Music

Country Music Remains Tough for Women. These Artists Are Finding Alternative Paths to Success

Unless your name is Lainey Wilson, it can be pretty rough going as a woman in country music, especially at radio. That, of course, has been the case for the last several years, but the plight for women artists has not significantly improved despite multiple conversations, advocacy programs that promote women like CMT’s Next Women of Country and a considerable amount of handwringing about the situation over the past decade.  

When the talented and extremely hard-working Wilson won entertainer of the year at November’s Country Music Association Awards, it was the first time a woman had taken home the trophy since Taylor Swift in 2011. Wilson and Swift, who also won in 2009, are the only women to have won the award in the last two decades. 

Wilson holds another distinction. For the last five weeks, she has been the only woman in the top 20 of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, but she’s not there for her own song — she’s listed as a featured artist on Jelly Roll’s “Save Me.” She is also the only woman to take songs to No. 1 on the chart as an unaccompanied solo artist in the last two years, with “Things a Man Oughta Know” in 2021 and this year’s “Watermelon Moonshine.”

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In addition to Wilson, whose “Heart Like a Truck” rose to No. 2 on the Country Airplay chart this year, the only women to enter the Top 10 of the tally with solo hits in 2023 were Carly Pearce (“What He Didn’t Do,” No. 2), Megan Moroney (“Tennessee Orange,” No. 4) and Gabby Barrett (“Pick Me Up,” No. 6).

A 2019 study helmed by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that just 16% of artists were female across the top 500 country songs from 2014-2018. In a 2023 survey of 29 country radio stations in top markets conducted by Jan Diehm of The Pudding and Dr. Jada Watson, songs from women were played back-to-back an average of just 0.5% of the time in 2022. Numbers are even bleaker for artists of color. A 2021 SongData study by Watson titled “Redlining in Country Music” found BIPOC artists earned only 2.3% of country radio airplay over the past 19 years, with BIPOC women earning less than 3% of that small percentage.

“I’m in an industry that is trying so hard to not change,” says country singer Brittney Spencer, who is Black. “I’m so excited about putting out my new album, but when I look at the landscape of this industry, it kind of pulls some of that excitement away a little bit.” 

It’s no wonder that a number of women artists are rethinking their role in the country music industry. 

Maren Morris has been the highest profile act to distance herself. In October, the singer-songwriter switched from longtime label home Sony Music Nashville to the label’s pop counterpart and told the New York Times, “I felt like I don’t want to say goodbye, but I really cannot participate in the really toxic arms of this institution anymore.”

She’s hardly the only one. In December 2022, Cassadee Pope, whose “Think of You” with Chris Young reached No. 1 on Country Airplay in 2016, said she was “moving away from the country space” and returning to her pop-rock roots. By the time Kalie Shorr — known for her 2016 country hit “Fight Like a Girl” and a member of weekly writers round Song Suffragettes — posted in September on X, “Hey Nashville, have you noticed how many women have left country music? Even some of the most successful ones? Is that enough for you to change?,” she had already decamped from Nashville for Los Angeles.

Then last month, Black female country trio and America’s Got Talent finalist Chapel Hart, whose song “You Can Have Him, Jolene” earned love from Dolly Parton, posted a video on social media, saying while they will continue making country music, they “are no longer competing in the industry” after a wake-up call while attending the CMA Awards. 

“Every single [executive] knew who Chapel Hart was,” said Chapel Hart member Danica Hart in the video. “Exciting news for us, but also sad news, because for us that means everyone knows who we are and we still don’t have a record deal, we still don’t have a publishing deal, we still don’t have sponsorships. We’re so busy trying to keep up in an industry who isn’t even acknowledging us.”

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Yet despite tremendous obstacles, women artists and industry executives are finding creative solutions to keep new female voices in the forefront.

In late 2014, industry leaders Beverly Keel, Leslie Fram and Tracy Gershon formed Change the Conversation to address gender inequality in country music. Nearly 10 years later, Gershon says, “I do see improvement in signings [to labels], but no improvement for women in radio play. I am hopeful as I see some of the majors not banking on radio as the only way to break artists.”

Labels tell Billboard they aren’t slowing in signing women artists, they are just trying to be smarter about ways to grow their audiences. “Statistics tell us that not much has changed for the success rate of females in country, even though we’ve stopped talking about it quite as much,” says Katie McCartney, GM of Sony-distributed Monument Records. As Gershon suggests, Monument continues to be bullish on women artists: half its roster is female. 

“I don’t think anybody’s going to stop signing females,” McCartney says. But she does think labels have to think differently about how to break women. 

Instead of taking “Shoot Tequila,” the first single from new sister duo Tigirlily Gold, to radio in isolation, Monument broadened its promotional reach. “What we have decided is that our [radio promotion] regionals can’t go into a market and just visit radio, they have to go into a market and make contacts with the sports teams, brand folks, chambers of commerce, the tourism boards,” McCartney says. “There are charity aspects that we have drilled into in each of these markets. We started with the top 20 markets and sort of build out from there and Tigirlily was the first pass we took with this new approach.” “Shoot Tequila” reached No. 47 on the Country Airplay chart. 

