Believe it or not, Little Big Town‘s swirling 6/8 waltz Girl Crush did not become the most-played song in country radio land. Despite commanding a 13-week stretch atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart (a sales/streaming/airplay hybrid measuring the most popular track in any given week), the song (written by Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, otherwise known as the Love Junkies) plummeted to the same abysmal fate as Carrie Underwood‘s baptismal Something in the Water. The latter song, too, notched an impressive run at the summit of the aforementioned chart, clocking an impressive seven-week total. Both tracks, whose unconventionality was the driving force behind powerful sales and streaming, resonated undoubtedly in the country music story the past year. Underwood’s Water, which stalled at No. 2 and No. 3 on the Mediabase and Billboard Country Airplay tallies, respectively, resulted in the singer’s seventh Grammy (for Best Country Solo Performance in 2015). Likewise, there’s already plenty of buzz for Little Big Town and their record-breaking ballad heading into the next award season.
Quite simply: female-led singles continue to struggle at radio, even amidst the Salad Gate controversy. New offerings from newbies like Mickey Guyton (Better Than You Left Me)and Cam (Burning House) promise to inject radio with a much-needed sucker punch of quality; but, tragically, Mickey’s waltz-y empowerment track has already been cut loose. As for Cam, it’s too early to tell if radio will continue supporting the Top 30 hit once the On the Verge treatment falls away. In fact, the newcomer, whose Welcome to Cam Country EP is equal parts folk, tradition and pop, is the only solo female in the Top 30. Below that benchmark, Jana Kramer‘s I Got the Boy, Reba‘s Going Out Like That (also in free-fall mode), Miranda Lambert‘s Smokin’ and Drinkin’ and Keslea Ballerini‘s second single Dibs are dangling. Elsewhere, Maddie & Tae follow their No. 1 bro-country kiss-off Girl in a Country Song with the more introspective Fly (which is now Top 20); and Lady Antebellum‘s Long Stretch of Love is a far stretch to become a hit it needs to be. That’s it for female-voiced singles making any kind of sizable dent in a chart so heavy-handed to men. But can we recover from this? And how?
Note: It should be known that female-led singles aren’t the only victims in today’s climate. It comes down to quality. Examples: Eric Paslay‘s blistering She Don’t Love You stalled out at No. 14 on Country Airplay; Dierks Bentley’s latest Riser cut is getting off to a rather…slow start. How these things happen, we may never know.
The recently-launched Change the Conversation campaign (led by CMT senior VP of music strategy Leslie Fram, artist manager and Rounder Records VP of A&R Tracy Gershon, and Middle Tennessee State University recording industry department chair and The Tennessean journalist Beverly Keel) and CMT’s Next Women of Country initiative have done little in moving the needle. There’s a growing sense of urgency and a need for the bubble to pop, and with “bro-country” finally on the way out, a new age of female dominance could very well be what the genre needs in order to reclaim their former glory. In fact, we are already feeling the breeze blow. Ballerini’s Love Me Like You Mean It seemed to end the female drought, taking up the baton last twirled mightily by Underwood and her six-week No. 1 Jesus Take the Wheel. But, for many, this was a shallow victory. Love is a snapshot of what you can expect from most of Ballerini’s The First Time debut full player. On the surface, the album is packed wall-to-wall with pop hooks, glossed over with hip-hop flavor and pinned together with a wink and a smile. For intentions of commercial appeal and radio play, Ballerini is the perfect candidate to the be next star female, the torchbearer to compete with the beer-swigging, party-hardy bros of the world. Don’t be mistaken, Ballerini is a lovely young woman with a good voice (better suited for acoustic performances), with a real understanding of her musical chops and depth. When she shakes off pop’s shackles and whips out her guitar, her voice and lyricism are refreshing (see album cuts: Secondhand Smoke, Stilettos, Peter Pan). It’s the studio that has done her more harm than good, leaning into what radio licks up like a newborn kitten to a bowl of sweet milk: bra-country (the female equivalent of “bro”).
The end of bro-country, the term for which was first coined by reporter Jody Rosen in 2013, was punctuated last year by Underwood’s gospel-soaked Water release, which she co-wrote with Chris DeStefano and Brett James. During it’s peak week (Feb. 7, 2015), it was bested by Eric Church‘s Talladega and Luke Bryan‘s I See You. A few weeks later, Florida Georgia Line‘s egregious, misogynistic Sun Daze—a notable lyric is “I’ll sit you up on the kitchen sink, and stick the pink umbrella in your drink” (yes, that really happened)—topped that same chart. That same chart which failed to award Underwood for her earth-shattering and hopeful tale of finding redemption and hope in God handed over another chart-topper to the duo who has led the charge for the demise of country music. Water attempted to right the ship, and in many ways, it worked. It’s no secret Underwood has become a country radio staple; she followed with the equally-engaging and powerful Little Toy Guns (which did go to No. 1 on radio).
With Underwood now between releases, Little Big Town’s Girl Crush (the best-selling country single of 2015 with 1.5 million downloads) did it’s best to fight a valiant battle. But alas, here we are and the song has been ripped off the airwaves. It, too, peaked at No. 2 and No. 3 on Mediabase and Country Airplay (what a coincidence, huh?), respectively. That left Jason Aldean‘s Tonight Looks Good on You to become his 16th No. 1 hit (but plateauing at No. 6 on Hot Country Songs). The cataclysmic split happening in country music is devastating and completely unavoidable. In fact, this week, two authoritative voices, in the form of Americana sharp-shooter Jason Isbell and veteran Alan Jackson, are enjoying monumental success of their own: Isbell’s Something More Than Free is this week’s top-selling country album, with Jackson’s Angels & Alcohol fluttering quick on his heels. They might not have any country radio support whatsoever, but damn it, they do exist, Mister Overton!
But even if you do exist (Underwood is one of the format’s leading female superstars), that doesn’t mean you’ll get the industry’s full support. You might have to dig a little deeper, try a little hard, sing a little louder but you better be prepared to wait your turn in the revolving door of male-led number one singles (whose impact is like throwing a penny into the ocean). You know it’s there. You even reached into your deep pockets to find it yourself, but once it left your fingertips, you immediately forgot all about it. It’s texture, it’s weight, it’s…everything….gone. A few of these most-recent pennies, such as Canaan Smith‘s Love You Like That (downloads stand at 649,000); Michael Ray‘s Kiss You in the Morning (currently Top 3 on Country Airplay, with tepid sales at 219,000 after 24 weeks on the chart); Aldean’s Tonight (with a meager 405,000); Blake Shelton’s Sangria (635,000) and Florida Georgia Line’s Sippin’ on Fire (sales just north of 500,000), have already vanished from time and space. Twenty years from now, you’ll be scratching your head trying your hardest to remember those pennies and the manufactured moments they created. However, your memory will have no trouble recalling the tidal wave which crashed your son’s sandcastle a few feet down the beach. That you can’t forget.
[PHOTO CREDIT: Rick Diamond/Getty]
Click Here to meet women in your area right now online!