Can one of country music’s most powerful stars get a No. 1 hit on the radio only if she sings a song with a man?
While it may seem like a wild question to ask in 2018, consider Miranda Lambert: She has sold millions of albums. She headlines arenas. She’s the Academy of Country Music’s most-awarded artist in history. Her fan base is passionately loyal. She has two Grammys and 16 nominations. She’s up for three trophies at Wednesday night’s Country Music Association Awards.
Yet in recent years, after a string of hits earlier this decade, Lambert’s new songs have struggled on radio — which is considered a critical component of country music success, even in the streaming era, as the genre’s stars are expected to dominate the top of the charts. Artists at Lambert’s level don’t necessarily need airplay to ensure sales. But it’s an odd contrast to see her 2016 double album “The Weight of These Wings” go platinum in sales while only one single got near the Top 10 on radio.
Then this summer, Lambert was featured on Jason Aldean’s single “Drowns the Whiskey.” The track steadily climbed to No. 1 in August, about three months after it was released. The two will perform it at the CMAs, where it’s nominated for single and vocal event of the year. It’s always great to have a hit, but how does Lambert feel about the chart disparity?
“Yes, I had to sing with someone with a penis to get a number one,” Lambert said matter-of-factly in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “I do like this person, Jason Aldean, a lot . . . so it was a great song with an old friend.”
Lambert continued: “It is interesting that I haven’t had even a Top 20 in a long, long time. And then it goes No. 1 because it’s a dude,” she said. “But you know — if we went and looked at how many singles or records were sold for the Top 10 songs right now, I’d probably triple it on record sales. So it doesn’t matter.”
Country radio is already under extreme scrutiny for its gender imbalance. In 2015, a consultant sparked backlash when he advised country stations to decrease the number of songs by women for higher ratings, and radio has been in the spotlight ever since. There hasn’t been much progress: The Tennessean reported that only 10.4 percent of songs on country radio charts in 2017 were from female artists, down from 13 percent the year before.
Since the beginning of Lambert’s career in 2004, radio programmers weren’t quite sure how to feel about the young Texan who sang bluntly about revenge on a cheating ex in “Kerosene” and domestic abuse in “Gunpowder & Lead.”
On an episode of the podcast “This Nashville Life,” a representative at Lambert’s label said programmers initially didn’t “get” Lambert, and couldn’t figure out why her music was so “angry.” (Sony Music Nashville, Lambert’s label, declined to comment for this story.) Some singles climbed the chart, yet others flopped. But Lambert’s album and concert ticket sales were so impressive that radio couldn’t write her off completely. Eventually, in 2010, she landed her first No. 1 radio hit with “White Liar.”
That was followed by “The House That Built Me,” the Grammy-winning ballad that helped catapult Lambert’s career to the next level. She had a solid run of radio No. 1s with “Heart Like Mine” in 2011, “Over You” in 2012 and “Mama’s Broken Heart” in 2013, along with Keith Urban duet, “We Were Us.”
Lambert’s last No. 1 was “Automatic” in June 2014, the first single off her fifth record, “Platinum.” The next single, a duet with fellow superstar Carrie Underwood, “Somethin’ Bad,” peaked at No. 7; “Little Red Wagon” went to No. 16; “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” a collaboration with Little Big Town, couldn’t crack the Top 30.
Then came her album “The Weight of These Wings” in late 2016, after her divorce from Blake Shelton. It was noticeably darker than her previous efforts, and Lambert acknowledged the deeply personal project might not fit at radio, which often craves up-tempo, feel-good tunes. “I know radio’s been a struggle, but I really needed to say these things,” she told HITS Daily Double.
Fans, however, bought the record in droves, and it sold 122,000 copies the first week. “Vice,” the haunting first single, made it to No. 11 on radio in October 2016. “We Should Be Friends” peaked in the mid-20s in March 2017. The heart-wrenching “Tin Man” only made it to No. 22 in December 2017. “Keeper of the Flame,” released in April, was one of Lambert’s lowest-charting songs ever, and didn’t crack the Top 50.
