Even if you weren’t aware that new country music singer Kelsea Ballerini had the No. 1 song on country radio this week with “Love Me Like You Mean It” (topping both the Mediabase and Billboard airplay charts) you may have noticed that other artists seemed extremely excited about the news:
…and so on. Why the flurry of tweets? Ballerini’s No. 1 would have been a big deal to her and her label at any time — but considering Nashville’s recent gender gap controversy (nicknamed #Saladgate) illustrated how extraordinarily difficult it is for female artists to have their songs played on country radio, it’s an even more impressive achievement.
The numbers: According to Mediabase statistics, Ballerini, 21, is the first solo female artist to land a No. 1 song since Miranda Lambert topped the chart with “Automatic” last June. On the Billboard airplay chart, it was an even longer drought: Ballerini is the first in nearly three years, since Carrie Underwood did it with “Blown Away” in November 2012.
Additionally, Lambert, Underwood and Taylor Swift are the only women in recent years who managed prominent country radio success. Put it this way: With Ballerini’s accomplishment, it took four years for a woman not named Miranda, Carrie or Taylor to have a No. 1 song on country radio. (The last before Ballerini was Sara Evans with “A Little Bit Stronger” in May 2011.)
Meanwhile, the last female artist to make her debut with a No. 1 song? That would be Underwood, nearly a decade ago, with “Jesus, Take the Wheel” in 2006 — and that was with an assist by an “American Idol” victory.
Ballerini has some powerful friends in the industry, who are eager to see a new female solo artist make waves in the male-dominated genre. That includes Nashville radio DJ Bobby Bones, who hosts the most popular country music morning radio show in America. During a Periscope chat last week, Bones talked about how he’s championed Ballerini for a long time. She’s appeared on his show multiple times and even opened for Bones’s own band, the Raging Idiots, which is signed to Ballerini’s label, Black River Entertainment.
Bones alluded to the fact that maybe his iHeartMedia corporate bosses weren’t thrilled about how often he played “Love Me Like You Mean It” to his millions of listeners. But he didn’t care. “I wouldn’t risk playing her song every hour and risk getting my butt in trouble if someone wasn’t awesome,” Bones told the hundreds tuned in to his Periscope stream. “Kelsea is awesome.”
“Love Me Like You Mean It” is going No. 1 at a particularly sensitive time for country music. About a month ago, radio consultant Keith Hill made national headlines for comments to trade publication Country Aircheck, where he said that according to his research, country radio stations should play fewer songs by females. Hill advised that radio stations should devote no more than 15 percent of its playlist to songs by female singers — a number that is not too far from the norm. He followed it up with this instantly-infamous metaphor, comparing country music 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.”
Naturally, this was met with furious responses (along with a whole lot of tomato jokes) from many in Nashville and caused reflection about gender equality in country music.
So not only was Ballerini’s No. 1 fortuitously timed, but she also made history, becoming one of less than a dozen female artists (from Trisha Yearwood to Faith Hill) to make a No. 1 solo debut on the Billboard airplay chart.
Now, only time will tell if other new, promising solo female singers can follow suit: Mickey Guyton is hanging on the Mediabase chart at No. 33 with “Better Than You Left Me.” Cam (another Bobby Bones favorite) has reportedly landed the coveted “On the Verge” spot on iHeartMedia, which will ensure her new single “Burning House” gets plenty of airplay. Kacey Musgraves, whose latest song “Biscuits” quickly disappeared from radio, will get another shot as her second highly-anticipated album drops this week.
As for Ballerini’s future prospects, she’s set to release a second single, “Dibs,” in the coming weeks. She also has none other than Taylor Swift in her corner: That never hurts.