Women have always been an integral part of country music, starting with pioneers such as the Carter Family and Patsy Montana. Yet country music has also marginalized women musicians – even more so in the last decade. In 2015, a country radio consultant publicly stated that songs by women were “not the lettuce in our salad…[they are] the tomatoes“. In 2019, women artists represented only 10 percent of the music played on US country radio stations that year.
Music journalist Marissa Moss, who’s based in Nashville, saw women in country music making great music at the same time that the industry was focusing on “bro country“, and saw women trying to be successful their own way in an industry that wanted them to conform to very narrow stereotypes. Her new book Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be tells the stories of three female country musicians – Maren Morris, Mickey Guyton, and Kasey Musgraves. Through unpacking their experiences, it touches on racism, sexism, corporatization, politics, and oppression, and how all of those shape performers’ careers and the music we listen to. The book is ultimately hopeful, but it also pulls no punches in describing how badly the country music industry can treat women.
I found Her Country to be an extremely thought-provoking and rewarding read, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Marissa about it.
Fiona McQuarrie (FM): What motivated you to write the book?
Marissa Moss (MM): I had been covering this beat in Nashville, at the time I started writing the book, for about eight years, and it just felt like the natural next step. I was worried that this time in country music wouldn’t have a record that properly told the story of the successes and the great music that came out of this period – what you wouldn’t be able to tell if you just looked at the Billboard country chart. I wanted to have a way to tell the story of these past 20 years.
FM: Why did you decide to focus on these particular artists?
MM: Well, they’re all from Texas. So they have a similar trajectory of coming from Texas to Nashville, and that worked well for me narratively. And I just really liked the idea of looking at artists who – I was looking at mainstream Music Row. So, you know, I’m not talking about Lucinda Williams, I’m talking about artists trying to make a go of it on Music Row and in mainstream country. And it really demonstrated that they had, to quote Kasey Musgraves, followed their own arrows, and made careers according to their own rules and terms and visions. It was possible to bypass huge roadblocks and barriers and patriarchy and racism and all of that. So I think that was why I settled on the people that I did. And I happened to love them as artists, so that was important too.
FM: One thing that struck me about the book is it starts out talking about how country has always had strong women performers and stars like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, and some of them in the past have also been quite outspoken. I’m old enough to remember Jeannie C. Riley and “Harper Valley PTA” and the pushback she got for making a song about hypocrisy and calling people out. The book starts in the late nineties, when there’s the Chicks and Shania Twain and they’re dominating the charts. So what happened?
MM: That’s a big question. A lot happened, and that was a question I think I set out to answer in some ways in writing the book. Obviously it’s only about the past 20 years, and we had women at the top of the charts in the nineties and then they just kind of disappeared. So I traced through the impact of not just what happened with the Chicks and their infamous anti-war comment on stage, but what was happening even before that, in terms of the fears kind of circling around women that were successful and outspoken at the same time. Then there was 9/11, and country’s shift to these super-patriotic songs played into all of that. And there was the consolidation and the Telecommunications Act, the shifting techniques and programming, how programming was being automated to actually program in discrimination. That sounds like hype, but it’s not. So all of those ingredients made the soup that we’re in today.
FM: In the scenarios you described, it seems like radio is more important in country music than it is in other genres.
MM: Absolutely, yeah. I’m also old enough to remember when radio was very important for pop and rock. I used to tape songs off the radio when I was a kid. But other genres have moved away from it towards streaming or TikTok or anywhere else. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but radio isn’t the main driver for youth culture these days. But in country, it is. It’s the number one predictor of market share, it determines who goes on tour. It’s everything still, and you can’t ignore it. You can’t just say, oh, well, country radio is sexist and racist and you should just ignore it. Because if you want to have a mainstream career in country music, you really need it. The women in this book were able to sort of buck that role, but not everyone can. It’s still a huge part of country music culture. And to make meaningful changes, that’s going to have to change.
FM: Is there any actual research or proof that country music fans are going to turn off the radio if there’s too many women, or if there’s two women played in a row? Is the audience as narrow-minded as the programmers seem to think it is?
MM: Well, here’s the thing. There have been some studies, radio researching projects, that showed that people do change the channel when women come on the radio. But, and it’s a huge “but”, people also change the channel when things that come on the radio that are unfamiliar to them, to the same degree. So it’s not women. It’s unfamiliarity and unfamiliar songs.
