For those who don’t know by now, I am an avid watcher of ABC’s ‘Nashville’. While it is rather sudsy at times, its relationship to reality is what really interests and intrigues me, aided by its placing of fiction right alongside fact in its construction. Well-known country stars feature in cameos, and regular references are made to other artists and country music staples like the CMA Awards, the Grand Ole Opry, the Bluebird Café and the Ryman Auditorium. However, the drama that unfolds is entirely made-up, and the characters do not resemble real people in any way – or do they?
Something which has been regularly reported is actress Connie Britton’s dislike of the way her character Rayna Jaymes is pitched: as the ‘older’ country star trying to resurrect her career. At 46 years old, Connie has claimed she does not feel that women in her 40s are ‘over the hill’ so to speak, and I among many other women would be inclined to agree. However, if you were to take a look at the real women of country music, it perhaps tells a very different story, and it’s directly related to gender.
If we look at female country artists currently in their 40s, many were part of the nineties boom in which country music was (arguably) feminized, and for one reason or another female artists flourished, leaving their male counterparts in the dust. It was the decade of the female superstar, and this carried on into the early noughties until things dried up and men were back on top. So where are these women now? Let’s have a run through. Martina McBride is 46, has released 11 studio albums, has had 4 #1 albums, 5 #1 songs, and countless top 10s and top 20s. She’s toured all around the world, and been referred to as the ‘Celine Dion of country music’. Yet she hasn’t won a major country award since 2004 at the CMA Awards (despite often being nominated, almost as a token gesture) and the majority of her tours over the years have been supporting or ‘co-headlining’ (she is currently on ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’ tour with George Strait). In Nashville, the character of Rayna finds herself in this position, having to ‘co-headline’ with the far more commercially successful Juliette Barnes, who is in this case half her age. Since 2003, Martina’s chart positions have dropped dramatically and she is no longer receiving much radio play; this is reflected in the character of Rayna.
Faith Hill was a huge star of the nineties but she hasn’t won any awards since 2006, her last major country award being given in 2000. She’s released 7 studio albums, 3 of which went to #1, and has 8 #1 singles, but her last release was a Greatest Hits in 2007, her upcoming album ‘Illusion’ being continuously pushed further and further back by her record label. She also hasn’t had a top 10 single since mid-2006. Faith is now 45 and after being so successful both in the country and pop worlds, the music industry has pretty much put her on the shelf and laughed at her when she’s tried to get down. The same occurred for Sara Evans, only 42 years old and considered ‘past her sell by date’.
Shania Twain too – aged 47, and arguably the biggest of the female stars of this era – with an impressive discography that sees almost all of her released albums reaching #1, and huge scale world tours, she hasn’t released a new record since 2002 and her single sales significantly plummeted after 2004. Jo Dee Messina (42) has recently started a Kickstarter campaign to fund her album, I imagine because she cannot get backing from a record label. Terri Clark (44) also had huge success over the 1990s-2000s period and she has completely faded from view, perhaps more than any of the others mentioned. There’s also Trisha Yearwood (48), Lee Ann Womack (46) and Mary Chapin Carpenter (55). Where are these women?
Dolly Parton has previously said that as soon as she hit 40, radio refused to play her, and this seems to be a pattern for female stars who are certainly not over the hill. While we could put this down to ageism still prevalent in a youth-orientated industry, what about the men? Tim McGraw is still one of country music’s biggest stars as is Kenny Chesney, and they are aged 46 and 45 respectively. Brad Paisley is now 40 and is still a major player. There’s also Darius Rucker (47), who just received another #1 album accolade, and even Alan Jackson (54), Vince Gill (56) and Trace Adkins (51) could be said to have more success than some of the women mentioned. While they are legends with huge fanbases, so are some of the women. In fact, the only female artist who can match such success is Reba, who at 58 and still charting well is largely an anomaly.
So while Connie Britton may feel angry that her 40-something character is being portrayed as ‘ageing’ and ‘no longer relevant’, if she were to examine the industry she would realize that it’s actual a very accurate portrayal, and a very real problem. Because while country music may be one of the least ageist genres, its ageism is sexist, and that’s no real achievement at all.