Tag Archives: Miranda Lambert

Year-End Lists Should be About Quality, Not Quotas

Before the release of my list of the best albums of 2017 tomorrow, I’d like to address an issue that’s been bothering me increasingly over the past week, as more and more people release their year-end lists of great country/Americana/bluegrass songs and albums. There seem to be two prevailing themes–the lists, in varying degrees of discrepancy, feature more men than women, and people are getting upset about this, citing it as a consistent, systematic discrimination similar to that faced by women on country radio and all across the industry.

First of all, undoubtedly there is an inherent bias and discrimination against women in the music industry, maybe especially in the country industry, and I’ve spilled much ink discussing this. Women are not given a chance to succeed on the radio despite sales numbers–see Miranda Lambert and “Tin Man,”–while men seem to constantly rocket up the charts no matter how much (Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road”) or how little “Luke Bryan’s “Light it Up”) it might actually be selling and resonating with the general public. Women are consistently speaking of quotas held by labels and radio programmers, of only being allowed so many slots in the mainstream just because of their gender. All of this is factual, and disheartening, , and something Country Exclusive will do its small part to fight and rail against for the foreseeable future.

But just as the quota for women shouldn’t exist on country radio, it shouldn’t exist on these year-end lists either. As a woman, I strive for equal opportunity with men, and I can’t speak for these artists, but what I can say about Country Exclusive is that we will offer an equal opportunity for both genders to be heard, reviewed, and considered for year-end lists. Although I can’t speak for anyone else with certainty, I believe this rings true for others in my position as well. That said, I will not guarantee equal results here–I will not feature a year-end list that contains exactly half men and half women unless that is a true reflection of my opinion of the quality of the music. I will not add or take away women from a list just to fill a quota or to avoid offending anyone. And if I were an artist, I’d want to be recognized on a list such as this because the writer(s) respected the quality of my work, not because they were playing an arbitrary numbers game. Just as it is wrong to exclude based on gender, it’s wrong to include only on that basis, for this in turn diminishes the quality of one’s output and asserts that specific groups, in this case women, need special treatment and mandated quotas in order to make these lists. This is not equality. This is not progress. This is affirmative action, and affirmative action is not, or should not be, the goal. A tweet I read sums this up perfectly by saying that if you pay attention to gender when listening to music, you’re doing it wrong.

Country Exclusive did not operate regularly in 2016, but two albums received a 10/10 rating that year and could be considered tied for Album of the Year. Those were Dori Freeman’s self-titled debut and Courtney Marie Andrews’ Honest Life. In 2015, our Album of the Year was given to the self-titled record by the Turnpike Troubadours, and in 2017, it will go to a man. Of the eight albums that have received perfect grades from me over the past two and a half years, five were by women–I heard it said that if these lists weren’t biased, surely on one of them, there would be more women than men, so although this is not a year-end list, there is a small example of women outnumbering men here on this platform. That said, in 2017, twenty-eight of the seventy-eight albums we’ve reviewed here have been either by solo women performers or by groups fronted by women–those are numbers reflecting the material which has been available to us, this is not half, nor will the albums list reflect that. I can’t speak for everyone on this, of course, but much of this is a numbers game–not a game of filling quotas, but simply of the numbers being unbalanced when it comes to albums released in 2017.

Lastly, above all, this should be about the quality of one’s work. If the twenty best albums of the year were made by men, a writer should reflect that, and readers should respect that. If they were made by women, once again, a writer should reflect that, and readers should respect it. Writers should take all artists’ music into equal consideration, but if this is happening, they shouldn’t be singled out for including more men than women, certainly not in a year where more albums have been released by men. Equal opportunity does not necessarily mean equal results, nor should we wish it to because this is a fundamental disrespect of the quality of music made by both men and women. Imagine being left off the list as a man because the list required more women that perhaps made lesser projects. Imagine being included on the list simply because you were a woman, rather than because that person actually believed in you and your craft and sought to highlight your music among all your peers, not just those from your gender. Neither scenario correctly reflects the true quality of the music at hand, and ultimately, that’s the problem with the systematic discrimination in the industry. It’s all about quotas, not quality. So set an example by not allowing it to be that way in independent music and on these lists, so that artists are truly recognized for putting out the best music, and so that gender is a completely irrelevant factor. It’s not about having “enough” women on these lists, it’s about making sure that the best music, regardless of anything else, is heard and rewarded.

