In the past year, however, a wave of young, female artists has been gaining buzz as they try to break in, and many are writing and releasing songs with a notably different theme: They have swagger. And they're the ones in control.
The topics vary. Sometimes they're flirtatiously aggressive takes such as Lauren Alaina's "Next Boyfriend" or Clare Dunn's "Move On." Occasionally they're carefree post-breakup tunes, as in Olivia Lane's "You Part 2" or Lindsay Ell's "By the Way." Or they have nothing to do with relationships, such as Maren Morris's "My Church" or Kalie Shorr's "Fight Like a Girl."
Country female-empowerment anthems have been around from Dolly Parton's "Just Because I'm a Woman" in 1968 to Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" in 1997. But these days male artists have cornered the market with smash singles from their very specific point of view. "Bro-country" acts Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line have established themselves as party-song hitmakers, and many artists jumped on the bandwagon. Can this influx of female singers cut through the noise?
"These songs have always been out there, but it seems to be a wave right now which I feel like is going to break the door wide open for female artists," said Leslie Fram, who is Country Music Television's senior vice president of music strategy and talent and pioneered the network's Next Women of Country Tour. It's no longer about "'He cheated on me' or 'This is a revenge song,' " she said. "These are songs with a ton of confidence."
While these singers sing about men and relationships, they're not responding to what guys do: They're taking the reins. They don't use the car-smashing Carrie Underwood or fire-starting Miranda Lambert brand of power. This music is simply about doing whatever they want, whenever they want.
So far, though, these newer artists have had mixed success. After all, it's a big challenge in general for women to be played on the radio — still the primary way to kick-start a career in Nashville.
Morris is gaining steam with the self-assured hit "My Church," about the beauty of solitude in your car, though the artist who has scored the most with this formula is Ballerini, who will perform at the American Country Countdown Awards. She has won big in the past year with No. 1 songs in which she establishes the rules in relationships: "Love Me Like You Mean It" ("I don't have time to waste on the boys that are playing the games and leaving the girls crying out in the rain") and "Dibs" ("Make everybody jealous when I take you off the market. Get my lipstick on your right cheek, 'cause boy I gotta mark it.")
Ballerini wrote the former song after one of her co-writers remarked she could pull off the "swag" of Rihanna — one of the queens of the empowerment anthem in pop, a genre in which female solo artists soar. The comment inspired the pop beat behind the tune, which last summer became the first No. 1 song on the Billboard country chart by a female artist in nearly three years.
Black River Entertainment President Gordon Kerr, whose son Josh Kerr co-wrote both songs, signed Ballerini to his label in 2013 after she strolled into his offices, pink guitar case in hand, and effortlessly connected with everyone. "Kelsea knows who she is," Gordon Kerr said. "She knows what she wants to say. And what makes it so exciting and incredible is that what she's saying is what many people are thinking."
Other women in this sub-genre have struggled with the theme. Cam's debut, the unapologetic "My Mistake" ("He'll be gone before the morning light, but he's my mistake to make all night") barely made a blip. In contrast, her mournful ballad "Burning House," aided by extra spins from iHeartRadio's "On the Verge" program — which requires the company's hundreds of country stations to play a song a certain amount of times — took off.
Maddie & Tae launched their career in 2014 with the brash "Girl in a Country Song" ("We're lucky if we even get to climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along, and be the girl in a country song.") While their quiet follow-up, "Fly," was a top-10 hit, their latest bold track, "Shut Up and Fish," about a guy who won't stop talking during a fishing trip ("I finally had all of him that I could take, so I gave him a cold shower in the lake") is the duo's lowest-charting song yet, in the low 20s.
R.J. Curtis, Nashville editor for All Access Music Group, said although some female artists are making inroads on country radio, it's too early to say that there's a unified message of self-confidence that's breaking through. "It's kind of all over the place," he said of the themes that are gaining traction for women.
In the past, the female artists most likely to win with upbeat, fiery singles (Underwood, Lambert, Taylor Swift) had an established track record; their songs were guaranteed to do well, no matter the subject. Some newer artists made a slight impact with this kind of song — such as Kelleigh Bannen's "Famous," Katie Armiger's "Better in a Black Dress" and Rachel Farley's "Ain't Easy" — but follow-ups didn't break through.
During the past few years, other female artists have found relative success tackling more low-key themes on life and love, from Sheryl Crow's "Easy" to Sara Evans's "Slow Me Down." Jana Kramer tested out a revenge song, "I Hope It Rains," yet saw bigger numbers with slower tunes such as "Whiskey" and "I Got the Boy." Kacey Musgraves has been more of an outlier, earning major accolades outside the mainstream with alt-country songs such as "Follow Your Arrow" and "Merry Go 'Round."
Now, country radio likes up-tempo, regardless of theme — which may explain why new female artists are doubling down on these new thumping, self-confident songs.
That's what Dunn attempted with "Move On," in which she implores a guy to just kiss her already: "Go ahead, get out of your head. Think you're overthinking, use your lips instead." The song couldn't get out of the high 40s on the charts, so she's trying again with "Tuxedo," in which she declares her man looks great in a dirty T-shirt — the flip side to male singers who insist they like their girls in a ponytail with no makeup.
Tara Thompson has a similar take-charge feel in "Someone to Take Your Place," in which she strolls into a sports bar with a makeover, spiked heels and a mission to make her ex jealous: "I came in here to get a man, and I know the man I want. Do you like the new me I am? 'Cause that's the one he's taking home." Alaina, a former "American Idol" runner-up, wastes no time with a guy in the coy "Next Boyfriend": "You look a lot like my next boyfriend; you should probably come over. Tell me your name and I'll tell you mine."
The song, which peaked in the low 40s, originated in a conversation between Alaina and songwriter Emily Weisband. "We were talking about how girls don't usually use pickup lines, but if they did they would be awesome and not cheesy," Alaina said. "So then we wrote that song, like a pickup line but a flirty, not cheesy, one."
Others try to improve men's treatment of women, such as "Sunday Morning" by up-and-coming artist Brooke Eden, who recently explained to a Nashville crowd the message behind the song: "If you're his Saturday night, you better be his Sunday morning. And if you're not his Sunday morning, you best kick his ass out." In another concert video, she explains the song is "not man-bashing but man-teaching."
That idea can get risky, as former "Voice" winner Danielle Bradbery learned with "Friend Zone," a strange, rap-infused song about the right way to woo a lady. ("Let me break it down the facts – you will never get a girl like that. You gotta step up to the plate with a bat.") The song was criticized for its troubling sports metaphors and quickly disappeared from the charts.
Many in the industry say that these kind of songs aren't necessarily a response specifically to "bro-country" – it's just a matter of women writing from their perspective as men write from their natural one as well.
"Great music wins — I guess I don't see it as a gender thing," Black River's Kerr said of Ballerini. "Her songs are about confident women. Did we or she set out to say, 'Oh, this is the anti-whatever?' We never set out to do that."
Alaina agrees her music is just her natural attitude. Sure, she enjoys being in the driver and passenger seat — it's just a matter of having the choice.
"I don't mind my boyfriend driving me around and sitting in the passenger seat, but I definitely don't want him smacking me on the rear end and treating me like a piece of meat, you know?" Alaina said. "I just feel like there was kind of a wave where presence of women was lacking, so I think the fact guys were saying those things in their songs, it made more of an impact than it would have if there would have been 10 females on the radio."
"I really feel like that's all changing now," she added. "And I think that conversation, that chapter's going to be coming to a close."