How country music is sidelining female artists

One needn't look far to find evidence that country music's gender imbalance has grown wider than the brim of a Stetson — take the nominations for this year's CCMA Awards, or the "standard rule" about not playing female artists back to back on radio.

From award lists to the charts, women are getting squeezed out

Only eight of the last 60 nominations for the most important CCMA Awards went to women or groups featuring women. Alberta musician Terri Clark got five of those nods. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

One needn't look far to find evidence that country music's gender imbalance has grown wider than the brim of a Stetson.

As one example, the Canadian Country Music Association Awards will be held this Sunday in Edmonton, airing on CBC Television (8:30 p.m. NT, 8 p.m. elsewhere). In the evening's top three categories — the fans' choice award along with single and album of the year — not one of the 15 nominations went to a woman.

Looking at all this decade's CCMAs galas going back to the 2010 show, there was a total of 60 available nominations in those top three categories. Two of those went to groups featuring a woman (Small Town Pistols and Hey Romeo) and another six to female solo artists, with Terri Clark — the Montreal-born, Alberta-raised Grand Ole Opry member — scooping up five of those (Carolyn Dawn Johnson was nominated for album of the year in 2011).

The CCMAs, of course, are only reflecting the Canadian country charts, which are recently ruled by a series of rugged, stubble-jawed, cowboy-hatted men: Dean Brody, George Canyon, Paul Brandt, Gord Bamford, Tim Hicks, Codie Prevost.

Gord Bamford was last year's big winner at the CCMAs, walking away with five trophies. Brett Kissel leads this year's nominations, with eight.

Toronto-bred Lindi Ortega is one of the year's nominees for female artist of the year, while also wresting consideration for roots artist of the year. Her grit-grounded folk feels out of bootstep with the spit-shined arena-country that typically rules radio, and she's grateful for the accolades.

But she too has noticed the way women are being squeezed out of country.

Recently, she was at home in Nashville when she heard the strains of an outdoor concert echoing from the parking lot of BMI's headquarters across the street on Music Row. Over the course of a grey evening, she heard from the likes of Jake Owen, Lee Brice, Dan + Shay and even pop-rapper Mike Posner — but the bill was wanting in one crucial way.

"I could not hear a female voice all night," she relayed in a telephone chat from Tennessee. "It's kinda obvious that it seems to be male-dominated across the board.

"I think it's a little unfortunate," she added. "I feel like we have just as much to offer."

Cyclical phenomenon?

While CCMAs co-host Jann Arden wouldn't necessarily classify herself as a country musician, she's a longtime fan of the genre's best no-frills storytellers. She muses that these sorts of gender shifts can be cyclical and adds that country has generally skewed heavily male. But she then reels off a list of women who were recently pillars of chart: Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, the Judds, not to mention, of course, Shania Twain.

There's still this old kind of standard rule in radio that you don't play two females back to back- Karen Daniels, 93.7 JRfm host

If women were scarce on country charts in recent decades, it wasn't this stark or severe. The Top 20 songs on the U.S. country chart in the first week of September included only two female solo artists, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood — and they were paired on the duet "Somethin' Bad." A recent Forbes roundup of the highest earners in country music included only one woman among its 13-artist list: Taylor Swift, who's presently prepping for complete immersion in pop with the release of "1989."

Money, coincidentally, is the engine driving the country industry's focus on men, says Arden.

"You have to understand, when they see something working at radio, when they see something working commercially, the tendency for those A&R guys is, of course, 'This is what's working, this is what we need to sign,' " she said.

"It's not that there's not a lot of female artists out there, they're just seemingly — maybe from the get-go — not getting those opportunities because labels just aren't signing that."

Karen Daniels, a morning radio host at Vancouver's 93.7 JRfm new country station, says it's indeed a struggle to find female talent to fill the airwaves.

Her station gets dramatically fewer requests for female artists, and she acknowledges that retaining a robust audience tends to mean spinning men.

"There's still this old kind of standard rule in radio that you don't play two females back to back," she explained in an interview. "[It] sounds kind of ridiculous in the year 2014 but it just doesn't come across. Listeners just don't like it. It doesn't trend well for us."

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