There’s bro-country and then there’s his country, says veteran music journalist Marissa R. Ross.
With country music rife with misogyny, racism and homophobia, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris and Mickey Guyton found a way around the male-dominated Nashville Music Row to carve out successful careers.
Ross explains how these superstars made their voices heard and what women around the world can learn from them in the new book, Her Country: How Women in Country Music Became the Hit They Never Should Have Been.
Ross tells Jesse Mulligan that she discovered something shocking while reporting on sexual harassment and misconduct in the country music industry.
“A lot of people told me it was an open secret to the point that it was like why would you even bother to report it?
“And it was really shocking to me just because something might be an open secret, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about, on the contrary.
“When Taylor Swift came out with her story about how she had been groped by a radio executive backstage on a show and talked about it…I thought at the time, if this happened to anyone like Taylor Swift, what’s on the rise and upcoming artists?
“I almost took that as a bat signal to go deeper and see what was below the surface there.”
In some ways, the industry had pretty much ignored the MeToo movement that has taken over many other spheres, she says.
“Everyone is so scared to express themselves in country music… there’s this thing that every country music is a family, and everyone cares about each other.
“But it’s also a family in the sense that everyone talks and it’s very easy to get kicked out of the dining room, the holiday table, if you say the wrong thing.
Country music reflects cultural divides and political polarization, she says.
“It’s like a microcosm of what’s going on in our world right now.
“Making artists is a political act in its own way. And country music has always existed in this space. I mean, since its inception, it’s been separated into race records, it’s been divided into genres for black listeners and white listeners, so it’s an inherently political act and it was done for a marketing premise.
But who can be political is another question, she says, with the 9/11 attacks having had a ripple effect on programming that favored songs about patriotism and nationalism by male artists.
So when the Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, spoke out against the war in Iraq, they faced a backlash and were pulled from the air.
“I trace their moves a lot in the book because I find them so incredibly inspiring and they took that moment and then they decided to say they weren’t ready to be nice, they didn’t want to kiss butts for regain their power and position in country music,” says Ross.
“They said we were going to stick to our morals and our guts and our own compasses and do what we want and what we think is right.
“They never really found that kind of position within country radio again, but they gained new fans and a new vision of how you can have a career in country music which I think has been so inspiring to so many women who came after and the men too.”
Kacey Musgraves, who was almost instantly recognized for her talent, also faced the wrath of radio programmers “because they didn’t find her nice and attractive and they felt good about themselves,” Ross says. .
“She had to fight very, very hard for her first single, Carouselpeople wanted something more upbeat and then when she started doing a radio tour… radio programmers and DJs didn’t find her friendly or accommodating.
But the arrival of streaming platforms has helped artists reach audiences in ways that radio couldn’t, she says.
“I mean in the case of Mickey for example, Mickey Guyton, she has so much life for her song black like me on Spotify so [since] radio wasn’t going to play it, it found its audience through streaming, so it was really valuable.
In fact, the secret to the success of these pioneers of female country music was that they went their own way and not the one that was expected of them, she says.
“Sometimes it was maybe more pop, sometimes it was more country, sometimes it was something totally different, but it was always their truth. Or to quote Kacey Musgraves following their own arrow and that’s as well as you kind of have to find your voice as a woman or a minority in country music.
“And they also show, I think more than anything, a future where more change can happen and more people can be brought into the country music landscape and more women can be heard.
“So it’s really about opening the door and keeping it open for whoever comes next.”