Kitty Wells’ Legacy and the Future of Women on Country Radio

Blake Boldt | July 19th, 2012

kittywellsA legion of country music legends and industry professionals expressed their admiration for Country Music Hall of Famer Kitty Wells after her death this week at the age of 92. Rightly heralded as Queen of Country Music, she was a ground-breaking force who challenging authority even as she maintained a traditionally feminine image. No less an expert than Loretta Lynn acknowledged as much when she paid tribute to Wells and her trailblazing spirit: “Kitty Wells will always be the greatest female country singer of all times. She was my hero. If I had never heard of Kitty Wells, I don’t think I would have been a singer myself.”

As country music’s first female superstar, Wells reigned as the genre’s leading lady from 1952 to 1968, scoring 64 Top 40 hits during that time span. She also earned the first No. 1 single by a female artist with 1952’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” an answer song to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” In her high, plaintive voice, she suggests that men should accept their share of blame for a woman’s transgressions. The song was so controversial at the time that Grand Ole Opry officials would not originally let her perform it. Throughout her career, Wells balanced these feisty rejoinders with more tempered songs of heartbreak and loss. Her music clearly struck a chord with fellow Hall of Famers Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, all of whom have credited Wells for setting the precedence which all women in country would eventually follow.

Progress for female hitmakers in country music has been a slow build since then. Sales and radio play on the distaff side seemed to reach a peak in the early 1990s. Reba McEntire and Wynonna rose to headliner status, and a healthy roster of artists—-Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood—went gold or platinum while winning a number of major awards. Their music spoke honestly about the lives of women with real smarts and integrity. The latter part of the decade proved even more fruitful, with international superstars Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks becoming some of the most celebrated acts in all of popular music.

But the steady gains that Wells made as a female pioneer in a male-dominated format are in danger of being swept aside. Both Twain and Hill have taken long absences from touring and recording, and the Dixie Chicks continue to lay low since their very public divorce from the format. The dearth of women in the chart’s upper reaches these days has rendered the annual female vocalist categories uncompetitive. Since the 2006 CMA Awards, the trio of Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift have accounted for all female vocalist honors given by the Academy of Country Music, the Country Music Association, and the Grammys. An even more troubling statistic: For two weeks in the summer of 2011, no songs by solo woman ranked among the Top 30 on the Hot Country Songs chart.

Country radio hasn’t been completely devoid of female voices. Duos (Sugarland, Thompson Square) and groups (Lady Antebellum, The Band Perry) that feature women singers have enjoyed chart success in recent years. Freshman acts such as THE FARM and Edens Edge continue to make strides with their first albums. And two of the biggest singles of 2011 featured pop-rock females performing with country’s top hunks-in-hats: Grace Potter sang with Kenny Chesney on “You and Tequila,” and Kelly Clarkson joined Jason Aldean on “Don’t You Wanna Stay.”Still, the future is bleak for a fresh crop of solo female newcomers. Music Row has seen encouraging signs of a neo-traditional breakthrough with artists such as Chris Young and Easton Corbin, but the women have played little part in this renaissance. Sunny Sweeney and Ashton Shepherd issued successful first singles in 2011, but their follow-up efforts failed to catch fire. The most notable commercial disappointment of 2012 was Kellie Pickler, whose latest album 100 Proof sold a mere fraction of her previous two releases despite earning strong critical reviews. Pickler’s recent split with her record label Sony now leaves only a handful of women recording for major labels on Music Row. These women of country music explore mature themes in their music while also offering more lighthearted fare. Their songs come from a nuanced, refreshingly adult perspective, and their sounds blend contemporary production with more retro stylings.

Meanwhile, the men have been ridiculed as of late for their soundalike ditties, nearly all of them aimed at redneck kids and their southern lifestyles. They trade heavily in the same stock images and hard-rock arrangements. Worse, the small-town sweethearts they sing about reflect none of the gritty realism that the women of country have been known for. These seemingly interchangeable performers have kept hillbilly stereotyping alive and well into the 21st century.

Though market research posits that female listeners prefer being sung to by men, it’s hard not to get a whiff of sexism from Music Row today. More curious is how these women are being defined by such a limited character, generally a sundress-wearing, truck-driving, preacher’s daughter with a Bible in one hand and a beer in the other.

As country radio suffers from tightly restricted playlists, the traditional roots of the genre have gotten short shrift. That history includes a slew of landmark recordings by female artists, with songs that provide flesh-and-blood portrayals of women just like Kitty Wells. Her contributions to country music will forever remain etched in the genre’s legacy, so it’s disheartening to think that the challenges for a “girl singer” are now more daunting than ever.

  1. Sabra
    July 19, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    I like the idea of female singers, but rarely the execution. Frankly, there’s no one out there right now who comes close to Ms. Wells. I listen mainly to alt.country now, and have for a few years, and while for the most part the men don’t sound like Nashville wannabes, the same isn’t true for the women. Give me someone better than Sunny Sweeney or the Pistol Annies, and I’ll buy their stuff.

