While the world waits patiently for the much-anticipated return of the Dixie Chicks, a new trio — or at least a temporary one — is here with a version of the classic Chicks hit “Wide Open Spaces” to fill that harmonious void. Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman and Karen Fairchild, along with Ingrid Andress, recorded the acoustic cover for Cracker Barrel Old Country Store’s new initiative “Five Decades, One Voice,” meant to celebrate the women of country music on the 50th anniversary of the brand. As part of the program, Cracker Barrel has teamed emerging artists like Andress with enviable mentors: Brandi Carlile with Tenille Townes featuring Tanya Tucker; Trisha Yearwood with songwriters Caitlyn Smith, Connie Harrington, and Erik Dylan; and Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum with Bailey Bryan.
“We can’t just keep having the conversation without change,” says Fairchild about how she hopes the initiative is more action than talk. “I know there are a lot of people talking about it, which is good, and I know as women none of us are asking for a favor. We’re asking for a level playing field. We just want to be heard.”
For their cover of “Wide Open Spaces,” from the Chicks’ 1998 major-label debut, Schlapman, Fairchild, and Andress stripped the song down to just acoustic guitar, keeping those signature harmonies intact on the chorus after alternating verses. The trio also recorded Little Big Town’s “The Daughters” and Andress’ “More Hearts Than Mine” during the mentorship session at an East Nashville studio, where Andress recalls “freaking out inside.” “I asked [Schlapman and Fairchild], in their journey, what their best piece of advice would be and I like that they were honest,” Andress says. “They said, ‘going with your gut.’ Sometimes it gets hard, but you have to trust it, and they were very honest about not always going with their gut, and kind of regretting it.”
Cracker Barrel — a company that happens to be run by a woman, CEO Sandra B. Cochran — will also be creating an all-female in-store playlist with songs handpicked by the “Five Decades, One Voice” partner artists for every restaurant location in September during the company’s anniversary month. This kind of aggressive playlisting is crucial in forcing real change by encouraging “familiarity,” one of the major barriers between women and equal airplay.
“If we don’t get heard on the radio, our voices are not familiar,” says Fairchild. “And women do want to hear women,” adds Schlapman. “That’s what the gatekeepers have totally put aside.”
And streaming hasn’t proved much better. “It broke my heart, the week of CMA Fest, when I was looking at some of the major playlists,” says Fairchild. “On one of the major playlists, not even a terrestrial one, there were 60 songs by men and three by women. And that’s not right. [Streaming services] were the disruptors for a while, but it’s easier to have quick success. That seems to be what matters more than art. I get it, and hey, we want to make popular music too, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I want to be a disruption.”
Andress’ “More Hearts Than Mine” is currently sitting in the fifties on the country airplay chart. “She’s so incredibly talented,” says Schlapman. “I was just blown away by her writing and melodies and how beautiful that song is. She’s so solid in her talent, and she knows exactly what she wants. She was such a pleasure to be around on the day we spent filming [for Cracker Barrel], and hopefully this initiative will make more people aware [of women artists] and be part of the change.”
Awareness, it seems, is working. Two major research reports, from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Dr. Jada Watson in conjunction with WOMAN Nashville, provided concrete data to document the imbalance at country radio. Country Radio Seminar (CRS) announced last week that Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood will be the featured interviews at the annual radio event, and BMI released the lineup for December’s Maui Songwriter’s Festival with Lambert and Maren Morris as headliners. Morris’s “Girl” is also in the Number One spot on the Mediabase chart this week, with Lambert’s “It All Comes Out in the Wash” receiving a personal record number of adds at country radio. The Highwomen have landed, too, performing their first full concert at this weekend’s Newport Folk Festival, and teaming up with Dolly Parton.
“Everybody is talking about [women in country music] and we are letting the world know,” says Schalpman. “I feel like we are on the cusp of a revolution.”