The More Things Stay The Same:
Women in Alternative Country Music

by Cheryl Cline

In the past year, there have been a number of articles about Women In Country Music. In any given year, there are numerous articles about Women in Country Music, just as there are numerous articles about Women In Rock and Women In Jazz. Recently, however, the volume in these articles has been pumped up. Women have made great strides in country music -- as they always do, and it's no mean feat the way they manage to stay in the same place nonetheless. And not only have they made great strides, but women are now dominating the charts! Of course, you have to use your imagination a bit here, to consider a quarter or a third of the whole shebang to be "dominating." Still, there is no question that for the moment, women musicians fare better in the mainstream country charts than almost anywhere else.

Outside the mainstream country charts, though, things are different, as I found to my chagrin.

Near the end of last year, subscribers to the alternative country Internet mailing list Postcard2 started posting their yearly Top Ten Best lists. As the lists came in, I (and several other people) began to notice a disquieting trend: the lists were overwhelmingly male. The lists were being tallied, as a sort of Postcard2 Year-End Poll. When the results of the poll came in, I did my own tally:

Postcard2 Best of 1997 (100):
Male artists 81
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos 19

In the Top 20:
Male Artists: 20
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos 0

Naturally, I was steamed. "What's this bit?" I grumbled. "Buncha male pot-belly porkers or what? I'll tell them a thing or two!" And I was all set to give 'em what-for, when the devil on my shoulder jabbed me with its little bitty pitchfork. "Oh sure, Cline, cast the first stone and see what happens. Have you checked your Twangin'! Artists page lately?"

Misgivings were gathering even before I performed a similar tally of the artists' links on Twangin'!. With good reason:

Twangin' Artists Page, "Before" Snapshot:
Male artists 162
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos 29

Naturally, I was appalled.

"YIKES! Well, hell, I DONE BEEN HYPMOTIZED, brainwashed, bamboozled and played for a sucker! How could this happen! Arghh, they'll NEVER TAKE ME ALIVE, no sir-ee, I'll just think of a WHOLE BUNCH of alternative country women artists RIGHT NOW!"

.....

Uh-Oh.

It's not that I couldn't think of any alternative women country artists -- Tish Hinojosa, Gillian Welch, Nanci Griffith, Freakwater, the Lynn Morris Band and Rosie Flores come to mind -- it's just that I couldn't think of many who'd released a new CD in 1997. There must be more. Probably, I thought, they haven't been promoted well enough. Figures. Most of the "buzz bands" of 1997 had been male. So I went looking on the Web. When I found a page for a woman country musician, linked it to the Twangin'! page.

Twangin' Artists Page, "After" snapshot:
Male artists 162
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos 48

Okay, maybe they're just not on the Web yet. They're out there, right? Hand me my pipe and deerstalker, Watson, I'll find 'em. I started with the Gavin Americana charts. This chart tracks the popularity of country acts outside the mainstream, artists whose music is ignored by commercial radio stations who have cleaved unto Hot New Country and forsaken all others. So to speak. At any rate, the Americana chart would seem to be the place to start tooking for women artists ignored by the mainstream, since it's the place to look for men artists ignored by the mainstream. I realize this is pretty convoluted logic, and should have anticipated the results. Which were:

Gavin Americana Chart, 12/5:
Male artists 20
Female/Mixed Bands/Duos 0

Unwilling to admit defeat, I checked the extended Gavin Americana Chart (Top 40) at Americana-music.com for the same day, 12/5:
Male artists: 32
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos: 5
(Various Artists: 3)

-- and the Americana Top Twenty chart again two weeks later, 12/19:

Male artists: 19
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos: 1

Ah. We make progress.

More digging around turned up Web pages for stations reporting to Gavin; the basis for the Americana Charts. A good example is KCMU, a college free-form station which also runs special programs, including "Shake The Shack, a rockabilly show, and "Swinging Doors," a more general alternative country show.

KCMU Americana 40, Week of 12/8-12/14:
Male artists 34
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos6

No Depression, the magazine which has been called the "bible of alternative country," started running a Top 25 chart in its December, 1997 issue. The gender split echoes that of the Americana charts, and the Postcard2 poll:

No Depression Top 25, Issue #5, Nov/Dec 1997:
Male artists 22
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos 2
(Various artists: 1)

Out of curiosity, I checked some of the mainstream country charts, to see how they compared to the Americana Chart, starting with Gavin's Country top twenty. I also wanted to find out if the numbers bore out all those "Women In Country Music" articles -- do women really dominate the mainstream country charts?

