20 Country Songs by Women That Should Have Been Hits - Rolling Stone
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20 Country Songs by Women That Should Have Been Hits

These songs all deserved to be radio gold — there was just one problem

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Lindsay Ell, Cam, and Kacey Musgraves all released superb songs that deserved to be radio hits.

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Right now, it seems almost mythical: just 20 years ago, it was not only conceivable to tune into a country radio station and hear a woman singing, it was highly likely. In 1999, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Chely Wright, Jo Dee Messina, and the Dixie Chicks all boasted Number One hits, sometimes for weeks at a time. Shania Twain won Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards, while the Chicks took Best Country Album at the Grammys for Fly. The ears of the country consumer seemed to appreciate, demand and even prefer the voices of women.

Since then — in the past decade in particular — that trend took a sharp decline. In a report by Dr. Jada E. Watson in consultation with WOMAN Nashville, Gender Representation on Country Format Radio: A Study of Published Reports from 2000-2018, findings showed a steep drop-off in the amount of women on year-end Mediabase reports: 66% percent, from 33.3% in 2000, to just 11.3% in 2018. In short, it’s as bad as everyone says it is.

Even more rare than hearing a woman’s song on country radio, though, is one scoring that coveted Number One spot. This year, only Maren Morris’s “Girl,” hit the top of Billboard‘s Country Airplay. In 2018, it was just Morris’ “I Could Use a Love Song” and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Legends.” And so on.

So why does it matter if a song hits the top of the chart? The reasons are many, from the obvious (bigger tours, bigger visibility, bigger sponsorships) to the more nuanced, like how once a single hits Number One, it’s much more likely to become a staple on evergreen playlists, known as the “recurrent” and “gold” categories. On this week’s Billboard country recurrent chart, there is not a single song in the Top 20 by a solo woman. And how could there be?

“Songs by men peak high on the chart and then enter into the ‘recurrent’ category, which puts them in greater standing to remain in the ‘gold’ category later on,” says a representative from the anonymous collective WOMAN Nashville. “The songs that are played the most become what listeners are most familiar with and theoretically want to keep hearing for months and years to come. They become ‘the sound of country music’ as the current listener would know it.” Therefore hitting Number One isn’t just a ceremonial thing: it influences not only what new music makes it to the airwaves in the future, but what stays there for decades to come.

It’s not that women haven’t delivered songs that could have, in a righteous world, made it to the top of the charts. They have, and a select few did. The singles that follow on this list are the casualities: skipped over, ignored, or underplayed in favor of predictable bro-hits. Here are 20 from this decade that should have been major hits, no question.

If country radio played more women, that is.

LeAnn Rimes

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LeAnn Rimes, “Crazy Women” (2010)

It’s hard to pick one unjust moment in the course of LeAnn Rimes’ career — a career that was stifled by a cheating “scandal” (which, if she were a man, might have just been dismissed a “dangerous love story” or some other historical rewriting and moved on to the next smash). One of country’s greatest voices, Rimes has had stunning ballads, like “Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way” just miss the top spot, but it’s “Crazy Women” that could have been nonstop radio gold. A chugging rhythm perfect for long rides on the highway, ample twang, and a huge chorus, plus the power songwriting team of Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally, it only had one problem: it was sung by a woman, and the man was to blame. It never cracked 40.

Sunny Sweeney

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Sunny Sweeney, “From a Table Away” (2010)

Sunny Sweeney’s never had a chart-topping song: most of her singles, including her heartbreaking and gorgeous “Bottle by My Bed,” barely managed to chart at all. The closest she came was Concrete‘s “From a Table Away,” which covered one of the genre’s favorite topics: infidelity. With plenty of fiddle and a tender vocal delivery, it had all the bones of a hit, and climbed to a respectable Number 10 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. But that wasn’t enough to garner the steam needed to power what came next off the album, and Sweeney fell into a pattern all too familiar for the women of country music — songs don’t chart well enough, promotional dollars fall and, eventually, the singer and the label part ways. Sweeney had to crowd-fund her follow-up album, Provoked. “Production and melody was perfection, while Sunny’s twangy voice gave listeners the pain in the song’s message,” says Chris Owen, a DJ for Buffalo, New York’s WYRK. “It reached the top 10 but was worthy of a Number One placement.”

