Fanny Lumsden Lives Her Country Life On The Road With A Family of Thrillseekers, A Guitar and a Fistful of Awards

Photo Credit: Dan Stanley Freeman

It’s been a rollicking ride for singer-songwriter Fanny Lumsden over the last couple of years. The crushing experience of cancelled tours was ameliorated by sweeping up an array of industry awards, including ARIA Country Album of the Year for her third album Fallow and five CMAA (Country Music Association Australia) Golden Guitars. The album is an expansive, romantic, evocative canvas upon which guitars, strings and brass instrumental arrangements seem to organically rise from the earth and weave lush portraits from sun, dust, water, emotion and sound.

For her fans, and soon-to-be fans, who have only been able to hear Fallow through headphones and speakers, a comprehensive live tour – the Country Halls Tour – is the much anticipated, and well-delayed, experience Lumsden and her band, The Thrillseekers, have been readying for.

The title track sashays in on romantic, spare piano. It is, as intended, beautiful and over all too soon. Lumsden’s gentle, yielding voice rises and dips simultaneously with the sympathetic strings. “Our hearts, deep in the fallow,” she repeats. “Where did you go? We put our trust in the ebb and flow,” and the words hit home: what else could we do in the last couple of years but surrender to nature and circumstances?

Harmonising alongside her, his voice a delicate but lovely accompaniment, is her younger brother, Thomas Lumsden. “He’s just a talented boy,” admires his sister. “He did classical training when he was younger… and could have easily been an opera singer, but for whatever reasons hasn’t taken that up, so now we use that to our advantage!”

Thomas is a regular on stage and his absence often results in audiences enquiring after him. “He sang before he talked. Growing up, he used to lie in his cot and sing. He’s always been incredibly talented. It’s been a process to get him to do stuff solo. He’s an invaluable part of the team,” she adds. “Everyone loves him on stage… I’m super glad that we’ve been able to collaborate.”

The oldest of four siblings, the other two Lumsdens are yet to be recruited to the travelling van and the Country Halls tours. “On both sides of my family there’s a lot of music, from opera singers to concert pianists to musical theatre performers. There’s just a lot of music extended through both my dad and my mum’s side,” Lumsden says. “We played music growing up with my siblings and my cousins. Everyone plays multiple instruments. I haven’t quite convinced the other two to join the band yet, but there’s always time.”

Until then, there’s a tour to prepare for – no small feat for Lumsden and her husband (also her bass player), Dan Stanley Freeman, who have two young children; most of the writing for Fallow happened when Lumsden was pregnant with their son Walter, and she recently gave birth to her second child, Rupert. “Walter was born three and a half years ago and we went back on the road three weeks later with him, so he has lived on the road most of his life apart from last year when we were locked down obviously. He is very, very used to being out on the road and touring,” says Lumsden. Rupert will be only a couple of months old when he joins the travelling family roadshow. 

Fallow was recorded between babies, in an old stone cabin on Lumsden’s property in Tooma, New South Wales – a good six hour drive from Sydney. “It’s a bushman-type that used to be up in the mountains, made from stones, that was rebuilt down here,” Lumsden explains. “We live on property owned by the Paton family and they’re a very longstanding family in this region that used to take cattle up to high country, so they rebuilt one of the cattleman huts right near our house. It was an incredible experience doing it in there.”

To achieve the clarity and depth of sound, she once again brought on veteran producer, Matt Fell, who has worked with some of Australia’s finest country and folk artists including Shane Nicholson, Sara Storer, Matt Ward, Amanda Thomas and Vanessa Kelly. He drove to Tooma and stayed with Lumsden and her family for the few weeks while they recorded in the cattleman hut.

“Matt… came out with his family and we all spent this beautiful few weeks making the songs,” she remembers. They made do with the limited tools they had, turning the bathroom into an echo chamber at one point. “I couldn’t think of any other way to capture what I was trying to say other than by doing it right here. I was singing my vocals and looking out and seeing the cattle and the horses grazing. Storms would come through and we’d have to stop.”

She elaborates: “The value of having us record in the stone hut is because I don’t have the words. I usually use very weird descriptions, like ‘I want it to feel like that mist sitting down there,’ or ‘I want it to sound like that sunset.’ The overall theme was that I wanted to make something beautiful that felt like green grass and running water after years of drought. I didn’t want anything to feel safe. I wanted it to feel dangerous in the sense that you might lose it, but I wanted to make something hopeful.”

Tragically, much of the country around the valley that inspired Fallow was burnt – and Lumsden and her family were left without power for several weeks – after the “Black Summer” bushfires that devastated homes and whole towns in both New South Wales and Victoria. Fallow was released on March 14th 2020, just ten days after the last of the fires had been extinguished or otherwise contained. Then came the first national lockdowns.

The lyrics are prescient though, and it is haunting to listen to them knowing they were written prior to the ravaging of the land and the collective spirit of Australians during the pandemic. “Good or bad, things never last,” she croons like a sacred self-soothing mantra, on “Mountain Song/This Too Shall Pass.”

For Fanny Lumsden, lockdowns were a time of creative make-do, including filming and producing the video for “Fierce,” which features local women farmers (“the women who raised me, the women who saved me”), and playing live-streamed events. Lumsden also became a volunteer firefighter – after initially training in her high school years. Together with her siblings and their partners, they retrained to be bushfire-ready in 2020. She did all of this, while also summoning the energy to write and produce a documentary telling the story of making and releasing Fallow. The 2021 Albury Local Woman of the Year (in recognition of her work with regional communities) also sold out her national theatre tour.

Indeed, she’s got country music and the land in her bones. Born and raised on regional farmland in western NSW, she grew up knowing the demands of helping her parents with the routine tasks of landcare, tending horses and livestock, preparing for inclement weather and planning by the seasons. Hers was a musical childhood in a family that encouraged instruments, song, and performance, and Lumsden took to it like a duck to water, studying music through high school before committing herself to a Bachelor of Rural Science. After graduation, she moved to Sydney and found her groove in the local music scene, going to songwriter nights, playing clubs and pubs, and eventually meeting members of The Thrillseekers.

This album is a different creature to her last, by her own admission. It is not an observation, but a very personal response to the land she was raised on and is now raising her own family on. Taking it on the road to town halls all over the country is a natural extension of the album’s intention to celebrate Australia’s regional landscapes and communities.

“I began [the Country Halls tours] in 2012 so [this] is the ten-year anniversary which is mind-blowing for me!” she confesses. “It’s crazy. We’ll have played in over 200 halls by the time this run ends. It started as an accident really. I can’t stress how little I knew about putting on musical events. I was living in Sydney and I’d just started with this band… they were so wonderful and we went out and put on three shows to raise money for BlazeAid in the Riverina after the floods. I knew how to communicate to regional audiences because I’d come from that.”

Lumsden focused on making the events community-centered, especially since nobody knew who she was when she began. Now, regional communities around Australia email, text and message her asking her to come and play their town halls. She spends time choosing, then working with those communities before arriving.

“It’s a work in progress,” she says. “It’s my favourite thing we do and it’s built me as an artist. I’m forever grateful. I think it’s really the essence of what we do. I write songs about living in Australia, living in the bush, growing up in the bush and life experiences from that perspective rather than about that. Getting to go play these places is a privilege really – and it’s bloody fun as well.”

Follow Fanny Lumsden on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

5 of the Best Country Christmas Songs of 2021

Photo Credit: Andrew Eccles / Ilde and Jim Cook for Cookhouse Media

The Christmas spirit is in full swing in Nashville, and with it comes a variety of holiday songs from some of the best artists in the city. The 2021 holiday season finds the likes of Pistol Annies, Brett Eldredge and singer-songwriter Lori McKenna offering festive Christmas-themed projects that capture the heart of the season. Additionally, Grammy-nominated Americana singer Allison Russell offers a moving rendition of a Christmas classic, and rising star Tenille Townes channels childhood memories on “Christmas Cards.” Some are playful, some are nostalgic, and others honor the reverence of the holiday. Here are five of the best country Christmas songs.

Lori McKenna – “Christmas Without Crying”

It’s difficult to pick the most compelling song off singer-songwriter Lori McKenna’s exquisite EP, Christmas is Right Here, but “Christmas Without Crying” showcases the Grammy winning songwriter’s mastery of lyrical imagery like no other. Here, McKenna bypasses the fanfare of the Christmas season to capture the many layers of nostalgia the holiday brings. The poignant number finds her exploring the glory days gone by, painting an image of herself on Christmas morning with a smile on her face so big her eyes are closed. But she also touches on the memories, and people, of the past that cross one’s mind during the holiday season. By acknowledging the specifics of what makes the holidays bittersweet, McKenna tells a Christmas story that is bound to resonate in one’s spirit. 

Best lyrics: “You can roll past that old high school and smile/At the glory days long gone by/You’ll be thinking about Grandpa/When you’re stringing up those lights/And that will be why/You can’t make it through Christmas without crying” 

Pistol Annies – “Joy”

It’s certainly a Hell of a Holiday when the Pistol Annies team up for their first Christmas album! Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angeleena Presley do not disappoint with their mix of sharply written originals and respectable covers. In between all the biting words and sassy phrases, the Annies sneak in “Joy,” a humble, acoustic-guitar led acknowledgment of how the feeling of joy reveals itself in simple ways. Each member of the trio beautifully conveys this, Presley sharing how joy shines through a smile, while Lambert admits it’s in slowing down time to realize what truly matters. For Monroe, who recently finished her final chemotherapy treatment for a rare form of blood cancer, joy is love, the driving force behind all that motivates her to keep moving forward, like a friend offering a hand to hold. From a group that often relies on their quick wit and clever lyricism to tell a tale, this is a welcomed moment of pure joy.

Best lyrics: “Love, so many ways/That’s all it takes/To get up and goin’ again/Love, all the joy it brings/Takes the time it needs/To show up like a long lost friend/Love, joy, it takes time” 

Allison Russell – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

You’d be hard pressed to find a more stirring rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” than Allison Russell’s. With deep violins and electric guitar supporting her, Russell’s voice carries the weight of the classic Christmas song. Her robust vocals blend gentleness with honesty and emotion, allowing each word to simmer. Russell’s vocal runs could give Judy Garland a run for her money, as her mournful interpretation reminds us that Christmas is not holly jolly for all. As a bonus, check out the Montreal native’s recording of the song in French, which is just as enchanting as the English version. 

Best lyrics: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Let your heart be light/From now on/Our troubles will be out of sight”

Brett Eldredge “Mr. Christmas”

Brett Eldredge is arguably the king of Christmas music in the country world. His 2016 holiday LP Glow set the precedent for modern country Christmas albums with his jazzy swagger and Sinatra-like voice. He follows Glow with the equally strong 2021 effort, Mr. Christmas. Complete with a big band sound, the album’s title track sees Eldredge appropriately taking on the persona, tirelessly shining his holiday spirit with nods to candy skies, glitter trees and festive parties. Revelers won’t be able to deny the holiday cheer after one listen of this jazzy tune. 

Best lyrics: “Call me Mr. Christmas/I’ll make your spirit bright/I’ll dry your eyes with candy skies… Yeah, every wish will come true/Yeah, I’ll be Mr. Christmas for you”

Tenille Townes – “Christmas Cards”

One of two originals on her four-track EP Songs For Christmas, Tenille Townes’ “Christmas Cards” puts a nostalgic stamp on the collection. The Canadian native taps into the experience of letting go, while also expressing gratitude for the memories made along the way. She connects the magical childhood feeling of making a Christmas card in crayon for a beloved friend to the present day, as an adult looking back on the changing seasons. Her pure voice reflects the song’s honesty, creating a sweet Christmas tune that has equal power to bring a smile to one’s face and tears to their eyes. 