    The truth is that Nashville’s women have been charging boldly toward ’90s alternative rock (a la Lilith Fair) since I last listened to mainstream country music on a regular basis. I like Sheryl Crow and I like Jewel, but I don’t want my country singers trying to sound like them. This sort of thing is probably why a late-’80s pop country throwback like Sunny Sweeney can pass as neotraditionalist with most folks.

  2. Jack Williams
    July 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Here’s some female singers in the alt country/Americana realm that don’t make me think of Nashville wannabes: Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Julie Miller, Elizabeth Cook, Lucinda Williams, Allison Moorer, Shelby Lynne, Chelle Rose, Kathleen Edwards, and Kasey Chambers.

  3. Leeann Ward
    July 19, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Ditto to Jack’s list.

  4. Adam Sheets
    July 19, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    I found it interesting that the article spoke of the lack of successful female artists in today’s mainstream country music industry without once mentioning Taylor Swift. Regardless of what we call her music, the market calls it country and she’s the most successful artist of her generation in that field.

    The problem isn’t that female artists aren’t making good music these days (I like Jack’s list and I would add Rachel Brooke and several others too it). It’s that Nashville doesn’t promote it. See the case of Kellie Pickler releasing one of the best mainstream albums in recent memory and then being dropped by her label.

    In my opinion, it stems from what country music IS promoting: the modern fake outlaw movement. In the minds of those artists, a women is just an object, just like your truck, your fishing pole and your bottle of shitty domestic beer. There’s no more Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash love songs. It’s all Luke Bryan, hot girl in my truck anthems.

    And I’m guessing that Swift, Pickler, Miranda Lambert and others have a mostly female fan base as a result.

    Just my two cents.

  5. Jack Williams
    July 19, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    I hear you on Rachel Brooke, Adam. Her Down in the Barnyard album was one of my favorites last year.

  6. nm
    July 19, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    I think Miranda Lambert is the most successful of the younger women singers at finessing the conflict between “shows some identifiable roots in country” and popularity, but it has to be pretty frustrating right now to be a young female country singer with traditional leanings.

  7. Arlene
    July 19, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    To Jack’s list I’d add Rosanne Cash, Abigail Washburn, Zoe Muth, Eilen Jewell, Mary Gauthier, Kelly Willis, Diana Jones, and Sara Watkins.

  8. Leeann Ward
    July 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Adam, Taylor Swift is mentioned in the fourth paragraph.
    Ditto to your list as well, Arlene!

  9. TX Music Jim
    July 19, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    It has got to be frustrating to be a female in country music right now. Picklers album was really excellent. It harkens back to Sarah Evans wonderful three chords and the truth record or Early albums from Leann Womack. The marketing side of the machine just does not seem to see a market for more tradtional leaning female country.

  10. Ben Foster
    July 19, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Enjoyed the article, Blake, and I very much agree with the sentiments presented, particularly as one who has long had a special connection to the music of country’s female artists. It’s sad to see smart, mature women so poorly represented in the country market these days, and someone startling to note that the award industries have been passing around the Female Vocalist trophies among the same three woman for over half a decade now. We sure could use some fresh new female blood, but it’s hard to be optimistic.

  11. Jonathan
    July 19, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Terrific writing here, Blake, and a spot-on analysis of the genre’s current gender politics.

    More curious is how these women are being defined by such a limited character, generally a sundress-wearing, truck-driving, preacher’s daughter with a Bible in one hand and a beer in the other.

    God forbid any of the Peach Pickers should read that, or that description would end up, verbatim, in one of their songs.

    I think it’s revealing just how quiet all of country’s current A-list women have been with regard to Kitty Wells’ passing. In the past two days, the genre’s legends (Parton, Lynn, Mandrell), “alt” acts (Cantrell, Willis, Cook), and JV squad (Pickler, Sweeney, Roberts) have all paid respect to Wells to varying degrees, as have countless others.

    But not a single one of the women who rank among the genre’s biggest stars (Lambert, Underwood, Swift, Scott, Perry, Nettles), most of whom fall within the age range of the social media generation who can’t *not* make public statements and several of whom very quickly went on record about the deaths of Whitney Houston and Donna Summer, has had anything to say about the Queen of the genre they now ostensibly lead.

    Of course, no one person is obligated to share a sense of grief publicly, but the fact that *none* of the women who currently top the country charts and who contend for the country music industry awards needed to express so much as a #RIPKittyWells just seems bizarre to me. I honestly can’t imagine anything comparable happening among the current torchbearers in any other genre if a true icon of Wells’ stature died.

    As far as silences go, this one just strikes me as particularly loaded and, ultimately, sad. And, taken more broadly, it would indicate the extent to which Wells’ influence and significance have, in fact, already been “swept aside.”

