An Americana Response to #SaladGate

Tomato Banjo by Lucy Clayton

Tomato Banjo by Lucy Clayton –

“Homegrown tomatoes homegrown tomatoes
What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love & homegrown tomatoes.”

Guy Clark – ‘Homegrown Tomatoes’

The lack of female voices represented on the mainstream country radio airwaves has been a topic of controversy in recent times. Bloggers and traditional journalists have been covering it for several years. As have male an female performers that have made it in the business and those trying to.

But seldom do you hear an insider state publicly reveal a formal industry effort to limit women artists on country radio format airwaves.

In a revealing interview Keith Hill, a South Padre Island, Texas-based radio consultant (and “The Worlds (sic) Leading Authority In Music Scheduling” according to his twitter profile stated that it was his opinion that two songs by women shouldn’t be played consecutively on mainstream country radio.

“If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” Keith Hill tells the industry publication. “The reason is mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75 percent, and women like male artists. I’m basing that not only on music tests from over the years, but more than 300 client radio stations. The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component. I’ve got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19 percent. Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”

Needless to say this revelation ricocheted across social media in the form of #SaladGate (must we affix -gate to every controversy? The 70s are over people!) But Hill is voicing quantitative strategic practices systematic through the mainstream country industry. Hill is a practitioner, but also a messenger that need not be shot. He’s given thinking people a gift. He;s exposed a system that coarsely regulates performers, and fans, to numbers to tweak. This bloodless manipulation has led to rationalized sexism given faux-authenticity by the numbers and measurements.

Which brings me the Americana.

In my years of covering this music, talking with industry people, fans and performers, there is no mention gender litmus or barriers. Sure theres PR efforts and charts for radio play, but nothing like the quant machine that pushes mainstream country into homogenous mediocrity and accidental sexism. The Americana chart numbers, I believe, reflect balance by reflecting accurately a mix of releases by male and female artist.

A glance at the current Americana Music Association chart shows 10 female solo or female-fronted bands in the top 30 spots. This jibs with my personal experience seeking and receiving pitches for new releases.

It’s not surprising, it;s common. The value systems are different.

Generally, there’s very little overlap in the audience for Americana and that of mainstream country music. Much of the Americana fan base is comprised of people that hold some past era of country music as preferred and no longer represented by Music Row or country radio.

Or as Jason Isbell said from the stage at Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee “It’s not lost on me that this is the birthplace of country music. I live in Nashville, which is the final resting lace for country music.”

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. A wider spectrum of country music is found in Americana. Whether Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Daniel Romano, Kelsey Waldon or Lee Ann Womack – much of older forms blended with contemporary themes and forms find a creative cultural refuge of sorts. With demanding but open-minded fans and performers given the freedom to push and challenge themselves and the audience.

Sure they want to make music their primary vocation, but they’re not pressured to fit a mold to do so. They’re free to test ideas in the wilds of the road to see what sticks. This encouragement and reward of risk-taking results in richer cultural artifacts. The performer and audience for a community or respect and encouragement to see how far things might be pushed.

Like many things in our great nation our standards for goods have increased in number gradually diminished in quality over time. Wee all know it. And it’s not an accident.

Commercial interests took precedence over health and cultural well-being. Misplaced faith in modern science (chemistry and behavioral) fueled by rationalized greed led to mass pooduced mediocrity. Some made us spiritually so.

These practices, mixed with increased mass-media hype, conditioned us over generations that this was the way of things and they couldn’t be any other way.

But things have changed. The Internet allows sharing of ideas and ideals. Industries noticed and have responded. Local, farm-raised food and craft beer came into vogue as well as organic, more human forms of music void of artifice of motive or manufactured hype.

Or as our great-grandparents called it food, beer and music.

The “Telecommunications Act of 1996” has allowed a great deal of large and small market consolidation across America. To a large corporation relative market preferences and cultural taste is hard (and expensive) to serve. Bedt to load all airwaves to the same L.A. or New York feed and economically spill out cultural sewage while watching approval needles move and cash roll in.

If the cultural pendulum swung away from the artificial and hyped to the authentic and satisfying in food and drink why not a swing in cultural nourishment?

Thus the rise of Americana as a viable genre in all its many, messy manifestations.

Though there is the occasional old gatekeeper mentality toward those judged interlopers (cough…Linda Chorney…cough) for the most part it’s a community of that celebrates great music and holds a high, if murkily defined, standard of quality devoid of gender/race/whatever bias.

There are no Keith Hill looking at detailed demographic reports and market-tested product (songs) to determine whether they should “exist” or not. This form of Taylorism might result in dependably manufactured toasters and cars, but it makes for crappy culture.

Admission to Americana is only respect for music and people. Appreciation for great music, skillfully performed by people that see music as an ends of honest vocation rather than a means to celebrity.

Crazy huh?

Of course if more people sought out their own damn music there would be less opportunity for potential industrial bias.

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