While this method is used for all artists on the roster now regardless of gender, McCartney says, “We definitely talked about how much better this would set [Tigirlily] up for success.”

Additionally, instead of doing a traditional radio tour, Lee Jeans sponsored Tigirlily’s concert tour in the top 20 markets that also tied in with the duo visiting hospitals through Musicians on Call and singing the National Anthem at sporting events. Because Tigirlily had built up a considerable social media following even before they were signed, fans were invited to text a community number to find out the show location. All the steps “elevated their profile to a degree that we would not have been able to do without all of these things firing at once,” McCartney says.  

Spencer has also tried to build her following by getting close up with her audience. Stagecoach, which Spencer is playing in 2024, sponsored her Heaux Down party at a Los Angeles club in November, which featured line dancing and a sneak listen to her Elektra album coming in January. “I just want to get directly with fans,” she says. “I don’t need to throw a song in your face. I’d rather just party and walk around with a tray of drinks and talk to people and hear their stories.”

Spencer, who also held a Heaux Down in New York, says more such intimate events are planned based on where her fans are. “There are so many cool analytics that lets you know where people are listening to you. I know my top five cities where people listen to my music.” 

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Monument artist Pillbox Patti, who is known for her outsized personality, has also looked to the road instead of radio, touring with Jelly Roll, Koe Wetzel and Old Crow Medicine Show.  “They’re really understanding her and she’s sort of going in with the group of people that she fits with, and that consumer really responds well to that authenticity,” McCartney says.

Similarly flamboyant act Hannah Dasher also got creative in putting herself in front of fans. Even before she parted ways with Sony Music Nashville this year, she would “crash” tailgate parties prior to concerts by Eric Church, Brothers Osborne and Jon Pardi to perform for fans who had gathered for their shows.  

“One of my fans donated a flatbed F-350 truck and I drove that to concerts and played in the parking lots,” Dasher says. 

Joining tours outside of the country genre has also been a successful strategy for women artists in building audiences. A few years ago, Morris opened for Niall Horan, Kacey Musgraves opened for Harry Styles and Cam opened for Sam Smith. More recently, Kelsea Ballerini played with the Jonas Brothers and Ingrid Andress played with Stevie Nicks. Spencer shared bills or sat in with Bruce Springsteen, Megan Thee Stallion, Lauryn Hill and Bob Weir. “I’ve gotten exposure in these different places and it’s a very vast audience,” Spencer says. 

In another example of this strategy, CAA agent Sabrina Butera placed Lauren Alaina on the Pentatonix tour this year. “Normally people might not pair them together, but it was one of those conversations we were having about [both having] fanbases that started from television,” she says. (Big Loud artist Alaina appeared on American Idol and Pentatonix appeared on The Sing-Off.) “She had them in the palm of her hand by the end of the set. I could tell from comments on her socials and from the people that were in the Pentatonix audience that she was gaining new fans. We really try to think outside the box for things like that to keep the artists excited.” 

Social media has also played a vital role in building audiences. Beyond promoting her music, Dasher’s Stand By Your Pan cooking series on TikTok has helped bolster her followers on the platform to over 1.5 million.

“I couldn’t play shows [during COVID], so I made social media my stage,” says Dasher. “I’ve always loved cooking and I thought, ‘Well, there are a lot of women my age and younger that don’t know how to cook and now everyone is sheltered at home, so I decided to make cooking videos and include music to promote my music and other music that I love.”

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Dasher, who self-released the 7-song The Other Damn Half in October, teamed with online influencer Cornbread Cowboi on multiple video clips, including “Redneck Ass,” a fan-favorite that they cross-promoted across both of their social platforms.

“A lot of artists lean heavily into their social media,” Butera says, adding that Alaina’s “TikTok growth has been 69%, which is fabulous. She’s leaning into viral moments, partnering with other artists, especially on ‘Thicc as Thieves’ with Lainey Wilson.”

Branding deals are also propelling women artists as companies look to work with more country artists. Recently, Alaina teamed with Barstool Sports Academy, Maddie & Tae aligned with Chevy, Ballerini and Wilson partnered with Sonic and Priscilla Block worked on a summer capsule collection with Shein. 

“The fanbase for country music has expanded quite a bit, which is opening up brands [to country],” Butera says. “Brands are noticing that our artists go above and beyond to perform for the brands. Sometimes we start with a very small partnership with these brands, maybe a teaser just to really build those relationships, and a lot of them end up turning into a long-term partnership, which is a really great goal to have.”

For Dasher, radio play may not be part of her path. “I’ve never been on a radio tour in my life. I don’t know that radio is going to be the route for me,” she says. “I would welcome that, but I’ve had to rely on other outlets to put my music out there. But I think my TikTok and Instagram following is proof that what I do is working.”

McCartney says there are also no plans to take Pillbox Patti to radio. “She’s not palatable to mainstream country radio,” she says. “She’s very relatable and very real, but I don’t know that a 45-year-old mom would be okay with their children hearing a lot of the things she talks about in her songs.”

With radio not seeming receptive to most women artists regardless of the subject matter,  McCartney stresses that females will have to continue finding their own way. It’s a notion Gershon agrees with, advising women to “find your unique voice and vision. Don’t depend on country radio and [know] women still have to work harder.”

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