Jun 17, 2015 · 3 minutes

“Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” - Radio consultant/raging sexist Keith Hill.

If I understand Hill's bizarre analogy correctly, he's suggesting that men should be the primary ingredient of the country music landscape, while women are, quite frankly, optional.

As an outsider from the North, and one whose knowledge of popular music is usually limited to whatever they play at my neighborhood market, I was completely unaware of the gender disparities in contemporary country music. At Bonnaroo, for instance, the genre was represented primarily by women, with Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile each given solid evening slots. (The only legit male country performer I recall there was Strugill Simpson, but he's a Nashville outsider and thus considered "alternative country" by many). In truth, I can probably name as many female country music stars as I can male -- which probably amount to about three each.

But the reality in Nashville, where Pando's been for the past two days throwing our annual conference Pandoland, is that women looking to become the next country music star are forced to work much harder for fewer opportunities than men. This much is clear not only from Hill's stupefying quote, but also from the female artists and industry figures I've encountered since coming down here.

“We are at an all-time low,” country singer Annie Bosko told Sarah Lacy onstage at Pandoland today. “It’s worse than it’s ever been.”

And so in response to Hill's idiocy, and to raise awareness of the very real issues of sexism in Nashville's music scene, Bosko plans to record a new version of  her single "Crooked Halo" with rewritten lyrics that address what's become known on Twitter as "#Saladgate." The original lyrics go like this:

Sweet little wild tornado

Angel with a crooked halo

She follows her wings where the wind blows

Angel with a crooked halo

The new version, which she sampled for the Pandoland crowd this morning goes like this:

Sweet little wild tomato

Angel with a crooked halo

We need more girls on the radio

Angel with a crooked halo

Bosko also said that in the video she'll have her bra stuffed with tomatoes, a clever commentary on how even when women do get opportunities in country music, they're expected by some in the industry to be sex symbols first, artists second.

While Bosko's creating awareness, there's a group of Nashville women that for the past year has been working to create opportunities for female country music singers and songwriters. They're called the Song Suffragettes, and last night they played a concert in honor of their one year anniversary at the Listening Room. According to Heather McBee, a former Sony Music executive who now works for Project Music -- Nashville's first and only tech accelerator devoted to music -- the Suffragettes provide a community for young women who come to the city with talent and ambition, but don't yet have many connections or a local support system. McBee tells me it's not uncommon to see major talent scouts at their shows and that since the launch of Song Suffragettes -- whose motto is "Let the Girls Play" -- one of its members has even been signed to a "major publishing deal."

Critics can call these women "tomatoes" all they want. In fact, many in Nashville have adopted the moniker with pride. After all, who wants lettuce -- which frankly is boring and bereft of substance -- when you can have tomatoes which are clearly the better and more interesting salad accoutrement?

[illustration by Brad Jonas]