Advice to Young Girls Seeking Country Airplay

You know the days when you could turn on the radio and hear all sorts of interesting female voices? That’s been true throughout country’s history, from Loretta and Dolly on down to Martina and Faith. Nowadays, it’s Miranda and Carrie–well, no, not even Miranda, as her latest single struggles mightily to chart despite its sales and critical acclaim. Better to say Carrie and Kelsea. Anyway, to all the young girls out there who might be pursuing a career in country music and are wondering just how to shatter the glass ceiling on country radio, here’s some tried-and-true advice.

1. Don’t, under any circumstance, release something traditional. Fiddle, steel, mandolin, throw them all out. Even if they might make an appearance on your album–which is also discouraged–at least do what Maddie & Tae did with “Girl in a Country Song” and release a single with electronic beats and pop elements. Keep all the traditional fans guessing at your intent, wondering if the beats are serious or sarcastic, because it’s better to hold them at arm’s length or even to alienate them altogether if you want to get a #1 at radio.

2. Ignore all the misogynistic bullshit thrown at you by radio programmers, record executives, and in many of the male songs on country radio. Katie Armiger spoke up about that a couple years ago, and look what happened to her career.

3. Don’t date anyone in the industry, or better yet, don’t attempt to have a personal life on any level. Lindsay Ell taught us that.

4. Trivialize the female problem on country radio and in the industry. Kelsea Ballerini’s got success, and she barely admits to the problem. Meanwhile, the ones who speak up about such things struggle for recognition. Just worry about breaking in yourself, and don’t try to help other women along the way.

5. Forget just ignoring the misogyny, try writing lyrics about being these types of women. Throw all your dreams and hard-hitting lyrics to the side and sing about tailgates and tight jeans. If at all possible, try accepting the objectification and embracing this role.

6. Try not to veer too far from singing songs about love or getting noticed by men. Under no circumstances should you speak up about the type of songs that women are often stereotyped as singing.

7. Don’t be sexual or have sexual desires, and if you do suffer from these afflictions, don’t leak them into your music, for God’s sake.

8. Talk about your outfits more than your music. It’s not okay to be sexual in your songs, but it is important to be viewed as desirable at all times.

9. If all this fails, sing one or two lines on a male song, and you’ll soon have a #1 hit. It doesn’t matter if you sound like a glorified backup singer, take it from Maren Morris.

10. Finally, remember that your awards, sales, and most importantly, your perspective, do not matter in this industry and on the radio. Let go of these archaic notions, and you might soon be one of the only four females in the top fifty. Here’s to being one of the fortunate 8%, and I look forward to your #1 hit!

Album Review: Steve Earle & the Dukes–So You Wannabe an Outlaw

Rating: 8.5/10

I’m not really sure I need to write any kind of introduction to this; I’m pretty sure Steve Earle has been introducing this quite well on his own, and that may or may not be taking away from the music. So I’m going to take the advice from Steve’s own comment, and let this be about the songs. What I will say is that he stated both that he wanted to make a record inspired by the outlaws, and more specifically, Waylon, and that this record would be about dealing with loss. And what we get is basically exactly that–the front half is filled with badass, renegade/outlaw material–or at least what we might think of when referring to that term–and then the back half adds to the validity of it all by taking us on journeys of heartbreak, loneliness, and loss, and in the end, you’re left wondering if this outlaw thing is really all that great after all, and perhaps second-guessing your dream. And in a way, that separates this record from all the others trying to be cool outlaw because it shows all the sides to the story, the glamor along with the pain.

