Each year in Nashville, the women of country music gather to celebrate one another and provide an important platform for the new artists working to break ground in the genre through CMT Next Women of Country.
Founded by CMT Senior Vice President of Music Strategy & Talent Leslie Fram in 2013, CMT Next Women of Country shines a spotlight on nearly a dozen promising new female acts in Nashville, providing them with tools and resources to be successful in a male-dominated industry, with past inductees including Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini. During the 2019 CMT Next Women of Country event co-hosted by Fram and Martina McBride at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, the 2020 CMT Next Women of Country class was unveiled, comprised of Gabby Barrett, Caylee Hammack, Hailey Whitters, Madison Kozak, Walker County, Avenue Beat, Abbey Cone, Kylie Morgan, Sykamore, Tiera and Renee Blair.
A consistent theme carried throughout the annual event is empowerment, whether the artists are championing one another or singing introspective and thought-provoking songs they’ve penned. The 2019 event reflected the variety of the music these women are creating through an acoustic songwriters round that invites each of the new inductees to perform an original song. Caylee Hammack delivered a stirring performance of “Small Town Hypocrite,” a song inspired by the ex-boyfriend she gave up a scholarship for who ended up cheating on her, while Hailey Whitters also proved to be a compelling songwriter with her depiction of a fictional character named Janice, an 80-year-old woman who offers sage life advice like “stay off the pills, but get on the pill if you ain’t ready to start a family,” the line calling to mind Loretta Lynn’s 1975 feminist anthem, “The Pill.” Madison Kozak, the first artist signed to Nashville’s new all-female label Songs & Daughters led by groundbreaking songwriter Nicolle Galyon (Camilla Cabello’s “Consquences,” Dan + Shay’s “Tequila”), held every heart in the room like it was made of glass with “Household,” touching on the universal feeling of wanting to leave home, but longing for that very place when you’re finally gone.
The talent displayed in the room reflected country radio’s glaring lack of inclusion for such artists. In December of 2018, it was reported that for the first time in the 28 years since the Billboard Country Airplay chart launched, there were no women in the Top 20. However, up-and-coming artists are slowly fighting their way out of these alarming statistics, as Hammack’s debut single “Family Tree” has cracked the Top 40 on the country charts, Ingrid Andress is in the Top 20 with “More Hearts Than Mine” and Runaway June became the first all-female trio since the Dixie Chicks to have a Top 5 hit with “Buy My Own Drinks.”
But the conversation surrounding the lack of women on country radio still lingers, with Mickey Guyton remarking on “the elephant in the room” the moment she took the stage to open the show. “There is without question an injustice happening to women in country music. There are a lot of great songs that are not getting a shot,” Guyton professed before performing her new song “Sister” with her country music “sisters” Tenille Townes, Clare Dunn, Rachel Wammack and Leah Turner. “But one thing is for certain: it is going to take us women to lift each other up out of these trenches.”
A burgeoning superstar who has gone above and beyond to support her female contemporaries is Brandi Carlile, who was honored with the Next Women of Country Impact Award. Carlile, who scooped up three Grammy Awards in 2019 for her acclaimed album By the Way, I Forgive You, has made it an integral part of her mission to elevate the women around her, curating the all-female stage at the 2019 Newport Folk Festival that featured her supergroup The Highwomen and a surprise performance by Dolly Parton, in addition to creating the women-centric festival Girls Just Wanna Weekend. She’s also pivoting her support for women into a behind-the-scenes role, serving as co-producer of Tanya Tucker’s new album While I’m Livin’ with Shooter Jennings.
Rather than point a finger at country radio, Carlile encouraged radio employees in attendance to be intentional about the songs they’re sharing through the format while expressing the reverence she has for the genre that raised her. “If country music is the story of rural America, then what is the story that we’re telling to our young girls?” she questioned. “What we’re hoping, and what we’re inviting country radio to do is to catch up with the way that we all understand. I would urge anybody that’s involved in country radio…ask yourself the question every morning before you go to work ‘what do I want my job to say to my daughter today?’ Because she’s an American girl, she’s in love with a boy, she needs wide open spaces, she’s a wild one,” she continued, referencing iconic songs by Trisha Yearwood, the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill. “She’s more than a pair of blue jeans in a cab of a truck.”
Additionally, a handful of behind-the-scenes movers and shakers were present at the ceremony, including Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville, who made it a point to continue to call for change in the industry regarding support for women. “We can all keep moving through and thinking that things have changed at the rate that they need to change, and they haven’t,” she stated. “This is about how we give a voice and a perspective to half the world.”
She encouraged emerging artists to explore other methods of promoting their music outside of radio, pointing to artists like Musgraves, who received little attention from radio for her Grammy winning Album of the Year Golden Hour, instead reaching listeners through other formats like social media. “Women are bringing more adventurous, interesting, state of the art, cutting edge music and it doesn’t go and fit in a box. We will spend the next years figuring out how we get it exposed, one foot in front of the other, because great music should always rise and it’s not about fitting into a box,” she said, actively taking Carlile’s words to heart. “I have to get out of bed every day and make a movement towards making women’s voices matter again.”
The program continues with the CMT Next Women of Country Tour, headlined by Tanya Tucker, in early 2020, with supporting acts and dates to be announced in the coming weeks.