How Women in UK Country Music Can Influence The US Country Music Scene
When people tell me they love music, I know that nobody in the world could love music as much as my Grandad did. He was a man constantly surrounded by it, whether it was his record player, CD player, or radio, he always seemed to come with his own background music, he felt music in his soul. That love was passed down to my mum who would borrow CDs from his seemingly infinite stash and play them in the car. As I would sit in the backseat, she would play anything from Adele to Fleetwood Mac but the one that particularly caught my attention was Loretta Lynn. The first sounds of the steel guitar felt so foreign yet so familiar and as I perked up and listened to the lyrics, they made me laugh. Thus, began my obsession with country music, which was heavily endorsed by both my Mum and Grandad. For my 13th birthday I received my very own pair of cowboy boots which I would wear everywhere, I was a cowgirl who lost her way on the way to Nashville and got stuck in Surrey. I was eventually promoted to the front seat and my mum and I sat in the car and listened to our way through CD after CD, laughing and sometimes crying through the backlog of decades of country music. We discovered a country scene in the UK and went to gigs, finding a community of like-minded displaced cowboys.
When my Grandad was diagnosed with stage four cancer in January 2019, we found that we couldn’t listen to some of the songs anymore, they made us too sad, they reminded us of our own wounded cowboy. His memory faded for all the things he used to adore. He ailed quickly and was moved to a hospice in April, he didn’t remember us or where he was but my mum brought some of his once-beloved CDs for him to listen to, with the hope it would spark a memory. As the tinny sounds of Loretta Lynn’s Full Circle album rang through the ancient Walkman headphones, his eyes filled with tears because he remembered how country made him feel. When we lost him on the last day of April, we made country music our tribute to him, we would play all the powerhouse female singers because he loved them so much. When I came home the first Christmas after I moved to university, my mum said she was relieved because she couldn’t bring herself to listen to our favourite CDs without me. Now, whenever my mum picks me up from the train station when I trek back from university, the second I open the heavy car door, I hear the familiar, soothing sounds of the steel guitar or the banjo and I recognise it as the sound of home. Country music bound together three generations of my family and surpasses further down my family history. This itself should prove its unanimous inclusivity but disappointingly, it is not yet the case.
At the beginning of this disappointing year, a tweet from Michigan-based country radio station ‘98 KCQ Country’ set the general mood by telling the world they “cannot play two females back-to-back” in a discussion about broadcasting female country artist’s songs on the radio. This reopened an old wound, influencing female country stars such as Kelsea Ballerini and Grammy award-winner Kacey Musgraves to express their discontent on Twitter. The general internet discourse and firestorm surrounding the role of female artists in country music is nothing new, the argument regularly flares up on social media as personal bias and radio listenership numbers clash, but the general consensus is that female country artists are not given nearly enough airplay as their male counterparts.
The statistics published in a study collaboration in 2019 by The University of Ottawa and WOMAN Nashville discovered that since 2000, American radio airplay of songs by female country artists have dropped by 66%. Furthermore, in 2018, only 11.3% of songs played on country music radio in the USA were those written and performed by females. In a current ‘YouGov’ poll, Dolly Parton was voted as the most famous country star and the second most popular country music artist to ever live; and yet she is spearheading a group of voices that is having a dwindling effect on the airwaves as a whole. Radio presenter for Country Hits Radio (one of the UK’s top country music stations) Matt Spracklen, suggested that this gender disparity happens with airplay in the USA specifically because of a “more conservative belt of radio listenership in the southern states of America, where it’s probably been the way for so long, it’s probably always been a 70/30 split.” It begs the question: could it be possible that the radio stations have formed these audiences by not playing enough female artists, unintentionally causing their regular listenership to seek the desired music elsewhere.
My country music-loving mum, Lisa Edwards, commented on her observations when listening to country music radio while on holiday in the US: “I noticed that when we were on holiday in 2017, in Florida, and we were listening to mainly country music radio stations in the car, it was really obvious that there weren’t any songs played by women on there, it was almost all songs by men and I remember commenting on it at the time.” She noted that the distinction between the US and the UK airplay of female country artists was quite obvious, even to a casual listener: “You didn’t have to listen to a country radio station long, to realise, certainly in America, that there were barely any songs by women.”
While country music is generally synonymous with America’s deep south, there have been smaller ‘grassroot’ scenes of country music lovers forming all around the world, particularly with a rising interest in UK country music. The popularity of country music in the UK skyrocketed exponentially in the early 2010s with the notoriety of two country duos, The Shires and Ward Thomas, both of whom became regularly played on national radio stations across the UK. This sudden interest in country music, particularly UK-based country music, led to the establishment of the ‘Country2country’ music festival in 2013, which is held annually at the O2 Arena in London. This 3-day country music festival presents well-known country singers from the UK and US, as well as many other countries. Around eighty thousand attendees visit every year, and that number is only growing. The rapidly increasing number of UK-based country music artists has gained notoriety not only in the UK, but in the US as well. Especially well known is the Hampshire-based country duo Ward Thomas, made up of sisters Katherine and Lizzie Ward-Thomas who are widely known as ‘Britain’s first country artists.’ Speaking on this topic, Katherine said: “When we first started, we kind of felt like we were the only ones and then when we met The Shires and we were doing a lot of promo with them during shows, we realised that we’re sort of campaigning this new baby genre out in the UK.”
UK country artist Jake Morrell described the difference between the two scenes in the UK and the US: “The two scenes are so different from each other, the scene in the UK is so young and yet to ‘really’ break. In the US, they were born with country in their blood and bones since the days when they were running moonshine.”
