The Country Music Assn. has a big reveal planned for this year’s CMA Awards show in Nashville: Women make country music too.
An exaggeration? Perhaps, but not a big one for anyone whose exposure to country music in 2019 comes chiefly from radio.
Singer Maren Morris recently became the first female country artist to score a No. 1 hit on Billboard’s country airplay chart in 17 months, while a new study concluded that just 21% of all recordings in the Top 20 of that chart between January 2018 and July 2019 were made by women or male-female groups.
In the midst of this, the Nashville-based CMA announced Monday that in place of its emcee team in recent years of Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, hosting duties for this year’s awards ceremony, scheduled for Nov. 19, will be handed over to Underwood, who will be joined by guest hosts Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton. Show organizers also plan to spotlight female country artists throughout the evening.
“In addition to awarding the year’s best and brightest in the genre, the 53rd annual CMA Awards will celebrate the legacy of women within country music, and we couldn’t think of a more dynamic group of women to host the show,” Sarah Trahern, chief executive of the country music trade association, said in a statement.
“For 2019’s show,” the CMA added in a separate statement, “it is the right time to celebrate the rich musical history that women have had on this format, and we are thrilled we have two of the biggest female icons of all time as guest hosts.”
The move also comes as country is experiencing its latest identity crisis, courtesy of rapper Lil Nas X’s runaway hit single “Old Town Road.” Initially, Billboard magazine ruled the hip-hop-laden single ineligible to appear on its country charts because of “insufficient country content,” despite its banjo accents and lyric references to horseback riding, tractors, cowboy hats and bull riding. The song’s success has prompted a summer-long debate over what constitutes country music and what doesn’t.
The gender imbalance in country radio has drawn considerable attention in recent years. Radio consultant Keith Hill ignited a firestorm in 2015 when he said in an interview, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.” Digging himself in deeper, he added, “Trust me, I play great female records, and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
Despite an avalanche of criticism, from musicians, managers and record executives, there is evidence that many radio programmers have taken Hill’s words to heart. In December, Billboard reported that no female artists had records in the top 20 of the magazine’s Country Airplay chart, for the first time since the chart was instituted in 1990.
The new study, conducted by SongData and WOMAN (Women of Action Network) Nashville, digs further into the topic, finding that male artists held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart for 77 of 81 weeks during that 18-month period.
It gets worse: Three of those four weeks belonged to solo females: Morris’ “I Could Use a Love Song” and “Girl” and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Legends.” The fourth No. 1 was “Meant to Be,” a hit collaboration between singer Bebe Rexha and male duo Florida Georgia Line.
Because of the overwhelming influence mainstream country radio has on artists’ careers, few are willing to openly criticize the programmers, who have historically argued that the genre’s predominantly female audience prefers to hear male artists on the radio.
“It seems a group of 10 guys who all sound the same have no issue getting on the radio,” country-pop maverick Kacey Musgraves told the Huffington Post last year, “but women who vary vastly from each other have a very hard time breaking through, even in the smallest way on the country radio chart.”
Last year at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio, singer Trisha Yearwood told The Times, “There’s definitely not as many women on country radio as there should be. There’s a massive audience for female songs and female artists, not just because I am one. I’m also a fan and I miss it.”
It’s not a recent development. Another recent study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative looked at 500 songs that appeared on Billboard’s year-end Hot Country charts from 2014 to 2018 and found that only 17% were credited to solo female musicians, compared to 30% on the Billboard pop chart.
The CMA also figures to have its eye on the ratings impact of its host shift, given that last year’s CMA Awards ceremony on ABC hit an all-time low number of viewers. It drew an audience of about 10.1 million, a 34% drop from the previous year. The show was, however, the top rated program on broadcast television that night.
The CMA isn’t alone in struggling to attract viewers. The rival West Coast-based Academy of Country Music also logged its lowest ratings in more than a decade with its award show in May, which also featured McEntire as its host.
Whether a focus on women at this year’s CMA Awards will turn the tide, either for the TV ratings or breaking the male stranglehold on the country airplay charts, is anybody’s guess.
“I’m so proud of all these ladies who are working so hard to be heard,” McEntire told The Times last year ahead of another stint emceeing the ACM Awards. “They need to be heard on the radio, because they’re not cookie-cutter singers at all. They’re all uniquely talented.”