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Where have all the cowgirls gone? CCMAs, country radio largely ignoring women

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TORONTO - Aside from doctors and accountants, perhaps no one studies a chart as closely as a Nashville country musician.

Take Terri Clark, the Montreal-born, Alberta-raised Grand Ole Opry member whose career will be 20 years and 10 albums in with the Tuesday release of "Some Songs."

That's also the title of the first single, a feel-good summer breeze that has risen to the Top 20. That should be good news, but it's the way it's risen — haltingly and laboriously, like a pack-hunched hiker mounting that one last incline — that has the astute Clark concerned.

"I've definitely noticed a difference from the last record I released, in the speed that my single's climbing ... in a not good way," a candid Clark said during a recent chat in Toronto. "It's probably the slowest. And I don't think that's a reflection of the music. It's a reflection on the climate right now and the male-dominated thing that's going on.

"It's hard for me because I'm not exactly sure where to point the finger. I don't think it's the song. I don't think it's the music. Is it the fact that I'm a woman or the fact that I'm a veteran artist and a woman? Two strikes against me?"

Certainly, one needn't look far to find evidence that country gender imbalance has grown wider than the brim of a Stetson.

As one example, the Canadian Country Music Association Awards will be held this Sunday in Edmonton, airing on CBC-TV. In the evening's top three categories — the fans' choice award along with single and album of the year — not one of the 15 nominations went to a woman.

Looking at all this decade's CCMAs galas going back to the 2010 show, there was a total of 60 available nominations in those top three categories. Two of those went to groups featuring a woman (Small Town Pistols and Hey Romeo) and another six to female solo artists, with Clark scooping up five of those (Carolyn Dawn Johnson was nominated for album of the year in 2011).

The CCMAs, of course, are only reflecting the Canadian country charts, which are recently ruled by a series of rugged, stubble-jawed, cowboy-hatted men: Dean Brody, George Canyon, Paul Brandt, Gord Bamford, Tim Hicks, Codie Prevost.

Toronto-bred Lindi Ortega is one of the year's nominees for female artist of the year, while also wresting consideration for roots artist of the year. Her grit-grounded folk feels out of bootstep with the spit-shined arena-country that typically rules radio, and she's grateful for the accolades.

But she too has noticed the way women are being squeezed out of country.

Recently, she was at home in Nashville when she heard the strains of an outdoor concert echoing from the parking lot of BMI's headquarters across the street on Music Row. Over the course of a grey evening, she heard from the likes of Jake Owen, Lee Brice, Dan + Shay and even pop-rapper Mike Posner — but the bill was wanting in one crucial way.

"I could not hear a female voice all night," she relayed in a telephone chat from Tennessee. "It's kinda obvious that it seems to be male-dominated across the board.

"I think it's a little unfortunate," she added. "I feel like we have just as much to offer."

While CCMAs co-host Jann Arden wouldn't necessarily classify herself as a country musician, she's a longtime fan of the genre's best no-frills storytellers. She muses that these sorts of gender shifts can be cyclical and adds that country has generally skewed heavily male. But she then reels off a list of women who were recently pillars of chart: Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, the Judds, not to mention, of course, Shania Twain.

If women were scarce on country charts in recent decades, it wasn't this stark or severe. The Top 20 songs on the U.S. country chart in the first week of September included only two female solo artists, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood — and they were paired on the duet "Somethin' Bad." A recent Forbes roundup of the highest earners in country music included only one woman among its 13-artist list: Taylor Swift, who's presently prepping for complete immersion in pop with the release of "1989."

Money, coincidentally, is the engine driving the country industry's focus on men, says Arden.

"You have to understand, when they see something working at radio, when they see something working commercially, the tendency for those A&R guys is of course, this is what's working, this is what we need to sign," she said. "It's not that there's not a lot of female artists out there, they're just seemingly — maybe from the get-go — not getting those opportunities because labels just aren't signing that."

Karen Daniels, a morning radio host at Vancouver's 93.7 JRfm new country station, says it's indeed a struggle to find female talent to fill the airwaves.

Her station gets dramatically fewer requests for female artists, and she acknowledges that retaining a robust audience tends to mean spinning men.

"There's still this old kind of standard rule in radio that you don't play two females back to back," she explained in an interview. "(It) sounds kind of ridiculous in the year 2014 but it just doesn't come across. Listeners just don't like it. It doesn't trend well for us."

When grasping for explanations, many point to radio's current "bro-country" trend — the recent New York Magazine-coined term for sudsy, pop-infused good-time tunes that are typically sung by good-'ol-boys, tattooed hunks-in-trucks like Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Chase Rice.

In these tunes, women tend to be reduced to car ornaments in Daisy Dukes, and it's hard to see how female artists could wrest a larger role in this low-bro subgenre without outright pandering.

"Women have a harder time with that," Daniels agreed. "They can sing. They can sing like nobody's business. But Miranda Lambert, I think she's one of the few to break through because she's got that rough girl, don't-miss-with-me attitude. And that's the same attitude as the bro-country.

"It seems to be working for her, anyway."

And therein lies the best hope for young women trying to break into country, Daniels argues: force.

"Women are going to step out of their traditional country roles. You don't have to sing ballads," she said. "Write your material, play the guitar, get out there in front and show you can do it just like the guys can. That's the trend right now. Because we know you can sing. You've gotta be able to put it all up front and show what you got because that's what the guys are doing."

For women who are already well-established, however, such a transition might feel more akin to country's core sin: inauthenticity.

Clark's latest record opens with the stomping "Here Comes Crazy," punctuated with crunchy guitars and a blazing solo. It's about so-called "good girls" cutting loose, and it's a very intentional bro-country rejoinder, or at least a crashing of an exclusive party.

The 46-year-old Clark — who co-hosts a syndicated Nashville radio show — pressed for deeper lyrical content on her 10th album.

And she takes pride in that milestone. She recalls the first time she gingerly set foot in a recording studio to put down vocals for "When Boy Meets Girl" from her self-titled '95 debut. She couldn't sleep the night before, daunted under the pressure of her first shot at Nashville success.

Now, she finds herself staring down her future with similar uncertainty.

"My goodness, I have no idea where I'm going from here, what kind of projects I'm going to do."

Is she considering stopping?

"No, I hope not. We'll see how this goes. I'm hoping not. I'd like to stay in it for a while longer."

Really, it doesn't sound like Clark's voice is going to go away — but she isn't sure the degree to which it will still be heard.

And increasingly, there are few like it.

"When my time comes and I feel like it's really not going to benefit me or country radio to keep doing mainstream stuff and trying to push it out there, I'll stop and rethink it," she added. "I'll never stop making music, though.

"There are some artists who have one foot in the current door and they're still having hits, and one foot in the veteran door. I feel like that person up here right now, and I'm female, so it's a little bit different. But I've got one foot in the current and one foot in the veteran.

"And we'll just see how long I'm able to — or allowed to — straddle that."

— Follow @CP_Patch on Twitter.

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