By Jon Bream
Star Tribune (Minneapolis).
Unless you’re Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert, it’s not easy being a female singer in country music right now.
Bro-country and male voices rule the radio airwaves and the concert scene. But two women making are headway as opening acts for Keith Urban and Alan Jackson on the state fair circuit. Kelsea Ballerini, 21, just became the first female singer in 10 years (since Underwood) to have her debut single reach No. 1 on country chart. Singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, 39, has written two recent No. 1 tunes and won a CMA Award for song of the year but has struggled as an artist. We talked with both women about their climbs up the country charts and how each fits into the current climate of male-dominated country radio.
Q: Why do you think your song “Love Me Like You Mean It” was so successful so fast?
A: I was hoping if people wanted to cruise in their cars with the windows down that it had a good enough beat for that and if people wanted to listen to it, they would hear a message of empowerment and confidence.
Q: How do you think your many months of visiting radio stations factored into the success of the single?
A: The radio tour is the reason that song did so well. Relationships and having connections with people makes you want to root for them and it makes them want to root for you. We did a 21-week radio tour and we saw close to every station and some twice. It was only supposed to be eight weeks but we were just enjoying it and it was going well.
Q: How did you celebrate that song going No. 1 this summer?
A: It was such a huge celebration for everyone involved _ the writers, the producer, my label. It’s all of our first No. 1 at the same time. Honestly, to be a new artist and have a No. 1 is a huge deal. To be a new female artist on an independent label, we really celebrated.
Q: What did it mean to you when Taylor Swift tweeted praise about your song?
A: It still feels like it didn’t really happen, because I’m such a huge fan of her. I remember getting her first record when I was 12. That’s when I started writing (songs). To have someone that you were so influenced by and so inspired by basically say “I like what you’re doing; keep doing it” was very cool.
Q: What have you learned from her?
A: What Taylor does best is she puts fans and songwriting at the forefront. That’s why she has such a huge and unique career.
Q: Your parents got divorced when you were 12 and now you wrote a song about it, “Second Hand Smoke.” Was their divorce a blessing or a curse for you?
A: It was a blessing. That time in my life is what made me write songs because I couldn’t deal with it. I always loved storytelling, journaling and I loved music. But that was the time when they came together.
Q: I read your approach is to take sadness and make that into a positive. Please explain.
A: I wanted the underlying message of my whole record to be empowerment, because I think it’s so important for girls to have some kind of voice like that on the radio. Even with ‘Second Hand Smoke’ and ‘The First Time,’ I tried to write them in a way with some kind of positive outcome.
Q: Your songs don’t sound traditionally country. What are your influences?
A: I grew up on a farm in East Tennessee living a very Southern lifestyle. My roots are extremely Southern. At the same time, Britney Spears was my first concert. I think it’s my job as a country music artist to be honest, because that’s what makes country music so beautiful. Honestly, I listen to pop and I listen to R&B and I listen to Christian music and I listen to country. I’m inspired by all of it. But I’m a country music artist.
Q: Why has it been so difficult for female singers to get on country radio lately?
A: I’m not quite sure. I think it has allowed a lot of amazing male artists and groups to break through. Now I think it’s time for the girls. We’ve seen that with Cam (the voice of “Burning House”) and Maddie & Tae (known for “Fly” and “Girl in a Country Song”) and myself lucky enough to be included in that. We’ve been embraced with excitement more than a hesitance. Someone told me once that Nashville works like a pendulum and now it’s back over and it’s girl time.
Q: Compare touring with Alan Jackson with opening for Jennifer Nettles and for Eric Church.
A: Alan has a stone-cold country audience. Jennifer pulls in different kinds of music people. Eric was a challenge for me because A) the venues were huge and B) his crowd wanted to rock. With Alan, I can pull out my countriest songs.
Q: What did it mean to you to be nominated for the Grammy for best new artist this year?
A: That was huge. I was shocked. That never was in any of my thoughts possible. I didn’t win but the biggest win was getting the performance slot (with Dwight Yoakam). That’s the biggest moment in my artistic career.
Q: Let’s talk about a big moment in your songwriting career. What did it mean when “Follow Your Arrow” (recorded by Kacey Musgraves) won song of the year at the CMA Awards?
A: It said a lot. It was the lowest charting song to ever win song of the year. People in the industry loved it.
Q: What did it mean when your “Better Dig Two” (for the Band Perry) and “Mama’s Broken Heart” (for Miranda Lambert) went to No. 1?
A: With “Better Dig Two,” it was such a monkey off my back. So many songs were supposed to be No. 1 but they died before they got there. Every writer wants a No. 1 song. “Mama’s Broken Heart” came right after “Better Dig Two.” I love when people send me videos of them karaoke-ing it.
Q: Have you made more money from songwriting than from being an artist?
A: It’s about equal now. I make money from touring and merchandise. I just signed a new deal with Warner Bros. But I’m far from rich.
Q: Tell us about your upcoming album.
A: The working title is “Big Day in a Small Town.” They’re songs that to me could take place in a small town. Jay Joyce produced it. It’s a progression sonically. The songs have an edge to them. Jay pushed me and stretched me. We’re doing three or four of the new songs now (in concert).
Q: Tell us about the musical you’re working on now in Dallas.
A: It’s called “Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical.” The characters are based on the characters from the TV show. It’s a linear love story set in Cornfield County. It opens Sept. 18 in Dallas. Shane McAnally and I are writing the music. We’re still making changes. With a musical, you’re in a constant state of rewrite.
Q: Critics raved about your 2014 debut album “12 Stories” but it didn’t get much love from country radio.
A: I was at a label so small that I didn’t have a chance to go on a radio tour. We didn’t have the budget to do that. We only had $150,000 to do everything and that would have gotten eaten up quickly on a radio tour.
Q: Why is it so hard for women to get songs played on country radio?
A: I don’t know. I hope that’s gonna change. Kelsea Ballerini just had a No. 1. Things go in cycles. In the ’90s a lot of women were on country radio. I miss female voices on the radio. It’s still the biggest way to turn people on to country music. Thank God there are other ways.
Q: Do you feel any age discrimination from radio? Or because you’re left of center?
A: No. I haven’t gone after radio. And I am left of center.
Q: Do you think your songs are too smart or too clever for mainstream country?
A: I’d rather be too smart than too dumb.
Q: With your ironic twists and dark humor, your songs make you the Randy Newman of country.
A: Life is a dark comedy. That’s what I try to do in my songs.