Martina McBride

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Martina McBride, “Teenage Daughters” (2011)

In the Nineties, Martina McBride was riding a slew of monster hits: “This One’s For the Girls,” Wild Angels,” and “A Broken Wing” among them. But as we crossed over into the new millennium, and this decade in particular, a shift happened: McBride was still singing as well as she ever had, but suddenly her songs weren’t breaking through. Was it the ageism that plagues almost all women in music, not just country alone? Or was is that women had simply been phased out of rotation in favor of of other 2011 singles like “Country Must Be Country Wide” by Brantley Gilbert and “Dirt Road Anthem” by Jason Aldean? Both, honestly. “Teenage Daughters” is classic McBride, full of wisdom, honesty, and country fire, and even a little bit of rock & roll. And while singing about parenthood became a staple for the men of country music — just look at Thomas Rhett — for McBride, it was just another song that didn’t make it to Number One.

Ashton Shepherd

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Ashton Shepherd, “Look It Up” (2011)

Written by Robert Ellis Orall and Angaleena Presley, “Look It Up” was wicked and undeniably country, sung with tons of attitude and twang by the great Ashton Shepherd. The song broke the Top 20, but it didn’t get Shepherd the kind of Numebr One star-power that an emerging artist needs to stay in the game, and, soon after, she parted ways with her label in 2012. “The word is faithful, look it up,” she sings, pointing the finger exactly where it belongs. “Ashton’s an artist that should have lasted much longer at radio than she did,” says WYRK’s Chris Owen. ‘”Look It Up’ was a song that matched her fun, upbeat attitude. The melody was also infectious. Top 20 wasn’t good enough.”

Taylor Swift

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Taylor Swift, “All Too Well” (2012)

Sure, Rolling Stone‘s pick as Taylor Swift’s best song to date, “All Too Well,” was on the longer side for country radio at around five minutes, and it wasn’t released as an official single. But it’s Taylor Swift, after all, and this song is the kind of slow-built classic that usually lands on a playlist of current hits. A fan favorite, “All Too Well” should exist in rotation in perpetuity, as a standard of the genre when it comes to crossover ballads. And while we’re at it, so should her heartbreaking collaboration with the Dixie Chicks, “Soon You’ll Get Better” (no one’s playing that one, either).

Pistol Annies

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Pistol Annies, “Hush Hush” (2013)

Here’s a fact that’s hard to swallow: the power trio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley have never had a Top 10 song on country radio. Hell, they’ve never had anything even crack the 40s. Not “Hell on Heels,” not the impossibly good “Got My Name Changed Back,” and not even “Hush Hush,” the lead single off 2013’s Annie Up. Packaged with some irresistible percussion and the best harmony singing country radio could have seen since the Dixie Chicks, “Hush Hush” checks every box. Well, except for the fact that Lambert, Monroe, and Presley were never going to play the necessary radio games to have their music embraced, never going to buddy-up with program directors in hopes of spins. “They expect you to sit in their laps, and kiss them on the cheek,” Presley once told Rolling Stone Country about the expectations on radio tour — expectations that neither she nor her bandmates will cater to. “It’s a corrupt, broken system.”

Sara Evans

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Sara Evans, “Slow Me Down” (2014)

There’s so much of Sara Evans’ “Slow Me Down” that still lingers on the country charts to this day, particularly when it comes to dramatic, mid-tempo power ballads. But as much as country radio dislikes playing women, it especially dislikes playing women over, say, the ripe old age of 30. Evans was in her forties when she released “Slow Me Down,” an age that never seems to present much of a barrier to the men of the genre: Keith Urban charts in his fifties, Jason Aldean at 42, Blake Shelton, 43. But cross that threshold as a woman? Well, you’re washed up, and definitely not “testing” well. The song bowed in the teens, while Aldean enjoyed multiple weeks at Number One for the snoozer “Burnin’ It Down.”

Brandy Clark

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Brandy Clark, “Stripes” (2014)

Murder ballads have long been an integral part of the fiber of country music, and here Brandy Clark, on her debut LP as a solo artist, 12 Stories, considers whether or not a bit of that sweet revenge might be worth the consequences (and the “crime of fashion,” as she sings). It’s fun for certain, but also infinitely smart songwriting from one of the best in the business. It didn’t even register on the charts despite 12 Stories earning a Grammy nomination, and Clark’s struggled to get airplay ever since. “Not only should ‘Stripes’ have been a Number One song,” says CMT and Change the Conversation’s Leslie Fram, “it should have been the theme to Orange Is the New Black.'”

