For a while now, the dominant image of country radio's target listener has been the suburban soccer mom, the presumption being that tender male balladeers are what it takes to keep her tuning in while she runs errands in her SUV. Here's one problem with that idea: There's not all that big of a gender disparity in the country audience, and poll results presented at this year's Country Radio Seminar back this up. Women are in the majority, but not by much. What's more, the musical impulses that are showing up in country right now don't break down along gender lines the way you might think.
That same CRS poll affirmed that the popularity pendulum has swung back toward crossover country, and harder stuff is a turn-off to the genre's casual listeners. But Kellie Pickler — who's leaned pop-rock since Idol — has just made the most hardcore traditional country album of her career, 100 Proof. It's also her best. "You just gotta keep fighting, and hopefully you get your way," she says. "I'm a woman — I want my way all the time. ... I said, 'I just want to make a dirty country record. I want to make a country record.' "
She's not the only one. Concrete, the first mainstream country full-length from Texas singer-songwriter Sunny Sweeney, is a crisp, contemporary honky-tonk affair. Ashton Shepherd's second album, Where Country Grows, combines down-home charm with studio polish. Miranda Lambert's Four the Record is commercial country with rootsy bite and a daring spirit. Then there's that other project of hers, Pistol Annies, and their fetchingly ragged Hell on Heels.
Excluding Lambert's output, we're not talking about music that's made a big impact on the charts so far, though Sweeney's single "From a Table Away" did climb to No. 10. Last summer, at least a couple weeks went by without a single female solo act in the Top 30. That's an extreme illustration of the way things have almost always been: lopsided, with successful country-singing men outnumbering women. But hearing so many younger female voices lean toward traditional sounds — that's new.
Conspicuously absent on the charts much of last year was a between-releases Carrie Underwood, who's made a triumphant return this year with the single "Good Girl" and the album Blown Away. You wouldn't think her music would share much in common with Pickler's or Sweeney's, and stylistically it doesn't. But they're addressing similar concerns in their songs.
"Good Girl" and many of Underwood's previous blockbusters — from "Before He Cheats" to "Cowboy Casanova" — take up for wronged women. She's extended the pattern to especially dramatic storytelling with "Blown Away," in which a young girl hopes a tornado will free her from her abusive, passed-out-drunk dad, and "Two Black Cadillacs," an implicit murder ballad in which the wife and the mistress team up against the man who's been deceiving them both.
Lambert's known for her revenge songs too, though those haven't done quite as well on the charts as her softer-edged material. On Pickler's latest, she sings about hitting the honky-tonks just as hard as the guys and giving a cheater his own medicine. And Sweeney has a pair of songs from the point of view of the other woman who's caught the guy in his lies. "If you have to question it too much," says Sweeney of her no-holds-barred approach to material, "then it starts being like, 'Oh no, somebody's gonna get offended.' Well, you know what? Somebody's gonna get offended if your song's cheesy, too. At least those are like real situations."
Sweeney's male counterparts invoke some of the same classic country influences, but wind up at very different musical destinations. Jason Aldean's album My Kinda Party came out in late 2010, and it hasn't stopped sending singles to the Top 10 yet. The rock attack that powers his brand of country is of a brawnier breed than Music Row's prevailing soft-rock template — Aldean could probably win over guys who like nu metal. The same goes for rising act Brantley Gilbert, who's written some of Aldean's big songs. Musically, Gilbert's recent hit "Country Must Be Country Wide" mirrors the dynamics of grunge: brooding verses followed by a blistering chorus. But even as he's rocking hard, he's also describing the ubiquitousness of people who, like him, identify with hillbilly culture.
Singer and songwriter Justin Moore has had success at radio too, but his sound is more of a hardcore country-and-Southern rock hybrid. He came right out of the gate with songs that drive home who he is and what he identifies with, take-it-or-leave-it style, and got a response by no means limited to the South. Says Moore, an admirer of the devoted audience Hank Jr. built with his boldfaced personality, "These fans are bright individuals. I've always tried to be open and honest about who I am. ... It's been a big part of our success. I've always been of the opinion that I'd rather be polarizing. I'd rather 50 percent of the people hate me for hunting and fishing and all that stuff and 40 percent of the people love me, than have 90 percent of the fans out there go, 'Yeah, that's OK. Whatever.' "
"Bait a Hook" was one memorable single that pitted a caricature of a good ol' boy outdoorsman against a caricature of a metrosexual guy — Moore's spoken outro hinted at the song's underlying self-deprecating humor. Here and elsewhere he favors a writing approach that involves setting backwoods scenes and invoking immediately recognizable references. "Some people love to write using a lot of metaphors," he says, "but I prefer to write with a lot of color: What kind of beer? What kind of truck? Not just a truck, but which kind?" Moore's sharper-than-he-lets-on songwriting peer Eric Church gets defiant and specific in plenty of his blues-rocking country songs too, but he tends to be strategic with his rough-and-rowdy references: They come off as more streetwise than rural.
So we're hearing women working with traditional country sounds while they sing about staking claim to personal freedom and demanding equal footing in relationships, and men more frequently drawing in rock sounds while they define redneck identity and traditional masculinity in their lyrics. It's worth noting that Pickler's having at least as much critical as commercial success for the first time in her career. We critics usually go for more traditional sounds — they feel closer to authentic folk roots — but we have a harder time with songs that get into identity politics.
And today's radio playlists? They're not exactly a forum suited to nuance and complexity. "Just because 'Red High Heels' was my first single on the radio," says Pickler, "I've had so many people that will just pitch me songs if it's got shoes in it, or heels, or stilettos. You know, I'm not just this little high-heeled thing. There's a lot to me. I'm a lot of things."