That’s not to say there aren’t painful realities on the first half. IN fact, the opener and title track starts the album by explaining all the things you have to go through if you really want to be an outlaw, albeit in a pretty lighthearted manner. Willie Nelson appears here, which adds to the message and the overall coolness of the song. You also have “Lookin’ For a Woman” and “If Mama Coulda seen Me,” both of which Earle wrote for the show Nashville–the former is a restless heartbreak song where the narrator is trying to find a woman who “Won’t do me like you,” and the latter is about a prisoner who is thankful that his mom died before she had to see him in chains. All of this half, however, is pretty upbeat, and even though the material is dark, some of the glamorous side of being an outlaw still shines forth in the attitude and in the cool blending of country and rock instrumentation. This half comes to a brilliant, angry climax with “Fixin’ To die”–this song is told from Death Row, and I didn’t mean to compare it to Chris Stapleton’s song “Death Row,” but that’s what happened. I said before that Stapleton’s didn’t quite have emotion even though he belted it–I know a lot of people disagreed, but the point I’m making is that whether it came through or not, Stapleton meant that song to be sad. When this opens and Steve Earle bellows, “I’m fixin’ to die, reckon I’m goin’ to hell” and then adds, “I’d be tellin’ you a lie if I told you I was takin’ it well,” for me, that captures all the emotions, from anger to sadness to regret. It’s an intense story and definitely a great way to complete this more rocking front half of the record.

It’s the back half, however, that really makes this album shine and adds an authenticity to these opening songs. It’s one thing to sing about being an outlaw for the sake of it, but when you get to stuff like “This is How it Ends” and “You Broke my Heart” and see there’s a tender side to this story, it really adds something to the whole project. Steve Earle mentioned loss, and it is explored in every form here, from the heartbreak in these two songs, the former of which features Miranda Lambert, to the poverty and self-doubt in the excellent “Walkin’ in LA” to the closer, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” a tribute to Guy Clark. “Walkin’ in LA” features Johnny Bush, the writer of “Whiskey River,” and it’s one of the best songs on this whole thing, despite it not being the most flashy. It’s one of those rare gems where the melody, the lyrics, and the instrumentation all work together flawlessly to form an incredible piece of music. The melody and beautiful acoustic guitar play in “Goodbye Michelangelo” really add to that song as well. It’s a great way to close the album.

As much as I loved this record, I do have a couple criticisms. There are a few songs that felt like filler; “Girl on the Mountain” was sandwiched between “This is How it Ends” and “You Broke my Heart,” and so it stands out as the weakest heartbreak song of the three. At first, I really didn’t enjoy the pairing of Earle and Miranda Lambert, but that’s growing on me, mainly because it’s just such a damn good song. My initial problem was that Lambert is meant to be singing harmony, but sometimes she drowns out Steve. I’m starting to like it better because in doing so, she makes it easier to understand some of the lyrics. ON the front half, “The Firebreak Line” is quite a fun song, but it doesn’t necessarily add much. “News From Colorado,” the only subdued song on the front half, is also a little vague and underdeveloped lyrically. But all these are really minor, nitpicking criticisms, and overall, this record is pretty great.

So, in conclusion, this is a pretty fascinating album. First, you have the angry front half, and then you have the subdued, heartbroken back half, and together they tell a very good story. Steve Earle is a fine songwriter, and the natural grit in his voice just accidentally adds a lot to this album and the stories told. Every collaborator also brought something to the record. I mentioned there were some weaker songs, or perhaps even filler, but at the same time, it’s one of the few albums I’ve played in 2017 without a single bad track. Very nice, solid album. Give it a listen.

P.S. I’m not reviewing the deluxe version, but that also has four pretty awesome covers of songs previously written by Waylon, Willie, and Billy Joe shaver.

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What Happens When you Take Women Out?

I debated whether or not I should write this piece because it’s really quite personal, and I’m not sure if it will be relatable or have a point when I’m done here, but it’s still on my mind after a couple of days, so I’ll try my best to be articulate as I express my thoughts.

The inspiration for this piece came after the news that Miranda Lambert’s “Tin Man” fell from #38 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart this week to #42, despite its sales and the ridiculous spike after her ACM performance. Now, as I’ve seen a lot of people point out, Miranda has never had the greatest treatment at radio anyway. There’s also the fact that “Tin Man” is stripped down, not necessarily radio-friendly, and quite traditional, so it’s got those strikes against it–although “The House That Built Me” had all of these characteristics and still gave her a #1 hit. But the glaring fact is, a big part of this simply has to do with the fact that Miranda Lambert is female, and in 2017, despite all the think pieces and supposed inclusion of more women by the country awards shows, females are still systematically ignored on country radio and by the country industry as a whole–and if you think these awards shows really want to include more women, why are there fewer nominees for ACM Female Vocalist of the Year? Sure, more women have been signed to major labels recently, but they’re not generally given the same chances to succeed; there’s a quota for females on country radio, and Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood are filling it. And now it looks like Lambert will be replaced by Kelsea Ballerini, who is as non-country as Sam Hunt and the bros.

