What happened to women in country music?

One of my not-so-guilty pleasures is 80’s and 90’s country music. Maybe it’s partially because of all the time I spent listening to it as a kid, (while riding around with my dad in his old Ford pickup truck, naturally) but if I find some classic country on the radio dial, I’m guaranteed to stop on it every time. Recently, I’ve found that all sorts of other artists share the same affinity for it. One of my favorite bluesmen, Josh Peyton of the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, said in a recent interview that it’s his favorite kind of music to listen to.

Along with all of the nostalgia and good vibes, there is also a sense of sadness and curiosity that comes with listening to country music from this time period. Namely, what the hell happened? Mainstream country in 2019 bears little-to-no resemblance to the music of 1989. Musically, the focus has shifted from melody and harmony to so called “tractor rap” and big, loud guitar riffs. Most notably, women have gone from being the bedrock of the genre to seemingly existing only for objectification.

A recent Washington Post article shared some sobering statistics; for instance, there more than FIVE male artists for every female artist on country radio. At the most recent ACM Awards, it was more than two and a half hours into the ceremony before a female artist (Kacey Musgraves) won an award. There were no women nominated for entertainer of the year, which is incomprehensible if you grew up when I did. I can easily name ten great female artists from 90’s country radio, just off the top of my head. Patty Loveless, Roseanne Cash, Martina McBride, Kathy Mattea. Reba McEntire, Suzy Bogguss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Terri Clark, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss…you get the point.

The idea that there is now a 5:1 ratio of men to women on the radio is offensive, but so is the way that women are portrayed in modern country music. As Maddie and Tae pointed out, being the girl in a country song is no picnic. Treating women as objects goes against every fiber of my being. You find it in just about every country song now, but 80’s and 90’s country had an entirely different tone. The overwhelming majority of the time, women were portrayed as strong and independent figures. Many songs by male artists from would find the protagonist asking for forgiveness, accepting responsibility for mistakes, and asking the woman to grant him another chance. Love songs, like “Forever and Ever, Amen”, pledge devotion to women, and offer a promise of accountability. Note that in these songs, the woman has the power. She is to be treated with respect, not as an object. When Luke Bryan commands a “country girl” to “shake it for me”, it’s more than just a bad song, it’s a troubling ideological shift.

The correct narrative when it comes to sexism and abuse is that men have combined decades of entitlement and excuse making with power. One only has to look at someone like Harvey Weinstein or Ryan Adams to see how ugly that combination can be. The strides that are being made for women’s rights and with the #metoo movement are necessary, and long overdue. But I think that something frequently missed in the conversation is how decidedly modern cultural sexism is. The literal objectification of women in everyday pop culture, especially country music, feels decidedly recent to me, and that’s really what I’m talking about here.

I grew up in Indiana, and the way women have been represented and treated in the media climate in recent years simply doesn’t align with how I was raised. There was no mistaking the expectations in the house I grew up in; you were to respect women, or face the consequences. I’m not saying that my childhood is representative of the entire heartland, but that same mindset and ideology is what I hear in country music of the time. When close to half of the songs I heard on the radio were by women, and when many of the other half were sung by contrite men apologizing to strong women, it helped to carry forward that same expectation set by my parents. My mom is a college graduate and a registered nurse. She believed she could accomplish anything, and did.

I’m not sure what prompted this unhealthy change in country music, but it’s disheartening, to say the least. Modern country artists, producers, and executives should be embarrassed, and pressure is mounting. It’s up to us to make sure that lyrics like this no longer describe the norm.

Bein’ the girl in a country song

How in the world did it go so wrong?

Like all we’re good for is lookin’ good for

You and your friends on the weekend, nothin’ more

We used to get a little respect

Now we’re lucky if we even get

To climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along

And be the girl in a country song

About Brian Keith Wallen

Singer-songwriter and guitarist from Indiana. Proud dog dad.
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