Best lyrics: “Someone you loved along the way/Becomes someone you used to know/Thank you for the picture, thank you for the past/And I hope you smile as easy in between the camera flash/So here’s to another year/Here’s to our memory” 

Chapel Hart Build Sass and Soul into Sophomore LP The Girls Are Back in Town

Photo Courtesy of 2911 Media

Bold and unapologetic country queens Chapel Hart return with their swampy sophomore album, The Girls Are Back in Town. Equal parts sassy and heartfelt, the 12-track project finds the trio putting their most fearless foot forward, tackling topics ranging from bullying and cheaters to womanhood and independence, as told through the confident delivery and stellar three-part harmonies of Mississippi-born-and-raised sisters Danica and Devynn Hart and their cousin Trea Swindle.

The album opens with “Nearly Over You,” a breakup ballad led with a crying fiddle that matches lead singer Danica’s aching vocals and lyrics. Blue tears pour from her brown eyes as she mourns the end of a relationship, lamenting at song’s end, “Just know I’m not nearly over you.” This leads into “4 Mississippi,” a raucous ode to a hard-working single mother of four children, setting the pace for an album that stands firmly in its country roots but leans more into rock than the pop sound ubiquitous on country radio. The family band then takes the edge off with the free-spirited, “I Will Follow,” an ode to following one’s heart over their head. With soft claps and glistening harmonies, the sweet song accentuates their lighter side as they profess, “When my heart leads the way, I will follow.”

But they get back to their feisty ways on “Grown Ass Woman,” the female country anthem we’ve been waiting for. Here, they’re unabashed backwoods women who are just as equipped to run a tractor as they are willing to let their emotions, and a curse word or two, fly. “I may not be politically correct, but I can say that I did things my way/I can cry when I want to/Fight when I need to…that’s what grown ass women do,” they shout over a bluesy, edgy melody, proudly telling the world exactly who they are on one of the album’s best and most defining moments. 

The Girls Are Back in Town also proves the CMT Next Women of Country 2021 inductees to be clever and witty lyricists who embrace word play, exemplified on “Tailgate Trophy” where they blatantly disavow the misogynistic tropes in modern country. Their cheeky personalities also shine through on the single that initially grabbed the public’s attention, “You Can Have Him Jolene,” Chapel Hart’s callback to Dolly Parton’s iconic track. Instead of begging the other woman to back down, these three throw a dirty cheater to the curb after catching on to his two-timing tricks. They gladly turn him over to his new lover, but not without warning to heed some advice and learn from that fateful experience.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans and Nashville-based group shares “Jacqui’s Song,” a loving tribute to the girlfriend of their former keyboard player who was tragically killed when the tent she was under at an outdoor festival got struck by lightning. Originally released on their 2019 album, Out the Mud, “Jacqui’s Song” does their late friend proud. Calling on the tried-and-true “three chords and the truth” model, they take the invaluable lessons learned from Jacqui and turn them into lyrics that demonstrate country storytelling at its finest, singing over a honeyed melody, “When you live this little thing called life/I hope you take it by the reigns/You ain’t promised no tomorrows/And you can’t take back yesterdays.”

The singers round out the album with back-to-back-to-back rockers, calling on “Jesus & Alcohol” in a bluesy breakup anthem that features ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on guitar, then sends their enduring harmonies as high as the Georgia pines they sing of with “That’s a Redneck Summer Night” before closing out the project with the fiery title track. Through The Girls Are Back in Town, Chapel Hart carve out a place for themselves in the modern landscape of country music. With their strong harmonies, killer hooks, and compelling lyrics, Chapel Hart lives and breathes their defining proclamation: “We’re the next women of country and it’s our town now.”

Follow Chapel Hart on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Adeem the Artist Reclaims Identity With Cast Iron Pansexual LP

There are few albums that capture such an array of the queer experience quite like Cast Iron Pansexual, the new LP from Adeem the Artist. Officially out Friday but premiering via Audiofemme today, the record bursts with personality, marked with deep moments of personal retrieval and reflection on queer identity and rural heritage, encompassing some trauma but also recovery from it. “I have found sexuality isn’t just who you kiss/It’s part of your unique identity,” they sing over plucky guitar strings.

“I Never Came Out” cracks open the conversation with plain-spoken honesty and a pinch of cheekiness. “Oh boys in tight blue jeans are driving me crazy/Boys in tight blue jeans with legs that go for days,” they howl with a bluesy growl. “Boys in tight blue jeans are driving me wild/With their poise and impeccable style.”

Unlike most LGBTQ+ people, Adeem, who now identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, really did not have that pivotal coming out moment ─ although the release of the record “feels like a definitive coming out moment,” they tell Audiofemme with a laugh. “At this point, it doesn’t feel like it’s something I’ve missed out on.”

Partly because of this, Adeem says they harbored reservations that they “could be centering myself in something that wasn’t mine” with the record. “Last year, I was thinking about identity and who I was when I didn’t see the same friend groups, [asking myself] who am I when I’m not experienced by other people?” In their story, a certain anxiety descended around them when “my friends started treating me differently and interpreted my jokes differently,” they say, noting a song called “Apartment” confronts this, head-on. “That was really scary ground to step into.”

Cast Iron Pansexual began as an entity unto itself toward the end of 2020, initially prompted by Adeem’s Patreon supporters, who desperately wanted a new batch of music. Writing a song a week, Adeem had “urgency to write” through such accountability. “I need deadlines,” they remark.

Some songs are much older, but a bulk of the record was written in the early months of the pandemic when they felt increasingly “isolated” from the world they once knew. “So much of my community is walking around in market square downtown and bumping into people I know or going to the grocery store and chatting with people from the show I saw,” they offer. Normalcy was completely ripped away, of course; Adeem says they “didn’t even make eye contact so I didn’t have to figure out how to communicate” with the implications of the pandemic looming so large over casual run-ins.

Adeem hadn’t really done much writing about their sexuality. While their world was opening up through extensive self-exploration, they were greatly influenced by nonbinary model and gender activist ALOK and their book Beyond the Gender Binary, released in 2020. Adeem also dove into “internet exploration of gender and gender expression,” they say. “All of that was happening while I was examining these early feelings of queerness and trying to pin it down.”

“I’m not trying to represent all queer people by saying I’m queer. I’m just accepting myself for who I am. I allowed myself to step into it,” they add. “I’m nonbinary, but that doesn’t mean I understand everyone who is nonbinary and can speak for them.”

A vital part of Adeem’s journey was growing up in a Christian household. Originally from Locust, North Carolina, they were baptized when they were just a kid, around five or six. Even then, they “had a pretty good understanding of the metaphysical and existential repercussions of making a decision like that.” Adeem’s church was comprised of devout believers ─ so much so, they were “waiting for Jesus to show up on cloud to take us to the new earth” ─ but Adeem firmly left the church when they were 23 years old, in 2011.

Over the next decade, they “came back a couple times,” including in 2014 when they entered the Episcopal Service Corp. During that time, Adeem discovered the teachings of two theologians named John Shelby Spong and Matthew Fox, both of whom “didn’t believe Jesus ever rose from the dead.” That was a light bulb moment. “When Spong entertains the idea that maybe Jesus is a composite of different characters, and all this could be a metaphor, that was cool to me. There’s still things in there I could be interested in if it’s just a mythology,” they say.

“Going to Heaven,” clocking it at under a minute, is the most forthright in reconciling what they were taught, coming to terms with the truth, and what faith means today, if anything. “On the back roads of my hometown/I was baptized once or twice,” they sing, as their story unfurls. “By some grifters in a storefront church/In exchange for eternal life.” In true Adeem fashion, such heaviness is sliced with refreshing humor. Later, they sing, “I can’t wait to go to heaven/Gonna have a gay old time in heaven/Fuck me, I’m going to heaven/I made a steal of a deal that day.”

Adeem wrote the song amidst a major professional change. They’d had a corporate job for a few years but began to feel the mental/emotional pressure — so they quit. “I’m just not good at having jobs. I’m definitely an artistically-minded person,” they say. Adeem then began doing various odd jobs for some friends to make ends meet, and one of those was driving up to Spencer Mountain to retrieve produce from The Mennonites who lived there. “I was driving through the forgotten towns of Tennessee and thinking, I can’t imagine being 13 and living in a town like this, where the Food City parking lot is lit up on a Friday night because there’s nowhere else to go.”

“I was really ruminating on heaven and hell,” they continue. “It’s important to some people. I would say now I could not careless, but when I was younger, especially in the years after leaving the church, it was heavy for me. I was thinking about how there are people who actively think I’m going to hell. I had this idea of writing a modern hymn and shoehorning in ‘Fuck me, I’m going to heaven!’”

Perhaps Adeem’s boldest entry is “I Wish You Would’ve Been a Cowboy,” a dismantling of country staple Toby Keith’s 1993 hit “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” into an ode of accountability. Adeem examines Keith’s role in perpetuating the extreme patriotism which sprouted up in the aftermath of 9/11 and the deeply troubling exploitation of the working class.

“Your twenty minute song props up Fascists/While you brag about kicking asses/With a boot in your mouth, exploiting the American South,” Adeem sings. There’s both a melancholic weight and an icy rage to their performance, specifically addressing Keith’s 2002 song, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which Keith alleges he wrote in just 20 minutes.

Looking back, Adeem says they were not anti-Toby Keith in the early aughts (that would come later). “I was probably pretty ambivalent toward it. I’d discovered Nirvana, and I was in a different space,” they recall. Their family moved to upstate New York that year, and much to Adeem’s shock, the area “maybe had always been kind of racist. It felt like there was renewed strength behind it.”

“There’s a theory country music was killed by 9/11. I’d been ruminating a lot on Toby. I like his music. He’s a great songwriter. I don’t think anybody would contest that he knows how to write a song,” Adeem adds. “He also wrote the shittiest songs in the aftermath of 9/11. They’re so violent and gross. I did so much googling to see if he ever apologized or ever reckoned with this. And he hasn’t once. The only thing I could find was him saying, ‘I wrote this song in 20 minutes.’ And I toiled for a year on this song, at least, trying to get the phrasing right and make sure I said what I wanted to say.”

They also reached out to Palestinian-American poet named Summer Awad to ask if she would take a pass on the song. “I wanted to talk about it, but I didn’t feel I should. My perspective is so much of a white redneck in America. So, I sent the idea to her, and she sent me back a bunch of the same ideas that were written from that perspective. I didn’t experience any Islamophobia or see much in my circle because… everybody was white,” Adeem remembers. “I wasn’t going to put it on a digital release or anything. I didn’t want to be unfair. I lob some accusations at him, that he is exploiting the working class. And I actually don’t think it is unfair. Who can say? Maybe Toby is picking the themes for the same reason I pick the themes I want to. Someone could say I’m exploiting the queer community for releasing this album, which is obviously not true. But I was worried about the nuance of it.”

Adeem was struck by a few other things. Around five years ago, they discovered the work of Roger Alan Wade and his 2010 album, Deguello Motel, which was “full of really brash poetry,” including the song “Rock, Powder, Pills.” “It was the first time I think I related really strongly with country music since I was a kid,” says Adeem, who largely grew up listening to pop-country on the radio. Wade was a gateway into much richer country music, like Guy Clark and John Prine, and this revelation “made me feel connected to being from the South. [It] was really healing for me.”

Adeem’s “origin story” is as country as they come. Their mother worked overnights at Texaco when their father “popped in to get some road beers, had a one night stand, did the Presbyterian thing and got married.” Through both their musical and personal journeys, Adeem has come “to listen to country music and view that as poetry instead of a reason to be embarrassed. It was like finding a gem in the backyard,” they say. “The more I grew into that, I got to thinking about my twang and how I spent so many years trying to cover it up. I didn’t want to be the redneck in a school in New York.”

