You can accuse Nashville’s male superstars of many things, but you can’t say they shy away from the spotlight. Yet at this moment, their presence is missing from one of the biggest country music stories of 2015.
That would be #SaladGate, the controversy that erupted last week when radio consultant Keith Hill advised country radio stations that to increase ratings, they should play fewer songs by women. Nothing personal, he said. It’s all based on data, and statistics show the optimal amount of female artists on any country station looking for “robust” ratings should be 15 percent. He compared country radio to a salad: “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
You can imagine how that went over on the Internet. Miranda Lambert, one of most powerful singers in the genre, tweeted her disgust. (“This is the biggest bunch of BULL**** I have ever heard.”) Martina McBride and Sara Evans posted long Facebook messages. Other female artists weighed in, including Kacey Musgraves, Terri Clark, Jana Kramer, Maggie Rose, Kelsea Ballerini, Jennifer Nettles, Maddie & Tae, Brandy Clark and Kellie Pickler. Many of them made tomato jokes.
However, about a week into this hot-button topic making national headlines and garnering tons of thoughts from across the industry, there’s been little to no response from the “lettuce” about stations being advised to play a disproportionately fewer number of female singers on the radio. A few guys spoke up: Brad Paisley tweeted a “Veggie Tales” joke; Jason Isbell deemed Hill “Country Music’s Idiot of the Year”; country songwriter Shane McAnally called out Hill on Twitter. But Nashville’s most popular stars, the ones who have a great deal of influence? They don’t have anything to say in public. Why is that?
Martina McBride apparently also finds this curious. On “CBS This Morning” this week, the singer explained how Hill’s type of thinking is dangerous for the industry, as it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because then labels are more hesitant to sign female artists if they won’t get as much radio play. When co-host Norah O’Donnell asked why none of Nashville’s leading men have spoken out, McBride appeared stumped.
“It’s interesting, it’s been pretty quiet,” McBride said. “From, you know, the male artists supporting the females.”
“Why do you think that is?” co-anchor Gayle King asked.
“I don’t know. I think there’s a lot at stake, you know? Radio is powerful.” McBride paused. “Um, I don’t really know. I can’t speak for why the support hasn’t been there so far.”
Co-anchor Jeff Glor noted that even though Lambert spoke out, her husband, Shelton, stayed silent. “Does that disappoint you? Do you think he should?” Glor pressed.
“I don’t like to say what people should or shouldn’t do,” McBride said. “If he feels strongly about it, he should say something. But I don’t want to say that he should or should not. It’s really a personal choice.”
Allow us to throw out a theory: McBride’s right. Radio is powerful. So powerful, in fact, that even the male singers whose songs routinely blow up the charts (Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Shelton, Keith Urban, Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley and Kenny Chesney, to name a few) might want to just keep their heads down, go about their business and not get involved. Given that radio is still the primary way to build a mainstream career in Nashville, it’s understandable that artists wouldn’t want to criticize anything about their biggest platform to deliver music.
Or, it could be risky to promote the idea that radio should play other artists instead, decreasing the number of spins their own song would receive.
“Country radio is still tight enough that working any record up the chart is a tortuous exercise,” said Sean Ross, an industry observer and editor of the Ross on Radio newsletter. “For any artist to say ‘someone else should have my slot’ would be the ultimate act of selflessness.'”
Another possible reason: By speaking up, these singers could insert themselves into the “bro country” debate, another hot-button issue. There’s been a bro country backlash of late, at least critically — but those are the songs that are selling, so they’re played most often on the radio. As illustrated by the chilly response to Maddie & Tae’s “Girl in a Country Song,” which poked fun at the bro country tropes, many male artists aren’t thrilled by the designation and the “derogatory” term.
Ross feels that touchy subject could be another reason for the silence. “It probably stems back to at least in some part, the people who record ‘bro country’ not wanting to officially be in the bro country business,” he said. “Nobody wants to be the spokesperson for that.”
Either way, the ramifications of #SaladGate aren’t going away: Next week, the syndicated “Bobby Bones Show,” the most popular country music morning show in America, plans to have an “#ilovewomen in Country” theme promoting female singers to his millions of listeners.
Confirmed guests include Ashley Monroe, Jana Kramer, Lindsay Ell and Maddie & Tae. Still, Bones noted that radio prominently playing “bro country” is more about business than anything: “It’s about what sells and it’s about what people are buying, so that’s what gets put on the radio,” he told “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday.
It’s also worth noting that next week is the annual four-day CMA Fest in Nashville, followed by the CMT Awards on Wednesday — a major press event in the industry. The guys of country music should probably prepare their soundbites now. Because guess what everyone will be asking them about?