And, you know, it’s kind of like politics. You build the scenario to tell the story that you want. The reality is that because radio is not playing women, women are not familiar. And radio is very much a passive listening experience. You know, you’re in your car, you want to be able to sing along to something, or maybe you just want to be able to hum while you’re vacuuming your house, have it on your earbuds or whatever. So you want to hear something that you know. The country audience now is not using radio as a discovery mechanism. They’re using it for familiarity. And we don’t let women become familiar. Therefore it can’t be there.
If you’re doing a set of songs that include all these songs that sound the same, that’s intentional. It’s so you don’t turn the dial. So you’re listening to something that you feel like you’ve heard before, even if you haven’t heard it before. Right? The same song sounds, the same lyrics. It’s familiar, so they don’t change the dial. When it’s a woman’s voice, it’s a song you haven’t heard, it’s different stories. So you’re not conditioned to hear it, it’s not familiar to you, and you might change the channel. So it’s not about women. It’s not that people are raised to have some kind of genetic repulsion towards women’s voices. It’s that we’ve made them rare. And that’s not a good thing on radio.
FM: It sounds like it’s almost a self-perpetuating cycle, that if women aren’t on the radio and their songs don’t get familiar, then people don’t become comfortable with them and they get excluded even more.
MM: Absolutely, there’s no good way out of it. Because it is just constantly, you know, a snake biting its own tail.
FM: When I was reading the book, at times I was like, ”yeah, go, yeah”. And other times I was like, “ooh, I’m getting very angry here”. I suppose this is true of other genres, too, but country seems to have so many gatekeepers and so much being kept out, from the experiences that the women in the book went through. So how does it keep going when there’s so much good music that’s being kept out? It seems to me that what you just said about the snake biting its own tail is really true, but if such a narrow spectrum of what’s out there is actually getting onto radio or getting on tour, those artists that do make it through must be bringing in a lot of revenue. Because otherwise the gatekeepers would be doing something differently.
MM: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to say that there’s not good country music in the mainstream, because there definitely is. I think that’s a narrow-minded view that a lot of people have, that all country music, all mainstream country music, is crap. That’s boring to me to think that way. But when country finds something that works, they just stick with it. It’s not like pop, where there’s an embrace of inventiveness and the new and constantly moving. Country music, when they find something that works, they love to just beat it over the head until it’s completely smashed and destroyed. That’s very hard to break.
Luckily there’s a way through for women like the ones in my book and also artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell and Emily Scott Robinson and independent artists. They can get through now with different ways outside of country radio and the Music Row infrastructure. That’s really important. And it feels good to know that that’s a possibility.
FM: And what you’re saying about the differences between how country works and other genres work, one thing that also struck me in the book was crossover hits. It seemed the gatekeepers think that “crossover” is a bad word, that if someone’s music appeals to other audiences, that somehow dilutes country or it’s not being loyal to country. I’m wondering if you think that is the case, and if it is, is that more of a problem for women artists than it is for male artists?
MM: it’s a funny question because there’s a lot of crossover in country music. It’s a huge part of country music tradition. But when men do it, it’s often like, oh, they’re just doing something fun. And when women do it, they’re being traitors to the genre. You know, like when Maren Morris did “The Middle”, she never said it was a country song. It was never marketed as country. And yet the country purists were still having fun destroying her for it. There shouldn’t have even been a word out of their mouths, you know? I think women have to look elsewhere for success because they’re not going to get played on country radio. So why would you stick around if a genre is not welcoming you or making space for you? I don’t understand why you would stick around. That doesn’t make sense to me. And so of course you would find other ways to success, to pay the bills even.
FM: You also talk in the book about Taylor Swift and how she started out as a country artist and then got fed up with the conservative attitudes, and being told what she could say and couldn’t say. A couple of weeks ago I saw the documentary Miss Americana that she made about her transition into being more of a mainstream pop rock artist. The women in the book stuck around, and they encountered many of the same issues that made Taylor Swift decide to walk away from country. Why do you think they stayed, instead of doing what Taylor did and going to a more welcoming environment?
MM: There’s a lot of people that think that people are constantly scheming, like artists are scheming where their music fits and all that. And I don’t buy that. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t. I think Taylor made the music that she want to make. I don’t think that the way that country treats women or treats outspokenness helps, you know, and I’m sure that was a factor. But I think you make the music that moves you. Mickey Guyton, she’s a country artist, she loves country music. That’s what she loves, you know? And she should have every right to make mainstream country music, the music that she wants to make, and she shouldn’t have to go Americana or go pop to have her music heard. Kasey Musgraves evolved in a different way, and I think that came from her artistic truth. In some ways it probably would have been easier for her to stay a little bit more country, but she wanted to experiment, and that worked out really well for us.