Much of Cast Iron Pansexual is a love letter written to “the barefoot hick that I was as a child,” Adeem says. “I think it started to give me a lot of bitterness to those artists and that culture that made me feel so estranged in the early aughts. It got to the point where it was like ‘I don’t fit in here. There’s no place for me.’ And there really wasn’t. It wasn’t a scene that was welcoming to people who looked and thought like I did.”

The album arrives five years after 2016’s Kyle Adem is Dead, another watershed moment in their ongoing life story. In a blog post, written around the same time, Adeem wrote openly about “the religious questions that had chased me for years, the troubled relationships I was clinging desperately to, and the difficult work of sorting reality from fiction in a household where mental illness was often a guiding hand.”

Adeem’s growth and strength is palpable these days. Five years is an eternity, not only in the world at large, but on a micro level. “That was a big moment for me. I’d been going by Adeem with my friends for a long time, but ‘Kyle Adem’ was a moniker I was using to blend ‘this is who I was born’ and ‘this is who I want to be.’ I reached a point where people were calling me Kyle a lot, and it was triggering shitty memories of growing up in the South and the way people said my name and the way the world interacted with me then.”

Adeem dropped the name as a way to reclaim their worth and take up some space. Now, going by Adeem the Artist, they remind themselves “why I want to make albums and write songs.”

Adeem the Artist’s Cast Iron Pansexual is a mighty declaration of self, identity, and resilience that comes with living comfortably in one’s own skin. Even if they wouldn’t call themself a trailblazer, they’re certainly living proof that who you are is perfectly okay.

Follow Adeem the Artist on Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Hailey Whitters Honors Perseverance With Deluxe Album Living the Dream

Photo Credit: Harper Smith

When Hailey Whitters wrote “Ten Year Town,” she was starting to lose faith in her dreams of making it big in country music. She’d written songs for Alan Jackson, Martina McBride and Little Big Town, but was still waiting for her own star to rise. “I’m 12 years in to a 10 year town,” she confesses in the heart-opening track, which kicks off her self-funded 2020 album The Dream. She didn’t know it then, but the unflinchingly honest song – about surpassing the time limit to “make it” in the competitive Nashville music industry – is also the one that catapulted Whitters from waiting tables to establishing herself as an artist. “Ten Year Town” helped her achieve many of the goals that come along with country music stardom, from going on the road full time opening for the likes of Maren Morris and Little Big Town to making her Grand Ole Opry debut.

“I really felt like I was living the dream,” Whitters tells Audiofemme of the her “career changing record” and the success that followed. “I was getting to see all these bucket list moments happen and these dreams that prior to this record I had really questioned – ‘Am I going to get to do this?’ ‘Am I going to get to see some of these dreams come true?’ I feel like that record really changed that for me and made that possible.”

Watching the way in which her life was transformed as a result of The Dream, producer Jake Gear (then Whitters’ boyfriend and now her fiancé) suggested making a deluxe edition, appropriately titled Living the Dream, set for release on February 26. The project features five new songs in the form of collaborations with Trisha Yearwood, Little Big Town, Jordan Davis and singer-songwriters Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Brent Cobb, each of whom Whitters attributes to playing a distinct role in her career.

The new collection begins with “Fillin’ My Cup,” a jovial take on the highs and lows of life and the people who make it all worth it, elevated by Little Big Town’s spirited harmonies. The Grammy-winning group played a significant part in The Dream, as Whitters used the royalty checks she earned from the band’s 2017 single “Happy People,” which she co-wrote with McKenna, to fund the album. On “Fillin’ My Cup,” their voices support potent truisms, like “You can’t appreciate the sugar if you never had the salt.” “It’s one of those lines that reminds me that this is all part of it. Take the good, take the bad, keep going, it’s going to swing back your way,” Whitters says. “All those saltier moments are the ones that come out and make life sweet.”

The native Iowan also called upon one of her childhood idols, Trisha Yearwood, to duet with her on the witty “How Far Can It Go?” an observational look at young love that would fit seamlessly on any ’90s country playlist. “Trisha’s a hero,” Whitters professes, saying she grew up “studying her records.” “She really inspired me to want to do this in the first place, so to have her on it is a huge dream come true.”

Meanwhile, Cobb, who has also taken Whitters out on tour as a supporting act, appears on the bluegrass-influenced “Glad to Be Here,” which finds the two singers on the grateful side of life, while the songwriting dream team of McKenna and Lindsey lend their talents to “How to Break a Heart.” Davis brought Whitters along as an opening act on his Trouble Town Tour in early 2020; here, he helps bring Living The Dream to a free-spirited close through “The Ride,” a tribute to the “burned out believers” and dream chasers. “It’s about moments. It’s about having some of those goals and dreams and getting to see them and appreciate the ride that gets you there,” Whitters notes. 

The young visionary has been intentional about honoring the journey throughout her career – because it’s those honest glimpses into her resiliency that helped her finally reach her goals. “Ten Year Town” showcases her determination (“I didn’t come this far to only go this far”) as well as her hopes (“This next song could turn it all around”) via defining lyrics that can apply to anyone still waiting on their big break – and for Whitters, eventually proved to be prophetic. “That language is very candid. It feels like a page out of a diary,” Whitters says. “Those are lines of persevering and continuing to keep going.”

Perseverance is an integral element of Whitters’ journey and subsequent success. The bright-eyed singer has begun to realize how even the simplest of life’s moments are complexly connected. She’s got some permanent symbols on her skin to remind her of that – visible in the video for “Fillin’ My Cup,” as she sticks out a thumb to hitchhike in a pageant-esque wedding dress. She sticks her thumb in the air, revealing a small tattoo of the letter “D” (honoring her late brother Drake) on her wrist and a delicate prairie rose in the crook of her arm, both symbolizing the deep connection she has to her hometown roots. The prairie rose is Iowa’s state flower, Whitters explains; Gear and her creative director Harper Smith, who sketched the design as a logo for The Dream – are also from the Hawkeye State. “I jog back at my parents’ house on the highway and I see the prairie roses in the ditch, and it always makes me happy,” Whitters says. “It makes me think of Iowa and makes me think of heartland.”

She and Gear had decided to get matching prairie rose tattoos after the album that ultimately changed the trajectory of Whitters’ career was complete. “It makes me think of that record that Jake and I built from scratch. It’s become a very meaningful symbol to me,” Whitters reflects, identifying how her roots are connected to her creative ambitions. “The more I’m forced to create, the more I’m forced to think about some of that stuff. I feel like I’m unraveling these layers that are freaky almost, how much they are intertwined.” 

The newest tracks on Living the Dream are Whitters’ way of expressing gratitude for her time here on earth, the people who’ve shaped her experience, and the dreams she’s carried in her heart that continue to unfold before her — passing that feeling of hope onto each person she reaches through her music. “I think in the most simple sense, living the dream to me is realizing how lucky we are to be alive,” she says. “I was looking at the people in my life who have died and who’ve died young. It was a big lesson in perspective to be able to look at that and think ‘How lucky am I to get to be a human being in this world and live and hurt and cry and laugh and love?’ It’s about feeling vulnerable in all those areas and in all those things.”

“My hope is [that] it shows those dreamers: this is what can happen when you don’t give up and keep going, keep chasing the dream,” she adds. “I hope it’s a story of inspiration.” 

Follow Hailey Whitters on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for ongoing updates. 

Willie Jones Redefines the Patriotic Anthem with “American Dream”

Photo Credit: Gordon Clark

Growing up in the rural town of Shreveport, Louisiana, Willie Jones was introduced to “patriotic anthems,” as he describes, from the likes of Martina McBride and Toby Keith. The budding artist often wondered what it would sound like if he took that format and “turned it on its head.” His vision becomes reality with “American Dream,” a country-meets-hip-hop ode to the land of the free and home of the brave, as told from the perspective of a young Black man who’s using his art as a form of protest.

Heading into the recording studio shortly after the 4th of July in 2020, Jones confessed his conflicted feelings toward honoring America’s holiday to co-writers Alex Goodwin, Josh Logan and Jason Afable. “I was struggling to put on my red, white and blue and really celebrate the country because of so much that we’ve seen this past year and things that came to light with police brutality and justice in general,” Jones tells Audiofemme. “A lot of voices were raised up at this time of people speaking out again injustice.”

Revealing that he “really challenged my pen” on the track, Jones allowed his viewpoints to fly freely, channeling his conflicting emotions and personal truths into a song that opens with a gut-punching warning: “Young man, young man/Got the heart of a lion/And the drive of a wild horse/Young man, young man/Better watch how you step/When you step off the front porch.”

“I feel like it speaks not only to the listeners, but also myself,” Jones says. “I think those lyrics definitely fire me up and hold me accountable to keep moving.”

Jones has made a habit out of forward motion since making his national TV debut on season two of The X Factor USA in 2012, where he flexed his buttery baritone voice as member of Demi Lovato’s team. Splitting his time between Shreveport, Nashville and Los Angeles, Jones has since released a series of tracks including the lighthearted “Down For It” and “Bachelorettes on Broadway,” all of which appear on his debut album Right Now, released January 22, 2021. But “American Dream” is perhaps his best achievement yet, as he boldly claims that he’s “proud to be Black man” in a country that has its faults, yet still provides ample opportunities to grow and evolve.

“The American dream is to be in the pursuit of justice and to honor that as well,” the singer explains of the meaning behind the song’s title. “We have some opportunities afforded to us in the country. You can really do whatever you want here – you can build exactly the kind of life that you want to, you just have to move right. I think the American dream is getting what you want and honoring the country in that.”

The vocalist also turns a sharp eye to the symbolism of the American flag with a freestyle about those who have died and lied under oath for the flag, while others pay an equally harrowing price. “Some people can’t breathe for the flag/Had to take a knee for the flag,” Jones conveys with a voice as deep as the words’ meaning, leading into an powerful, poetic interlude: “With skin black as night/A Black boy runs for his life/Faced down by the hounds of a checkered past/Objectified, commodified, and scrutinized by blue eyes/And blue and white lights dancing off his skin.”

“It’s the truth of what America is,” Jones explains. “I feel like it’s a hopeful song and really bold, but it’s also shedding a light on the real behind what we see every day on social media with what was going on in the country.”

“That’s what music is about — telling real stories and true stories to inspire people,” he adds. “I felt empowered the entire time we were writing it.”

The accompanying video offers as many eye-opening images as the song itself. Directed by Jamal Wade, the video stars Brent Robinson as a young boy overwhelmed by the disturbing images he sees on the news when “American Dream” starts pouring through the speakers of his vintage radio. The camera pans through the house to show photos of important Black figures in his life, ranging from his grandfather to Muhammed Ali, Wade intertwining anime graphics of Martin Luther King, Jr., George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more. The video comes to a climax as Robinson is chased down by a soldier dressed in all black with eyes glowing red, the two transforming into anime figures in battle in which Robinson resiliently takes hold of the officer’s whip. But when they return to human form, it’s revealed that Robinson was painting a mural on an abandoned wall that reads #NoMoreNames alongside a series of Black faces, the young boy expelling blue fumes that overcome the soldier’s red flames. 

Jones and Wade were intentional about wanting to convey the intensity of the nation’s racial tensions through the video without rehashing oft-used clips of police brutality. “I wanted to take that out of the video and show Black people in a different light,” Jones explains of the video’s concept. Instead, the team wanted to depict a “young man who was hurt by all that he was seeing on the news and took it in his own hands to pretty much liberate himself,” Jones says. “What he represented was the opposition to injustice – learning his history and empowering himself to overcome.” 

