When the artist crowned Entertainer of the Year takes the stage at the CMA Awards tonight, the odds he will bust out of his dress are nonexistent. The nominees are all men, and the same was true last year. But exactly four decades ago, that particular threat was very real.
Dolly Parton won her first CMA award in 1968 together with Porter Wagoner when the pair were named Vocal Group of the Year. Four years later, Loretta Lynn became the first woman to win Entertainer of the Year. Parton became the second in 1978.
Two tracks from her 1977 album, “Here You Come Again,” climbed to the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart that year, “It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right” and “Two Doors Down.” “Heartbreaker,” the title track from her ’78 album, was actually in the top slot at the time of the CMA broadcast, where it stayed for three weeks from late September to mid-October.
Parton was nominated for several awards that night, but didn’t win until presenters Johnny Cash and Ronnie Milsap announced her as Entertainer of the Year. That’s when things got interesting.
“I remember thinking ‘This is such a beautiful dress, but the fabric is so delicate!’ I thought, ‘Man, as tight as I wear my clothes…’ – and I was a little hefty then anyway! – I thought ‘I hope this all holds together!” Parton said decades later.
“When they called my name,” she remembered, “I felt something creeping up my stomach and I thought, ‘Oh my G-d – my dress is coming apart!’ And I thought ‘What am I gonna do?’”
Parton improvised. “Marianne Rogers [Kenny Rogers’ wife at the time] had on a big fur stole and I was sitting down there near her, so I grabbed her stole and held it up,” she told People magazine in 2016.
Although Parton physically concealed the mishap, she was anything but shy about it in her acceptance speech. “I had this dress made in case I won and about five minutes ago, I was hoping I wouldn’t win because I busted the front out of it,” she laughed, before delivering a classic line: “My daddy says that’s what I got for putting 50 pounds of mud in a five-pound bag!’” It’s all wrong, but it’s all right indeed. (You can watch a brief clip of the speech here, around the 3:00 minute mark.)
After Parton and Lynn, the award has gone to women only seven more times: twice to Barbara Mandrell and Taylor Swift, and once to Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, and Reba McEntire. The last woman to win was Swift in 2011. Thirteen years passed between McEntire’s win in 1986 and Twain’s in 1999, then another ten until Swift’s first win in 2009. With no women nominated for the top honor in 2018, the current seven-year drought will extend at least into 2019.
There’s a longstanding debate over why country radio has been dominated by male artists in recent years, with a disputed but persistent theory holding that the genre’s female listeners prefer to hear men.
Stanford researcher Devorati Ghosh studied the success rates of male and female artists on the country charts from 1992-1999, 2000-2007, and 2008 to mid-2015. Here’s what Forbes reported on the results: “The changes become sizeable in the 2008-2015 era. Through July 2015, major [labels] introduced 31 women (a 28% decline from ‘00-’07) and 51 males (a 9% dip). 32% of female artists received a Top 20 single (down 8% from the second period and 12% from the first), compared with 57% of their male counterparts (up 2% and 15%).”
From 1992 to 1999, women introduced by major labels actually had a slightly higher rate of success landing a Top 20 hit (44 percent vs. 42 percent), and from 2000 to 2007, labels actually introduced a higher average of female artists.
On 2017’s year-end Hot Country Songs chart, you have to scroll all the way down to the nineteenth slot to find a solo female artist, although Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town were in spots nine and ten respectively. In 2016, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini had songs in slots eight and ten.
It’s hard to say what’s happening, and probably an oversimplification to blame outright discrimination. When listeners wanted to hear female artists in the past, country radio delivered. The genre has an indisputably proud history of producing strong female talents. That’s still true in this era, from Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood to Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves.
In full disclosure, I started writing this article as a reflection on Parton’s 1978 wardrobe malfunction. But revisiting the moment sent me down a rabbit hole, revisiting many other moments from country’s female artists. That, in turn, sent me to the Entertainer of the Year data, which is bleaker than I expected.
There’s obviously only one Dolly Parton. She’s singular, and comparable to no one. Reflecting on the dress fiasco, Parton once quipped, “I wanted to look good when I won the award, but I did think, ‘Well, this is very entertaining!’”
“That fit in well with the award!” she added. It’s a perfect quote, and a reminder 40 years later that when country music puts women in the spotlight, they’ve historically been, in the words of Parton, “very entertaining.”