By Cindy Watts, The Tennessean
When Mike Dungan signed new artist Kelleigh Bannen to a Capitol Records Nashville record deal, he told her he would rather be "the guy who had to go put out the oil rig fire" than to try to make it in country music as a new female solo artist.
"I looked at her, someone I like very much, and I said, 'You realize that you've chosen a path that is maybe the most difficult on the planet,' " recalled Dungan, who is now chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville.
Indeed, country music hasn't successfully launched a reliable female hitmaker since Taylor Swift in 2006.
The female vocalist of the year category at this week's 46th annual Country Music Association Awards places pop star Kelly Clarkson alongside Swift, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride. The latter four are established country singers who have appeared on the genre's radio airplay charts for multiple years and built their careers performing for country music fans.
Nashville-based pop powerhouse Clarkson lent her voice to Jason Aldean's multi-week No. 1 duet, "Don't You Wanna Stay," which topped the charts in early 2011. She also charted her own country single, "Mr. Know It All" - a country cover of her pop song - this summer. The song topped out at No. 21 on Billboard's country airplay charts.
"You can't take anything away from Kelly Clarkson having an incredible voice," said Bannen, who recently released debut single "Sorry on the Rocks." "I am interested in women who are committed to our genre. I think we should be a little protective of our genre. We do things a specific way and have a very specific audience, and I am intrigued by people who are committed to what we do here."
The heart of the issue is the low number of women currently succeeding in the genre, compounded by the lower number of those able to break through in a significant way.
"With the measure of success being commercial, basically we have 2.5 females right now (in country music)," said Wade Jessen, senior chart manager for Billboard in Nashville. "We have Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, and then Miranda Lambert sort of. ... If you look at the charts right now, I think there's some real artists in the solo female ranks and they're just not developing them fast enough."
Currently Underwood and Lambert are the only solo females in the top 10 on Billboard's country airplay chart, which tracks the most popular songs on country radio. Swift, whose new pop-leaning album, "Red," was released Oct. 22 and is projected by Billboard to sell more than 1 million copies its first week on the market, is at No. 21 on the country airplay chart. Newcomers Kristen Kelly and Kacey Musgraves are in the high 20s. The rest of the chart's Top 30 lists solo male artists, duos and groups.
Country music industry executives have differing ideas on the small number of female singers, ranging from female fans' hesitation to support other women to radio's reluctance to give new women an equal shot.
"The gatekeepers at radio have a mindset that females are tough, so they put themselves into this space where they'll only really truly consider one at a time, maybe two at a time," Dungan said. "And that's very, very unfortunate and very frustrating."
Gary Overton, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville, explained that because country radio is the most effective way to break a new artist, "this can be a major hurdle."
Blair Garner, host of popular country radio show "After Midnite," called the explanations an "oversimplification" of the male-dominated radio landscape.
"There's no quota to be filled," he said. "I really and truly believe it has much more to do with the basic market and that people buy what they connect with and for whatever reason, we've not had tremendous success with finding that next Taylor Swift. But that doesn't mean the opportunities are skewed against them."
For years, Dungan said he believed that the songs written in town for women were subpar. Now after enduring 10 years of what he describes as a "drought," he said "female songwriters in Nashville are writing really strong material."
An enduring stumbling block for female artists, Dungan said, is not having a voice that is distinct from other artists already on the radio.
"For a long time, they all sounded the same," he said. "It's the hardest thing to sit in a record label, look at a young lady who looks great and presents herself very well and hits all the notes with near perfection and say, 'I'm sorry, but you sound just like Carrie Underwood.' In our business you can sometimes get away with a second version, but rarely do you get away with a third. Those that really step up and are unique are very, very few and far between."
However, industry observers agree there are new standout females on country radio at the moment who have solid chances of breaking the male-dominated trend.
Jessen is a fan of Bannen, and he and Garner feel Kristen Kelly "holds the combination in her hand." The combination being "someone who is desired by men and likeable by women," Garner said. "That's tough to crack."
Kelly, whose self-titled digital four-song mini-album featuring her debut single, "Ex-Old Man," is available for download Tuesday, didn't set out to crack a code.
