Country music a fight for women

Canadian-born Kiwi singer Tami Neilson says many female artists have become global sensations ‘...
Canadian-born Kiwi singer Tami Neilson says many female artists have become global sensations ‘‘despite country music’’. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Giving herself an excuse to sing the songs of her favourite country music artists has been a bonus for Tami Neilson, but the real reason behind her latest show is to lift the lid on gender inequality in country music. She talks to Rebecca Fox.

WE can all name top female country music artists — Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, The (Dixie) Chicks, Faith Hill, the list goes on.

What many people do not know is that most of them became global sensations despite country music.

So when Canadian-born Kiwi Tami Neilson tells her audience that female country artists’ songs only get played once on United States country music radio for every 9.7 times male artists’ are, they are "gobsmacked".

"When they hear about the early days they are not surprised by the sexism and misogyny, but they are shocked when we show them the statistics from country music radio today — that in 2020 women only get 10% of country music radio airplay, 10% of awards, recognition in country music."

It is just one of the astonishing facts that are peppered through Neilson’s latest show The F Word, which combines the research of Dr Jada Watson, a University of Ottawa, Canada, musicology professor, with music from the first No1 hit for a female country music artist in 1952 through to today.

Watson’s research, when released, made headlines in the United States as it exposed long-running gender inequalities in country music.

Her research into the number of times an artist’s song is played — "a spin" — over the 19-year span of the study shows while male artist spins go from 5.8 million to 10.3 million in that period, women go from 2.8 million to 1.1 million.


Dolly Parton. Photos: Getty Images
Dolly Parton. Photos: Getty Images

Loretta Lynn
Loretta Lynn

"Women ... are gradually eliminated from radio culture to a point of 11.3% of year-end charts and 9.2% of the annual spins in 2018."

Yet in the late 1990s, female artists were included in a rotation at a much higher rate than they had been, reaching a high of 34% and registering 40% of the chart-topping songs in 1996, rising to 52% in 1998.

However, since 2000 there have been "drastic changes" in popularity charts that could only be the result of changes in programming, Watson says.

Even Neilson was surprised at the stark figures Watson uncovered.

"It’s something we’ve all known is a problem but to see the actual graphs in black and white or a pie chart and we’re only a tiny sliver of that pie.

"It’s this unspoken rule in country radio for a long time that they do not play females and if they do its in the overnight slot when no-one is listening."

Neilson, who has always been an advocate for women’s rights, wanted to tell the stories behind the fact and figures — highlighting the battles women musicians have faced "just to be seen and heard".

"It’s a show to shake things up. To make people realise, through facts, to be aware of the imbalance and inequalities — hopefully to challenge people to make those changes, from industry people to the audience, and the fan bases, supporting female artists and demanding to hear them."

It is a sad reality that female musicians of any genre have experienced it in some shape or form, she says.

"It’s our lived experience. The playing field is not level. For you to see a woman in the spotlight you have to realise that woman has overcome so many hurdles and challenges.

"The music industry is already hard but the starting line for male and female artists is at a totally different place.

"It is emotionally exhausting and can really take a toll."

It took until the 1950s for a women to get a No10 — Kitty Wells with the hit Honky Tonk Angels.

Most women in the early days got their starts in family bands or as the wife of a musician.

"You never saw a solo female artist. Women only got their foot in the door only as part of a male ensemble — they were the token female, a sister or a wife."

Dolly Parton got her first opportunity as Porter Wagoner’s vocal partner on his television show. Loretta Lynn was driven by her husband and her brother played in her band, while Tammy Wynette sang with husband George Jones.

While some have argued the lack of female artists’ songs on playlists was due to a lack of artists, that was due to the hurdles they faced even before they got to the "starting line".

"So many women burn out and are exhausted from the battle of just trying to take out space in the music industry."

Mickey Guyton
Mickey Guyton

Kacey Musgraves.
Kacey Musgraves.

As recently as 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill said in an interview with an industry journal that he encouraged programme directors on country format radio to programme women at just 13%-15% of their playlists in order to improve/maintain strong station ratings.

"He said men are the lettuce in our salad and women are the tomatoes. You especially cannot play two women back to back or you will loose your listeners.

"This is the narrative — it is so destructive — from a man in power. He is giving these directives to programmers across all of North America. It is these gate-keepers creating this narrative that has always been so insidious in country music — that people don’t want to hear women but to see it published in black and white like that was a slap in the face, kick in the gut for everyone, that is what spurred this conversation and this research."

So for any woman in country music to succeed they had to have "incredible talent and resilience", Neilson says.

Many of them had their songs banned by country radio, such as Dolly Parton’s song about the contraceptive pill or the Dixie Chicks after lead singer Natalie Maines’ denunciation of United States President George W. Bush while on tour in the United Kingdom.

"That was done to squash their careers and silence them."

Even now, Kacey Musgraves who has won Grammys for her work, is not played on country music radio in the United States.

"It is a testament to her amazing talent, her strength and resilience to overcome those obstacles. She still connects with her audience, fills stadiums, wins Grammys, yet the country music industry will not accept her or acknowledge her."

Many female artists over the years, like Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Brandi Carlile, have become global sensations "despite country music", she says.

"They don’t get a seat at the table so they just build their own. It’s also a celebration of how these women rise above it and build their own empire outside country music."

The situation is even tougher for women of colour, who get even less playtime.

"They don’t even have a sliver of a percentage; the systemic racism and sexism runs really deep."

Neilson finds the show quite emotional to perform, finding it difficult to get through some songs without crying.

"It’s surprisingly moving. I did not expect that part of it. I’ve tried to sing them all the time to try and become desensitised but there are still songs I cannot get through, I just have to power through with tears in my eyes."

Many of the songs are about personal struggles and challenges women faced over time, such as Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five, which was written for a movie about sexual harassment, and the imbalance of power and the 1960s song The Pill.

"It was a song of celebration of gaining control over her body and her life for someone who was married at 13 and had four kids by 18. And of course country music banned it.

"So even while these songs are fun they hold this incredible power of a woman’s lived experience."

While country music is most popular in conservative America, there are just as many people who do not adhere to those conservative values who love country music as well, she says.

"Country music is born out of white supremacy in the Deep South but the fact is a large part of country music is appropriated.

"People of colour are some of the founders, the originators of country music — the banjo came out on a slave ship from Africa.

"It is music that was very much built on the backs of people of colour and then appropriated, then they were excluded from the genre."

This is highlighted by it taking until 2021 for the Grammy to name its first black solo female country nominee, Mickey Guyton.

"While people associate the music as being white and conservative, the fans of country music come from all corners of the world and are of all colours and races.

"The music belongs to them too."

To see

Tami Neilson
The F Word
Regent Theatre, Dunedin
Saturday Apri 10 at 8pm


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