New York Magazine music critic Jody Rosen is absolutely nuts for commercial country. This year, he's dug albums by Ashley Monroe, Kellie Pickler, the Pistol Annies and the Court Yard Hounds — the group that's two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks. But one album in particular has had his full attention all year: 12 Stories by Brandy Clark.
"That's my favorite record of the year, bar none, across all genres," Rosen says.
12 Stories is darkly funny and, for country, provocative. It follows the travails of individual women getting divorced, popping pills or, as in the song "Stripes," considering shooting a lover and going to jail.
NPR Music's pop critic Ann Powers sang the praises of half a dozen women country musicians this year, including Hank Williams' granddaughter, Holly Williams, another young artist named Caitlin Rose and an older, more recognized musician: "I think there's no greater evidence that women in country are in a renaissance moment right now than the new album Spitfire, by LeAnn Rimes," Powers says.
Here's the thing: Big-city critics love these female country singers, but they're not selling especially well. In fact, says Rosen, except for a few huge solo acts named Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift, women are basically marginalized on the country charts right now.
"Generally speaking, women don't do well on country radio, where you hear the hits," Rosen says. "You'll hear 17 men for every one woman."
A slight exaggeration — but only slight. If there's an upside, Rosen says, it's that female country musicians don't face the same pressure to follow a rigid Nashville template, churning out songs that romanticize, for example, the joys of small-town living.
"It's not all people smiling on the front porch, drinking sweet iced tea and going off to church, all happy," Rosen says.
Musician Kacey Musgraves takes an unsentimental look at the broken realities of many small towns in her 2013 album Same Trailer, Different Park, which features the song "Merry Go 'Round" about the closed circle of small-town life. Musgraves sings lyrics like, "We think the first time's good enough, so we hold on to high school love," and, "Just like dust we settle in this town."
In an NPR interview earlier this year, Musgraves talked about growing up in a tiny town in Texas. She was frank about the opposition the song faced from some radio programmers.
"I had one guy on the radio tour say, 'This is the anti-country song,'" she says. "And I had to say, 'I'm sorry, no. It's just an anti-small-mind song. Anti-settling.' I'm all about small towns, I really am. I think it's a great place to grow up, but I think it might be a little more comforting to some people to hear it from a real perspective instead of one that tries to sweep things under the rug."
So why are these women not owning the country charts? Rosen says he has absolutely no idea.
"I just simply don't think that the songs these women are making are not viable commercially," Rosen says. "It fails to make sense, logically, that a female audience doesn't want to hear women sing."
Historically, Rosen says, you looked at women in country — women like Kitty Wells or June Carter Cash or Loretta Lynn — and you saw artists who were the moral center of the genre. Today's female artists still are, he says. But the moral center appears to be out at the edges.