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

kacey musgraves lindsay ell cam

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.

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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