The horrible state of country radio is really not up for debate. Considering the general decline that stations across all genres have faced against the ascendancy of streaming services, country radio is a particularly bizarre case. As country artists began to attract more and more fans away from the mainstream, its radio stations became more and more homogenized.
The result is an almost exclusively white and majority male makeup of playlists across the country. After all, the genre’s top programmer said last year that female artists were but “tomatoes” to be sprinkled sparingly across the airwaves. Outside of country music’s demographic issues, the sound has become more condensed, leaving little room for artists (with some major exceptions) who don’t fit into the bright and shiny mold of country celebrity.
But then there’s Brandy Clark. In June, Clark released Big Day In a Small Town, a searing followup to 2013’s 12 Stories. Both of them are stellar, mature albums, but Big Day is a decidedly more radio-friendly version of the raw edginess that made Brandy Clark such a success with the critics back when 12 Stories was released. Last year, with no album to speak of, Clark was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy, up against pop heavy-hitters like Sam Smith (who would win the trophy) and Iggy Azalea.
Clark’s album peaked at No. 8 on the Country Albums chart, a decidedly respectable showing and no small feat for a female artist, much less one who sits outside the industry standards for who they should be. But that description doesn’t really apply to Brandy Clark. If you’ve listened to any of Big Day In a Small Town, you’ve heard some of the best radio-friendly country of the year. So why are stations refusing to play these songs?
Take, for example, Big Day’s lead track, “Girl Next Door.” Written with Jessie Jo Dillon and Shane McAnally, it is upbeat, catchy and in keeping with the lineage of female artists finding their big break with barnburners. This is a song that fits in on the playlist perfectly with “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Before He Cheats” and any number of other wildly successful done-me-wrong songs.
It was designed in country heaven with the right sound, the right songwriters, the right feel to be a radio smash. This isn’t Sturgill Simpson singing about space turtles or some feminist alt-country fantasy. “Girl Next Door” is just upbeat enough a radio hit, but not so bubblegum that the traditionalists would hate it. It may seem like an exaggeration, but there perhaps has never been an album that people who like vastly different kinds of country music — the Florida Georgia Line fans and those who love The Possum alike — would have been more responsive to.
But nearly three months after its release, you’d have never heard of “Girl Next Door” or Brandy Clark if country radio was your only way of finding new tunes. Some stations, like Austin’s KOKE FM, have Clark in regular rotation, but they are greatly outnumbered by those who don’t. Right now, Clark is out promoting her newest single, “Love Can Go to Hell,” to radio. But if I were a betting woman, I wouldn’t put my money on its being Clark’s first mainstream radio smash.
It would be one thing if Brandy Clark were a completely unknown quantity, but these radio stations know exactly who she is. She’s been one of the most sought-after songwriters in Nashville since at least 2010. Her co-writes, like “Follow Your Arrow” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two,” have been incredibly successful earworms that did remarkably well on the charts. What is it, exactly, about Brandy Clark singing her own songs that makes country programmers so afraid of her?
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It must have something to do with that insidious formula, the one that currently dictates a female artist’s success in the mainstream, a combination of blond, bubbly and singin’ about boys. A cursory glimpse at the charts is enough to prove that. Kelsea Ballerini fits that formula like it was written for her, and her song “Peter Pan” currently sits at No. 2 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. Of the four women with songs in the Top 30 — five, if you count Elle King’s duet with Dierks Bentley — virtually all of them are blond pop stars. Yes, even Miranda Lambert.
A quieter (and brunette, God forbid!) presence like Brandy Clark clearly isn’t shiny enough to move the needle when it comes to country radio. Which is particularly disappointing when you consider just how much she continues the traditions of artists like Wynonna Judd, Reba McEntire and Terri Clark — all women who were able to achieve incredible mainstream success despite the fact that they didn’t fit country music’s stupidly rigid standards for what it means to be a woman.
Country radio’s day in the sun is decidedly over. No one is looking to it to make major waves or shake up the mainstream. That’s what Spotify and Apple Music and whatever apps the kids are using to find music at this very moment are for. In a few years, this antiquated old dinosaur may very well not matter to the future of up-and-coming artists. But right now radio is essential for ticket sales and getting records off the shelves, and it’s handing Brandy Clark the kind of screw job that you write a song about. The kind of song they’d never play.