Timothy Hayes, program director at the independent 105.7 FM in Lubbock, Tex., noticed this decline when he was a DJ at his former station, where he wrote a blog post titled “Why Can’t Miranda Lambert Get a Hit Single?” Now, he theorizes, it’s possible male programmers have trouble relating to Lambert’s music. Or they don’t think the subject matter — the fiery singles or melancholy post-divorce tracks — will connect with their target listener demographic, moms in their mid-30s. But he doesn’t like the optics of Lambert only now getting a No. 1 with Aldean.
“The fact that it almost felt like Jason had to hold her hand to go up [the chart], to get her a No. 1, like he had to escort her there, it just seemed —” Hayes trailed off. “I just hate that idea. . . . She’s such an amazingly talented person, and there are so many other great songs that just aren’t getting pushed.”
Multiple programmers across the country didn’t return requests to discuss why Lambert’s new music hasn’t made an impact on radio, despite her collaboration with Aldean flying up the chart. A few others offered similar thoughts: Lambert is a brilliant artist, and “The Weight of These Wings” was a great record — except it lacked “consumable” singles that could be radio hits.
“Miranda does what she wants, always, and that’s, I think, why we love her,” said Julie Stevens, program director at KRTY (95.3 FM) in San Jose. “ ‘The Weight of These Wings’ was really introspective. It was very dark, and it was exactly what Miranda wanted to do and exactly what she was feeling at the time. But it doesn’t necessarily make for a really good radio-friendly record.”
“We played everything she sent us,” Stevens said, adding, “I don’t think there’s a conspiracy against her, I really don’t. I just think that she does what she wants to do. She is not interested in ‘making a hit record’ . . . so sometimes it gets played and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Country music’s gender imbalance isn’t just a radio problem — it’s prevalent on streaming service playlists, festival lineups, award shows and more. Still, radio is most frequently the focus, especially on social media. Nashville collective Women of Music Action Network, for example, will post bleak screenshots of radio charts, and how empty they look if you take every male act away.
Some programmers claim they’re eager to play more songs by women, yet their hands are tied, because they report to corporate overlords and song choices are limited to singles shipped by labels. Of course, record labels might be hesitant to sign female artists if they think it will be an unwinnable battle at radio. So the infuriating, cyclical blame game continues.
Elaina Smith, co-host of the nationally syndicated “Nash Nights Live,” worked in adult contemporary and pop radio before moving to Nashville. She was shocked when she heard country programmers say they’re told to never play two songs by women back-to-back. Smith was especially disturbed by their reasoning: allegedly, female listeners, the target demo, don’t like to hear female voices on the radio.
Smith, who launched a podcast this fall called Women Want to Hear Women, is one of many in Nashville determined to debunk that problematic thinking, and raise awareness about the challenges women face in the industry. “Nothing is ever going to change unless it’s known and we can be open about it,” Smith said.
One of the numerous issues with that two-song policy, Smith said, is audiences don’t have time to get familiar with the tracks, so they’re less likely to become hits.
“Everything is about familiarity,” Smith said. “If a song isn’t doing that well and it’s a guy, I feel like they’re more prone to keep pushing it . . . but these songs [by women] aren’t getting chances that male songs are getting, in my experience and observation.”
Lambert, of course, is well aware of the behind-the-scenes of radio. She recently promoted an album with her band, the Pistol Annies; her bandmates, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley jokingly “dared” country radio to play their new single. Lambert seems content either way.
“At this point, music’s just an in-betweener for advertisements on radio. But that’s fine, whatever. I’ll take both,” Lambert told The Post. “But there’s so many other ways to find music, I feel like people can find us and find all these artists that they love in other facets besides radio.”
Geoff Edgers contributed to this report.