Gender Representation in Country music

In a 2015 interview with Russ Penuell of Country Aircheck, a country radio consultant spoke candidly about how female artists factor into the genre format’s airplay rotation formula. Not only did he caution against playing songs by too many female artists in a one-hour rotation, but he also claimed that playing their songs back-to-back was against the rules. As the genre’s leading female artists responded to the consultant’s comments, industry veteran Lon Helton admitted that this was precisely how country has functioned for decades (Keel 2015):

“[S]ince the 1960s program directors have been telling people not to play two women back-to-back. It has nothing to do with sexism. It has to do with the fact that through the years, you have had very few hits by women, so you want to spread them out a little bit because there are fewer of them.”

Research has shown that country radio developed this rotation practice in the 1960s as a way to structure their airplay time as a result of a pre-existing gender imbalance in the industry. But this ultimately initiated a practice of segregating music into distinct gender-defined patterns that favour male artists, instead of encouraging and fostering new female artists in the genre. This gender construct, perpetuated by the industry and embedded in the broader country music discourse, has served as a powerful exclusionary tool that has obscured and indeed limited the contributions of female artists.

Funded by a two-year Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, this project aims to raise awareness around issues of gender representation as they are shaped by and relate to country music identity and culture between 1944 and 2016. The proposed project will deconstruct the gender politics that have governed the genre, re-contextualize the discussion surrounding country music’s culture and identity and explore the ways in which it has dictated industry practices. In so doing, this project will discover the role that female artists have played in shaping country music culture and challenge the gender construct that underpins this narrative.

Over the course of the first year of the Insight Development project, SongData began exploring issues of equity, diversity and inclusion on country format radio. These studies were published through SongData, and are described under RadioData


Publications

Watson, Jada. “Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart and the Curation of Country Music Culture.” Journal of Popular Music History, Special Issue on Popular Music Curation (forthcoming 2021).

Watson, Jada. 2019. “Gender on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart, 1996-2016.” Popular Music & Society 42(5): 538-60

Invited Public Talks

What Can Big Data Tell Us About Music Genres?” Invited talk at Carleton University’s X-Lab  Brown Bag Lunch Series (Ottawa, ON), November 13, 2019.

“Looking for Tomatoes through Digital Humanities: Using Digital Tools to Investigate Inclusion and Diversity in Country Music Culture.” University of Ottawa’s Women in Innovation Series (Ottawa, ON), October 29, 2019.

“Truth in Numbers? Representation of Women in Country Music Culture.” Invited speaker at Middle Tennessee State University (Murfreesboro, TN), October 17, 2019.

Conference Presentations

Jada Watson. “We don’t want handouts, we want equal opportunity”: Mickey Guyton’s Advocacy and Protest for Equality in Country Music.” Paper to be resented at the annual conference of the Society for American Music; March 2021.

Jada Watson. “From Public Humanities to Social Remembering: Big Data and the Digital Redlining of Women in Country Music Culture.” Paper accepted for DH2020; Ottawa, ON, July 2020. [cancelled due to Covid-19]

Jada Watson. « La culture country et la perpétuation de l’effacement des femmes : Les méthodes de Billboard et la diversité sur la liste de classement Hot Country Songs ». Paper presented at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-Canada Branch; Montreal, QC, May 2019.

Jada Watson. “The Endangerment of Female Representation in Country Music Culture: Changing Billboard Methodologies and Ecological Diversity on the Hot Country Songs Chart.” Paper presented at PopCon at the Museum of Popular Culture; Seattle, WA, April 2019.

Jada Watson. “Our time has come, your time is up: The Song Suffragettes’ March for Gender Equality in Country Music.” Paper to be Presented at the Society for American Music; New Orleans, March 2019. Portions of this project presented at the International Country Music Conference; Nashville, June 2019.

Jada Watson. “Discographic Metadata as a Research Resource for Studying Popular Music Genres: Introducing the SongData Project.” Paper presented at the joint conference of the New England and New York State/Ontario Chapters of the Music Library Association, with the Quebec Chapter of the Canadian Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres; McGill University, November 2018.

Creative Works

Nielson, Tami and Jada Watson. 2020. “The F-Word: Songs of Feminism in Country Music.” Lecture-Concert researched and written Nielson and Watson; performed by Tami Nielson, narrated by Liv Tennet as Dr. Jada Watson. To be premiered at the Harcourts Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival, 23 October 2020. 


This research is supported by an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

SSHRC logo