Gavin Country Chart, 12/5:
Male artists 14
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos 6

Whoa, Nellie! Women are on the rampage here! Look at those numbers. The phrase "dominating the charts" spring instantly to mind, doesn't it?

You're right. It doesn't. The Billboard chart, on the other hand, is a little more interesting:

Billboard Country Chart, 12/13:
Male artists 10
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos 9

Almost perfect parity! Men are doomed.

Crook & Chase Country Countdown, 12/29:
Male artists 26
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos14

The "Women In Country Music" articles overstate the case only slightly. While they don't exactly "dominate," sometimes women do fill almost half the charts. But not women like, for instance, Kimmie Rhodes, Hazel Dickens, Claire Lynch, Lil' Mo & the Monicats, or Candye Kane. All of these artists come under the umbrella of "Americana" (as well as country, folk, bluegrass, rockabilly and country/blues, respectively). These women are supposedly played on Americana radio stations and Americana shows, that safe haven for artists ignored by mainstream radio stations. If they are, you certainly can't tell it by the charts.


Now for the Bad News

How do all these depressing numbers tally with actual releases? Are women artists simply being ignored? Or... what?

Checking lists of new releases on independent labels, I found even more depressing numbers.

Rounder Records Artist Roster (Country/Bluegrass/OT/Folk):
Male artists 192
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos59

Hightone Records: (Hightone imprint)
Male artists 39
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos4

Bluegrass, old-time and Cajun music have historically been male-dominated genres, and this no doubt skews the numbers on the older labels more towards "men, men, men," as Hazel Dickens puts it. Obviously, it's not fair to compare Rounder's 25-year stock of recordings, or Rebel's 35 years of bluegrass, to mainstream country charts of the past two or three years. On the other hand, the far less traditional arm of alternative country isn't rushing to fill the void, either.

The male-to-female ratio on the small indie labels that have sprung up in the last few years doesn't bode well. Justice Records carries six men and one woman on its country roster. Bohemia Beat, Dead Reckoning, and Oh Boy, all labels originally founded to release the music of the owners, and now branching out, are 3- and 4-to-1 male to female. Checkered Past, with three artists, has two all-male bands and one mixed band; Lazy S.O.B., two male artists, one female. Bloodshot offers an encouraging note, as their roster numbers nine men to seven women, not quite neck-and-neck, but closer than most labels (and Bloodshot co-owner Nan Warshaw assures us more releases by women are in the offing). These are tiny numbers to be sure, but it's worth noting that no label carries an even number of men and women artists, never mind more women than men.

Alternative country thrives on small labels like these. Added together, these tiny numbers turn into one whopping big gap. I've compiled a list (still under construction) of country releases on independent labels for last year, and the gender divide is significant. Phrases like "yawning" and "gaping" and "somewhat wider than the Grand Canyon" come to mind.

Country Music on Small Labels, 1997 (as of 1/2/98):)
Male artists 254
Female Artists and Mixed Bands/Duos62

All of this is depressing. This is back to square one. This is like women have made no gains at all since, well, since we were on square one -- and this, mind you, within the "progressive" area of country music. Women are doing fine over there in Top Forty country where the music, the image, the "product" is supposedly controlled to within an inch of its life.

This is one article on "Women in Country Music" that will not end on a pollyanna bright note. Or maybe Pollyanna is unfairly maligned. After, all, she's the one who would grasp at even the bleakest, dimmest, just barely visible of straws. So let's play Pollyanna's "Glad Game." What can we find here to be glad about?

(I'm thinking.)

Look! As of this writing (February 26, 1998) there are three, count 'em thuh-REE, women on the Americana Chart!

Well, that was my best Pollyanna shot.

Suggestions are welcome.

--Cheryl Cline



Keep tabs on the Country charts:

Gavin Americana Chart and Gavin Country Chart (Top 20)
Extended Gavin Americana Chart (Top 40)
Billboard Top Country Albums
Crook & Chase Country Countdown



Copyright 1998 Cheryl Cline

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Country Grrl is edited by Cheryl Cline, countrygrrl@steamiron.com