By Tom Mailey
When a digital country music news service tweeted a survey this week asking their followers which female country artist they were most looking forward to seeing at the Academy of Country Music awards this Sunday (7pm, CBS), it seemed pretty harmless. Just a fun way to ramp up for the show, right?
Not to Kelsea Ballerini.
The ACM female vocalist of the year nominee took exception to the poll on social media, proclaiming that it made her “really bummed” that women were being pitted against each other. Here’s her whole response on Instagram, which includes a screen shot of the poll in question.
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This made me really bummed today. Since I put out my first single over 4 years ago, every interview includes some form of question about the females in country music… or the current lack thereof. so we swim upstream and wear ourselves out trying to be heard and finally see the charts start to mention a few more of our names, the categories recognize a few more of our songs, and even start to cheer each other on. but then there’s something as simple and seemingly harmless as this, that sets us back. it takes the dozens of talented, determined, hard working, kind women that want to continue the incredible marks on the genre the woman before us have made, and it makes us feel like there’s only one spot available. so then there’s tension. And insecurity. and this magical bond that females have when we truly, actually want each other to win…it gets compromised. It makes me sad because I feel it. Heck, it makes me insecure. It makes me feel tension in a room where there is another girl that is successful. It makes me awkward. It makes me overthink conversations. It makes me assume the worst. Which is actually CRAZY. this is definitely an instavent, because I just don’t want the new females in country music to be misrepresented to the fans or the media as the popular girls in high school that pose for photos like were bffs but secretly despise the one that dates the quarterback. And more than that, I don’t want US to feel like that. This isn’t mean girls, this is country music. Where you actually CAN sit with us.
Some may say, lighten up, Kelsea. She even admits the poll is “seemingly harmless”. But what she is addressing is the larger issue that Nashville has acknowledged but now needs to follow through on: there are not enough women artists to give their perspective to (what is to me, anyway) the essence of country music: addressing working class American life.
Back in the 90s, it was a different story; if you were around then and listening to country, then you know the airwaves were filled with talented female artists: Reba, Shania, Pam Tillis, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Terri Clark, Jodee Messina, Martina McBride. The Dixie Chicks got their start in the late 90s. Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert got their first airplay in 2005. Taylor Swift came along in 2006. But since then…? (Granted, Sugarland, Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum have fantastic women singers as part of their groups, but Jennifer Nettles, Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman and Hillary Scott are not as well known by their names as they are with their bands).
Somewhere over the last decade, things changed, and, as you’re probably well aware, current country label rosters became overwhelmingly dude-oriented. Heck, Reba, who’s hosting the ACMs on Sunday, has even mentioned the disparity, saying last month that she’s disappointed there are no women up for Entertainer of the Year. (One could definitely make a case for Miranda. Her last album, Weight of These Wings, was superb, and even though it was released in 2016, “Tin Man” is up for song of the year and she had a successful tour in 2017. So why isn’t she in there?)
It takes a big distance to turn a ship, but hopefully the recent success of Ballerini, Lauren Alaina, Maren Morris and Carly Pearce are a sign the wheel has at least been spun, and over the next year or two we start seeing (and hearing from) talented female artists who have been bubbling just under the surface–Kacey Musgraves (her new album is fantastic), Brandy Clark (as good a songwriter as anyone in Nashville), Runaway June (who we welcome to Golf and Guitars May 22), Lindsay Ell (she not only sings but shreds the guitar) and Cam (whose profile has lowered somewhat after initial huge success with “Burning House”). And I’m sure there are plenty of up-and-comers who we haven’t heard of yet.
But it’s important that not only artists like Ballerini continue to speak up. Fans should, too. Country music has a tradition of producing not just great female artists but truly legendary women who are nothing less than cultural icons: Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, and the aforementioned Reba and Shania, to name a few. Each of them brought their own unique, female perspective to country music’s sacred story telling tradition. For the industry to not make more of an effort to develop female talent, and get a woman’s take on everything from love to trying to get by in today’s world, would be disappointing at best, and at worst, an abdication of their duty to a genre that is nothing less than the narrative of working class American life–for both men and women.