The UK scene is regarded as the ‘little brother’ to the behemoth that is its American counterpart. Country music journalist Caroline Scott, who runs a London-based online platform for ‘city people who love the country lifestyle’, suggests that there is a lack of a long history of British country music and this actually benefits the UK country scene.
“We’ve started on a clean slate here, [In the UK country scene] there’s no historical racism or sexism. There are no cultural divides before the song was written. A lot of the British country fans have migrated from pop and are used to seeing a mixture of artists, a mixture of races, ages and backgrounds. We just don’t have the history.” In general, a lack of heritage would be regarded as a bad thing but in the case of the UK scene, it means the artists can get down to the business of doing what they really want to do, which is telling stories. Scott continues by saying “The UK country fans are an inclusive bunch, we just want songs with a good story, sung by a singer who can hold a tune.”
The acceptance of UK country fans of artists from all walks of life means that there are more female country artists in the UK than male. British artist Emily Faye explained that “The people I mix with and know from the scene are majority females and duos, not many male artists.” Her statement rings true, in both Bob Harris’ and Chris Stevens’ articles about up-and-coming British country stars, the majority of them are female solo artists, duos and even bands. Spracklen explains that he doesn’t believe that this is due to actively trying to cause a gender imbalance but that “the majority of female artists are making-not always-but mostly the more credible music.” Scott further explains that there is a large young female audience who relate to the songs and stories written and performed by female artists: “the audience demographic plays a big role in the UK. Female artists are writing ‘coming of age’ songs that resonate with a younger, female audience.” While there is a large quantity of renowned female country singers in Britain, do they get the same airplay as men? Matt Spracklen says, without a doubt “since day one, it’s always been 50/50. I also know that there’s Bobby Bones, Ty Bentley and Paul Coffee who is on country hits radio, and play as many female artists as men. We’re certainly not inheriting that gender imbalance, which is very good to see.”
When asked about the lack of female airplay in the US, Faye said “If a song is good, it shouldn’t matter if it’s sung by a man or a woman.” Faye is not only a popular country artist but an advocate for women in the music industry itself. Along with two fellow British country singers Beth Keeping and Vic Allen, she runs a project called ‘Write like a girl’ which is a series of Nashville style writer’s rounds showcasing the songwriting efforts of up-and-coming female songwriters: “’Write like a girl’ was born from gender disparity in every genre of music. In 2017, only 17% of songwriters were women. We wanted to change that and encourage women to join the music industry.” She’s pleased with the progress that the project has made: “It’s become a community where you can meet, work and develop songs with other like-minded women.”
The Ward Thomas twins also mentioned a lack of female representation behind the UK country scene and mentioned that while their tour manager and sound engineer is a woman, women are very scarcely found in management teams: “We are very lucky that we have each other, whereas there will be so many women out there that are the only girl on a tour. Chrissie [Rhodes] from the Shires, will bring a girl friend with her a lot on tour, just because it just gets too much.”
However, they believe that the issue could be easily changed, Lizzie said “I think behind the scenes, people in their management teams can research and look into who is a great female producer or a talked-about female songwriter right now. There just needs to be more support for women behind the scenes.”
There’s an overwhelming sense of community and comradery in the UK country scene, every person I contacted was extremely willing to talk about a subject they loved and happy to speak to their friends in the scene for help. Morrell explained that going to festivals was like “going away with family, you can literally have a beer with anyone because everyone knows everyone.” British country artists make no attempt to hide their Britishness and often promote the fact that there is a very unique style of British sound. One of The Shires most popular songs is called Nashville Grey Skies which is based on the idea of building a Nashville-esque country scene in the UK, but swapping out iconic American ideas of country with British ones, like changing Moonshine to Gin and Tonics. Jake Morrell’s song Englishman is one of his most popular and it too, promotes the idea of Britishness in an otherwise very Americanised scene, he describes it as “putting your own British stamp on it.” As a fan, my mum says that she likes the British sound: “It supposes I see a lot of American country music as being more traditional, like talking about your beer and your tractor and your lady, whereas English country music seems to be, dare I say it, a bit more sophisticated.”
In 2017, Ward Thomas opened for US country megastar Miranda Lambert on the UK leg of a world tour and they said that she was surprised by the country fans in the UK: “she initially found it weird in the UK, she was like ‘oh my gosh, everyone is silent!’ but it’s because everyone listens to every word, every lyric and focuses on the way the music feels. In America, it’s a very rowdy party scene.” The UK country scene strongly promotes its uniqueness and the importance that lyrics have in telling stories that people can relate to, Lizzie said, “We all like music that we can relate to and like to find an emotional connection too, and I think deep down so many people do like country music because when you listen to country music, it’s just very comforting.” The connection and honesty that British country music seems to embody suggest that it’s a lot more authentic and open to hearing stories from a more diverse range of voices.
Ultimately, Spracklen says that “I don’t think it’s causing the British country scene any injustice by saying we’ve taken what we’ve learnt from Nashville.” While the country scene in the UK is so new, as it grows, it will develop its own identity which will hopefully be accepting and open enough to encourage new songwriters and singers to share their stories; but until then, the good parts of the Nashville scene can be borrowed and as Morrell says: “The scene is young enough to say “that’s not ok and we’re not doing that” when discrimination happens.” While most don’t think there’s much that the US can learn from the UK scene, there is the belief that the US radio hosts don’t need to worry as much about their ratings if they play more women.
Spracklen says: “There’s not much the US can learn from us but if we’re talking about gender imbalance then yes, the US can learn to worry less about what they play on the radio.” Morrell finished by saying “We’re all just human at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what gender you are, what colour you are, how big or small you are, I think, as the human race we all need to grow up a bit and just listen to the music.”