From Guy Clark’s 1983 classic single “Homegrown Tomatoes” to Ricky Van Shelton’s final album, 2000’s Fried Green Tomatoes, country music has a rich, robust legacy of tomato-based metaphors. Keith Hill, a radio consultant, clumsily attempted to contribute to that legacy in his interview this week with a Nashville trade publication. Hill, who boasts 25 years’ experience helping country radio stations boost their ratings, told Country Aircheck stations lose listeners through poor music scheduling, a problem that’s easily fixed by playing fewer songs by female artists. Hill explained how to reach the optimal gender ratio using a saucy analogy:
If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out. The reason is mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75 percent, and women like male artists. The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component. I’ve got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19 percent. 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.
Hill’s comparison was met with an immediate backlash from country fans, who debated and derided the controversial comments on Twitter using the obvious #Saladgate hashtag. Predictably, female country musicians weren’t too thrilled with Hill either. Martina McBride ripped into him in a Facebook post, while Miranda Lambert, Jennifer Nettles, and Kacey Musgraves tweeted their offense to both Hill’s premise and his garden-variety metaphor.
In a follow-up interview with Nashville’s daily The Tennesseean, Hill explained he’s a “marketer, not a social engineer,” and that the social media backlash, which allegedly included death threats, was “driven by emotion, not logic.” In other words, it’s all just a classic “romaine is from Mars, tomatoes are from Venus” miscommunication. He also called himself a “victim” of the irrational, emotional response to his comments, and offered more evidence that he doesn’t really see the big deal: “Apparently I am a black-and-white ‘60s politically incorrect guy by using the tomatoes analogy for females. I am not sure if it would have been better to use carrots or onions.”
Based on the Tennesseean interview, Hill is neither ready to make nice, nor back down. He said his comments accurately reflect country radio’s listener habits, and he’s seen proof stations shed listeners if they play songs by female artists consecutively, no matter how controversial it may sound. With neither side budging, it seems everyone will have to accept that Hill says “tomato,” they say “human being deserving of equal opportunities to promote their art.” Probably best to call the whole thing off.