Today’s Country Radio: Where’s Reba?

I posted this to my Facebook page on October 18, 2011, and the following day on Reba’s fan forum. In less than three months, it has already been viewed almost 1,500 times. I’d thought it needed to be posted on my blog. Since the original post, I updated the chart numbers inside the article until early November when it became clear that “Somebody’s Chelsea” would not crack the country top 40! Shame on you, country radio!

What is happening to country music radio?

As a boy in Kentucky, I grew up listening to country music.

Tanya Tucker was my favorite. I played Cal Smith’s “Country Bumpkin” and The Bellamy Brothers’ “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Hold it Against Me” (not even knowing what it meant then) over and over. And, my grandmother and I loved Charley Pride, a black man with 29 number one hits during my childhood. How progressive of country radio back then! It would take Darius Rucker of Hootie & The Blowfish fame in 2008 to prompt country radio to add a black singer into heavy rotation again. That’s something Cowboy Troy and Rissi Palmer couldn’t do.

Then, in the 1980s, new wave and dance music replaced country on my turntables and radio. It was all about Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Erasure, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Taylor Dayne, and Debbie Gibson. Then, on a summer night in 1990, I was at Sidetrack in Chicago on “country night” and I heard this voice and I froze in my tracks. I had to find out who it was. The song, which would go on to peak at #1 on the country chart, was “You Lie” by Reba McEntire. I’ve been starstruck by Reba ever since that night more than 20 years ago.

Reba

Reba has had more top ten hits than any other woman in country music (59) and is tied with her idol, Dolly Parton, for most #1 country songs by a female artist (25). And, that is the point of this article. Where is Reba on country radio today?

Aside from her recent #1 hits, “Consider Me Gone” and “Turn on the Radio”, you mostly hear Reba oldies on the radio these days. Listeners of WLLR, the #1 radio station in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois, basically hear “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and “Fancy”, early 1990s hits that only peaked at #12 and #8, respectively. As many top tens and number ones that Reba has charted since her first top ten hit, the #8 smash, “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven, in 1980, you’d think we might hear some of the other oldies.

REBA_ATWIA_COVER_500

Since Reba topped the charts on January 1, 2011, with “Turn on the Radio”, her next three releases have failed to make a dent in country music playlists and the country charts. Her remake of Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” stalled at #22, and “When Love Gets a Hold of You” reached #40.

Reba’s latest song, “Somebody’s Chelsea”, is struggling and in its tenth week on the chart, it has peaked at #44, so far. Several stations: KUZZ in Bakersfield, CA; KXKT in Omaha, NE; WWQM in Madison, WI; WUSH in Norfolk, VA; KIIM in Tucson, AZ, WLHK in Indianapolis, IN; WDAF and KFKF in Kansas City, MO; KXLY in Spokane, WA; WSOC in Charlotte, NC; WGNE in Jacksonville, FL; KNIX in Phoenix; AZ and WQMX in Akron, OH are some of the stations playing “Somebody’s Chelsea” in light to medium rotation, while countless other stations have basically ignored the song.

This spring, a program director at a country station told me when I mentioned that Reba had a new song, “When Love Gets A Hold of You”, and it was struggling, that he wasn’t surprised “after having ‘If I Were a Boy’ shoved down our throats.”

So, is that the reason Reba can’t get her new music played? She released a remake of an R&B song? Is it because her new songs are not good? Not country enough? I don’t think so and I have three theories.

If you think about it, the top forty country music chart should give you the hits, the up and coming songs, and those dropping off the countdown. However, some stations are very stingy with how many new songs they play. A station should not have just 20 or 25 “hot” songs in heavy rotation. This means you hear the same songs over and over every few hours.

Around twenty years ago, a song would climb the chart, peak, and start dropping in about twenty weeks. Then, the artists would release the follow-up single. It also gave country music hit makers the opportunity to have three hits from an album in just a year. Those were the days when you didn’t have to wait years between album releases.

A scan of the Billboard country charts for the week of November 7, 2011, verifies my point.