  12. Ken Morton, Jr.
    July 19, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    It’s obviously a small sample size of a few thousand country music fans, but I see the male dominance from a different perspective in our Golf & Guitars event we put on out here in Sacramento. The radio station that we partner with has a heavier female demographic and they are much more active shamelessly flirting with the guy musicians than the guys are ever the other way around with the female musicians. The young male demographic, seemingly the most important to general country radio right now, really identifies with the rock and roll “attitude” country being delivered by the likes of Bryan, Aldean, Church and Brantley. My perspective is that, generally speaking, the current twenty-something and thirty-something female fans want male artists and that the same-aged male fans want male artists.

  13. Jon
    July 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    “…it’s disheartening to think that the challenges for a “girl singer” are now more daunting than ever.”

    How can they be more daunting now than they were pre-Kitty Wells? Or is that big chunk of country music’s history not part of “ever?”

    It wasn’t so long ago – back in those late 90s that Blake mentions – that magazines were full of stories bemoaning the dominance of women and the virtual disappearance of male artists from the country charts. I know that to someone for whom 10 or 12 years represents the great majority of their age-of-awareness years, that seems like forever and a day ago, but in the scheme of things in a genre closing in on its 100th anniversary, it ain’t. I see no good reason to believe that this is any more of a permanent trend than the female domination of the late 90s was.

  14. Adam Sheets
    July 19, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Jon, I agree with your general point, but while we should never understate the importance of Kitty Wells (who I feel was a major influence on most female country artists through the ’80s and ’90s at least), we also shouldn’t understate the achievements of ladies like Maybelle and Sara Carter, Molly O’Day, Patsy Montana, and Rose Maddox.

    Country music was never really without female artists and some of them have always had commercial success. What Kitty Wells did was show that a female solo artist could sustain that level of success for years and even decades.

  15. Adam Sheets
    July 19, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Speaking of which, that era is also past, when an artist can have a successful mainstream career for decades. The days when Ernest Tubb, Eddy Arnold, and, to some extent, Dolly Parton, could have hits into their 50s and 60s are long gone. With the exception of George Strait and barring the possibility of country embracing Alan Jackson again, there is not a single artist being played on the country station who has been at it longer than 10-15 years.

    It’s a shame, because I think country radio could do a better job of satisfying everybody if they were to mix in new music from Don Williams, Marty Stuart, or Rosanne Cash on occasion.

  16. luckyoldsun
    July 19, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    I was all ready to make a forceful comment, but Jon beat me to it and said exactly what I would have tried to say.

    I, too remember just a short while ago reading about how women were dominating country music, both artistically and sales-wise.

    The people who run the record companies and radio stations put out whatever they think will sell.

  17. luckyoldsun
    July 19, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    Adam,
    There may be something to your sentiments, but as a point of fact, Ernest Tubb had a couple of top-40 hits in his very early 50’s, but nothing after that and certainly not in his 60’s.

    Dolly Parton’s last shot at a radio hit was something called “Romeo”–featuring Billy Ray Cyrus!–when she was all of 47.

    Actually, George Strait’s having a slew of top-10 and #1 hits throughout his 50’s is something unprecedented in music and radio history. It’s rather amazing that he accomplished that in this era.

  18. Adam Sheets
    July 19, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Hits was probably the wrong terminology. Nevertheless, Tubb was signed to MCA from 1940-1975 and Eddy Arnold and other than a two year stint with MGM in the early ’70s, Eddy Arnold was with RCA from 1945 until 2008.

    Of course, both of them were products of an earlier era. Even Cash didn’t get that level of respect from his label in the ’80s.

  19. Rick
    July 22, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Even though I quit listening to Top 40 country radio a few years ago I still like to check the charts to see what’s going on currently. Even though the Nashville labels still sign and promote new female solo artists, the likelihood any will really click at country radio is quite minimal. If it weren’t for the continued success of Carrie, Taylor, & Miranda I doubt the labels would even bother with new female solo artists no matter how talented.

    Now own the other hand pop culture icons like Jana Kramer (and Julianne Hough before her) have a foot in the door to begin with as they have a pre-made legion of fans from the TV shows they were featured on. Because American Idol has become passe after so many seasons, I don’t think it carries (pun intended) the weight it once did.

    Because solo female artists and female fronted acts usually only account for 10 to 20 % (usually closer to 10) of the typical Top 30 chart list, there is no reason for country radio to actively seek out more female artists. Now if Carrie, Taylor, and Miranda disappeared tonight there would be a scramble to find another three or so female artists to take their slots, but that would be about it.

    When a great song like Sunny Sweeney’s “Drink Myself Single” tanks at Top 40 country radio, it just reinforces my conviction that the entire country radio establishment is controlled by AirHeads who program mediocrity to cater to their AirHead listeners. The entire format could dry up and blow away tomorrow like a tumbleweed and I wouldn’t even care…

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