Jones admits that politically-focused songs in the country genre are rare, yet finds hope in powerful statements such as Mickey Guyton’s autobiographical “Black Like Me” that add to the cannon of patriotic country anthems that will help break the status quo. Now, he’s added “American Dream” to that cannon in hopes of inspiring other artists to do the same; the song isn’t merely a patriotic anthem, it’s a message of accountability. 

“So many different people listen to country outside of the typical conservative, white [demographic] and that’s what a lot of people think that country is,” Jones says. “I want to inspire other people to get in the zone and shake it up. It’s all in just being yourself. I want to continue to be myself and take chances on myself.”

He’s already following through on that conviction by launching the #IHaveAnAmericanDream campaign on social media, inviting others to share what their visions are for the future of the country in an effort to “really speak on what they love about the country and what they love about being an American, what their hope and dream for change is in the country in a good light because we’ve seen so much negative,” Jones declares. “I really have hope for the future.”

Follow Willie Jones on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PLAYING NASHVILLE: 2020 Was a Tumultuous Year for Music City

Photo by Tanner Boriack on Unsplash

Needless to say, 2020 was a challenging year. In a year bookended by a devastating tornado in March and a bombing on Christmas morning, with the COVID-19 pandemic sandwiched in between, Nashville has been dealt its fair share of blows this year. But these challenges also held a mirror up to the city’s resiliency, and through the highs and lows, the city proved not to be merely a group of citizens, but a family. 

High: ACM Awards & CMT Awards cater to socially distanced format  

Following suit with the many other awards shows, both the Academy of Country Music and CMT decided to go (mostly) virtual for their respective awards shows, adapting their formats to pandemic times. CMT wins the award for most creative, as the network invited its artists to perform at separate locations consisting mainly of outdoor venues across the Nashville area. From Little Big Town’s soaring harmonies bouncing off the walls of a cave, to Dan + Shay serenading us from a beautiful outdoor wedding venue while Luke Combs and Brooks & Dunn rocked the Bicentennial Capitol Mall Amphitheater, with Combs shotgunning a beer in the middle of the performance, CMT broke the mold on what a traditional award show looks like in a way that was both safe and entertaining. 

The ACM also found a way to impressively adapt to the pandemic by hosting artists at three of Nashville’s iconic venues, the Ryman Auditorium, Grand Ole Opry and Bluebird Cafe. The artists performed to empty venues and were socially distanced with their band members on stage, the Academy going so far as to distribute the awards by placing the trophy on a stool that the artist would then solely collect. It was impressive to see the lengths that the Academy went to adapt appropriately to the public health situation while still honoring the best and brightest in the genre while making the participants – and viewers – feel safe.

Low: The CMA Awards 

During a time when major awards shows opted to host virtual ceremonies in light of the pandemic, the CMA decided to forge ahead with an in-person November event in an effort to remain “representative of the brand,” according to show producer Robert Deaton. Filmed non-audience at the Music City Center with only the nominees and one guest peer nominee allowed in the venue, the CMA went through rigorous protocols to keep the environment as safe as possible with measures including rapid testing, sanitizing equipment between each award, seating a maximum of four people per table that were spaced eight feet apart, among them. But that still wasn’t enough to make this viewer and local journalist feel like it was worth the risk. It was disheartening to see the most prominent names in country music walking around the room without masks on, smiling and laughing with each other without following social distancing practices, especially during a time when COVID-19 cases were surging in Tennessee and local officials were urging citizens not to gather in groups larger than 10 people.  Additionally, five acts had to drop out leading up to the day of the show due to testing positive for the virus or coming into contact with family members who had tested positive.

Photo Credit: John Russell/CMA

Perhaps the most devastating blow came weeks later; the country music world was heartbroken when Charley Pride, who flew from Dallas to Nashville to attend the show and accept the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, tragically passed away due to complications from COVID-19 at the age of 86 after he was hospitalized with COVID-19-type symptoms in late November.

While it’s uncertain where Pride caught the virus – his manager Kevin Bailey tells The Dallas Morning News that the CMA “took every precaution that you can imagine” and CMA asserts in a statement that Pride tested negative for COVID-19 multiple times after returning home to Dallas – it served as a sobering reminder that hosting a virtual show would have perhaps been the safest and more proactive choice. 

Charley Pride was one of country music’s big losses this year. Photo credit: Joseph Llanes

Low: The loss of legends

Loss has sadly been a commonplace in 2020, and the country music community lost many beloved artists this year. Kenny Rogers passed away from natural causes in early March just before the pandemic hit, while Charlie Daniels suddenly passed away from a stroke in July, months before his annual Volunteer Jam was scheduled to take place in Nashville (it’s since been rescheduled to February and re-branded as a tribute concert to Daniels).

Additionally, K.T. Oslin, who made history as the first female songwriter to win the CMA Award for Song of the Year with “80’s Ladies,” lost her battle with Parkinson’s Disease one week after being diagnosed with COVID-19, merely days before Christmas. The ramifications of COVID-19 where also felt when Charley Pride, John Prine and Joe Diffie all succumbed to complications after contracting the virus, leaving their loved ones, fans and the music community at large to mourn the loss of such tremendous figures.   

High: Country music reckons with systemic racism 

In the midst of a raging pandemic, a mirror was held up to America’s long-rooted history of systemic racism following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Their deaths inspired countless marches and protests and sent shock waves throughout the country that ultimately arrived at country music’s doorsteps, leading to several panels about the topic of diversity and breaking the cycle of racism in country music, with industry professionals and artists alike openly sharing their experiences.

This summer, during a panel called “A Conversation on Being African American in the Nashville Music Industry,” EntertainmentOne’s Senior Vice President and General Manager, Gina Miller, spoke out, saying, “The best data we have are your stories.” She related her own experience in which she greeted a woman at her former workplace every day, her cheerful “Good morning!” going totally unanswered. She persisted for nearly two years, until she the woman finally reciprocated. “From that grumble of ‘good morning,’ I still said ‘good morning’ the next day and the grumble got clearer and clearer,” Miller recalled. “The day that I had the clear ‘good morning,’ I knew we had turned a different corner.”  

As a white woman who covers country music daily, these discussions, and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole, have opened my eyes to how I have unintentionally been a part of this system. Miller’s perseverance truly resonated with me and her story often comes to mind, even months later. Miller’s story, and the many others like it, have motivated me to take a hard look at my role as a journalist and be more intentional about shining a spotlight on the voices that deserve to be heard.

Though country music still has a long way to go before it achieves true equity, it feels as though the blindfolds came off this year in many respects, the industry now willing to not only have conversations about race, but make changes to establish a more inclusive genre. As Mickey Guyton’s star power continues to rise in light of her powerful songs “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and “Black Like Me,” the former of which made her the first Black woman to perform her own song at the ACM Awards in its 55-year history and the latter designating her the first solo Black female to be nominated for Best Country Solo Performance at the Grammy Awards, it feels like a glimmer of hope for a future that is more accepting, welcoming and loving toward all. 

High & low: Tennessee tornado & recovery efforts 

When a tornado tore through multiple towns in Tennessee in the middle of the night on March 3, it left 24 people dead and multiple businesses destroyed in its path. Nashville was among one of the hardest hit areas, leaving many local business owners to clean up the damage and piece their livelihoods back together – but they didn’t do it alone. Residents-turned-volunteers demonstrated why Tennessee is nicknamed the “Volunteer State,” whether donating money and resources or showing up by the thousands to help clean up the damage. The effort was so massive that there was a waitlist to volunteer while other times volunteers were turned away.

Photo courtesy of I Believe in Nashville

As one of those volunteers, I can attest to the awe-inspiring service of this city. Having only seen pictures of tornado devastation on the news, it was shocking to stand in the rubble of a home that had been torn apart in minutes, the owner remarkably surviving with only a few minor scrapes despite being trapped in the middle of the destruction. But the fear and heartache I felt as we picked up the remnants of someone’s life was immediately met with comfort and relief, working alongside selfless strangers who became friends through the experience.

While Nashville is a city of transplants, I believe it is reflective of our nation as a whole. As people who have moved here from across the country with a dream in hand collectively rushed to the call of duty, helping their fellow neighbors, the “I Believe in Nashville” mural – which remained unharmed while the buildings around it were destroyed – took on new meaning. It not only represents the resiliency of Nashville, but proves that we the people are invincible when we join together for the greater good.  

Reyna Roberts Claims Her “Stompin’ Grounds” as 2021’s Next Country Star

Photo Credit: 2911 Media

Booming production can’t drown out Reyna Roberts’ awe-inspiring vocals. With fire-red hair and a voice to match, Roberts is coming for her country crown in 2021. Case in point: her latest single, “Stompin’ Grounds,” with its rollicking guitars and spellbinding blend of hard rock and country. Her rock influences – ranging from Jimi Hendrix to AC/DC – become apparent the second you press play. Roberts’ fierce voice is wild and free, yet she knows how to tame it as she wails on the spitfire lyrics, “Boots down/Flames up from dawn to dusk/Drowning in that whiskey river/But too damn high to sink.” It’s the type of song that’s tailor-made for a live show and one she’s bound to light up on stage with.

Roberts moved from LA to Nashville in March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown swept across the country. A few months later, in July 2020, she unleashed “Stompin’ Grounds.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, she shares that the song is partially inspired by her military background. As the stepdaughter of a Marine, Roberts lived in Alaska for a period of time during childhood before calling California and Alabama home, noting that while writing “Stompin’ Grounds,” she thought of the servicewomen and men who have to make stomping grounds for themselves when they’re stationed around the world, her thoughtfulness adding a layer of compassion to an already striking number.

Roberts debuted with “67 (Winchester)” back in the beginning of 2019, then spent the next few years networking with songwriters and industry reps and honing her craft. But it was her vocal talent that propelled her into the spotlight this summer, when she uploaded a cover of Carrie Underwood’s “Drinking Alone” to YouTube. Poised at a piano in her home, Roberts voice flies as magically as it does in a professional studio. Her rendition won over the approval of Underwood herself, who praised “Looks AND sounds great!” after Mickey Guyton retweeted a video of Roberts slaying the song with her arena-ready voice.

On top of her electrifying vocals, Roberts has proven that she’s just as willing to be honest in real life as she is in her music. In a series of Tweets, Roberts is sharing her recovery journey with fans from a recent eye surgery she had to correct cross-eyed vision impairment she was born with as a premature baby. Whether she’s revealing to Billboard that she lost every high school wrestling match her first year, yet refused to give up the sport, or sharing her truth on social media, Roberts says she was raised to be fearless, and so far, it’s proven to be true.

Roberts will perform on Brandy Clark’s holiday special, Christmas From Here There And Everywhere, alongside Clark, Melissa Etheridge, Cam, Ashley McBryde, Shane McAnally and Charlie Worsham, when it airs on Circle All Access on Dec. 22 at 10 p.m. ET.  

Follow Reyna Roberts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Zoë Nutt Turns Challenges Into Triumph on Sophomore Album ‘How Does It Feel’

Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Zoë Nutt has a reliable sense of grit that sees her through any challenge.

Raised in Knoxville, Tennessee by a musical family, Nutt spent much of her childhood analyzing lyrics, yet believed at the time that music was an “unreachable” profession. In high school, she auditioned for the female lead in the school’s musical. Instead, she was cast in a small male role. But that’s when her determination kicked in – she hired a vocal coach to teach her how to sing classical music in order to attain the leads in the musical theatre productions. “And I did,” she asserts.

