It’s no secret that country radio hardly plays women. (Lettuce and tomato, am I right, ladies?) It’s become such an established issue that even talking about it at this point feels like a cliché. When country journalists and fans bemoan the problem, there’s a tendency to list off female country performers who were radio staples in prior eras as proof that the genre has since gone off the deep end: Reba, Trisha, Martina, Terri, the Judds, Dolly, Shania.
These were some of the women that Kelly Clarkson name-checked in her spontaneous rant on the state of country radio from earlier this year. But the truth is that you don’t even have to go back that far to find women artists who are not only making it big in Nashville, but pushing the whole genre forward. Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, two of the enduring stars of mainstream country, both got their start in the mid-2000s, a time when women and women-fronted groups were not exactly rarities on the airwaves. The aughts began and ended with women (Faith Hill and Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, respectively) at the top of the country charts with huge crossover hits, and in between were a plethora of game-changing singles that each made their mark on the genre’s dominant sound: Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away,” Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” Lambert’s “Kerosene,” Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” Taylor Swift’s “Our Song,” and many, many more.
So in looking back on the contributions that female artists made to mainstream country music in the 2010s, we’ve decided that it’s worth examining the past 20 years of the genre rather than just the past decade — the better to highlight a recent history that tends to get overlooked. One reason for the 20-year overview is to look at how much the sound of country has changed: mainstream country has always shifted with the winds of other popular music genres (including and especially, well, pop music), and you can hear that evolution over the span of two decades. But we also wanted to recognize the women poised to become the next Dollys and Rebas, artists who are inevitably going to influence a generation of country performers and, in 20 years from now, will have people asking, “Why doesn’t country sound like that anymore?”
There are 20 country singles on this list, one from each year, and all of them made it to Number One on either Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart or their Country Airplay chart. (Unless otherwise stated, “going Number One” on this list only refers to the country charts, not the Hot 100.) Some of these singles were critically lauded; others, less so. But all of them are either indicative of mainstream country’s status quo at the time or significant in how they affected Nashville’s sound and lyrics.
As with everything country, the charts only tell part of the story. It’s disappointing but hardly surprising to see that all the women who have become “names” in the genre in the past two decades have been white, even as artists like Yola, Mickey Guyton, Hurray for the Riff Raff, the War & Treaty, Priscilla Renea, and Our Native Daughters have earned critical praise and devoted fanbases. Listeners unfamiliar with the wider world of country might be surprised to not see Kacey Musgraves on this list; despite her Grammy wins and extended crossover success, country gatekeepers have largely ignored her efforts to be played on the radio. And finally, whatever’s happening in Nashville speaks nothing of country music’s diverse independent and regional scenes that are consistently pushing the boundaries of the genre while staying true to its roots.
So without further ado, here are 20 influential, important, and all-around significant country hits by women from the past 20 years.