At the turn of the millennium, Faith Hill was one of the biggest stars in country music. Between 1995 and 2005, she released five albums that went multi-platinum and landed in the top five of the country charts; three of them reached No. 1, including “Breathe” and “Cry,” which reached No. 1 on the overall chart.
Hill is in town this weekend for a show at the Sprint Center, where she will share the stage with her husband, Tim McGraw. Hill has not released a full-length studio album since 2008, when she released the holiday album “Joy to the World,” which went gold and reached No. 2 on the country charts.
After that album, Hill essentially disappeared from country music and the country music charts. She released two non-album singles, none of which cracked country music’s top 40 chart. In June, she and McGraw released “Speak to a Girl,” another non-album (for now) single, which peaked at No. 6.
Her disappearance from country music foreshadowed what has been going on in country music for years: the paucity of solo women artists on radio and the charts.
A look at five country music charts in Billboard magazine illuminates the domination of men artists: albums, hot songs, digital song sales, streaming and radio play.
Amid the top 20 of each chart — 100 slots — only two women’s names appear for a total of five times or 5 percent of the combined charts: Carly Pearce, who appears on three charts for her single “Every Little Thing”; and Maren Morris, who appears on two charts for the single “I Could Use a Love Song.” Neither appears on the album or streaming charts.
By comparison, 19 women appear on the Artist 100 chart, which measures radio airplay, sales, streaming and social media activity. Only one of the 19 is a country artist – Morris, who squeaked in at No. 97.
In May, when they performed seven shows at the Sprint Center, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood held a press conference and answered a variety of questions, including the domination of men in country music.
“I think it’s a mistake to believe that with all the women listening to the radio that only men speak to women,” Yearwood said. “Women want to hear men; they like that feeling. But they also want to hear women speak to them. I don’t know the answer except that I believe as women we have to keep making good records and keep putting it out there and push harder.”
Brooks was more blunt: “I think it’s bull----. … The worst thing women can do now is try to jump on the guy thing, try to go rogue and speak that way. The women of country music should stay patient. The music industry will get smarter.”
Brandy Clark knows a thing or two about staying patient. Saturday night, she will open for McGraw and Hill at the Sprint Center.
Clark has released two critically acclaimed albums, including her 2013 debut, “12 Stories,” a nominee for country album of the year at the 2014 Grammys. None of the singles from “Stories” received significant radio airplay. “Girl Next Door,” from the follow up “Big Day in a Small Town,” peaked at No. 39 on the country charts in 2016.
In November 2013, the Washington Post published an article with the headline “Brandy Clark’s debut album is a stunner, but will anyone hear it?”
Music critic Chris Richard wrote: “Nashville’s confusion over how to market music this good speaks volumes to country music’s glaring gender gap. Contrary to the testosteroney-rah-rah you hear on the radio, this year’s most compelling country music albums have come from women.” And he names several, including Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe.
Later in the piece, Clark expressed some optimism: “I think people want country music to be one of those big crayon boxes, not the little one you get in kindergarten with eight colors. That’s the feeling I get. And maybe it’s because I’m not one of those colors.”
She’s not. Clark typically doesn’t write sunny love songs or forlorn heartache ballads. She typically writes about people enduring difficult situations, including single mothers, many of whom are at an emotional crossroads.
As Richard wrote in a review of “Big Day in a Small Town”: “Some of her protagonists quietly break down while others secretly puff on joints to stay high. But regardless of their respective fates, Clark treats them with dignity and care.”
Glowing reviews can stoke confidence and optimism, but they don’t always translate into sales or radio airplay. At the end of 2016, an executive with the country television network CMT told the Nashville Tennessean: “I would love to say in 2016 the needle at country radio moved but it only moved a hair.”
Nine months later, it still hasn’t moved much; rather, it may have receded. It’s a shame that country music can’t find more room for deserving artists like Clark and Musgraves, that it seems incapable of returning to the days when women like Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill were all over the charts and country radio.
Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, along with opener Brandy Clark, will play at the Sprint Center Saturday, Sept. 23. Go to sprintcenter.com for tickets.