Grammy Night Belonged to the Women of Country

The Recording Academy attempted to right some of Music Row's wrongs on Grammy night, but don't expect lasting change.

The women of country music dominated this year’s Grammy Awards. Female artists (and female-fronted groups, as I consider Little Big Town and the group formerly known as Lady Antebellum) nabbed 14 out of 20 possible nominations in country categories, and all three country performers during the main ceremony were women. Werk!

Sure, it was disappointing to see the women go two for four in terms of actual wins, but considering that country airplay for women hovers somewhere around 10%, that’s still a remarkable showing. For those of us who have been screaming about country radio’s well-documented gender issues for years, the night provided a bit of vindication.

The problem is, the country music industry’s structural problems remain. The format is dismissive and often downright hostile toward female talent, and despite lip service in the form of early morning video slots and Next Women of Country programs, even the most successful female artists continue to underperform.

Take, for instance, Miranda Lambert, who has released several of the best country albums of the last decade and yet, as she put it, “had to sing with someone with a penis to get a number one.” The song in question, Jason Aldean’s “Drowns the Whiskey,” is almost self-consciously bland, and to call it a duet would be a stretch—Lambert features sparsely on harmony—but, voila: the song gave Lambert her first US Country Airplay No. 1 since the chart’s creation in 2012. 

Contrast this with “Vice,” the lead single from Lambert’s 2016 opus, The Weight of These Wings. The first song released following Lambert’s very public divorce from Blake Shelton, “Vice” is everything that most country radio fare is not: lyrically sharp, emotionally honest, and sonically adventurous (a chilly synthesizer takes the place of your typical fiddle or pedal steel). And yet, as has repeatedly been the case for Lambert and her female peers, the song failed to crack the top 10. 

Then there’s Kacey Musgraves, who, despite being one of the most innovative country artists of her generation, has not had a radio hit in years and seems perpetually on the verge of leaving the format entirely. Musgraves has blamed her failure on radio, at least in part, on a pervasively sexist culture. “MASSIVE expectance on us to be extra accommodating, accessible, sexy, and kiss ass-y,” she tweeted in 2019, in response to a Rolling Stone report on sexual harassment in country music. Musgraves’s irreverence is what made her a star, but it has also all but assured that anything she puts out will be DOA, as far as radio is concerned.

The lack of parity is especially frustrating given the general consensus that the women of country are, on the whole, more compelling artists than the men. Even women who fit more comfortably into the radioscape, such as country-pop star Maren Morris, have been consistently more outspoken and creatively daring than their male peers. Despite the ever-present fear of being “Dixie Chicked,” Morris has been one of country’s most vocal supporters of Black Lives Matter and has not shied away from calling out industry sexism on Twitter or offering some truly incredible dunks.

Amid last October’s election frenzy, Morris released “Better Than We Found It,” a protest song whose accompanying video provides an unequivocal endorsement of Black Lives Matter and DACA. Contrast that with perennial maverick Eric Church’s “Stick That in Your Country Song,” an electric guitar-heavy track that masters the art of sounding indignant without offering a substantive position on much of anything.

Like many women vying for mainstream success, Morris’s work as solo artist has increasingly leaned pop, to the point that her sophomore effort bears few country signifiers. Yet if the aptly titled GIRL reflects the limited sonic palette available to female artists trying to play the radio game, Morris’s work with acclaimed supergroup The Highwomen—alongside Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires— speaks to her superlative talent as a country storyteller. 

Both in the truthfulness of the songwriting and in its unvarnished production style, The Highwomen’s eponymous debut is a powerful rejoinder to the exhausting sameness coming out of Nashville. Over ten country-as-hell tracks, the group sings compassionately about real-life experiences—from the joy and agony of motherhood to the devastating loss of one’s father—and offers a feminist vision that’s casually intersectional.

According to research from USC Annenberg, women in country are marginalized when it comes to radio play, award nominations, and songwriting credits, which isn’t even to mention their abysmal representation as producers and session musicians. It’s no surprise that frustration with the system often comes through in the lyrics.

