Anyone But Carrie: Fixing Country Music’s ‘Tomato Problem’ – Jonny Brick

The Problem
For those of you unaware, a big figure in American country radio (I won’t give him the decency of naming him!) compared female singers to ‘tomatoes in the salad’ in 2015.
That was the year, lest we forget, that Girl Crush won every major award and Lori McKenna was gearing up for a year of success for her song Humble and Kind, a massive career-defining hit for Tim McGraw.
In 2015, Carrie Underwood put out a set of songs that were even better than those by the likes of Blake, Luke and Kenny. Storyteller is one of the albums of the decade, with four massive singles written by the best of the best of Nashville: Church Bells, Smoke Break, Dirty Laundry and Heartbeat.
The problem, amid all her success, was that only three other acts had singles in 2016 that made the charts: Maren Morris had My Church and 80s Mercedes, while Kelsea Ballerini pitched herself to tweens and teens with confections like Dibs and Peter Pan. Miranda Lambert returned with a double-LP, leading off with the magnificent Vice.
There is a definite problem on country radio: too few chicks and too many d…Dierkses and Daves.
The Positives
Lauren Alaina, whose album The Road Less Traveled took five years to make and fits in with the current culture of oversharing, is a TV talent show runner-up who is now a credible artist in her own right. The lead single topped the radio chart and made her sob online. Lauren’s new solo single Doin’ Fine is competing for airtime with Kane Brown’s song What Ifs.
Over in bluegrass Alison Krauss is at the top with Windy City, with Sarah Jarosz not far behind. The impossible-to-categorise Rhiannon Giddens finds herself in the folk/Americana chart, whose top 3 are Stapleton’s new album, Stapleton’s old album and John Mayer’s new album.
Looking at the country album sales chart dated June 3 2017, Miranda’s double-LP The Weight of These Wings charts at 10 having topped the chart on its release. Tin Man is the new single, which peaked at 15 after she performed it at the ACM Awards.
Joey Feek, Maren, Kelsea, Reba, Carrie and the two ladies of Little Big Town are the only other women (Carrie is there with her Best Of and with Storyteller) on the album charts. Hilary Scott will join them in a fortnight with the release of Heart Break, the new Lady Antebellum record.
In the Hot Country chart, which counts sales, the first solo entrant is Lauren Duski, with her version of the folk song Ghost in this House. Lauren starred on the last series of The Voice, where she performed the hit song in the semi-final before tackling The Dance in the Final. Lauren Alaina came through American Idol, finishing second to fellow country star Scotty McCreary, while we all remember Okie girl Carrie from Idol.
Otherwise it’s featured spots only for Maren (with Thomas Rhett), Carrie (with Keith Urban) and Faith Hill (with hubby Tim McGraw). Maren’s I Could Use a Love Song, single number three from Hero, an album full of potential singles, is rising.
Maren is still promoting Hero, while Kelsea has finished three years of promotion for The First Time. Her second LP is due in the third quarter of 2017 (possibly September), and those who have heard the tracks debuted live have been impressed. Both acts are relative newbies, though both are on the main arena stage at CMA Fest this year (more on which shortly).
One interesting new act is Carly Pearce, who has the backing of Taylor Swift’s label Big Machine. Every Little Thing, a close cousin of Cam’s Burning House, is climbing the radio charts and, as of the end of May 2017, is at 25.
Aside from Maren Morris’s new single, I Could Use a Love Song, it is the only song sung entirely by a woman in the entire airplay Top 40. Yeah Boy by Kelsea Ballerini is now marked as ‘Recurrent’, ie a track that is no longer being pushed for radio. 
Is this sexism, or just station directors giving people what they want? Ask them, not me.
Leaving Them Alone
But where are the Anyone But Carries?
Some acts do it all themselves and are quite happy to let people find them. Bailey Bryan’s song Own It (‘Who cares what they say, I never listen anyway!’) is a good manifesto for this type of act. She came over for C2C in 2017 and showed herself to be a very confident lady. Expect Kelsea-sized success soon…
Cam, meanwhile, is hosting a tea party on a bus before her gig in West London on June 2, announced about a fortnight before the gig. Maren Morris is playing Later… With Jools Holland on May 30 2017, perhaps as part of some European promotion work for the album and autumn tour of Hero.