Kacey Musgraves

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Kacey Musgraves, “Biscuits” (2015)

Kacey Musgraves has had plenty of great singles that should have gotten far more traction on radio than they actually did, from “Space Cowboy” to “Follow Your Arrow.” But it’s Pageant Material‘s “Biscuits” that is the most perplexing shun. A succinct, infectious romp about minding your own damn business, it’s a) inarguably country b) impossibly easy to sing along to and c) written by Musgraves, Shane McAnally, Brandy Clark, and Luke Laird, four of country’s most successful and talented songwriters. “The song was funny, catchy, had good tempo and was less than three-and-a-half minutes long,” says Andrew Duhl, program director of WQNZ in Natchez, Mississippi. “I think country radio’s biggest miss in the past decade was ‘Biscuits.'”

MIckey Guyton

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Mickey Guyton, “Better Than You Left Me” (2015)

Every last thing about Mickey Guyton’s “Better Than You Left Me” should have worked at country radio: a perfect vocal, an inspiring message, a catchy chorus and a bridge that builds into total redemption. But in 2015, there was only one song by a solo woman that reached the top of the Billboard Country Airplay chart: “Love Me Like You Mean It” by Kelsea Ballerini. “Mickey Guyton is the most overlooked artist of the decade,” says Dr. Jada Watson. “How she hasn’t had chart-toppings songs with a voice and songs like hers is beyond me. What a missed opportunity for the genre for radio to have not embraced her music fully.”

Miranda Lambert

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Miranda Lambert, “Vice” (2016)

Out of eight albums and 28 career singles as a solo artist, Miranda Lambert has had four Number One songs. Think that’s pretty good, even at about 14%? Luke Bryan had five Number One singles off one album alone, 2013’s Crash My Party. And six Number One singles off the follow-up, Kill the Lights. It’s insane that neither “Mama’s Broken Heart” nor “Baggage Claim” ever got all the way to the top, and foolish that the incredibly fun “We Should Be Friends” didn’t even move into the teens. Maybe those are even the better technical singles, but it’s absurd — like, borderline maddening — that the tremendous “Vice” dropped off Billboard‘s Country Airplay at Number 11. To this day, Lambert tests only mildly well at country radio. “This should have been more than a Number  One, this should have been a ‘[CMA] Song of the Year,’ contender” says CMT’s Leslie Fram. “No one has been more lyrically open and honest than Miranda.”

Maren Morris

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Maren Morris, “My Church” (2016)

“Anyone that has seen Maren Morris perform live knows that ‘My Church’ is a Number One song,” says Dr. Jada Watson. “I saw her perform this summer and there is something incredibly powerful and rewarding about hearing thousands of fans sing that song back to an artist.” It’s true: live, Morris barely needs to mouth the words to a song that’s about — of all things — her love of country radio. But radio couldn’t return the favor, and the label moved on to the next single before it could make it to the top of the chart — it bowed at Number Nine. Despite not getting a ceremonial Number One party, it still won a Grammy for Best Country Song, and showed the world that Morris was a true star: She’d go on to score a chart-topper with “I Could Use a Love Song.”

Margo Price

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Margo Price, “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” (2016)

Some believe that country radio won’t play singles from an indie label. Tell that to an early-phase Luke Combs and Chris Janson, both of whom had huge momentum before the majors signed on. Third Man Records artist Margo Price’s “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” is, at its core, a traditional-sounding drinking song. It’s also incredibly catchy. But even though Price performed it on no less than Saturday Night Live, country radio flat-out ignored it. Yes, the song is longer than the average single, but once Price found herself nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy (alongside Luke Combs), programmers should have changed their tune.