“Crazy Girl” by the Eli Young Band finally hit #1 in its 38th week on the chart! “Country Must Be Country Wide” by newcomer Brantley Gilbert is at #4 in its 31st chart week. Back at #11 is David Nail’s “Let it Rain”, which was put out 40 weeks ago — that’s ten months ago. And, still gaining airplay in its 33rd chart week is Edens Edge at #26 with “Amen”.

There is no reason that it should take 31-40 weeks for a song to find an audience at country radio. It would be one thing if this was a random event, but this is common these days in country music. Could you imagine being one of those artists and having to sell this song for nine months to radio and having to perform it every night in concert instead of singing it and your second or third single that audiences would know?

While that may play a role, here is my honest opinion of why I’m even writing this: sexism and ageism.

I believe that country radio was looking for excuse to add 56-year-old Reba to its list of women singers that its discarded throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, and “If I Were a Boy” and Reba’s recent induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame were good enough reasons. How fitting is this quote on the Hall of Fame’s biography of Reba, “With her election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011, McEntire achieved the rare feat of landing a #1 hit on the country charts in the year of her induction.” A “rare feat”, indeed.

Reba Exhibit

Reba dominated the charts from the mid-1980s through the late-1990s. However, since 2000, even with five top ten hits and three chart-toppers, Reba has had six songs that failed to reach the top twenty, including the previously mentioned last three singles. Seriously, one of them, “Love Needs A Holiday”, only peaked at #60 in 2006!

76-year-old Loretta Lynn was a staple in the top ten from 1962 through the 1970s. Since the 1980s, she’s only had one top ten hit despite having an Oscar-winning movie based on her life, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, and winning a Grammy in 2005, for best country album, “Van Lear Rose”.

Dolly Parton, 65, had many #1 songs in the 1970s and 1980s and is tied with Reba with the most country #1 songs by a female artist. However, she’s only had one solo #1 hit since the 1990s and she was a featured vocalist on Brad Paisley’s 2005 #1 hit, “When I Get Where I’m Going”. Despite limited country music airplay since the 1990s, Dolly won four Grammy awards in that time period.

Tammy Wynette, who was 55 years old when she died, had a long string of number one and top ten hits from 1967 through 1979. Throughout the 1980s until her death in 1998, she only had three top ten hits.

54-year-old Pam Tillis, had a total of thirteen top ten hits in the 1990s, but she has not had a top ten since 1997.

And, finally, 54-year-old Patty Loveless dominated the country charts from 1988 until 1996 with twenty top ten hits. Although she won Grammy awards in 1998 and 2011, she has not had a top ten country hit since 1996’s “She Drew A Broken Heart”.

Most of these ladies are still producing new music, but it’s just not finding a home at country radio where the only solo women getting instant heavy airplay these days are Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood. All three of them are in their 20s.

So, with that being said, maybe country radio wants its hit makers to be young. That’s where I believe sexism comes into play.

This isn’t happening to George Strait, the king of country music. Although he is 59 years old, Strait is near the top of the country charts with his latest, “Here For A Good Time”. Of his 92 career singles, 85 have hit the top ten, and 44 have topped the chart.

A scan of the Billboard country chart for the week of November 7, 2011, shows only four solo women in the top 30 (Swift, Lambert, Martina McBride, and Sara Evans), four other acts that are made up of men and women (Lady Antebellum, Thompson Square, The Band Perry, and Edens Edge), and pop singer Natasha Bedingfield guest appearing on a hit with Rascal Flatts.

In the late-1990s, I had a disc jockey from the Cleveland, Ohio, area tell me that country radio was moving toward phasing out Brooks & Dunn in favor of newer duo, Montgomery Gentry. In 1999, “South of Santa Fe”, by Brooks & Dunn, became their first single to stall outside the top forty, at #41. Their next two singles barely made the top twenty.

Montgomery Gentry didn’t become country music’s duo savior and radio re-embraced Brooks & Dunn and showered them with many more top ten hits throughout the 2000s until they went their separate ways in 2010.

I hope I’m wrong, but it seems that radio thinks it has found their “new Reba” in several young, promising female singers.

As I conclude my opinion piece, I want you to know that I have many friends and acquaintances that work in country radio and this is not directed at them personally, but definitely at country stations and the companies that own them.

In the internet age, you need to work a little harder to make your listeners happier and to try to win back the ones you’ve lost.

Anthony

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