But what interests me are the ladies who are forging a path similar to the men in the genre who don’t care for the game.
In 2016 the big discovery was Margo Price, whose record Midwest Farmer’s Daughter came out on Jack White’s Third Man label. In 2017 the next big Third Man release is Lillie Mae’s album Forever and Then Some, which emerges around the same time as Jason Isbell’s new album.
Angaleena Presley, good friends with Miranda, is over in the UK in July promoting her album Wrangled; Nikki Lane is in Europe promoting Highway Queen; in the UK Yola Carter will surely sell huge numbers of albums next year once people know what she represents.
It may be that girls, who spot trends and aren’t stupid, do not want the radio. Maren Morris may be using it to her advantage, working the system from within, and while some of Kelsea’s songs have been described as a girl version of bro-country she has promised a more mature sophomore release.
Nashville Treasures
Miss Miranda seems to have ditched her ‘bad girl’ persona to write timeless songs in the tradition of Dolly, Linda, Emmylou and Loretta, possibly under the influence of hip singer-songwriter Anderson East, whom she is dating.
News that Loretta Lynn is being treated for complications from a stroke are worrying. Loretta’s fearlessness has influenced the likes of Dolly Parton, Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks and Kacey Musgraves.
Perhaps one songwriter, Emily Landis, had a point, raised in the documentary on The Shires which aired in March 2017: since the September 11 attacks of 2001, America’s leading white musical genre has been masculine, to the point of banality. Bros drinking beers on the tailgate look at sweet sugar-shakin’ babies have displaced girls going wild (or telling the boys to go be wild somewhere else). The biggest-selling song of the decade? The one about two pervs wanting to ogle a woman. Cruise has dated terribly in five years!!
But where are the 1990s goddesses?
Shania Twain? In semi-retirement and just coming out of it. Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill? Raising babies.
Dixie Chicks? Blacklisted in the States but still able to win a GRAMMY and sell out massive UK arenas (and play with Beyonce at 2016’s CMA Awards fiftieth birthday show).
Only Carrie and Miranda have had consistent success in the last ten years, which is a hopeless hit rate for the girls, notwithstanding the two ladies of Little Big Town and Hilary Scott, who co-wrote Need You Now.
They’re Not Helping Matters…
Look at the main stages of CMA Fest this year. Taking the largest three, including the Riverfront and Park Stages, we have a total of 103 acts.
There are 3 women, and 2 bands containing women, on the main stage.
There are 6 women and a female duo (Maddie & Tae) on the Riverfront Stage, and more if you count the ladies in Bobby Bones’s band The Raging Idiots.
On the Park Stage, for smaller acts, there are 8 female solo acts, including Carly Pearce and Bailey Bryan, and two acts with women in them, one of whom are Runaway June. Lillie Mae is also at CMA Fest, on another small stage at Nashville’s Hard Rock Café. Ashley Campbell, Tara Thompson and Natalie Stovall are among a notable band of females tucked away for the curious and passionate.
Is this a good thing? No. Can we do anything? Yes.
British Invasion
Let’s ship over some UK country females. The Shires must play CMA Fest next year, since they are promoting My Universe all year, and Catherine McGrath can go with them too, because she is ace!
Elsewhere there are some super songs coming from Hannah Rose Platt’s second album, while Katy Hurt has the thumbs-up from the likes of Sonia Leigh. Two Ways Home, featuring Izzy Mariee, are sounding great on their Closest Stranger EP, and Kaity Rae is Britain’s Taylor Swift, and you can have that in writing!
That’s not to mention the eclectic likes of Liv Austen, Laura Oakes, Carolynne, Yola Carter and Jess Clemmons, whose Bandits are back with an album this year. Dexeter, fronted by Dee’s marvellous pipes, are next in line if Jess & the Bandits don’t get there first.
So much great music is coming out of the UK, and it’s great that we can showcase it here. When will CMA Fest wake up and realise that, what with C2C and Country Music Week and Kelsea Ballerini being shocked at having Dibs sung back to her at her first UK gig, it’s only fair that America takes some of our acts too?
After all, it’s tomahto, not tomayto.
Jonny Brick runs A Country Way of Life (@CountryWOL) and is a singer-songwriter himself. He is a man.
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