I’m not really a genre person. I like traditions and appreciate traditions and styles, but genre is a marketing category. You make the music that you want to make and that comes out of you, and I think it’s kind of that simple.
FM: I have to say, I don’t really think I appreciated the impact of what happened to the Chicks. I knew there was a huge backlash against them at the time, but I have to admit I didn’t realize that it still resonates to this day. The women in the book were told, “don’t get Chicked”. Do you think that’s still going to be the case a couple of years from now?
MM: Probably, yeah, for women. Jason Isbell now can sell an anti-Trump shirt and that’s been fine for him. He’s still getting played on country radio. But I think country music has a ways to go in terms of welcoming outspoken women. And I do think the women in this book are the reasons for the changes we have seen. They will be the difference, that’s why I wanted to write about them, but I do think it’s a slow pace for sure.
FM: I say this without meaning any disrespect whatsoever to the women, but is it possible that – you talked about some women being told, “Oh, we already have our blonde”. Is it possible that the industry will look at people like Kasey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile and say, “Oh, we have our hippie”, “Oh, we have our lesbian” – that they’ll just be seen as tokens? And the industry will say, “Well, look how open-minded we are, because we let these particular women in.”
MM: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s something that Black women in country music experience to a far more intense degree than anyone else. I can’t obviously speak to their experience, but they are tokenized and alienated at the same time. We haven’t figured out how to fix that balance quite yet. And women are always competing against each other for that one spot. I still hear cases, you know, where it’s “we already have our singer-songwriter” or “we already have this” or whatever, as it relates to women. But for men, the desire is to sign as many as they can that sound like each other.
FM: Speaking of competing for that one spot, one very positive thing in the book was that all of these women seemed to come out of various communities that were more collaborative than competitive. Country has always been big on co-writing and collaboration in making music, but it sounds like these women had support networks that went beyond individual projects.
MM: Yeah, I think so. And I’m resistant to this, but we expect women to constantly lift up other women at the same time as they’re competing with them. That’s a really difficult pressure to place on a woman, because not everyone’s going to get along. But when you can open the door for people and keep it propped open, that’s really important. You look at someone like Mickey, who’s dedicated herself and her career to doing that – it makes a huge difference. And you do have to kind of find your group that supports you, regardless of what is the most profitable or gets the most airplay or whatever. These women definitely have those communities, and that still exists in Nashville. You know, a lot has changed here, but luckily that hasn’t, and hopefully it won’t.
FM: Towards the end of the book, you talk a bit about the media beyond radio, and its role in promoting and publicizing country music. And you talk a bit about how you yourself felt a bit excluded, because you wanted to write about these artists that at the time weren’t mainstream and were sort of struggling as outsiders. Can you tell me a bit about the role that the country music media plays in making this world that you felt excluded from, because of who you wrote about, and from the industry in general?
MM: Yeah, the country music industry is weird, and the media infrastructure is weird. Country music sort of peddles this thing about country music being a family, and it sort of expects journalists to be part of that family. And the idea of that is that you play nice and you don’t say critical things about artists, and you ask about their puppies and their babies. And I wasn’t interested in that. I’m interested in the music, and I really like just profiling artists, and talking very specifically about their art and not always demanding that they talk about politics for clickbait. That’s why I do reporting too. I can do that work. But I think the country music media has a huge role in upholding all of these structures. And I think it’s important to call it out.
FM: When I finished the book, I really appreciated the journey that you took the reader on. As I said, sometimes I was really happy when I was reading the book, and sometimes I was really mad. So where do you see things going from the point where you left the book? Have things improved, or is the machine going to keep on grinding the same way? How did you feel about that when you finished the story?
MM: There’s still a lot more history to be written. And I’m sort of at the point where I don’t think that country radio will change any time soon. I don’t know if that’s pessimism or being practical, but you look at someone like Mickey and the community she’s creating. I try to stay very much in country and mainstream country, but I do think it’s important to give a nod to artists like Allison Russell and Rhiannon Giddens and the kind of communities they’re creating in roots music for all kinds of voices. And that’s where the hope is. If you want to see something hopeful, you look to that. That’s what I look towards, at least until I can get a little more hopeful in terms of country music and country radio. I’ll look over there and get the hope from that.