Nutt later enrolled at Nashville’s Belmont University as a classical performance major and was a few classes shy of graduating when she felt compelled to apply for the university’s esteemed songwriting program. When she got the acceptance letter, she knew she had both the talent and determination to make music a full-time job. But the new adventure didn’t come without strife. Since the age of eight, Nutt has been totally deaf in her right ear. She also has severe tinnitus, impacting the way she hears specific sounds and communicates with others. “All these sounds, like someone grabbing a water bottle or closing the door, would make me not want to leave the house,” she explains. “It’s strange – you lose your hearing, but you end up being extremely sensitive to certain things at the same time.” Then, during her first semester as a songwriting major, Nutt woke up to discover she had lost a large part of her hearing overnight.

Though the experience was “shocking,” it hasn’t stopped Nutt from pursuing her passions. Though hearing loss is not fundamental to her identity, it does play a noteworthy role in her songwriting. “Although a lot of my songs aren’t about hearing loss, a lot of the themes started focusing towards positive things happening in negative situations,” she describes. “I was definitely feeling that way of having gotten this great opportunity and then basically being told by the universe ‘that’s not in the cards for you with the hearing loss.’ So I’ve always felt that up and down feeling in my songs.”

While recording her sophomore album How Does It Feel, Nutt lost her hearing for an entire month. After multiple suggestions from her doctor, Nutt decided to go through with cochlear implant surgery to help improve her hearing, spending a year recuperating from the surgery before heading back into the studio to record the 10-song album. It was finally released this year, and thoughtfully captures the singer’s stories, which range from reliving her heartbreak due to a cheating ex on “Rewind” to a young woman aiming to break the mold on the self-fulfilling prophecy, “Girl of My Dreams.” But the album closer “Like You” tells a deeply personal story, one that Nutt hasn’t lived yet. The heartbreakingly beautiful song finds Nutt foreshadowing to the day she becomes a mother, saddened to be unable to hear her newborn child, yet hopeful in knowing she’ll feel her child’s love within. “I won’t ever hear you say you love me/I’ll never know whether you can sing/But I can’t wait to watch your lips speak wonders/Cause no one will ever sound like you,” she sings, her voice floating angelically over a melody of strings and subtle steel guitar.

“I’m not one to talk about my hearing loss a ton – it’s a very personal thing. For me to put that out there, that was really hard for a moment,” she says. “I think it’s one of those songs that later on in my life, I’m going to look at differently too, because when I wrote it, I was feeling this immense fear of not being able to hear anyone and that moment of thinking of all those important things in my life that I’m not going to be able to hear.” Writing the song, though, brought healing and new meaning into her life. “Now that I’ve moved on and I’m handling my hearing loss, I’m not in that moment when I’m thinking about it that way. But later on, I think this song is going to hit me really hard in a different way.”

Describing herself as someone who’s often felt like an outsider looking in, Nutt hopes that How Does It Feel will allow her fellow outsiders to feel not only accepted, but understood. “I think that’s what we all want down to our core is to be heard and to be understood,” Nutt refelcts. “I hope people listen to songs and feel a little understood.”

Follow Zoë Nutt on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or visit her website for ongoing updates.

Daniel Donato Conceives Cosmic Country On Debut LP

“Guitar is the great lighthouse of my life,” says Daniel Donato. The musician speaks with gusto about his work ─ and for good reason. On his debut album, A Young Man’s Country, he invites the listener into what it must be like for his live shows, and he dazzles not only with his thoughtful songwriting but his guitar work. Many of the songs, including “Always Been a Lover” and “Broke Down,” hinge on his ability to tell compelling stories with only his guitar. Strings crash along the melody lines with shocking electricity, and his choices are so rash and unexpected, you never know where he’ll lead next. Guitar solos range from seconds to several minutes, highlighting the album’s entrancing ambiance.

“With this record, I have a love letter proving that I am finding my own style,” he tells Audiofemme. Donato has gone on record citing such guitar legends as Brent Mason, Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix as direct playing touchpoints, but across eleven songs, it appears he has finally unlocked his very own high-energy aesthetic. “I don’t think style is something arrived at, something found,” he says. “It is in a constant ebb and flow of change. That is, if you’re working on it diligently with truthful intention.”

A Nashville native, Donato’s musical interests were sparked early on by Guitar Hero, but he quickly left the video game behind and spent his teenage years leaving his imprint all over town. He gigged a number of years as lead guitarist for the Don Kelly Band, busked along lower Broadway, played every honky-tonk he could (including Robert’s Western World), and even wrote a revolutionary book called The New Master of the Telecaster when he was 18. Now 25, the accomplished musician has more than proven himself.

In a 2015 interview with TC Electronic, he expressed deep desires to tour and be his own artist, eyeing a slew of records. Well, life had other things in store, and time got away from him. But he doesn’t mind that it’s taken five years for a proper debut. “Time is a fascinating plastic energy that changes and morphs all of the time, especially during these times,” he muses, “but I’ve been dedicating my life to music for eleven years, every day, so five years is just the start of it for me.”

Donato dropped two EPs in 2019: Modern Machine and Starlight, two pieces to a much larger puzzle. Most of those songs fit onto the new record, but in a different sequence, the listener is called into an exuberant, lively, and free-spirited world fashioned with curiosity and freedom. It exists to showcase his gifts, of course, but also functions as existential exhibit.

“[This album is] about accepting the fact that you won’t be young forever. Mortality is the first fact of any matter,” he explains. “So, while I am young, I am going to play that way. I’ll have decades of being able to tone it down and apply less is more. So many people in Nashville are about this, but what has always inspired me are the people who play like their life depends on it. That’s what Jerry Garcia did every night. The first waving of the Cosmic Country flag into the world had to be as pungent and unique as possible. It is the way I am, as Merle Haggard had said, simply.”

A Young Man’s Country still bears marks of an artist still finding his groove. “I work out loud. I am not a perfectionist. I work, put it out, and listen to the people, and other life signs, on where to go next,” Donato says. “That honesty is what we owe listeners today. The masterpiece desire is not my bullseye, right now. I just want to bring value to people by figuring out my potential in real time, out loud, as often as possible.”

That philosophy comes full circle on “Diamond in the Rough,” a co-write with Paul Cauthen that takes a pair of jumper cables to the eardrums. “If I must confess, I’ve been running on no rest/Crazy just a touch, as of late, I have a hunch/That I’m blind/So I shine in the darkest night, my love/A diamond in the rough” he sings, before launching into one of the set’s most electric guitar solos. “The Cosmic Country style jam on the outro came from hours on the stage playing it live,” he says. “[Paul and I] did over 150 shows in one year; that song came from a slew of tunes written from that time in my career.”

Album closer “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” a Waylon Jennings cover, tips its hat to the original but picks up the speed with a horizon-bound gallop. Drums throb in the background and the bass line acts as a jackhammer to keep it barreling along. Many of Donato’s guitar solos ring similarly, always stimulating and ferocious, but each one stands on its own even as the record pools into a cohesive whole. He writes “from song to song,” he says, so it’s only natural the record would feel threaded together. “If I finish one, I let that song tell me where to start for the next one. That verticality is crucial to me. I want every song to feel like a Cosmic Country song. Just like how a J.R. Tolkien novel, or a Bukowski poem, clearly reads and feels like it came from that writer’s own gravitational pull.”

“I don’t know if I’m looking for a lot of contrast within this record from song to song, as much as I notice that this record as a whole sits in contrast to other records in the marketplace. If you listen to Tyler Childers, Grateful Dead, John Prine — their records sound like them for every second. Buck Owens — so many of his songs were similar that he’d play five hits by simply going from chorus to chorus, all in the same key,” Donato points out. “It’s a country music-ism, the similarity in the exoskeleton of a song.”

A Young Man’s Country (produced by Robben Ford) is composed of mostly whipping, heavily-rhythmic moments. But “Meet Me in Dallas” is one of only a few more somber performances, alongside a version of John Prine’s “Angel in Montgomery” and “Sweet Tasting Tennessee.” “I know how to be alone sometimes,” he sings on “Dallas.” Another Paul Cauthen co-write, the song literally hit him after driving 23 and a half hours from Wisconsin to Dallas while on the road.

“The second we arrived at The Belmont in Dallas, I took my guitar to Room 41 (the name of [Paul’s] most recent full length release), and I wrote it in 10 minutes,” he says. “I was in a relationship that was coming to an end at the time. That room has magic to it. So does heartbreak. So does insomnia combined with a melody in your head.”

Daniel Donato more than plants his flag in the industry. A Young Man’s Country cements him as a force to be reckoned with; its bold, sizzling guitar work sets him on a path to be one of the greats he so admires. All he needs is a bit more time. And he has plenty of that these days. In addition to his music, he interviews other musicians, songwriters, visual artists, and business people on a podcast called Lost Highway.

In reflecting on lessons learned, Donato offers this particularly sage bit of wisdom. “I’d say this philosophy can summarize a good strategy for success in life. Repeat this mantra 1,000 days in a row: Patience. Persistence. Positivity. In that order. Life starts to make a bit more sense with these parameters.”

Follow Daniel Donato on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Rising Country Songwriter Tiera Finds a Voice through Woman-led Music Brand Songs & Daughters

Photo Credit: Kamren Kennedy

As Nashville’s female-focused record label Songs & Daughters approaches its one-year anniversary this month, or “first birthday” as president Nicolle Galyon calls it, the artist collective continues to move into the future with a new publishing arm. In partnership with Big Loud Publishing and Warner Chappell Music, the new publishing venture will enable Songs & Daughters to develop aspiring artists and songwriters, with Tiera signed as its flagship songwriter.

Co-founded by Galyon, a revered songwriter who’s penned a range of hits including Dan + Shay’s “Tequila,” “Automatic” by Miranda Lambert and “Consequences” by Camila Cabello, Songs & Daughters is a platform for female artists to flourish and hone their talents in an industry where their voices are sorely lacking on country radio. But more importantly, it’s a safe space nurturing both the art (the song) and the artist (the daughter). “I’ve always had this vision for Songs & Daughters – it is a record label, but more than that, it’s a home,” Galyon tells Audiofemme in a phone interview from her vacation home in her native Kansas. “Just building this really beautiful family where everyone can be creative and develop together.”

Nicolle Galyon (left) and Tiera (right). Photo Credit: Julia Cox

The family is growing with the addition of Tiera, a bright 22-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama with tenacity and a “DIY” spirit. With the new publishing deal, Galyon will mentor Tiera as she writes with high caliber songwriters in town, penning tracks both for herself and for other artists to record. For Galyon, Songs & Daughters is the sanctuary she wishes she had upon moving to Nashville 18 years ago, recalling the sense of community she felt working with female writers, a precious bond she hopes to establish among the up-and-coming women she’s working with through the one-of-a-kind label.

“The genesis of me even wanting to have my own label was looking back and realizing that the female artists that I really loved working with [when] I was a year or two into writing, we had built trust and mutual respect and love and a creative energy in the comfort of a writing room. That’s to me where true partnership has been formed. Creating a space for other writers to get to do that feels true for who I am and how I came into the business,” she explains. “The whole industry is a wild card, but my hope is that I can create opportunity for [Tiera], get her up at bat, get all these artists and writers, the people that I believe in, use my platform to give them an opportunity to get up at bat and swing.”

Since moving to Nashville, Tiera’s work has earned her a slot on the 2018 country music-themed competition show Real Country and in the CMT Next Women of Country class of 2020. A consistent theme among Tiera’s growing catalogue is her polished sound that matches her vibrant, soulful voice and showcases her sweet southern drawl in a way that allows the lyrics to float off her tongue. Take “Rewind,” a storming number about a couple that can’t break toxic habits, juxtaposed with the perky “Out of Sight” that follows a globe-trotting couple seeking a place to escape. Her sharp sensibilities are what drew Galyon to the singer. “It’s an easy listen, but it’s advanced writing,” Galyon describes of Tiera’s songwriting style, calling it “wonderfully digestible.” “She’s so consistent. She keeps writing new songs, but I know what I’m getting.”

