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.