April 6, 2008
Never underestimate the power of good timing. When Gretchen Wilson finally landed a recording contract after years of laboring in obscurity, country radio was more hostile to female artists than at any point in its modern history.
When her debut single “Redneck Woman” was released in 2004, Martina McBride was the only female artist who was consistently hitting the top ten with her singles. Two years earlier, when country sales had skyrocketed thanks to massive sales of new albums by superstars Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill, all of the credit for the boom was given to post-9/11 anthems by Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and Darryl Worley. Country radio shunned Hill, Lee Ann Womack and SHeDaisy for their crossover sounds, and when Natalie Maines uttered her innocuous comment about President Bush in March 2003, the Dixie Chicks were instantly removed from country radio playlists. They were the only female act that was regularly having singles nearing the top of the charts. When “Redneck Woman” finally hit the airwaves in the spring of 2004, women hadn’t been so scarce on the country radio since the early sixties.
As soon as Wilson’s debut single was given a few spins, the phones lit up. “Redneck Woman” took off like a rocket, soaring to #1 in only a few weeks. Specific enough to become an anthem for the rural southern women it describes, but universal enough to have appeal to all listeners who color outside the lines, the song was so popular that Wilson’s debut album stunned observers by selling more than 200, 000 copies in its first week.
Wilson became a media star right off of the bat, and her success raised the profile of John Rich, the former member of Lonestar who was launching his own act, duo Big & Rich. As both acts found success in 2004, the MuzikMafia – a confederation of country artists that included Wilson, Rich, Cowboy Troy and current hitmaker James Otto – gained widespread attention. Wilson quickly scaled the charts with three more hits from the project: “Here For the Party”, which reinforced her wild child image; “When I Think About Cheatin’”, a classic country ballad that elicited praise from Loretta Lynn; and “Homewrecker”, which channeled Lynn herself. By the fall of 2005, Wilson had won a Grammy, and both new artist and female vocalist awards from the CMA and the ACM.
Needless to say, expectations were high for her sophomore project All Jacked Up, and initially, those expectations were met. The album sold quickly out of the gate, but the strong support she had seen from radio began to quickly fade. The title track stopped at #8, and was criticized for taking the “Redneck Woman” image into parody territory, finding Wilson losing her front tooth in a bar fight and crashing her car while driving drunk.
However, the second single “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today” should have been a smash, by all laws of logic and reason. Wilson had just won the CMA Female Vocalist award, after performing the song to a hearty ovation on the show. She had a top-selling album, and the gorgeous ballad followed a formula that had always worked in the nineties: “Popular female singer + Awesome Matraca Berg song = Big Hit.” Instead, the song became her first to miss the top ten, peaking at #22.
By that time, country radio had moved on to Carrie Underwood, the American Idol winner who was topping the charts for the longest stretch since Faith Hill in 1999. Two more Wilson singles, including a duet with Merle Haggard, peaked in the twenties. Wilson took her time preparing her third album, One of the Boys, and although it sold well enough to top the Country Albums chart and reach the top five of the overall album chart, radio was even less kind, as three singles missed the top thirty completely. The 2007 album faded from the charts after just 24 weeks, selling a little more than 200,000 copies during its entire chart run, roughly equal to what her first two albums had sold in just their opening weeks.
So to quote a song from Wilson’s quintuple platinum debut album, what happened? It’s easy to just say that Wilson got typecast and the novelty wore off, but radio didn’t play the songs that went against type any more than they played the ones that reinforced her image. What happened to Wilson is the same thing that happened to the female artists she replaced on the radio dial: radio lost interest, and moved on to the next big thing. Currently, the only female artists getting regular airplay are Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland, three acts that are all on either their debut or sophomore albums.
Fans of those acts should take note: country radio has become very fickle with female artists, with not a one getting the core artist treatment that countless male acts get, from George Strait to Keith Urban, Toby Keith to Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw to Rascal Flatts. Four years from now, we may be asking the same question of Underwood and Swift that we ask now of Wilson, and the answer will likely be the same.
- “Redneck Woman”, 2004
- “When I Think About Cheatin’”, 2004
- “Homewrecker”, 2005
- “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today”, 2005
- Here For the Party (2004)
- All Jacked Up (2005)
- One of the Boys (2007)
- CMA Horizon Award, 2004
- Grammy, Best Female Country Vocal Performance – “Redneck Woman”, 2005
- ACM Top New Artist, 2005
- ACM Top Female Vocalist, 2005
- CMA Female Vocalist, 2005