“If the house just keeps on winnin’, I got a wildcard up my sleeve,” Lambert sings on the deceptively breezy “Bluebird,” effectively offering a “bless your heart” to the powers that be on Music Row. Hailey Whitters’s “Ten Year Town” is more direct: “I thought I’d be a big star now, I’m twelve years into a ten year town.”

Way back in 2015, “Girl in a Country Song,” the debut single from Maddie & Tae, appropriated the sounds of bro country in order to eviscerate its lyrical cliches and casual sexism. That it took five years for Maddie & Tae to outrun their incendiary debut single—and nab their second-ever Country Airplay No. 1, with the decidedly more benign “Die from a Broken Heart”—only underscores their point. 

Granted, “Die from a Broken Heart” has better lyrics than almost anything else on radio, but it’s telling that Maddie & Tae have found new success by reigning in their rebellious streak. Breaking the rules, it seems, is only lucrative when the men do it.

Which brings us to perhaps the greatest rule-breaker of all: Mickey Guyton. Guyton cut her teeth on charming—if somewhat anonymous—singles like “Better Than You Left Me,” before her response to the events of 2020 solidified her status as one the most fearless and vital voices in mainstream country.

On Bridges, Guyton’s most recent EP, she turns a critical eye to issues including sexual assault and anti-blackness, throwing country’s “shut up and sing” ethos to the fire. It’s a stunning approach for a genre whose dominant sound has changed many times over the last near-century, but whose racism and sexism remain stubbornly entrenched. Is it any surprise that nine years after she was signed, Guyton’s full-length debut is still forthcoming from Capitol Nashville and radio continues to ignore her?

I have to imagine that seeing Guyton debut the scorching “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” at last year’s Country Radio Seminar must have felt something like seeing Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings perform in one of those famed Texas bars in the early 1970s. That is, like watching someone rewrite the rules of country music in real time.

Notes on New and New-ish Country Releases

“Don’t Cry” - Morgan Wade

I quite liked Morgan Wade’s debut, which surprised me with its commercial potential. To my ear, despite Sadler Vaden’s guitar-forward production, a few of these songs wouldn’t feel out of place on, say, a Lauren Alaina record. (Well, a good Lauren Alaina record.) “Don’t Cry” is not one of those songs, but it pairs a strong hook with evocative lyrics in a way that makes me wonder if country radio might ever throw her a bone. A gay can dream.

How Far Can it Go?” - Hailey Whitters (feat. Trisha Yearwood)

This 90s country pastiche may not quite reach the exhilarating heights of Yearwood’s 1991 hit “She’s in Love with the Boy,” but it comes pretty damn close. I’m thrilled to hear so much fiddle on these The Dream bonus tracks, of which this may be my favorite.

“You All Over Me” - Taylor Swift (feat. Maren Morris)

The internet is all over “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” and I am perfectly fine with that! But of the two, this is my preferred “from the vault” track. The arrangement is gently nostalgic, with touches of harmonica and pedal steel, and the central conceit is razor sharp.

“Black Like Me - Our Voices” - Mickey Guyton

This is a more adult contemporary mix of what is, without a doubt, the most important country song of 2020. I personally prefer the original, but Guyton represented country music exceedingly well with this version on Grammy night, and the gospel choir left me properly gooped and gagged.

“Am I Right or Amarillo” - Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall

Forget that there’s an Asleep at the Wheel song from 2007 with the same title. The three-part harmonies here are gorgeous, and the song is a worthy entry to the canon of Country Songs with Ridiculous Titles that are Nonetheless Very Affecting. (See “She's Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” or “Hot Burrito #1.”) More Miranda Red Dirt songs, please.

BONUS: Post Malone’s Take On “You Can Have the Crown”

I’ll be honest, I’ve never really cared about Post Malone. (I liked “Sunflower,” though!) That said, with the announcement of his upcoming double album featuring Dwight Yoakam’s band (!!!), I am fully engaged. His voice is perfect for the material, the band sounds great, and this specific Sturgill song is quite the mission statement for a trad-country record. This better be good.

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