For the month of April thus far, there were two momentous occasions in country radio: Luke Bryan made history by taking six singles off one album to the top of the Billboard Country Airplay chart and, with “Road Less Traveled,” Lauren Alaina became the first female solo artist since Kelsea Ballerini last September to have a Number One song. Both are major achievements, but it’s telling that the record Bryan beat was actually his own: he, and other male artists like him, have been so dominant in the past decade that they’re literally competing against themselves. Bryan staring down his wax doppelgänger at this month’s ACM Awards was a funny joke, but, all things considered, a figurine of Luke Bryan probably has a better chance of claiming a Number One song than any given female country artist.
Alaina, announcing on Facebook Live that “Road Less Traveled” had taken the top slot on Country Airplay, was visibly shaken. With tears streaming down her face, she talked about the challenges that she’d faced in the journey to her second album, six years in the making. It’s no small task to earn a chart-topping single after an absence as lengthy as Alaina’s, but it’s arguably an even greater feat to, as a woman, reach that coveted radio-play pinnacle.
Almost two years since the infamous “Tomatogate” controversy, women are still not fairly represented on the charts. Though Ballerini became the only woman in history to top Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs simultaneously, with “Peter Pan,” and Carrie Underwood had a Number One with “Church Bells,” 2016 and 2017 to date were still essentially male-driven. For all the effort to discuss the “women in country music” problem at hand (and lots of lovely “Proud Tomato” tank-tops), little progress has actually been made.
It’s hard not to question if radio should even matter – not just for women, but when it comes to the quality of overall artistic output. As radio continues to prove that it doesn’t prioritize female voices, women have been making albums that have found the sweet spot between critical approval and fiscal success. From Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings to Maren Morris’s Hero, women are creating terrific art while running profitable tours, selling records and winning awards. If you look at Billboard’s Top Country Albums thus far this year, women have dominated by nearly half (exactly half, if you count Little Big Town). Lambert, Alison Krauss, RaeLynn and Reba McEntire all had Number One LPs without Number One songs.
Chris Stapleton, whose Traveller is now two years old, reigned for four weeks in January. Stapleton may not be female, clearly, but he’s another artist who, despite enormous success and critical acclaim, only reached the top of Hot Country Songs with “Tennessee Whiskey” after a viral CMA Awards duet with Justin Timberlake. Likewise, he basically owned the 2016 albums chart, along with names like Morris, Dolly Parton and Sturgill Simpson. Unbelievably, Morris’s “My Church” never hit Number One – which nonetheless didn’t hurt her when it came time for the Grammy Awards.
Country radio’s power is undeniable, but it can also be poisonous. It’s been known to kill albums before they were even born – Kip Moore’s for example, when the slow-burning “Dirt Road” failed to reach expectations and brought down an entire body of work in its wake. Similarly, radio’s lack of respect for female voices has put excellent records, like Brandy Clark’s Big Day in a Small Town, at a disadvantage. But women, and album-focused artists, like Simpson and Stapleton, are working hard to not only make country radio a more equal playing field, but to force it to loosen its grip on the forecast of an artist’s career. That’s a very good thing for art in the long run, because while singles may make news, albums make a legacy.
Alaina’s last single, “Next Boyfriend,” didn’t come close to the Top 10, and thus she made Road Less Traveled and its title track, written with Meghan Trainor and Jesse Frasure, without the promise of an instant hit. As a result, her album is brave and personal, addressing her battle with bulimia, and includes songs like the devastating “Same Day Different Bottle” and “Three,” an aching ballad that literally describes the sacrifices an artist has to make to get on radio – it’s slow and gorgeous and showcases her vocals, not an FM dial-friendly cadence.
With “Road Less Traveled,” Alaina has reached a place where radio came to her. Which is what women, from Lambert to Morris, have often had to do all along: define the terms of their own success. From time to time, country radio may help get them there, but Alaina proved that women don’t need approval to make their best art.