Country music singer Ashlie Amber recently released her debut single, “Almost Love.” At the current juncture, she’s in the studio laying down tracks for her debut album. It sounds like a dream come true.
Yet there’s a dark cloud looming overhead: country music has a problem. It’s biased against women.
According to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a study by researchers at USC, only 16 percent of country artists are female and only 12 percent of country songwriters are female. The report concludes the absence of female artists in country music is the result of “gender-based programming.”
In other words, the decision-makers at country music radio stations have elected to keep women out. Women are played less, which means they become less and less familiar to listeners. As the vicious cycle continues, women receive fewer and fewer plays. If the cycle is allowed to play out, in the end, country music will be populated entirely by male artists.
Women in country music have begun speaking out about the problem, along with their male counterparts, like Garth Brooks, who realizes country music has a gender equity imbalance. Ashlie Amber realizes it, too.
I sat down with Ashlie to discuss the imbalance, which has been referred to as “the lily-white problem,” and “bro-culture.” I wanted to get Ashlie’s take on the issue: why it exists and what to do about it.
How did you get started in music? What’s the backstory?
Without going into too much detail, I started singing when I was 6 for fun, which later changed with the tragic loss of my father when I was 12. Music and singing became an outlet for my grief. Along the way, I discovered that singing was more than just an outlet, but my passion and life calling. So I started singing everywhere and every genre of music I could. If I could sing, I would and I did not care what I was singing, just as long as I was singing. This actually worked to my advantage because it allowed me to become extremely versatile. I wasn’t limited to just one thing, I sang pop, country, R&B, rock, and even a bit of legit musical theater. It was definitely one heck of a journey and a lot of hearing I wasn’t good enough or the right type for certain projects, but I just kept auditioning, practicing, and refused to take no for an answer.
I was signed to an independent label in Denver right out of high school but unfortunately, it didn’t lead anywhere. Eventually, I found my way to musical theatre and started working all over in the Denver musical theatre scene. Musical theatre taught me how to perform and the importance of putting on a show. There are a lot of people that can sing but can they put on a show?
I then put together my own headliner show, a tribute and celebration of Whitney Houston entitled “I Will Always Love You.” The show’s popularity landed me a residency on The Celebrity Edge cruise ship. Don Gatlin took notice and is now my manager. Right now, I’m working on my debut country album with Grammy and Emmy winning producer Jamie Tate.
Why did you choose to become a country artist?
I think country music chose me just as much as I chose it. I grew up in Thornton, Colorado. If you’ve been to Colorado, you’d know that Colorado LOVES country. I grew up listening to pop/country as well as Top 40. So I’ve been influenced by many different styles of music. I love everything. One of my favorite things to say is that good music is good music. I’ve said it in multiple interviews but it’s so true. Music is a powerful thing and allows us to express feelings we might not be able to express through just words alone. I believe music feeds and heals the soul. What I love about country are the lyrics and the stories behind the lyrics. They’re so descriptive. I feel like I’m reading a good book when I listen to country music. I can picture everything about the song. Where it takes place, what the people in the video look like, even down to what people might be wearing. I’m not sure why, but it makes my imagination soar which is really hard to find in music nowadays.
In her interview with the PBS News Hour, Reba McEntire said that Nashville has a “bro–culture,” where “everybody’s good old boys.” Do you agree? If so, why?
Oh, do I LOVE me some Reba. Side note I just have to say. How COOL was it to see Reba, Carrie, and Dolly ALL hosting and performing together at the CMAs? It was EPIC! Back to the question though. YES! “bro culture” is definitely a thing. Honestly, I don’t know how it happened, it just did. In the late ‘90s early 2000’s women dominated the country charts and that’s when I fell in love with country. You had Faith Hill, Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Dixie Chicks, Jo Dee Messina, I can go on all day. I feel like every time I turned on the radio back then, it was total girl power. Lately, that just hasn’t been the case. If you were to turn on the radio today and have a listen, 90% of it has been male-dominated for a while now. I make it a point to listen to the radio whenever I’m in my car and it’s male after male after male. The women who are successful are absolutely CRUSHING it, but are few and far between and are not getting the radio time they deserve. Kacey Musgraves won album of the year and I’ve never heard her on the radio. To this day, I still haven’t heard Kacey on a regular country radio station. Why is that? She’s AMAZING! But I do hear Sam Hunt, Brett Young, and Luke Combs almost every time. (Don’t get me wrong. I love those boys! Y’all let’s do a duet! Also, I think Chase Rice is single, call me lol) I’m just saying that yes the “bro culture” is real and we could use more female representation.
Why are people in country music so afraid to talk about the gender-bias issue?