Describing her style as R&B country, Tiera’s interest in country music developed in middle school when she taught herself guitar at the age of 13 and started writing songs about first crushes and heartbreaks. “It just naturally came out country,” she says of her songwriting. “I loved writing stories and I loved writing stuff about real life.” As she took songwriting more seriously as a profession, she studied the songwriters behind the tunes she was listening to, dissecting the lyrics and applying the research to her own writing, including those written by Galyon, calling the opportunity to work with her a “full circle” moment.

As a self-admitted “sucker” for writing upbeat love songs, the singer centers her songs around uplifting themes. “What I try to focus on in my life in general is on the good. I feel like there’s so much negativity in this world and I try to not focus on that all the time and focus on the positive. I think there’s so many beautiful things in this world, so I try to relay that in my music,” she observes. “I just want to make people feel good.”

 Galyon also sees this gift in her new protégé. Calling the young star “refreshing,” she notes that Tiera’s songs are often “fun” and “hopeful,” citing “Found It In You,” “Tell My Mama” and the unreleased “Fall Out Boy” as her personal favorites. “She really does know who she is and what she wants to do,” Galyon says. “She wants to be a light with her music.” But there’s an important piece of advice she hopes to instill in the young star. “Trust the experts, but always be the loudest voice that you hear,” Galyon advises. “You shouldn’t be the only voice you hear, but you should be the loudest at the end of the day. Your voice needs to be the forefront.”

Listening to her intuition isn’t likely to be much of an issue for Tiera – her song “Wake Up Call” opens with the line “I don’t take orders from nobody but myself,” after all. Tiera hopes to step into a mentoring role one day and bring other artists under her wing like Galyon has done for her. “Nicolle has paved the way for me. I really hope that I can do that for other artists,” she professes. “It’s great to be a part of the charge.”

Follow Songs & Daughters and Tiera on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Brooklyn Supergroup Rhinestone Mine Campy But Heartfelt Country Aesthetic on Debut EP

Photo Credit: Elizabeth LoPiccolo

René Kladzyk says she’s always been drawn to melodrama – but some of the songs she found herself writing were almost “too embarrassing” to record, at least for her more esoteric, conceptually-driven musical project Ziemba. As she developed a taste for the oft-maligned country and western genre – particularly outlaw country courtesy of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, or the folk-adjacent Americana of Bobbie Gentry and Townes Van Zandt – she realized that its heart-on-your-sleeve lyricism lent itself perfectly to sitting with those uncomfortable emotions. The only problem was, she was living in Brooklyn, where the prospect of finding like-minded musicians to start up a country band seemed a bit like finding needles in a haystack.

While this pitiful position could’ve inspired another lonesome country-tinged tune, Kladzyk didn’t wallow; she turned to Facebook. “[My post] was like, ‘Who wants to join my weirdo country band?!’ and all these people reached out – none of whom I actually knew, we all just had mutual friends,” she remembers. From the first practice it was clear that the sort of people who would immediately respond to a post like that – and actually follow through – did so for the sheer love of playing music, and though the lineup changed slightly from those first practices, it solidified around an unlikely group of dedicated musicians, well-known in the Brooklyn scene for their involvement in rather disparate projects. These included: Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk alum Oscar Allen; Death By Audio’s Jay Heiselmann, who’s played in Grooms and Roya; and documentary photographer Samuel Budin. The EP also features John Bohannon (Torres, Ancient Ocean) on pedal steel, Casey Kreher on drums, and backing vocals from Jess Healy, the newest official band member.

Though Brooklyn might seem an unwelcoming place for a country band to flourish, the eclectic crew had a built-in audience. “Between our collective members, we already had kind of a musical following, so it was never as hard for us to bring out a crowd as it was for me when I was starting out with Ziemba,” says Kladzyk. “Because we have members with other active projects we’ve never played a ton. We’ve only played outside of Brooklyn once I think. We’ve never done a full tour. But within Brooklyn we’ve been able to play a lot of really cool shows over the years with really great bands. We’ve been lucky to have really great crowds who dance a lot, have fun, and rage.”

Rhinestone, in many ways, represents the growing appeal of country music well outside the genre’s typical demographic – whether that’s Kacey Musgraves’ critical acclaim, Orville Peck’s anonymous rise to indie stardom, the revelation of gender-flipping songwriting ensemble The Highwomen, crossover stars like Colbie Caillat making forays into country… the list goes on. Like Kladzyk, the members of Rhinestone were relatively late to the party, but they took that fateful Facebook post as a literal invitation.

“I had less than no interest in country music for most of my life. Right before I started high school, my family moved to Missouri, where I quickly fell in with a narrow vesica piscis of Nirvana obsessives, Lilith Fair attendees, and Toad the Wet Sprocket fans. My teenage filter regarded the slick insincerity of the exaggerated redneck accents leaking from passing pickups as a tool of the enemy,” admits guitarist Oscar Allen, who wrote the EP’s second track, “Maze of Love” and takes lead vocals on it. “Over time I realized that my beloved Roy Orbison, Breeders, and Leadbelly records hinted at an alternate history and deeper peeks behind that curtain revealed songs by Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt, and Neko Case more powerful than my prejudice against the label. Still, I went into that first Rhinestone practice with a bit of bemusement – I had to move to New York to finally be in a country band?!”

Healy came to classic country in the early 2000s via alt-country artists like Clem Snide. “I don’t think I would have sought out a country band to join prior to Rhinestone because I don’t identify with the idea I have of the culture of country being like, white dudes in cowboy hats kicking the tires of their Trump-stickered pickup, chewing snuff, and whining. I am not a huge fan of the shiny new country radiosound,” she says. “But Rhinestone feels more like campy traditional country – we put on costumes and personas and sing the shit out of the songs and it’s a joyful rollicking good time with some heartbreak thrown in. Rhinestone’s songs seem to extract the elements of country I like – the soulfulness and universality of heartbreak, straightforward melodies – while bringing in just enough Brooklyn weirdness to turn me on.”

Named for a film that sees Dolly Parton attempting to turn NYC cabbie Sylvester Stallone into Nashville’s next big star, the campy aesthetic is certainly integral to Rhinestone’s identity. Partly, it’s about world-building, creating an immersive experience. But beyond that, it’s pointing out an interesting irony specific to a genre that “often inhabits that space where it’s simultaneously really showy and flamboyant and campy but it’s also totally earnest and heartfelt,” Kladzyk says. “And that’s something that I really like about it. Some people think if you’re wearing sparkly or shimmery clothing then you can’t be sincere. I would be so angry at myself if I didn’t take advantage of this fashion opportunity. It’s like, why not go all the way there?”

“Very early on, René laid down a clear earnestness-over-irony mission statement and that, more than anything else, made me go all in,” Allen says. “It’s been fascinating to discover how this deceptively simple genre, with song forms older than Grimm’s Fairy Tales, holds a strange resonant complexity. You’re not solely bound to tropes and cosplay, but certain chord changes, word choices, guitar phrasing, and production moves will instantly announce themselves as unworthy.”

The four-track EP came out of an upstate recording session where the band set an album and a half’s worth of material to tape, on a machine they bought with licensing fees from a Sophie Tucker cover they recorded for FUSION TV’s Shade: Queens of NYC. “Among the songs we recorded, there’s four different songwriters and four different lead vocalists,” Kladzyk says. “Mixing and mastering the songs has been kind of a drawn out process but right now we have a whole additional album done. As Rhinestone releases more music, there’s a lot of different styles that we play even though we’re kind of framing it as country – country is a term that means a million things to different people.” Allen, for his part, refers to it as “David Lynch country.”

With an extensive playlist of references, Rhinestone hopes that their homage to music’s most misunderstood format might lead people down a rabbit hole of discovery. “If, through this project, that older-and-weirder world becomes even slightly more visible to people with the same preconceptions I used to carry, I’ll feel lucky and grateful,” says Allen. Budin, the band’s bassist, adds, “It’s solid pop music, and always has been. I hope [the EP] will inspire people to delve into the rich history of country music, which, among other things, is an integral part of the story of the American recording industry.”

Kladzyk says it’s also a transgressive history, despite its current-day association with a more conservative viewpoint. She points out that a lot of country music, particularly alt and outlaw country, was “responding to corporatized, highly commercial music and feeling resistant to that, so there’s a counterculture element that’s like, almost punk. There’s no straight lines and there’s no ideas that exist in silos. It’s all interconnected.”

“I guess I hope that Rhinestone can show others, as it has shown me, that there’s a flavor of country for everyone, and that beyond the stereotype are some deep roots to draw on and be inspired by,” says Healy, who credits joining the band with opening up her guitar-playing.

“If somebody likes Rhinestone, they should keep digging,” Kladzyk agrees. “I hope that if somebody listens to what we’ve made and likes it, that they feel motivated to deepen their relationship with the music in their life, cause it’s really fun. It’s like, a really nice way to live.”

Rhinestone’s debut EP is out tomorrow, 6/30. 100% of sales from the first week of the EP release (plus pre-sales) will be split 50/50 between Movement for Black Lives and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. Follow Rhinestone on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Tenille Townes Builds a Sanctuary With ‘The Lemonade Stand’

Photo Credit: Matthew Berinato

Tenille Townes’ The Lemonade Stand is more than a major label debut album – it’s a safe space. On it, Townes asks big questions and expresses even bigger emotions, her compassionate worldview on full display as her childhood dream of making it big in country music takes root.

The title itself stems from a line in Townes’ empathy-focused debut single “Somebody’s Daughter” where she crafts a narrative about a young woman she saw begging for money on the side of the road. The lyrics give the woman a name (“she could be a Sarah, an Emily”), reflect on her past without judgement (“Bet she was somebody’s best friend laughing/Back when she was somebody’s sister/Countin’ change at the lemonade stand/Probably somebody’s high school first kiss/Dancin’ in a gym where the kids all talk about someday plans”), and finally, pack a thought-provoking punch as Townes ponders, “I wonder if she got lost or they forgot her.”

While the song emphasizes compassion, the album’s title stands for unity. “It represents a gathering place,” Townes tells Audiofemme. “I hope this record somehow reminds people of their dreams, too – because that feeling was very much saturated in the creation of it.” Coming together during, in Townes words, a season of “trust and faith,” there’s a certain magic that runs through the project. Across twelve songs, Townes demonstrates a sense of wisdom beyond her 26 years, crafting songs that present a deity with a list of hard-hitting questions, share her vision of heaven and suggest that life’s beauty is intangible, experienced within.

Since making the 37-hour drive from her hometown in Alberta, Canada to Music City, Townes has spent the past seven years working with some of the city’s best songwriters, connecting to her voice in the process. “Being able to really disappear into the Nashville community and craft these songs and find my voice and the things I wanted to say, that time felt really sacred to me to be digging into those thoughts,” she expresses.

Townes recorded the project over the course of seven weeks at a church-turned-studio in East Nashville. One of the “transcendent” moments of the album-making process came when she sat around the altar of the church to record “When I Meet My Maker.” Townes was wearing her great-grandmother’s earrings while recording and vows that she could feel her presence, her spirit serving as the heartbeat of the song that depicts Townes’ perspective of heaven. “When I meet my maker/I’ll walk on heaven’s boulevard/Up above the clouds/In between the stars/I’ll ask him all my questions/And he’ll answer with a smile/I’ll tell him how I love him/And I’ll thank him for my life,” she sings. She calls the song the “most raw” form of expression on the album.

