In 1975, when Mercury Records producer Glenn Keener was considering signing 20-year-old Reba McEntire, the label had only one slot open for a woman. ”He went to Chicago and had two tapes, one of me and one of another girl,” McEntire recalls. ”And they said, ‘Okay, Glenn, we have a position open for a female singer in the country division, so you can pick any woman you want.’ He looked at the two tapes in his hand and handed ‘em mine.”
For years, that’s the way it was in country music: A woman was lucky to get space on a record label. Radio wasn’t much friendlier. ”You couldn’t play two women in a row — this was just an unwritten rule of radio,” says Doug Baker, program director for Nashville’s WSIX. Record executives didn’t see it as sexism, just smart business. ”They told me when I started out that 80 percent of the buying public is women,” says singer Carlene Carter, ”and they buy all the heartthrobs.”
But these days, women can be the heartthrobs — and more important, they can be artists in control of their careers on every level, as performers, writers, and producers with commercial clout fully the equal of their male country counterparts.
In fact, McEntire is country’s third-biggest seller after Garth Brooks and Clint Black (her last two albums, Rumor Has It and For My Broken Heart, have each sold nearly 2 million copies). And she is hardly a one-woman phenomenon. Since 1989, albums by the Judds, K.T. Oslin, Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan, Patty Loveless, Tanya Tucker, and newcomer Trisha Yearwood have each gone either gold (sales of 500,000) or platinum (1 million).
Jimmy Bowen, head of Liberty Records, sees one important reason for women’s increased sales: ”In the last seven or eight years, women are getting control of the production, what songs they’re going to sing. It’s becoming their music.” Indeed, hit makers like Pam Tillis, Carlene Carter, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, and Oslin write much of their own material. ”I could never find songs I believed in all the way through,” Oslin says. ”I just think it gets too homogenized when women aren’t doing their own songs.” The results show up on the radio in more assertive material, from Carpenter’s ”Going Out Tonight” to Tillis’ ”Don’t Tell Me What to Do.”