Keith Hill said back in 2015 that radio should “take women out.” The more infamous part was calling them tomatoes, but the more alarming part was taking them out. Lindi Ortega said then, “I can’t begin to describe to you how my blood boils at those words. Erase us, delete us…make it so we don’t exist.” And that’s what country radio is systematically doing–taking the female perspective so completely out that it’s shocking to imagine a woman’s point of view beyond the “girl” on the tailgate. Maren Morris recently spoke about this when she wrote that women in country can’t be sexual in their songs–they are supposed to be pretty and desirable but not write about their own desires. That inspired another piece which I haven’t yet written and have many conflicting feelings about writing–mostly because so many people I know will read it, and Maren Morris is a stronger person than I am–but it’s a more specific issue deriving from the same problem: take women, and their perspective, out. “Girls” are okay–and that’s why Kelsea Ballerini’s music can succeed on country radio; that, and that it isn’t country and seldom has substance.

So what actually happens when you take women out? I could go on about how it takes away their perspective in the mainstream, or how it leads to radio being one-sided and favoring music that marginalizes them, but I’m going to answer it from a personal place instead. I grew up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and one of the first country records I ever owned was a Dixie Chicks album, Wide Open Spaces. I fell in love with their music because it was country, but also because I could sing it and relate to it. They were women, and what they sang about appealed to me. I loved Martina McBride and Faith Hill, and later Miranda and Carrie. I sang an inordinate amount back then, so I will say that part of the appeal in their albums was that I could sing them; their ranges matched mine. But more than that, I related to them. I enjoyed plenty of music by male artists–and still do–but I naturally gravitated toward more women artists. Even today, on this blog, I can go back and look at the very few tens I’ve awarded–it’s a subconscious thing, but more of those records are by women. They have nothing in common in production, style, lyrics–but tens are set apart from nines for me because they can connect emotionally, and I have connected emotionally with more women in the history of running this blog, it seems.

The point of all this is that I fell out of love with country radio for the same reasons you all did; it lost its sound and its substance almost overnight. More than that, here in Oklahoma, radio killed Red Dirt around the same time. It had once lived on our radio stations along with mainstream music, but things like the rise of iHeart helped to destroy it. Even more than all of that, though, I became disenchanted with country radio because of the lack of women. I didn’t know then that there was all this independent music floating around just waiting to be discovered, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t relate to anything on the radio or sing along with any of the records. I mentioned that I sang, and I will now say that I grew up wanting to be those women. And I don’t think it’s even possible to do that now. You can’t turn on country radio and hear Miranda lambert as a young girl and say, “I want to sing like her” or get that passion for country music like I did. It’s the same thing I said in my piece about genre awhile back, that it makes me sad that your average young person can’t just turn on the radio and find and fall in love with traditional-sounding country. But even that’s starting to make its way back in, (slowly), with Stapleton, Morgan, Pardi, Midland…while the women are being pushed further and further out. Sure, there are plenty of them out there if you know where to look, but you have to love country first before you go seeking out Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley and Margo Price.

And I’m not saying a girl can’t fall in love with country from listening to men, or anything close to that; I’m only saying that in my case, I don’t think I’d be sitting here writing this if I hadn’t heard all those women on country radio back then, and if country radio’s systematic ignoring of females keeps even one girl from falling in love with this wonderful genre, then that’s the real problem, and the real danger of taking women out.

Album Review: Angaleena Presley–Wrangled

Rating: 10/10

Wrangled is an explicitly forthright journey through my experience in the business of Country Music. I tried to tackle uncomfortable realities like the discrimination against female artists at the height of Bro-Country, the high school mentality of Music Row and the pain that’s just beneath the surface of the road to stardom

These words came from Angaleena Presley ahead of her second album, and they serve better than any introduction I could hope to write. Wrangled lives up to that description from the opening track, “Dreams Don’t Come True.” Written with fellow former Pistol Annies Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, it delivers this message in a matter-of-fact way and even advises us, “don’t let anyone tell you they do.” It’s that straightforward honesty coming through to shatter your dreams on the opening track that makes you listen to, an believe, Angaleena Presley throughout the record. After all, who is going to tell you your dreams won’t come true, that you’ll end up pregnant instead of selling hit records? That’s a truth our friends and family would be even, and perhaps especially, hard-pressed to give us. But there’s something about the unapologetic way Angaleena broadcasts that truth, and right there at the start of her record, that makes you take notice and respect what she has to say–it might be brutal, but she damn sure won’t lie, and there’s a refreshing quality in that which can only come from such authenticity as this.

