“Not a lot of people walk the walk,” said Change the Conversation’s Tracy Gershon at the annual CMT Next Women of Country event, which took place Tuesday at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. “Brandi Carlile runs.”
Gershon was there to help present Carlile with the Impact Award, an “honor presented to a female artist that has impacted songwriting, recording, radio airplay, record sales, streams, media impressions, awards and touring in country music over the past year.” From her Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival to opening for artists like Lucie Silvas to curating an all-women lineup at Newport Folk Festival and, of course, forming the Highwomen with Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby, few have devoted more time this year to gender equity in country music than Carlile.
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s CMA Awards, which aims to “celebrate the legacy of women,” the dividing lines between those who talk, walk, and run have never been more clear. CMT’s Next Women of Country, founded in 2013, has been running for years, supporting artists like Lauren Alaina, RaeLynn, Maren Morris, Carly Pearce, Kelsea Ballerini, Lindsay Ell, Ashley McBryde, Margo Price, and Kacey Musgraves early in their careers, often before they ever signed a label deal. Helmed by Leslie Fram, the senior vice president of music strategy and talent at CMT, the goal of Next Women of Country is to not only raise profiles and foster a community of artists, but to offer a counterpoint to the myths that keep women off the airwaves and festival stages. This year’s class, announced Tuesday, includes Abbey Cone, Avenue Beat, Caylee Hammack, Gabby Barrett, Hailey Whitters, Kylie Morgan, Madison Kozak, Renee Blair, Sycamore, Tiera, and Walker County, with Tanya Tucker helming the CMT Next Women of Country Tour in 2020.
CMT’s record of action also underscores the lack thereof in other sectors of the music industry. The day before Halloween, Spotify invited select industry executives for “a seated breakfast and discussion about representation and gender disparity in country music” in Nashville with executives Dawn Ostroff and Brittany Schaffer. According to sources who were at the breakfast, Spotify, under fire for gender imbalance in their playlists and algorithms, offered talking points about a problem of which most in the audience were already well aware. “I was hopeful that the event was going to be more of a discussion with those of us in the country community who are passionate about solving the female disparity problem,” said Todd Cassetty, founder of Song Suffragettes, the Nashville-based group that promotes up-and-coming female songwriters. “I think a Q&A of some sort between attendees and Spotify would have been valuable for everyone in the room.”
The next morning, Spotify followed up with an email to clarify their position. “Yesterday’s conversation was simply a first step in acknowledging both the challenges and opportunities across the music industry,” Ostroff wrote in an email. “So as we said, we are committed to making a few changes right away: Program more female artists on our owned and operated playlists… Increase resources and continue to assess and counter algorithmic bias in user behavior throughout the platform… Increase our marketing budgets for female artists: We recognize that we have an opportunity to drive awareness and support artists beyond just playlisting.” There are currently 10 songs by women on Spotify’s Hot Country playlist out of 50, including duets and groups with female members.
Meanwhile, Apple Music proved that sometimes change can be much more simple: the streaming service launched its Today’s Country playlist last week, along with its first-ever country show, hosted by Kelleigh Bannen, which debuted yesterday in Nashville with a live taping. The new playlist is gender-balanced (20 of the songs included were by or featuring women), led by Miranda Lambert’s “It All Comes Out in the Wash.”
At CMT’s Next Women of Country, the mood among the inductees seemed to be one of resolve — with scant women on the country airplay charts and questions about “women in country” growing more and more tired, artists like Caylee Hammack seemed to understand both the necessity and the burden of the conversation. “Wouldn’t it be nice if I walked into an interview and I didn’t have to talk about the difference of being a woman?” she said before the show began. “Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, and we’re going to have to keep talking about it until things start to change.” Hailey Whitters felt similar. “Women supporting women is awesome, but it’s something the men should also be doing,” she said.
At the event, hosted by Fram alongside Martina McBride (who blasted Spotify recently for its lack of women representation), the new class showcased the sonic diversity that exists among the women of country music — from the detailed storytelling of Whitters to the bold harmonies (and humor) of Walker County. The fact that radio has been historically hesitant to play two women back-to-back on a playlist is something that still perplexes Tanya Tucker.
“The men all sound a lot alike,” she said backstage after the show. “We are all very distinguishable. You can tell me apart from Brandi or Maren [Morris]. There’s no denying them now, and they have no choice but to accept us. We have the talent, the ambition, the drive.” Tucker, often unknowingly, has been a voice for women in country music since her first single at the age of 13. It’s been a learning process for her to claim her right to speak out about the plight of women in the genre and she credits Carlile with opening her eyes.
“Brandi, I think she’s from another world,” Tucker said. “She’s more than human, she’s a leader and a fighter, and she wants to change things.” Onstage at the event, Carlile invited country radio — which still is barely playing the Highwomen’s single “Redesigning Women” — to join along. “What we’re hoping, and what we’re inviting country radio to do, is to catch up,” Carilie said while accepting her award, reading from notes she’d scrawled on the back of a drawing her young daughter made her that morning. “To anybody involved in country radio, thank you for listening, and ask yourself the question every day before you go to work, ‘What do I want my job to say to my daughter today?’”
That’s a question that could also be applied to the record executives who took the stage at the event, invited by Fram to “speak your truth.” When John Esposito, chairman and CEO of Warner Music Nashville; Scott Borchetta, president/CEO of Big Machine Label Group; Randy Goodman, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville; Jon Loba, executive vice president BBR Music Group; and Cindy Mabe, president of UMG Nashville stood in front of the crowd, there was a noticeable hush in the room — would this be a moment when some of country music’s most powerful came together to issue a pledge to change the tides, or a challenge to country radio? Well, no. Goodman talked about the “great artists” that Sony has always signed, Esposito talked about how “committed” Warner is to “signing great artists no matter what sex they may be and getting them played on the fucking radio,” while Borchetta discussed the “big problem” that “we are not done, we are never done” addressing.
It was Mabe who saw things in a much more realistic light. “We can all keep moving through and thinking things have changed at the rate they should have,” she said, “but they haven’t. [Women] are so much more than a positioning statement that makes it on to a press release this afternoon. This is about how we give a voice and perspective to half the population.”
Tonight’s CMA Awards will be another test: does it talk or walk? We know where hosts Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire — and the women gathered to perform, from Tucker to Musgraves to the Highwomen — stand. The live mic and the platform will be there waiting for anyone else who wants to take the moment and run.