MINNEAPOLIS — It was a one-two punch in the gut from two of country’s biggest stars.
Last fall, Zac Brown declared Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” the “worst song I’ve ever heard.” This winter, Carrie Underwood called out country radio, saying, “Women really do seem to get the short end.”
Statistics don’t lie: On Billboard’s country chart, Miranda Lambert and newcomer Danielle Bradbery are the only women in the top 25. More than a dozen of the rest are songs by men about trucks, babes in tight clothes, tailgating, drinking or partying — or all of the above, as in “That’s My Kind of Night,” which went to No. 1 in September.
This new wave of mindless party songs — dubbed “bro-country” — has prompted some frustrated country fans to change stations.
“I fit the stereotype of a country fan — 26-year-old, single, a city girl and I like to have fun with friends and listen to music,” said Bethany Dorobiala of White Bear Lake, Minn., who blogs about country at IndependentSky .com. “But none of what they’re playing (on country radio) is anything I’m interested in. I don’t want to go for a ride in a pickup truck on a dirt road. I don’t like to be sung down to.”
However, Dorobiala doesn’t fit Nashville’s new image. In the past two years, a lot of men in the prized 18-to-34 age group have switched to country radio. Bryan is their poster boy and country’s newest headliner.
“Luke is just so likable,” said Leslie Fram, senior vice president for Country Music Television (CMT). “He’s got the ‘it’ factor.”
The younger guys have always come to party at country-and-camping fests. Now they’re also tuning in to country stations to hear Bryan, Jason Aldean (whose sound is infused with hip-hop and loud guitars) and Eric Church (who brings a gritty rock edge).
“Rock is dead,” said program director Gregg Swedberg of Minneapolis country station KEEY-FM, who also oversees national country programming for Clear Channel Media. “The biggest influx to the (country) format has been young men. They came from Top 40 and rock, predominantly — all the (Twin Cities) pop stations. In the last two years, it’s up 50 percent on the guy side.”
At the same time, the percentage of female voices on country radio has dropped dramatically. Gone is the time when Faith Hill, Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride and Gretchen Wilson filled playlists. Lambert, Underwood and Taylor Swift seem to be country’s only women regulars — unless you count the occasional female voice heard in such groups as Lady Antebellum and the Band Perry.
As columnist for the trade publication Music Row, Robert K. Oermann listens to every album and single that Nashville labels release. He can’t believe country’s audience is that different from the pop realm, where women — think Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus and Lorde — dominate the charts.
“The idea that men don’t want to hear women’s voices is just nonsense,” said Oermann, who wrote the definitive book “Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, 1800-2000.”
One issue, he thinks, is that the country industry is essentially “programmed by men for women that they think are dumb. Country music is so much more than those 10 songs you hear over and over on the radio. It’s broader, it’s wider, it’s deeper and it’s smarter.”
Oermann cited several singers — including Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Kellie Pickler, Ashley Monroe, Sheryl Crow and the trio Pistol Annies — who released first-rate albums in 2013 but gained little traction on radio.
“It’s a guy-dominated business, but it doesn’t have to be,” said Musgraves, who got a sales boost last month when she performed on the Grammys and took home awards for best country album and song. “I think women are stepping up to the plate and writing songs that matter and using their brains instead of just their faces.”
Never known as an outspoken crusader, Underwood is making noise for lesser known women in country.
“There is certainly not a shortage of talented ladies out there who want so badly to get their fair shot in this business. But there seems to be only room for only a few,” she told Billboard in January. “There seem to be so many male singers out there who can be viewed as similar, and there seems to be plenty of room for all of them.
“We see new male artists have their first single reach No. 1 on the charts, but it generally takes a female a lot longer to build momentum,” she continued, noting she was an exception because of her “American Idol” victory in 2005. “I don’t think women can get away with the partying, beer-drinking, hung-over, truck-driving kind of music that a lot of the guys have gotten away with lately.”
Aldean dodges the redundancy charges about “bro-country” — so dubbed by a New York critic because it’s performed by and for “the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.”
“If it’s a song you want to cut, who cares if there’s 10 other songs out there that talk about the same thing?” Aldean said in an interview earlier this winter. “If you feel like it’s something that represents what you do, then cut it. There’s only so many subjects you can sing about. It’s like saying there’s too many love songs.”
Charles Kelley, co-lead singer of Lady Antebellum, feels the frustration of getting the cold shoulder but understands the reality. “Country music goes in trends and cycles,” he said. “Right now, it’s fun songs, and that’s what fans respond to. We can’t chase that (style), because I don’t think it would be authentic to who we are.”
Both Swedberg and fellow country station programmer Rob Morris say they have tried adding female singers to their playlists but listeners haven’t warmed up to those tunes.
For instance, Morris cited strong sales and “a good positive response” for the song Musgraves performed on the Grammys, “Follow Your Arrow,” but thinks it’s fallen short nationally because some programmers are skittish about its references to smoking weed and girls kissing girls.
“No one complained to us,” said Swedberg, who loves Musgraves’ album. “But nobody got excited, either.”
He explained that radio stations have systems — testing songs with listeners, monitoring sales of recordings and concert tickets, etc. — that help determine playlists. “We can’t make people like records,” Swedberg said. “The audience tells us: ‘We like Thomas Rhett, not Cassadee Pope.’”
At CMT, the playlist is split about equally between male and female singers, according to Fram. Last year, the cable network launched “The Next Women of Country” campaign that promotes newcomers on the air and on its website. Fram is hopeful for change.
“The male artists support the women and take them on tour (as opening acts), and I think there is this wave trying to get more women on the radio,” she said. “We’re willing it to happen.”
Swedberg recalled a similar male dominance in the mid-1990s with the likes of Brooks & Dunn, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw before Twain busted down the doors for women.
“At some point, like all cycles, people will get sick of it,” Swedberg said.