label album, “Pageant Material” (Mercury Nashville), and again she’ll be pegged as an agent of change, a palliative for this genre’s many ills.
But that will have less to do with the merits of her album than with the climate into which it arrives. Country’s long-familiar war on women has reached fever pitch in recent weeks, following some shortsighted comments by Keith Hill, a country radio consultant, in the trade publication Country Aircheck. “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” he said, citing data that suggested that female listeners preferred to hear male artists.
“Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad,” he added, concluding with metaphorical flourish, “The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
Wouldn’t you know it, the tomatoes got even redder after these remarks. Martina McBride made “tomato” and “tomato lover” T-shirts and sold them for charity; on Instagram, Miranda Lambert posed in the “tomato” version of the T-shirt with a sour expression on her face. At the CMT Music Awards this month, the tomato made its way into the show-opening banter between the two female hosts. Maggie Rose, a well-regarded singer, began promoting new songs under a #tomatotuesday umbrella. One record label sent out a news release referring to its subject as a “rising country tomato.”
Turnabout is fair play, naturally, but this righteous backlash obscures something much more potent: how strong modern female country music has been lately. Pound for pound, the quality of country music made by women is much higher than that of their male counterparts. Viewed cynically, that’s partly a function of volume — there are simply far more men in the field, with far more opportunity for dullness. But the conventions of male country have also hardened in recent years: ball caps, tailgates, flip-flops, hip-hop, women as decorative objects. They are so predictable that last year a new female duo, Maddie & Tae, had a hit with “Girl in a Country Song,” a point-by-point takedown of them: “I hate the way this bikini top chafes/Do I really have to wear it all day?”
Female artists, despite what Hill and his data say, are thriving creatively. Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Musgraves, Kelsea Ballerini, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, Laura Bell Bundy, Mickey Guyton, Jana Kramer, Cam, Maddie & Tae, the women of Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town: There is no shortage of promising female voices.
Of those, the most promising is Ballerini, who just released her impressive debut album, “The First Time” (Black River). One of several young female singers who have begun to break through in Nashville in the last year, she’s also the most pop-aware. Guyton, by contrast, has a sturdy, sinewy country voice, and she sings over arrangements that forgo the pop gestures of post-Swift country and hark back to the late 1990s and early 2000s. Her new self-titled EP (on Capitol Nashville) includes the defiant “Better Than You Left Me” and the anxious “Why Baby Why.”
Even if Ballerini and Guyton have experienced some initial success, the overall state of affairs for women in country remains horrid. The climate is so toxic that Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” a song about envying the woman who has stolen your man’s heart, can be denied rotation on some country radio stations because it is perceived as advocating same-sex attraction.
That is, of course, absurd, but it is an unsurprising policing of the range of acceptable female expression in a genre that has little room for dissent. Or more accurately: makes little room.
Attempts to change country music are continuing, including measures taken by the industry’s leading gatekeepers to promote female performers, from CMT’s Next Women of Country tour, which featured Ballerini and Kramer, to the recent #ILoveWomen in Country week orchestrated by the influential radio personality Bobby Bones.
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As part of that effort, he gave a boost to the young singer Cam, whose debut single had stalled. She performed another song, “Burning House,” on his show — both are from her “Welcome to Cam Country” EP (Arista Nashville) — and suddenly her fledgling career had new spark.
But it didn’t come without a cost. “Burning House” is beautiful but conservative. But her previous song — the feisty, sex-positive “My Mistake,” a bold number about one-night stands — was far more intriguing.
That situation is not unlike what happened with Maddie & Tae in the wake of their genre-protest hit. Rather than stick with their guns, they instead followed up with “Fly,” a blandly inspirational number that leans on cliché. Whether that’s a byproduct of timidity or oversight, it’s a missed opportunity. It’s not enough for the genre to merely create space for female performers. It also has to accept that disruptions to the status quo are healthy and, as they work their magic over time, become the stuff of the genre’s tomorrow.