That vulnerability is also reflected in “Jersey on the Wall (I’m Just Asking).” The song is inspired by Townes’ visit to a local high school reeling from a fatal car accident involving five of its students. One of them was a star basketball player and valedictorian who had her whole life ahead of her. The singer gets candid on the track, her reflections on the tragedy expanding into existential questions she’d pose to the powers that be if she ever got the chance. Her humility is reflected in the song’s parentheticals, but ultimately it’s about the life-altering events that can test the faith of even the most devout. “That felt like a very raw place to dig into,” Townes says, admitting that she wrestles with the idea of being able to ask those questions, but affirms, “I think we’re allowed to.”

Townes continues her soul-searching journey with poetic closing number, “The Most Beautiful Things.” Written by Townes, Josh Kear and Gordie Sampson, the song is based on the famous Helen Keller quote “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.” The songwriting trio felt compelled to write a song around this idea, channeling it into such lyrics as “So why do we close our eyes, when we pray, cry, kiss, dream? Maybe the most beautiful things in this life are felt and never seen.”

Townes brings these heartfelt words to life with her voice soaring over a serene melody of twinkling piano. The song also features the voice of seven-year-old Amelia, the daughter of sound engineer Jason Hall, which Townes says captures the child-like innocence of the song’s message. “It felt special to really put some music around that idea and capture that wonder and innocent-hearted way of actually noticing the beautiful things around us,” Townes observes. “I really believe they’re always there; it’s just having the eyes to see them and feel it and recognize that.”

For Townes, one of the most beautiful elements she’s experienced in life comes in the simplest, most pure form – love – a feeling that she hopes fans gravitate to in her music as the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and flood the streets for racial justice. “I hope that people feel like they can come and be filled up with this music and be reminded of the kid that they used to be, standing at some lemonade stand and dreaming of their place in the world, not afraid to notice the beautiful things around them and just show up and be who they are. I hope that they feel like they’re not alone and that they’re filled up with the idea of their dreams,” Townes says. “This record definitely is the dream that I had as a seven-year-old kid. I hope that people feel that when they hear these songs.”

The Lemonade Stand is out tomorrow, June 26th. Follow Tenille Townes on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Mickey Guyton Releases Powerful Single “Black Like Me” as Country Musicians Take Stand Against Racism

Photo Credit: Chelsea Thompson, courtesy of Capitol Records

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a former Minneapolis police officer has sparked protests across the world calling for justice for Floyd and the end to systemic racism in America. Some of those voices are coming out of Nashville, from a genre of music that has largely remained quiet on issues related to justice and politics in the past. Kane Brown, Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen, Carrie Underwood and Thomas Rhett are among the many artists who have spoken out against Floyd’s inhumane death, with reactions ranging from honest reflections on living in a racist society as a black person to steadfast support for the black community.

Perhaps one of the most profound statements has come from Mickey Guyton, who tells the world how it feels to be a black woman in America on her powerful new song, “Black Like Me.” As one of the few Black women working in mainstream country music, Guyton has long been outspoken about the obstacles she’s faced trying to have a voice in a genre dominated by white males. “Black Like Me” cuts through the noise to share an honest and important perspective about what it’s like to live in her skin. Guyton explained in an Instagram post that she co-wrote the song in 2019 with Nathan Chapman, Emma DD and Fraser Churchill as a response to the “hate” and “oppression” she was witnessing in the world. Across three minutes and 31 seconds, Guyton takes the listener inside her journey as a child on the playground where she was told for the first time that she was “different,” later watching her father work twice as hard to buy a home to raise his family in. But the chorus is where she delivers a truly gut-punching declaration:

“It’s a hard life on easy street/Just white painted picket fences far as you can see/And if you think we live in the land of the free/You should try to be/Black like me/Oh, and some day we’ll all be free/And I’m proud to be, oh, Black like me.”

“Our world is on fire right now. There is so much division and hate. I wrote this song over a year ago because I was so tired of seeing so much hate and oppression. And yet here we are in the exact same place!” Guyton explains in the post debuting the song. “We must change that. I hope this song can give you a small glimpse into what my brothers and sisters have endured for 400+ years.” While she continues to serve as a passionate advocate for racial justice, she is also calling on her country music peers to do the same, many of whom have answered the call.

Darius Rucker also expressed his viewpoint on how it feels to live as a Black American. In a vulnerable, three-page statement, Rucker shared the “raw feeling of pain” he experienced watching the video of Floyd’s murder.

“As an American, a father, a son, a brother, a singer, a man…I have faced racism my whole life from kindergarten to the life I live today,” he begins. “Racism is not a born thing; it is a taught thing. It is not a strong belief; it is a weak belief. It is not a financial issue; it is a hatred issue.” As a father of three children, Rucker explained the “anguish” and “anger” they’ve felt in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, urging for people to unify in order to bring about change. “The only way it will ever change is if we can change people’s hearts,” he encourages. “I really hope that we get better as a nation. My request to you guys is to search your heart on behalf of all of us, and root out any fear, hate or division you have inside of you. We need to come together.”

Like Rucker, “Best Shot” singer Jimmie Allen is the father of a six-year-old Black son and welcomed a daughter with his fiancée Alexis Gale in March. Allen expressed deep sorrow and concern for his son’s future growing up in a racist culture, also calling for people to use love as a guiding force for systemic change. “The continued non value of life towards black men in America concerns me. As a black man and a father raising a black boy I’m worried. The uncertainty of his safety turns my stomach,” he confessed in a recent Instagram post. “I challenge everyone to love each other and let our hearts speak louder than the injustice. Love so hard that it suffocates the hate.”

Kane Brown echoed this sentiment, calling on people of all backgrounds to unite in order to achieve world peace. “We will never see peace in this world until we ALL see each other as PEOPLE. We will never understand each other when you have people on 2 different sides. We have to become one to be at peace,” he explains in a Twitter post.

While Black country artists made it a point to speak out, many white allies also raised their voices in support. Two of the most profound statements came from Thomas Rhett and his wife Lauren Akins, the parents of four-year-old daughter Willa Gray, who they adopted from Uganda in 2017. Both spoke honestly about it’s like to be white parents of a Black daughter, pledging their unconditional support not only to their child, but the Black community as a whole. In a open-hearted message shared on Instagram, Rhett reveals that while their blended family has been mostly met with unconditional love, they have dealt with racism “directly,” previously instilling him with a fear that stopped him from making a public statement. He also notes the fear that his Black crew members have felt while touring on the road with him, behavior he deems “unacceptable.”

“When I witnessed the horrific murder of George and think about the mistreatment of other black men and women in America, I am heartbroken and angry. I get scared when I think about my daughters and what kind of world they will be growing up in and how my JOB as a father is to show them how to lead with love in the face of hate. To know their worth and value as not only women but human beings,” he explains. “So if there is any question on where I stand let me be clear – I stand with you, I stand with George and his family and all those who have faced racism. I stand with my wife and my daughters. We will be fighting this fight for the rest of our lives. Rest In Peace, George. We are not letting this go.”

Akins also spoke about her role as a parent to their multi-race children, stating that in the past she has been shamed by people who believe she is unqualified to be the mother of a Black daughter, creating a sense of “anxiety” that has led her to not speak out publicly – until now. “But as her mother, I want her to be VERY sure that I am HER mother who stands up not only for her, but for every single person who shares her beautiful brown skin. I want to be her mother who raises her to know what it means to have brown skin and to be proud of it,” she pledges. “I believe if I stay silent I am betraying my brothers and sisters. I believe if I stay silent I am betraying my daughter… Together, let’s be an army for love. That means speaking up loudly for injustices whether or not we share the same skin color, language, beliefs… I want my children to cling to the good. Love, peace, kindness, joy. I want them to BE the good.”

For a genre that has historically been remiss in standing up for justice, it offers a glimmer of hope to see many country artists use their voices to take a firm stance in opposition to racism, asserting that Black Lives Matter. My hope is that the country community will continue to fight for equality and turn these words into action, adding to the ocean of voices that are rising to end systemic racism and change this world for the better.

Brandi Carlile Brings Nashville to New York in “Road to the Garden” Mini-Doc

Bradi Carlile plays Madison Square Garden

Brandi Carlile crossed a music threshold when she made her headlining debut at Madison Square Garden in 2019, the folk music visionary watching a seemingly out-of-reach dream come to life before her eyes.

The legendary venue chronicled Carlile’s journey to the stage with a two-part, four-minute series titled “Road to the Garden” that offers viewers a glimpse inside Carlile’s perspective as she prepares for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Ever the eloquent speaker, Carlile is introspective as she describes what this coveted opportunity means to her. “I am a visualizer and I’ve visualized some really big things in my life. But this might’ve actually been outside of my imagination,” she explains in a voice over that opens the mini-doc, capturing the final moments before she walks on stage. MSG completes the holy trinity of New York venues that artists dream of performing in, including Radio City Music Hall and Beacon Theatre. Carlile remarks that taking the stage at the pair of other iconic institutions felt like climbing to the top of the career ladder. But the only way she could see headlining the Garden was in an “abstract sense.”

“I just wanted us to be on a really monumental stage some day. But this feels really profound to me,” the Grammy Award winner reflects as her longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth (known as “the twins”), sit nearby on the bus, making their way to the Garden. Shots of Carlile and the twins walking on a custom red carpet that boasts her logo, leading them into the venue are among the memorable moments featured, along with a photo of the marquee advertising the show, which Phil refers to as a “We Are the Champions” type moment.

Part two of the video series shares footage from rehearsal, Carlile playing to an empty arena that will later be filled with thousands of fans, the singer laser-focused on giving them a high caliber show. She delivered on that promise and was clearly in her element on the massive stage as she proclaims to the capacity crowd “I am home,” a declaration that’s met with boisterous cheers of approval. Viewers listen in as she belts such signature songs as “The Joke,” her powerful voice soaring into the rafters. “There is not a nerdy little outcast with a guitar in the world that doesn’t dream of what I’m seeing right now,” she professes as the camera scans the packed house of roaring patrons, delighting in the set that included guest appearances by Mavis Staples and Carlile’s supergroup, The Highwomen.

While fans get to witness an awe-inspiring moment in Carlile’s life, they also watch her convey the humble mentality that got her there. “I would say love is my driving force. Love and forgiveness, radical positivity,” she manifests. “I hope that people leave here a little more willing to express themselves freely and believe that a stage like Madison Square Garden is not unattainable for any of us – because it wasn’t for me.”

Country Artists Use Music as Healing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nashville is known for being a giving community, a gift that’s often expressed through music. As the world grapples with the jarring reality of COVID-19, many artists continue to share music as a source of healing, including many of Nashville’s finest. Whether releasing original songs or delivering powerful covers that provide light during these dark times, here are some standout musical tributes from the country music community.

Ashley McBryde stuns with “Amazing Grace” at the Ryman Auditorium

The Ryman Auditorium has been a sacred place since its inception in 1892, but Ashley McBryde brought an especially harrowing energy to the venue with her performance of “Amazing Grace” in honor of those we’ve lost due to COVID-19. McBryde’s voice on its own is incredible, but pairing it with the spirit of the Ryman takes it to a whole other level. McBryde was so overcome with emotion that it took seven times to get the performance right – and that emotion pours through on screen. As she stands on the stage solo in the hallowed venue, her voice fills the room in a way that’s bound to bring a tear to one’s eye.

“Some things just can’t be healed. Some losses can’t be reconciled and some wounds will never heal. Sometimes we don’t get closure the way we want to. All we can do is honor our predecessors and hope that we touch the hem of heaven sometime in our lives. I wouldn’t normally sing this song but we all may need this right now and there isn’t a better place to sing it at than the Ryman,” she writes about the experience. “The mother church pulls things like that out of you and will tell you what to sing and when to sing it…even if you can’t.”