Ashley McBryde

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Ashley McBryde “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” (2017)

Eric Church saw it early on: Ashley McBryde has a voice and a songwriting style like few others before her. McBryde hit the radio tour circuit hard for her first single, “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” a huge, emotionally-driven mid-tempo song about keeping the faith when times seem tough. It’s a theme tailor-made for country music. Love? Bars? Roads? Wrong turns that end up right? It’s all there. “Here’s to the breakups that didn’t break us,” she sings on the track, which peaked at 30. “This song was among, if not, the best song released [that year],” says WYRK’s Chris Owen. “Lyrically, it’s a home run, and Ashley’s vocals were on-point. The music and production complement the track, which is what you want with a message like this one. It should have done much better at radio, and that’s an understatement.”

Kelleigh Bannen

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Kelleigh Bannen, “Church Clothes” (2017)

Kelliegh Bannen didn’t have a label when it came time to release and push “Church Clothes,” a brilliant, beautiful ballad written by Nicolle Galyon and Liz Rose — she had parted ways with EMI Nashville and only had the promotional capabilities available to an indie artist (which is, naturally, not very much). A song about putting on a face of perfection when, behind closed doors, everything is falling apart, it never made a dent at radio while singles like Dylan Scott’s “My Girl” inexplicably hit Number One. At this point, it should be a classic. Instead, it risks being lost to time. “It tells a story and paints a picture in a listener’s mind,” says WYRK’s Chris Owen. “Not sure how this one was never given a chance as a radio single, but it’s among the best of the 2010s.”

Cam

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Cam, “Diane” (2017)

From the concept to the monster chorus, Cam’s “Diane” is an absolute powerhouse of a song with all of the bones to be both a hit and a timeless work of art. Written as the flipside to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” “Diane” tells the story from Jolene’s perspective, with her apologizing to the other woman scorned — and brilliantly puts the blame right back on the man who cheated, not those caught in his philandering crossfire. Not only is it smart, it’s also impeccably sung. And yet “Diane” somehow never cracked the 40s before falling off altogether, even though it hit Number One in the U.K. Turns out, we’re the ones who’ve been cheated. “‘Diane’ was the definition of refreshing,” says WYRK’s Chris Owen, “It never got a chance, really.”

Carrie Underwood

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Carrie Underwood, “Cry Pretty” (2018)

At this point in her career, a Carrie Underwood single should be a shoo-in for a Number One — just like her peers named Luke. And with a song like “Cry Pretty,” the lead single from her gold album of the same title, Underwood deserved it. “Cry Pretty” was a monster power ballad sung to perfection, and the redemption story that came along with it, of her own personal turmoil and heartbreak, only added to the emotional resonance. It was shocking enough that “Cry Pretty” only hit Number 8 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay, but somehow even worse that the last time she reached the top of that very chart was back in 2016 with “Church Bells.”

Lindsay Ell

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Lindsay Ell, “Criminal, ” (2018)

From the guitar, to the delivery to the production, “Criminal” is prime country-radio material, one of those songs where if, say, Dustin Lynch sang it, it would have shot straight to Number One. Alas, Ell’s “Criminal” couldn’t get arrested. Well played and well-written, it spent 31 weeks on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, peaking at Number 19 after an aggressive push. In the summer of 2018, it got swallowed by safe bets like Kane Brown’s “Heaven” and Kenny Chesney’s “Get Along.” Ell finally saw a Number One with Brantley Gilbert on “What Happens in a Small Town,” but remember what Miranda Lambert once told the Washington Post: “I had to sing with someone with a penis to get a Number One.”

Runaway June

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Runaway June, “By My Own Drinks” (2019)

The story of why “By My Own Drinks,” a song that received decent radio support and peaked at Number 8, never went to the top, is one that plagues far too many women artists: it took just too damn long to climb the charts. While singles from men, in general, enjoy a much shorter ascension, singles from women have a more tedious build — so even if a song like “By My Own Drinks” picks up speed, the label tends to lose patience and/or promotional budget before it can hit that golden number. “Buy My Own Drinks” was fun, fierce and independent, and sung in perfect harmonies. It should have hit Number One — and in half the time it ended up lingering to begin with.

The Highwomen

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The Highwomen, “Redesigning Women” (2019)

A group of superstars and revered artists get together, record an album and ask radio — nicely, but forcefully and with purpose — to play their single. That’s what the Highwomen did with their debut “Redesigning Women.” Radio could have played it and showed that things weren’t as bad as everyone thinks. That didn’t happen, however. In fact, barely any stations added the track, which is still up for rotation — meaning that country radio can still play the song if it wants to. Let’s get this next decade right.

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