"I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not just to gain fans or have people like me a little more," said the Texas native. "I feel like I'm just a simple country girl who likes to have a good time and talk about life and live it. I don't think in my head I have it all figured out by any means. I just hope that things keep going on the path that they're going."
While Kelly got her start playing the Texas music circuit, Kramer was an actress on the TV series "One Tree Hill," which often served as a platform for her songs. The actress's debut single, "Why Ya Wanna," made it to No. 3 on Billboard's country airplay chart, enough to best Swift's debut chart record set in 2006.
Peter Strickland, senior vice president of brand management and sales at Kramer's label, Warner Music Nashville, admits that her television show surely helped sell Kramer's music to fans, but the actress-turned-singer doesn't feel like the show helped her make any friends at country radio.
"Not everyone was on board," she said. "Especially since they not only saw a female, but an actress. A lot of people didn't even want to meet me, and that hurt the most because I wasn't able to show them who I really am. I feel so fortunate that they connected with my song and me."
Even with the success of "Why Ya Wanna" under her belt, Kramer still doesn't feel that she can relax. Her new single, "Whiskey," is already at country radio.
"I would be lying if I said I'm not terrified," she said. "I have to remind myself how much I've grown my relationships with radio and the fans, and I know they have my back. At the same time, the song has to be good and my next single is my favorite, so those things calm my nerves."
Strickland said the label "didn't have blinders on" when it came to Kramer's chances at a repeat but that they are "confident in her music and her ability to engage with the fans and that she is going to have a career in this format for a long time."
If Kramer is able to pull a repeat, Kelly's popularity at country radio continues to grow and Bannen is able to make the most of her early praise, the three women could be poised to give the men a run for their chart positions, which translates to album sales and often nominations on awards shows.
Since Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis and Faith Hill dominated much of country radio in the '90s, Dungan said, "you think this could be cyclical."
Bannen agreed: "Women reigned in the industry in the '90s," she said. "I do think there are cycles in the industry."
Women find success in groups
While new solo females currently struggle through the ranks in country music, duos and groups fronted at least in part by women are near the height of popularity.
-Little Big Town, a 13-year-old band with two men and two women, recently landed its first No. 1 single with "Pontoon," and new album "Tornado" was No. 1 on Billboard's country albums chart for five consecutive weeks.
-The Band Perry, which is fronted by Kimberly Perry and her brothers, Neil and Reid, broke through with multiplatinum smash "If I Die Young" in 2010 and followed up with subsequent hits "You Lie," "All Your Life" and "Postcard From Paris." The band was nominated in the Grammy's all-genre best new artist category at the awards show earlier this year.
-Gloriana, withthe trio of Rachel Reinert and brothers Tom and Mike Gossinand Rachel Reinert, also enjoyed the most successful year of its career this year with top-5 hit "(Kissed You) Good Night."
-New duo Thompson Square, fronted by husband and wife Keifer and Shawna Thompson, unseated Sugarland for vocal duo of the year on the strength of the hit "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not" at the 2012 Academy of Country Music Awards earlier this year.
-And since soon after a 2008 debut, Lady Antebellum - Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood and Hillary Scott - continue to collect group of the year awards at country awards shows and consistently turn out hit after chart-topping hit.
"When you strip it all back, it's really the same thing," said Mike Dungan, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville. "You're faking out the radio gatekeepers. You put a couple of people on each side of the female and it fakes them out. You look at Kimberly Perry from The Band Perry. She's a spectacular performer and a great vocalist and there's solid songs. Would she have made it as a solo artist? I don't know. But the fact she stood up there as a trio helped her for some odd reason."
Warner Music Nashville's Peter Strickland theorizes that it's the way groups present themselves to country radio that makes the difference, and Billboard's Wade Jessen thinks it might have to do with the atmosphere that group creates on radio as well as the stage.
"It's probably a little more exciting to see The Band Perry than it is to see Jana Kramer out there by herself," he said. "To me, that speaks to that whole energy in music right now.
"I think part of the reason country music isn't as satisfying to fans as it has been is because we're not getting any songs like 'I Hope You Dance.' 'If I Die Young' was one of those records. A four-minute power ballad by a solo female artist is going to have a hard time right now. Building those kinds of songs and building careers on those kinds of songs would be almost impossible."