“As you can imagine, we’re sensitive to anyone who feels that they can’t break through to a boys’ club,” said Kim Burdges, who produced the segment. Bee, who spent a decade on “The Daily Show” before landing her own late-night series, came to Burdges with the idea for the segment several months ago after she read some articles on the topic. “So we decided to go to Nashville and investigate more.”
Zamata and Hoggart traveled to Music City during the week of the Country Music Association Awards in November. Although some singers are reluctant to put their careers at risk by speaking out, when the show reached out for interviews, nearly 100 percent of respondents said yes.
“Most people, because they knew we were going to do a comedic take on this, were excited about that, especially since our audience might not be a typical country crowd,” said director Todd Bieber, who added that, although popular male artists agreed to talk, the show ultimately decided to keep the focus on women.
The segment kicked off by pointing out all the amazing achievements for women in the genre lately, including female country artists nominated for Grammys and all-women hosts at the CMA Awards.
“So crank up that country radio for some lady-powered action,” Zamata and Hoggart said wryly in a voiceover, before showing shots of singers from Luke Bryan to Luke Combs singing their biggest hits. “Okay, it’s just a bunch of dude bros."
“We’re on the neon-soaked streets of Nashville, because there’s a problem with sexism in country music,” Zamata said, later adding, “We can’t have another generation of fans limited by the tastes and opinions of old white men." Hoggart noted, "They already have the Oscars and sports and banks and medicine and Hollywood. And most of the presidential candidates.”
The segment also brought up “tomato-gate,” the infamous incident in 2015 when a consultant suggested radio stations should play fewer songs by women for better ratings. (If country radio is a salad, he explained, “the lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”) The comments sparked a national outcry, although the numbers on radio haven’t improved, as men make up a majority of the airplay.
“What do you want your daughter to know about herself? If you can’t get that from country radio, if you can’t get that from country music, that’s a problem,” Brandi Carlile said during her interview, in which she jokingly blamed Kid Rock for all the issues women face in the genre.
Zamata and Hoggart interviewed Margo Price, who said she was “blacklisted” by country labels because she sang too much about “real-life problems,” and Tanya Tucker, who spoke of the double standards she faced early in her career. While Carlile, Price and Tucker’s music isn’t the type that would be marketed to contemporary country radio (it would fall more into the “Americana” sphere), the correspondents also spoke to Mickey Guyton, who has been on a major Nashville label for years yet hasn’t had a radio hit.
Guyton also discussed the challenges of being one of the few black artists in the genre. “Black people love country music, and there’s so many people that look like me that love country music,” she said. “We’re really just paving our own way.”
In a conversation with Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president of music strategy, Hoggart wondered aloud why country music was so concerned with radio. Isn’t it the age of streaming? (Where, incidentally, things aren’t great for women, either.) “I don’t mean to be patronizing, but why is radio still a big deal in country? Do you guys still use rotary phones?” Hoggart asked.
“Believe it or not, radio is still king,” Fram said. “So I feel like we’re training people not to hear female voices.”
Bieber, the director, said they included that question because it came up among the staff when they were planning the segment — many of them didn’t think about the fact that in rural areas, where country music is most popular, plenty of people still listen to radio in their cars. “Any time we can make a joke fall on us, like ‘Oh, it’s our ignorance,’ we try to work that in,” he said.
Given the importance of radio in the genre, Burdges said, it seemed especially critical to shine another spotlight on the issue: “If [female singers] aren’t on country radio and their voices aren’t being heard, then they’re really being suppressed.”