The suits of the Music Row machine have been putting their shiny boots in their less-than-polished mouths in recent months. The most recent example occurred last week when, in an interview with Country Aircheck magazine, prominent radio consultant Keith Hill stated, “Trust me, I play great female records, and we've got some right now; they're just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
While it’s clear Hill is less than skilled in the analogy department, his basic point, buried beneath the cold calculation, isn't exactly incorrect. In fact, when it comes to showcasing female talent Texas country is lagging behind its counterparts in Nashville.
Texas native Miranda Lambert was quick to express her distaste for the tomato talk last week. It’s always cool to hear a major player in any field speak her mind and aim a few inflammatory words at number-crunching needle-noses. But Lambert’s tweets were a show of support for other female artists to keep on keeping on. She wasn’t making a case against the cold analytics of the country music industry or the actual message Hill was clumsily attempting to convey. Take his unsavory salad illustration and apply it to the Texas country marketplace, and it’s painfully clear that mainstream country music, even in the midst of “Bro-Country” domination, is far more progressive in-terms of gender diversity than the radio stations, festivals and clubs in the region.
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Unlike 20 years ago, Texas country is now a full-fledged industry. While there's far more room here for independent artists to thrive than there is on Music Row in Nashville, Texas country as a business mirrors mainstream country music more than ever. Radio stations, magazines, record stores, publicity firms, management groups and even clothing lines cater exclusively to the audience that packs every Randy Rogers, Jason Boland and Casey Donahew performance. That type of commercial structure isn’t bad, but make no mistake: money speaks much louder than a simple set of great tunes do these days.
That’s the rub: The general Texas country buying public prefers male artists, just as it always has. To state such an idea isn’t a comment on talent, but a glimpse of the proverbial bottom line. And this is where the concept of what should be and what really is gets tangled and twisted from a gender quality standpoint. If the industrial titans running the marketplace of the Texas country scene realized dollars were being lost or simply left on the table by not spinning more female artists, or by booking more female artists as headliners in the largest venues, then it's beyond safe to say that would be happening. It's simple math at that point.
But according to the obvious barometers such as the Texas Music Chart, which produces a weekly chart of the most-played songs among dozens of key regional radio stations, and the annual line-ups of Texas’ most notable festivals such as the Lone Star Jam, Larry Joe Taylor’s Texas Music Festival, or Texas Mardi Gras in Fair Park, female artists are little more than supporting players on the airwaves and on the stages to the historically masculine main attractions.
Courtney Patton, Kylie Rae Harris, Bri Bagwell, the Rankin Twins, Sunny Sweeney, Aubrey Lynn England, Kimberly Dunn, Jamie Lin Wilson, and Charla Corn, are a few prime examples of women that are wildly gifted and seemingly deserving of tremendous success beyond what they've experienced thus far. Regardless of talent and the kind words of some critics, none of them have come close to making the cash registers of the power-brokers ring in the way the latest wave of male stars such as Josh Abbott or the Turnpike Troubadours have for years now. That's not to knock the hard work and talent of their male counterparts, but most can that diversity is a key factor in the long-term health of most any business.
Fortunately, there is some hope that things might soon be getting better.
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Sweeney, who last October landed the only Texas Music Chart No. 1 hit from a woman in the past decade, also has a national top 10 hit under her belt. Her current single, “My Bed,” a stunning duet with Will Hoge, is hovering near the top of the weekly chart at this moment. Even with those notable skins on the wall, she hasn’t been able to breakthrough as a Texas country version of a marquee headliner over the past decade she’s been recording and performing. But should Sweeney roll on to grab a a couple more No. 1 hits, that could very well be the point where things change.
She's not the only one, either. With impressive new albums out, Patton, Wilson and Bagwell have several songs between them that should find room in the top 10 of the Texas Music Chart, which is never a bad thing. On her fine new album, When a Heart Breaks, Bagwell, who puts on a hell of a live show, displays a keen ability to blend rock riffs with classic country storytelling. The combination of buzzed-about concerts and a strong new record just might be the recipe for Bagwell to become a more powerful Texas country commercial force.
As 2015 rolls into 2016, it’s easier to envision a stronger presence of women atop the regional country music industry, but, for the moment, it is just that — a hopeful vision. Whether we’re talking about theoretical tomatoes or radio-money salads, the presence of women in Texas country rests in the hands of the buying public and the people pulling many influential, money-seeking strings in the background. Variety is nice, but too many people order up the same damn thing.