There is no one more cool with being uncool than Aileen James. At least, that’s what she thought when she started a country music blog in late 2014. The concept was pretty straightforward: Aileen’s favourite singers growing up were female, and had become an underserved demographic in the Nashville scene; so, she would review songs by and interview female artists. Two or so years later, Queens of Country is one of the most sought-after boutique country music blogs.
“I definitely came into this not knowing, or really expecting there to be such an audience for this lane of country music. At that point […], it was such a stagnant time for women of country and it seemed like there really was no audience that wanted to hear these women. But what I found from the start is that there was always an audience, it just wasn’t necessarily the “cool” thing at that moment.”
The turning point for Queens of Country was when a top country radio consultant was quoted in an industry publication with this advice to radio programmers across the country: “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” alongside comments about even female radio listeners preferring to hear male voices on their speakers, and playing songs sung by women back-to-back would not retain listeners. “They’re just not the lettuce in our salad,” he explained. “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females;” and so the #SaladGate of 2015 began, with Aileen’s humble blog suddenly in the perfect position.
Managing the meteoric rise of Queens of Country is “insane, sometimes,” with the goal of publishing three articles a week. Aileen manages her time by setting blocks of days to answer emails, listen to new music, and write; “but writing is so come-and-go, it’s definitely difficult sometimes to make yourself write. Managing the blog is something that I’m constantly trying to get better at. [Those blocks booked off] definitely [give] me time to look over each email and the music attached and see if I feel strongly enough about the music to work with the artist or write something up about it. When it comes to selecting which emails I actually pay attention to, it comes down to the friendliness of the artist or their publicist, and the personality and story I’m given through the email.”
After #SaladGate, there have been great strides taken to support women in country music. “Radio programmers and executives [are] able to see how much of an audience and how much support there is behind these women. Since then, it’s been getting better, but it’s not there yet. Currently, Lauren [Alaina] and Kelsea [Ballerini] are in the Top 10, but is 20% really good enough? Even if you’re not going by gender, you should be going by quality. This isn’t women whining and saying that there should be some sort of affirmative action on radio to ensure that women get equal airplay. It’s people saying that women create quality music, and discriminating them based on their gender is not right. As of now, the quality music is not getting the attention it should be getting.”
Aileen’s advice to country musicians of all genders: “do what you want with your music. Don’t worry about being “cool,” or making music that sounds “hip,” or “in.” The most successful artists in this industry are the ones who don’t give a crap about what anyone says about them, and that includes me! If you’re being you, and creating your own individual lane in country music, you’re going to find an audience that appreciates your music for being unique.”