Country music is a genre built on traditions. Unwittingly at an early age I learned about the tradition of toxic masculinity that plagues country music. I didn’t know at the time how poisonous this mindset was or how ingrained it is in the genre. I didn’t know how it undermines and destroys the credibility of women trying to make country music. But looking back I can remember one conversation amongst friends that sticks with me.
They were discussing who was better between Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Right away of course the red flag of pitting women of country music against each other, something that fans still do to this day. Me being the one who’s always up for a little bit of music discussion, chimed in that I preferred Underwood’s music. I then heard laughter amongst my friends and one shoots back, “But Taylor Swift is much hotter.” I learned this was not about music quality, but a beauty contest to put it in polite terms. I didn’t like it, but when you’re young and fearful of peer pressure you’re kind of forced to go along with it. I don’t speak to these people anymore.
I bring this story up to highlight how from an early age that boys who listen to country music are seemingly taught that women aren’t to be taken seriously. They’re just there to look at and be judged. But the men who make country music are to be taken seriously. After all this goes back to the days of outlaw country, which has been glorified since it’s incarnation. Waylon, Willie, Merle, George. You know who they are because they’re never stopped being talked about to this day. It wasn’t these brilliant artist’s fault though, but rather the fans of these artists. But I don’t want to get ahead myself. Let’s first define outlaw country.
According to Wikipedia, it’s “a sub-genre of American country music, most popular during the 1970s and early 1980s, sometimes referred to as the outlaw movement or simply outlaw music. The music has its roots in earlier sub-genres like honky-tonk and rockabilly and is characterized by a blend of rock and folk rhythms, country instrumentation and introspective lyrics. The movement began as a reaction to the slick production and popular structures of the Nashville sound developed by record producers like Chet Atkins.”
Let it be known for the record that it was coined outlaw because it was simply a reaction to restrictive measurements placed on artists to sound a certain way, not the themes that many glorify. That leads us to the themes of the songs that these fans take away (never mind the fact this is very little of what the all-time greats of the genre covered in their songs): rough and rowdy men that run from the law, do drugs and alcohol and often lead a reckless lifestyle. It portrays an exciting, tough and ultra-masculine man who plays by his own rules and does what he wants. Cowboy hats and boots are the fashion of choice. It’s no surprise that many young men of the time period and many since gravitate towards this sort of image. Men are pressured since boys to learn how to be the “right man” and how to do “manly things.” These songs reinforce the stereotypes men are taught as normal from their own fathers to shows on television. It’s the right way to be a man and anything that contradicts it is obviously wrong because society says so.
From outlaw country onward this movement combined with traditional country music and Texas country/Red Dirt music have formed this hyper-masculine style and approach to country music that enraptured men. It continued with Hank Williams Jr. in the 80s with his brand of honky-tonk country. In the late 80s there was Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis. In the 90s there was George Strait and Alan Jackson. You come to the 2000s onward where you have Eric Church, whose numerous fans have pounded their chest to the fact that Church is “real country.” Today you have Cody Jinks, Whitey Morgan, Turnpike Troubadours and mainstream artists like Jon Pardi, Luke Combs and William Michael Morgan who all have fans who seem to share the same message: This is real country music. This continuation of a brand of masculinity that traces its origins back to outlaw country music.
Again none of these artists I’ve mentioned perpetuate the brand of masculinity in their music that fans created and have kept alive and thriving through the years (except maybe Hank Jr.). It’s fueled by the media and labels, who know what a cash cow and marketing tools are with words like traditional, outlaw, real, authentic. These are words that resonate with people because they seem to hold authority and respect in the eyes of society. And of course if you’re paying attention, I mentioned no women throughout my timeline of “real country music.” That’s because they aren’t considered in these conversations usually. Notice the connection here? Oh sure you can find some people who will mention nowadays the likes of Margo Price or Nikki Lane. If we’re talking historically maybe Jessi Colter or Tanya Tucker will get a mention. But almost always it’s about men and the men being described in the songs. The women are secondary.
(I should note from here on out I will refer to outlaw, traditional and Texas country fans as “real country fans.”)
This is the beginning of the rabbit hole. There are many other aspects to consider. What is often the most derided period of country music by “real country fans”? The 90s, which happen to be one of the best eras for women in country music. There were lots of women country stars constantly played on the radio like Reba, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and many others. Yet you don’t hear these artists ever get glorified by these “real country fans.” The Dixie Chicks, a harbinger of traditional country in the late 90s and early 2000s, don’t get the same shine and respect of the likes of Strait and Jackson. But hey Toby Keith made himself a great career after the group was jettisoned from the genre for having the gall to call out a man.
Then we get to bro country, which you think that the “real country” crowd is on the same side as the people who want equality for women in country music. But you’re not looking close enough. You see the “real country music” crowd don’t hate bro country because it degrades women and treat them as props. It’s because the men aren’t being portrayed manly enough for them in the music. They don’t want to be associated with “pretty boys” in backward baseball caps who incorporate influences from hip-hop and R&B. This just isn’t manly enough for them and directly clashes with the idea of the ideal manly man. I won’t even mention the other conclusion that can be drawn from this and at minimum makes for bad optics for a genre that is pre-dominantly white.
Finally we get to the current state of country radio, where it’s a barren wasteland when it comes to finding the voices of women. Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris are about the only consistent solo women voices you’ll hear. The rest either show up once or get a small feature on a solo guy’s song. Radio “experts” like Keith Hill love to cite data that says women don’t want to listen to women and men even less so. Data that of course was debunked by the late, great Dev Ghosh. But can’t you see why the numbers bear this conclusion for radio guys? Country music is a genre driven and dominated by a masculine brand of country music decade after decade. It’s music about men for men and made by men. It takes on new forms, but at the end of the day it’s all summed up as “real country music.”
It doesn’t have room for women or any man who isn’t willing to conform to the image and brand driven by “real country music.” It has media empires and major label dynasties that gleefully push this brand because it makes a lot of money and is the most proven brand ever in country music. The “real country music” crowd love to whine that they aren’t the center of attention and aren’t dominating the radio charts. But it’s ridiculous because they’ve been driving the culture, rules and image of country music for decades. No matter what trends come along, they all wither away and the genre has some sort of shift back to “real country music.” It’s all one vicious cycle that spins around and around and around.
Unfortunately in the process, the “real country crowd” is going to take down the entire ship with them. Just like jazz and rock music before them, old gatekeepers will drive country music into the irrelevancy graveyard alongside them. The “real country crowd” will cheer this on because they would rather crash the whole car than share it with someone who doesn’t wholly agree with them.
Right now nobody is really sure what the future of this genre holds. But I do know what I would like to see and that’s women leading the way into the future of the genre. Women will not only get their longly deserved equality, but will show the creativity and drive to keep this genre thriving for years to come. Because one thing I think all country fans can agree on is we want a bright future for the genre. We can hold onto the great traditions of the genre, but it’s time we shed some old ones.