I said Presley’s honesty makes you respect what she has to say, and it turns out she has to say quite a lot. “High school” tells of the harsh realities of getting through each day in high school, and based on the quote above, I have to wonder if this is also directed at Music Row. Either way, I have to say this would have been a hell of a lot more helpful to have heard in high school than most of the mainstream music marketed to today’s youth. Other tracks are more obviously commenting on Music Row and the struggles in the business. “Groundswell” details Angaleena’s travels from Georgia to Kentucky to Alabama as she tries to make enough to support herself. “Outlaw” feels like this song’s antithesis; here, Presley sings, “It’s too hard to live this way” and says the money would be easier if she weren’t an “outlaw” and a “renegade.” You get the feeling listening that if she could change herself, she might conform, but she knows that it would be impossible, and she can’t be something she’s not.

The most blatant protest of Music Row is “Country,” and I can’t believe I even have to explain this in detail, but after reading the barrage of SCM comments misunderstanding and flat-out hating this, it seems apparent that I must. It’s hard to explain without listening, and I’ll post the video, but obviously it can’t stand alone, so I’ll say that the distortion is purposeful. The name-checking of every bro country reference in the verses and the hook devoid of any actual words is purposeful. And the killer rap verse added by Yelawolf name-dropping Sturgill and telling Music Row to “fuckin’ save it” is not only purposeful, it’s genius and adds to the parody. By all means, hate this song, but at least take the time to understand what it is before you decide it sounds like crap, as that was part of the point, and the song is all the better for it.

Angaleena Presley also said she wanted to discuss the discrimination against female artists. This is done in a more subtle way–there’s not really a track dealing with that specifically, but there are certainly many that speak to the female perspective and address the unique realities faced by women. The crown jewel of the album is the title track, where the narrator feels “wrangled” by her life and by her husband. It’s very nice melodically, an the lyrics are some of the best on the whole thing–“girls down at church can go to hell. Ironing shirts and keeping babies quiet ain’t no life, it’s a livin’ jail.” As much as I hate to pick a track off this fantastic album, if you must choose one, make it “Wrangled.” As the album progresses, Presley’s irritation only seems to grow; on “Wrangled,” the woman portrayed is tired of her life and resentful of the women around her who seem to enjoy it. That frustration comes out in “Bless my Heart,” where she casually informs any woman who is content to backstab others for their own gain, “If you bless my heart, I’ll slap your face.” There’s more of that frustration on “Mama I Tried,” another highlight of the record, as the main character laments that despite everything she did, she couldn’t be the lady her mother wanted–“always a bridesmaid, never the bride.” And finally, that pent-up frustration comes spilling out in anger on “Good Girl Down,” co-written with Wanda Jackson–“It’s a man’s world, and I’m a lady, and they’ll never appreciate me. They don’t take the time to get to know who I am, frankly, boys, I don’t give a damn.”

Yes, we do have a Miranda Lambert-esque song, “only Blood,” where the narrator marries a preacher who abuses her, and yes, she kills him. There have been a lot of songs like this certainly, but I do feel this one stands out some because it is built around the line “only blood can set you free” and serves a double purpose of exposing the hypocrisy in the church. “Motel Bible” does this in a much more understated and fun way to close the record–“God don’t give a damn how I’m dressed.”

But Angaleena Presley is not always angry or discouraged on this album; in fact, “Cheer up Little Darling,” written with Guy Clark, expresses a hope seen rarely on Wrangled, and in doing so, it completes the record; “It feels like a tight spot, but it’s just a loose end.”

This album lived up to everything Angaleena Presley advertised it to be, and for the honesty and songwriting alone, it deserves the highest praise. It’s the second ten of 2017, and it has earned this rating for exactly the opposite reasons as Marty Stuart’s–that album was special musically, and this one is special because of the lyrics, the stories, and the emotions running throughout it. An honest, compelling album that gets better with each listen. Three chords and the truth.

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