Women who love country music, your ship has come in. We live in a time where prominent country radio DJs aren’t even worried about relegating women to an unnecessary ingredient sprinkled across the larger meal that is men in this genre. We live in a time where Kelsea Ballerini’s “Love Me Like You Mean It” was the first single by a woman to lead the country airplay charts in over nine years. That’s a dry streak that, by my calculation, lasted 491 weeks. Do you really believe that in almost decade a woman didn’t cut a song that was equally or even more appealing than one a man did? Considering the country radio audience is mostly women, this is even more baffling. Let’s make one thing clear: What is played on the radio is a choice. It is a choice made by programmers and DJs. It’s not really based on sales, and it’s only based on input from listeners themselves in a cursory way. This is a broken, sexist system.
The only way to break rank with this kind of ossified thinking is to create art so powerful that it plows the gatekeepers right over. That is what Cam has done–against all odds–with her debut album Untamed that’s out today. It is the best country album of 2015 in a year packed with greatness. It is an astonishing debut from an artist who has a clear-eyed vision of who she is and what she wants to accomplish. The song that broke Cam in on the radio was “Burning House” a lucid, smoldering reflection on a dream of love that won’t stay lit in the light of day. “See you at a party and you look the same,” Cam sings, “I’d take you back but people don’t ever change.” It’s such a simple, poignant revelation about the way our desire for the past burns bright, even as we understand that walking back into the flames will only hurts us more.
But this song wasn’t meant for radio at all. The labels always try to force female singers to shove their most light-hearted, feisty-sounding song onto the airwaves. Ashley Monroe’s “On To Something Good” tanked, but I bet my life her heart-wrenching “The Blade” would’ve had a similar impact to “Burning House.” If anything, Cam’s peak at #6 on Country Airplay chart proves that there is an audience for these slow, moving ballads. The song is now nominated for a Grammy. It’s the same logic behind Kacey Musgraves releasing the chirpy, scolding “Biscuits” to radio instead of the gentle, loved-up lullaby “Late To The Party.” If it wasn’t for radio personality Bobby Bones asking Cam to play “Burning House” on his show and iTunes sales immediately spiking. we might not have her debut at all. The song she was introduced with, a fierce and funny reclamation of one night stands called “My Mistake,” stalled at #52.
The retort to bro-country isn’t trying to fit women into their own upbeat foil but letting them settle into their own pockets. The country radio audience falls prey to the same unrelenting sexist stereotypes that pervade the rest of the world–probably to a stronger degree because there’s a lot of conservatism there–and a song about a girl owning her one-night stand isn’t likely to play well. Why are labels not thinking about factors like this? Even in this case, a critic for Saving Country Music wrote that the label’s decision to push Cam’s release date to mid-December doesn’t set her up well for success. How are the people running the careers of these women so blind to the way their strategies and carelessness continually fails female artists? And why are they investing more money and time in men instead of figuring out how to fix this broken system? This is where capitalism drives me crazy–male and female artists aren’t only products. Having female voices on the radio, telling their stories in the culture at large, and sharing their experiences with the world is essential to building future generations of women listeners. We have to show women there is a place for them in the music industry. Moreover, there should be a place for them here. Men need to step up to the plate and help level the playing field. This is about more than salad ingredients, this is about building a better world. That’s worth more than money.
In the meantime, Cam is doing her part with Untamed, effortlessly blending her California ranch roots with sizzling guitar and a voice that recalls Reba McEntire’s gravelly expressiveness. Across eleven tracks she writes about all the meaningful aspects of her life, breathing ferocity into a revenge ballad on “Runaway Train,” mooning over possibilities of a love grown cold due to distance on “Cold In California,” and chuckling at red carpet dreams versus barnyard realities on “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty.” Cam succeeds because she isn’t trying to mine the past for some smug perceived authenticity. She lives in her own time and sounds like it too, singing about things that are timeless like heartbreak, being stuck in a relationship, drinking too much and a rebellious streak a mile wide.
On the record’s title track Cam sings about a bonfire party out in the woods, and a fiddle solo dances around her descriptions of country hookups. The narrative is familiar: There’s a girl, drinking and dancing on the hood of a truck. “Think you won’t? I bet you would,” Cam sings. It’s a subtle kiss-off to everyone who reduces bro-country to tale of tailgates and cutoffs, or thinks the women in these songs don’t want to be at the party. They do want to be there, she argues, this is part of our life. The difference here is, she’s not the subject of a song. She’s the one singing it. The girl in cutoffs has gone from prop to producer–that’s everything. Furthermore, what bro-country can’t give us, is a song like “Village,” the album’s closer; it’s a love song for a friend—not a man—a rope of rescue sung from one woman to another that floats faith and hope into a country ballad of brilliant proportions. It redefines our hearts as villages, built by those who love us, and promises to stay true through the grief, pain and ugliness life inevitably holds. Simultaneously, it works as an ode to this industry. It gives me hope for the addled country music constituency. Let’s wade into the mud and rebuild this thing.
Cam’s Untamed is out today via Arista Nashville. Stream it below an buy it here.[sc:CAM ]