I don’t think anybody wants to admit that there’s a problem or realize they’re being biased. Denial is a natural human trait and if it doesn’t directly affect you then why would you assume it’s an issue? Record labels are in the business of making money so they’ll go where they feel the money is. But how can any female have a fighting chance when we aren’t given the same opportunity, financial backing or marketing as men? So, of course, men are going to be on top. It’s almost impossible for them not to be. I’m not trying to discredit men in the industry because I have to admit their songs are catchy and I’m a huge fan of most of them, but 90% of radio play? The women of country are speaking out and rightfully so! Sign more of us, promote us, and Jennifer Nettles said it best “Play our f***ing music.”
Lil Nas X released “Old Town Road,” which hit Billboard’s Hot Country Chart. Then Billboard removed it, saying essentially that it wasn’t country enough. What is your reaction? Why do you think they removed it?
Man (no pun intended) but this is a tough question and I’m almost not sure how to answer without making somebody think I’m picking sides. I’m a fan of some really iconic all-time longest-running number-one singles. Anybody who knows me knows I’m the ultimate Whitney Houston fan. I mean I’ve dedicated a huge part of my life celebrating her and her music and it’s hard to believe that “Old Town Road” has surpassed some of the greatest artist and songs of all time. Lil Nas X has beat out Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles. I mean these are some of the most iconic and groundbreaking songs EVER. I never thought I would see the day they’d be beaten out, especially with a song with such a simplistic melody. But hey, “Old Town Road” is catchy and the young generation streams music like crazy. Kids these days will literally stream the same song over and over for hours at a time, which could be one of the reasons it became an overnight sensation. Was this song different for the country community? Yes, it was and I understand why they would say the song wasn’t country enough, but, and at the same time, what does that even mean? Nelly did a remix to Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” and it’s one of the longest-running songs in country music history. So banning “Old Town Road” from ALL country radio was a bit extreme. Sure, it was different but not EVERY song should sound the same. LiL Nas X created history and has brought some MAJOR and much-needed attention to the lack of diversity within country music. It sucks that he had to take the hit, but because of his unique approach and catchy melody he helped open the door for the next person of color such as myself and many more to have a fighting chance in breaking down these racial barriers within country music.
What, in your opinion, accounts for the blatant stonewalling of female country artists?
Honestly, I can’t give you a solid answer. Some say it’s because women don’t want to listen to other women. Women are the largest consumers of country music so the “belief” would be that men sell better. There’s also the tomato-gate theory that says if you play women back to back on the radio your ratings will go down. So who knows? All I know is that the industry needs to change and not only do they need to play more women but they need to sign, actually market AND promote women of color. As of now, there are no women of color getting radio play. Mickey Guyton is amazing with an incredible voice and she is that voice standing on the front line of the movement for diversity, but she still hasn’t been able to break the Top 40 charts. There is strength in numbers, which means we need more women of color to be heard. Country is changing and its continuing to evolve with cross over music every day such as “Old Town Road” by Little Nas X and “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line, featuring Nelly. Spotify’s Hot Country playlist has songs featuring Diplo with Morgan Wilson called “Heartless,” Breland with “My Truck,” and Halsey with her new single “You Should be Sad.” They’re not traditional country artists but country fans love it! So change is already happening.
Is there any indication the male-dominated culture is changing at all?
You better believe it’s changing! The women of country are speaking out and they’re not being shy about it. I mentioned earlier Jennifer Nettles, who said: “play our f***ing music” at the 2019 CMAs. If that’s not taking a stand, I don’t know what is! Man, was that awesome. I remember cheering at my TV yelling, “You go, girl!” Since she opened up her jacket with that statement written on the inside, I can already hear a difference in certain playlists, but it’s not enough. Spotify’s Hot Country playlist has over 5 million listeners and I personally stream it multiple times a week. This playlist has 53 of the hottest country songs out right now. Of that 53, there are only 9 female artists and 5 duets featuring women. So women barely make up a 3rd of that playlist. So we are getting placement but diversity is still lacking as well as some of the same female artists have multiple songs on that same playlist. (BTW kudos to those ladies for making the list multiple times. Y’all are absolute BOSS BABES) So, yes the male-dominated culture is changing. It’s just not changing fast enough.
Do you think “bro culture” will change? Or will the powers-that-be simply dig their heels in and sweep it under the rug?
I think the “bro culture” has no choice but to change. Again women are fed up and are speaking up. I believe record labels will embrace signing more women and ultimately diversifying their song rotations. Currently, women make up 16% of the industry. So this won’t change overnight, but change is coming and I’m doing everything I can to be a part of that change. To be a part of a new generation of women about to hit these charts and hit em’ hard! So watch out “bro-country” because the BOSS BABES are coming and we’re coming in hot!