Women in modern country music: an introduction
A lot has been written about the mistreatment of female artists in the country music industry. But for all of the headlines about TomatoGate, bro-country and “rules” forbidding DJs from playing women back-to-back on their radio stations — nothing has changed. So, instead of rehashing the same tired narratives that highlight men’s power in the music world, I figured I would shed some light on the artists who, in a more just and equitable world, should be dominating modern country music right now.
It’s a shame, but even these legendary artists barely get any airplay.
Carrie Underwood — From the moment she stepped off the American Idol stage in 2005, Underwood has proven herself to be contemporary country music’s golden girl. She can play the revenge-hungry ex, all-American housewife and everything in-between with vocals that have an equally impressive range to match.
Miranda Lambert — The first time I remember seeing Lambert, she was setting a town on fire in her music video for “Kerosene.” She’s managed to keep up this rebellious image while tending to her softer side on some of her biggest hits like the vulnerable track “The House That Built Me.”
Kacey Musgraves — Even before the internet fell in love with Musgraves after her 2019 Album of the Year win at the Grammys, Kacey was doing country music her way. Always lyrically-clever, instrumentally wholesome and thematically outspoken, Kacey’s no stranger to going up against the powers that be. Her LGBTQ+ affirming anthem “Follow Your Arrow '' was banned from country radio in 2013.
It isn’t shocking to hear these women on country radio, but it’s not quite normal either.
Maren Morris — Between her monster pop hit “The Middle” with Zedd and her membership in The Highwomen — you’ve definitely heard Maren’s powerhouse vocals before. Sonically, her solo work lives at the center of those sounds. She’s bubbly in love on her latest GIRL: A glossy but forceful display of pop country.
Kelsea Ballerini — I discovered Kelsea when Taylor Swift tweeted her approval of her first single “Love Me Like You Mean It” in 2015. Taking it as a sign that the next princess in Taylor’s line of pop country royalty had been crowned — I dove right in, and I’m glad I did. Ballerini’s music is fun, glittery and, as a student of Swift, very catchy.
Carly Pearce — Pearce’s music is addictive. Her first album Every Little Thing came out in 2017 and I’ve returned to it at least a couple times a month ever since. Her songs sound like Southern hospitality and her voice is like honey.
Fresh Pop Country
A breath of fresh air in a snap-track, boom-clap world.
Kelleigh Bannen — Sometimes a song will stop you in its tracks and that’s what Bannen’s “Damn I Still Love You” did to me. She has a talent for simultaneously sounding playful and soulful, masking her heartbreak with word play.
Jillian Jacqueline — Like so many of these women, Jacqueline is a storyteller — the difference is that she has a way of sounding like your best friend while doing it. Whether she’s poking fun at her own drama on “Tragic” or narrating the crumbling of a relationship on “Sad Girls,” she gets what you’re going through.
Country that Rocks
These women are badasses. That’s all.
Ashley McBryde —The songs released thus far from her upcoming album Never Will include a murderous, rocking warning to her Dad’s mistress “Martha Divine” and a catchy “it is what it is” admission of her “One Night Standards.” What’s more intriguing (or country) than that?
Kalie Shorr — Shorr is true to the title of her album Open Book. Addiction, depression, her sister’s death and her own eating disorder — it gets messy, but that also means it gets real.
Maybe they aren’t officially “country,” but they’re so good I'm claiming them anyway.
Caitlyn Smith — Smith has presence. Her voice is like liquid gold and with top-notch songwriting, the stories she tells are worth every penny. I still can’t get enough of her debut album Starfire.
Emily Scott Robinson — Listening to Robinson is like walking alongside a babbling brook. Her voice immediately grounds you in the present, but her storytelling takes your mind elsewhere. She’s a wanderer and her clear, rootsy voice invites you with her.
The Almost Break-Throughs
If they were men, things would be different.
Cam — Her song “Burning House” was a Grammy nominated hit in 2015 and her album Untamed is just that: Bursting with energy and unafraid to break boundaries into pop and folk. Somehow Cam can do everything at once and still make it sound organic.
Danielle Bradbery — She won The Voice in 2013 and reintroduced herself as a mature, self-empowered artist with the fittingly titled I Don’t Believe We’ve Met. She’s heavily influenced by pop and still sounds genuine in self-reflection on songs like “Worth It” and “Potential.”
Maddie & Tae — This duo got tons of national attention for their number one bro-country call-out track “Girl in a Country Song” in 2015. But when their record label closed its doors in 2017, they lost steam. Songs like “Shut Up and Fish” and “Sierra” show off their sense of humor and excellent harmonizing.
Bonus Round: International Edition
People are making country music everywhere … and a lot of it is really good.
Kira Isabella — I first encountered the Canadian in a classmate’s presentation on country music and sexual assault. Isabella’s song “Quarterback” narrates a highschool girl’s story of a community that believes the football star’s word over hers. Her album Sides is more light-hearted, but just as strong-willed.
Catherine McGrath — McGrath cites Taylor Swift as her country music inspiration and it’s easy to see the connection. On her best tracks the Irish country artist captures the small but weighty moments of teenage girlhood just as succinctly.
Clearly there is no excuse for country listeners not to be listening to female country artists. These artists only begin to scratch the surface of the immense amount of talent that all women in country music bring to the table. There are so many interesting, important stories that need to be heard. Stories that at one point or another have connected with me — maybe you’ll see yourself in one of them too.