Mainstream country music flows out of Nashville and continues to enthrall millions and millions of fans with new records, new songs and live concerts — despite being noticeably lopsided, dominated by male artists.
Taylor Swift, a commercial and critical superstar like country music has rarely experienced, jumped ship to the pop realm a few years back. With Swift gone, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert are the only two female artists with enough appeal and hits in the bank to be counted upon to headline a major country concert tour reliably. They are the exceptions to the “guys rule” rule.
The country music charts and country radio’s song rotations might as well be divining rods for finding testosterone.
In the Top 30 on Billboard’s Country Album chart on Saturday there were four albums by solo female artists — with Golden Hour at No. 11, Kacey Musgraves was the top-ranked female on that chart.
Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart of the same time period was even more crowded with males. “Meant to Be,” Bebe Rexha’s pairing with male duo Florida Georgia Line was at the very top, while “Babe” by Sugarland featuring Taylor Swift, is No. 8. But males filled out the rest of the Top 10 slots.
Certainly it is not the case that women have suddenly stopped making country music. The interesting aspect of the situation is that women are making the most striking — genre-busting — music coming out of Nashville at the moment.
What follows is an examination of three recent high-profile country album releases by women, including the major-label debut of Arkansas native Ashley McBryde.
Album: Golden Hour, MCA Nashville
Backstory: Singer-songwriter Musgraves, a Texas native, emerged out of Nashville obscurity in 2013 with her critically praised Same Trailer, Different Park album. Musgraves, who had a writing credit on all of the songs, was hailed as a sharp, funny lyricist.
“Follow Your Arrow” gained notice for being a same-sex positive song on a country album. Same Trailer, Different Park won a Grammy for Best Country Album.
The next record by Mus-graves, 2015’s Pageant Material, didn’t receive the same fanfare or commercial attention as her first.
A signature event preceded the release of Golden Hour — Musgraves married fellow country artist Rusty Kelly.
Musgraves quote: “I love the idea of country music translating to people of all kinds, everywhere. And it doesn’t have to be about only five subject matters, tailgates and beer. Those are great things, but country music — real country music — is about life, and that’s what this album is about.”
Critical praise: “[A] knockout … In a funny way, the radical optimism of Golden Hour feels far more rebellious than any of Musgraves’ earlier work.” — Los Angeles Times
“Less concerned with outside forces than internal balance, Golden Hour stands as an assured, artful snapshot of a particular rush of feelings, but its wisdom speaks volumes to Musgraves’ ongoing evolution.” — Pitchfork
Is it country? The attempt by critics and Musgraves herself to cram Golden Hour into a country pegboard feels strained. Even though there are banjos and some pedal steel guitars flashing here and there, the total effect is that of a pop record, and a spacey one at that.
“Oh, What a World” is a stunningly gorgeous song spiked with a vocoder vocal effect. Opening track “Slow Burn” is otherworldly beautiful and feels miles away in content and style from meat-and-potatoes country.
Will it be played on country radio? Suppose crazier things have happened.
What’s next for her? In a sign that Musgraves might be taking the exit from country a la Swift, she is going to be an opening act for part of a U.S. tour by former One Direction member Harry Styles.
Album: Sparrow, Warner Bros.
Backstory: Monroe has her name on two more-or-less traditional country records, Like a Rose (2013) and The Blade (2015). Those albums, co-produced by Nashville vet Vince Gill, feature Monroe’s distinctive vocal drawl and a set of sharp songs that adhere closely to Nashville’s ground rules (even as a few of them, such as “Weed Instead of Roses,” offer a modern spin on romance).
Monroe’s status in Nashville has been more of a cult favorite than commercial success — her place in the Pistol Annies, the country super-group led by Miranda Lambert, epitomizes this.
The headline going into the Sparrow recording sessions was that Gill was out as producer, being replaced by Dave Cobb, notable for his work with Nashville maverick Chris Stapleton and Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell.
Monroe quote: “I listen to this album [Sparrow] nonstop in my car. I have never, ever listened to myself. But I just love it so much and I love the songs. I call myself ‘Kanye Monroe’ because I love myself in 2018.”
Critical praise: “Sparrow transcends its own tastefulness, and odds are excellent you’ll find it gorgeous.” — Spin
Is it country? In interviews Monroe has said she and Cobb were going for a Glen Campbell feel on Sparrow. One thing is certain, the symphonic string budget on this record must have been staggering. In that respect, Sparrow does comfortably fit into the old-fashioned countrypolitan approach. Ironically, this puts the record out of step with contemporary Nashville.
Has any country record in the recent or even the distant past been this frankly sexual? “Wild Love” and “Hands on You” are songs to make even the most jaded blush. That also places Sparrow outside the country norm.
Will it be played on country radio? Sparrow seems altogether too subtle and too quiet for country radio.
What’s next for her? In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Monroe states that she and Angaleena Presley were on the road with Miranda Lambert writing songs for the next Pistol Annies record. Sure enough, during Lambert’s tour stop in Little Rock, Presley and Monroe came out to sing two Pistol Annies songs.
Album: Girl Going Nowhere, Warner Nashville
Backstory: Pride of northeast Arkansas’ Mammoth Spring, Ashley McBryde, 34, makes her major-label debut with Girl Going Nowhere. Mc-Bryde moved to Nashville in her early 20s, making her way as a songwriter and playing solo whatever bars and coffeehouses would take her. Her break came by way of a Nashville showcase, which ultimately led to the record deal. Girl Going Nowhere enters at a time the country music marketplace skews heavily toward male acts.
McBryde quote: “Lately it has been really hard for women to break through in country [music]. It has to go back the other way. In the ’90s there were tons of strong females in country music. There’s a lot of good women out there right now with something to say. Eventually the pendulum has to swing the other way.”
Critical praise: “[Girl Goin’ Nowhere] is a vivid and accomplished major-label debut.” — The New York Times.
“[McBryde] has one of those voices that might belong to your sister or your best friend — if your sister or your best friend could belt like Loretta Lynn and croon like Reba McEntire.” — NPR
Is it country? The record isn’t a throwback to honky-tonk country, but Girl Going Nowhere fits right into the current strain of rock-anthem country. In addition, the subject matter of the record — the righteous dive bar blues of “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” and the searing opioid cautionary tale “Livin’ Next to Leroy,” for example – is country to a T.
McBryde certainly has a soulful side, shown in “Southern Babylon,” that should be acknowledged.
Will it be played on countryradio?“A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” has already spent some time on the lower part of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. So the answer is yes.
What’s next for her? Hit the road and the talk shows promoting Girl Goin’ Nowhere. She appeared on Jimmy KimmelLiveand is an opening act for Luke Combs’ tour.
Print Headline: Girls goin’ somewhere