Brandi Carlile covers John Prine’s “Hello in There”

The music world lost a true pioneer when John Prine passed away due to complications from COVID-19 on April 7. Many artists paid tribute to the iconic folksmith in the wake of his passing, but Carlile’s cover of “Hello in There” on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert demonstrates a sense of empathy the world needs right now. Creating a simple stage on the staircase next to a fireplace, Carlile’s performance is touching, connecting Prine’s lyrics, penned in 1971, to modern day. Her voice soars over his poetic words that prompt us to truly see one another, especially in times of loneliness. But her introduction to the song is just as urgent, encouraging viewers to respect older generations and the impact they have on our lives. “This song refers to the people that we’re all staying home to protect and it reminds us that older people aren’t expendable, that they made us who we are and they’ve given us every single thing that we have,” she prefaced, offering a grounding perspective alongside the beautiful tribute.

Thomas Rhett is a “Light”

Thomas Rhett brings heartfelt meaning into his new song, “Be a Light.” Rhett originally wrote the song in 2019 as a response to the divisiveness he was witnessing in the world, but decided to release it now as a sign of encouragement during these trying times. Combining the soothing nature of a lullaby with the power of compassion, Rhett called on his friends and fellow superstars Reba McEntire, Keith Urban, Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum and Chris Tomlin to help deliver the timely message. With such lyrics as “In a time full of war be peace/In a place that needs change make a difference/In a time full of noise just listen/In a world full of hate be a light,” he presents us with sobering advice that’s important to keep at heart even after the pandemic passes.

“We are in the middle of a world-wide pandemic affecting every single human on earth, all while our town of Nashville is still healing from devastating tornadoes that destroyed so much of our city less than one month ago. But, among the wreckage, I see us come together in ways I never dreamed possible,” Rhett expressed about the uplifting track upon its release. “I hope this song serves as a reminder that we are all in this together.”

He also dedicated “Be a Light” to a new program called Gratitunes that sees artists and fans donating songs to a playlist streamed to the medical professionals at Vanderbilt University Medical Center as they work tirelessly to save lives.

Keith Urban’s live streams

Keith Urban is one of the many artists who has hosted virtual concerts during this era of social distancing, but it’s the heart of his shows that make them stand out. Urban has delivered two sets performing many of his biggest hits, and one of the best aspects about them is his wife Nicole Kidman. Between serving as his guitar tech and sole audience member who dances around the room thoroughly enjoying life, there’s a sense of joy that shines through with Kidman’s presence. Additionally, Urban always makes a point to recognize healthcare workers in his broadcasts. “All of you first responders out there, all of the families of all of you and your friends that are supporting you through this time, we are right here with you, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” he vows. “Our whole family thanks you for everything that you are sacrificing and doing right now.”

Brad Paisley keeps the laughter flowing on Instagram

Since the quarantine began, Brad Paisley’s Instagram has become a holy ground of humorous musings. Between recording virtual duets with Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw and Darius Rucker and posting cover videos, scrolling through Paisley’s Instagram is likely to put a smile on your face during these somber days. Paisley has also contributed to the Gratitunes program with an acoustic version of his hit “Southern Comfort Zone” that he used to thank all of the healthcare workers on the front lines during the pandemic. But perhaps his most noteworthy effort is that he and wife Kimberly Williams-Paisley have set up a special grocery delivery service for the elderly and those in need through their nonprofit, The Store – one of the many ways the Nashville community continues to give back.

Country music will also be represented in the upcoming global virtual event, “One World: Together at Home” in support of healthcare workers around the world. Urban, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris and Lady Antebellum will perform during the online broadcast that benefits the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. It will air on major TV networks and stream online on April 18.

CMT Helps Women Achieve Their Dream Careers With Equal Airplay Initiative

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT

On January 21, CMT announced that it would devote half of its primetime video hours to female artists, effective immediately.

For years, the conversation surrounding the dismal statistics that prove women are played significantly less than men have dominated the Nashville media cycle, but a recent resurgence of this issue inspired CMT to make a serious power play toward equality.

In January, Variety reporter Chris Willman remarked on Twitter that he heard a Los Angeles country radio station play songs by Gabby Barrett and Kelsea Ballerini back-to-back, nodding to an urban legend among the music industry that country radio is discouraged from playing two female artists in a row to maintain listenership. The comment received a since-deleted reply from a representative at 98 KCQ, a country station in Michigan, stating that they are not allowed to play two female artists back to back. The exchange prompted a firestorm of responses, including replies from Ballerini and Kacey Musgraves. “Smells like white male bullshit and why LONG ago I decided they cannot stop me,” Musgraves defiantly responded, while Ballerini used her platform to proclaim, “to all the ladies that bust their asses to have half the opportunities that men do, I’m really sorry that in 2020, after YEARS of conversation of equal play, there are still some companies that make their stations play by these rules. It’s unfair and it’s incredibly disappointing.”

Five days later, CMT announced that half of its 29 primetime video hours now feature female artists, balancing their previous statistics that offered male artists 60 percent of those primetime hours. “We wanted to look at ourselves first and say, ‘What more can we be doing?’ This to us was the quickest thing we could do,” CMT Senior Vice President of Music & Talent Leslie Fram tells Audiofemme about instituting the new format. “We felt that another year would go by with another research study that said the same things, and we were like, ‘We have to take action somehow.’”

In December 2019, Dr. Jada E. Watson, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, released a comprehensive study showing the severity of this underrepresentation on radio. Gathering data between 2002 and 2018, Watson’s findings showed that top female act Carrie Underwood received roughly 3.5 million spins – half the amount of her male counterpart Kenny Chesney with 6 million. Additionally, female acts often hear the same false narratives from executives, such as “women don’t want to hear women,” while radio consultant Keith Hill made the controversial claim, “if you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” in a 2015 interview with Country Aircheck.

To help combat this inequality, CMT immediately put the 50/50 airplay initiative into action with five of the ten videos played on the channel per hour representing female artists. Fans get to see the videos that established the likes of Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker and Martina McBride as legends, and the cinematic beauty of videos by modern superstars such as Carrie Underwood and Brandi Carlile. The tactic also provides an important platform for Nashville’s rising stars like RaeLynn and Madison Kozak, the first artist signed to Nashville’s new all-female label, Songs & Daughters. “You’ll be able to see the breadth of a female artists and you’ll see some people that are outside the lines of country that aren’t right down the middle,” Fram describes. “It’ll be very diverse.”

When the news broke, many fans and artists alike took to social media with notes of support and celebration. But several social media users also responded with sexist comments, calling the strategy “a sick joke,” “forced pc” and “a horrid idea.” Fram explains that such a mindset stems from a lack of understanding of the plight women have faced trying to break ground on an uneven playing field. “For anybody out there that says we’re forcing this and it’s a gender issue, it’s not. Women are having to work harder, they’re doing everything that they’re asked to do, and they’re still not getting the exposure, which to me is really unfair,” she responds. “We’ve always said let the best songs win, but women haven’t had an equal playing field. There’s so much great music out there and so many meaningful songs.”

CMT’s equal airplay also compliments its Next Women of Country program, founded by Fram in 2013, which provides resources to up-and-coming female artists. It also includes the annual CMT Next Women of Country Tour, which sees current headliner Tucker performing in more than 40 U.S. cities alongside a rotating troupe of up-and-coming female artists. With the new measure, Fram aims to establish a well-rounded genre that reflects the views of all types of people, breaking down the obstacles that stand in the way of certain artists being able to share their voices and artistry.

“It gives them a chance to have a career based on their music. It needs to be about the music first and foremost, to really give them a shot at having a career,” she says of her vision for the initiative’s impact on artists. “My hope is that we break that cycle and that more women get signed, have an opportunity to get in those writing rooms, have an opportunity to get on tours and really have the career that they dream of.”

Brandi Carlile Builds on Lasting Legacy With Headlining Ryman Run

Photo by Chris Wood

Brandi Carlile’s multi-night headlining debut at the Ryman Auditorium on Tuesday (Jan. 14) was as much a display of empathy and forgiveness as it was about Carlile’s storied catalog.

The beloved star set this tone by opening with a song that turns sadness into forgiveness with “Every Time I Hear That Song” off her 2019 Grammy nominated album By the Way, I Forgive You, setting the pace for the self-proclaimed “six life-changing, dream realizing nights,” in regard to her half dozen sold-out shows at the Mother Church of Country Music. Carlile shared that she listened to the Grand Ole Opry with her parents growing up on the opposite end of the country in Seattle, citing the famed radio show as “the place of my dreams” that embodied the “selfless traditional art of entertainment,” a quality that Carlile carries into her own work.

These reverent comments lead into her breakthrough hit that solidified her as an icon in the making, “the song that got me here,” she noted (using the phrase that’s often advised to those performing on the Opry) with the harrowing “The Story.” Yet one could hear a pin drop when Carlile and longtime band members and songwriting collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth shared the magic of the three-part harmonies they felt 20 years ago on the a capella “The Eye,” soon followed by the poetry that is “The Mother.”

Throughout the night that included a 90-minute set and nearly half an hour encore, Carlile’s devoted fans filled the Ryman to capacity with their faithful support, whether it be in the form of enduring applause or multiple standing ovations that lasted long after she sang the final note. Perhaps one of the reasons why Carlile is able to capture audiences in such a pure, honest way is that she’s willing to offer a glance into her soul, something she did with aplomb throughout her Ryman set, particularly as she spoke about the concept of forgiveness. “I write about it so I know how to do it,” she analyzed, describing forgiveness as “radical,” “filthy” and “dirty.” She shared that through raising daughters Evangeline and Elijah, she’s learned how to see others from a more empathetic view, which inspired a performance of “Sugartooth” about a person living with a drug addiction. This notion of acceptance translated to the audience as Carlile observed, “it’s nice seeing the rainbow flag at the Ryman” as she introduced the Highwomen’s gay country anthem she “loves to sing live,” “If Ever She Ever Leaves Me.” In the midst of these potent messages was a mesmerizing cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” that flexed the impeccable range and mellifluous tone Carlile’s long been revered for.

After inviting surprise guest Tanya Tucker to roaring applause for a performance of Tucker’s Grammy nominated song co-written by the pair, “Bring My Flowers Now,” the superstar ended the set with the song whose message she admits she needs to hear as much as she sings it. With a voice that was straight power, like an electric shot coursing through one’s veins, Carlile brought the monumental show to a stunning close through “The Joke.” But she didn’t leave the stage long, soon returning for a multi-song encore that began with a passionate dedication to one of her musical heroes, Kim Richey, before bringing the acclaimed singer-songwriter on stage to perform a peaceful and pristine rendition of Richey’s “A Place Called Home.”

But Carlile truly left the audience with their souls stirring as she officially ended the night on piano with the haunting “Party of One,” the piercing words made even more powerful with her gripping voice and the emotion behind it. With her incomparable voice and beautiful tapestry of words that pour from her soul, Carlile proved with the dreamlike show that she’s a gift that keeps on giving.

PLAYING NASHVILLE: Kyshona Armstrong Premieres ‘Listen’

Photo by Hannah Miller

“Why won’t you listen?” It’s a simple question packed with dense meaning, and is the core message of Kyshona Armstrong’s new song “Listen,” premiering exclusively with Audiofemme. It’s the title track from her forthcoming LP, set for release on February 28.

Co-written by Armstrong and Toronto-based singer-songwriter Emma Lee, “Listen” was born out of a conversation between Armstrong and someone who’d asked her opinion about a recent societal event, a conversation that became more like a debate. “Sometimes all people want is for you to hear them,” Armstrong shares with Audiofemme.“I noticed even with myself, I’ll ask someone a question and then I’m not even listening because I’m trying to figure out how I want to fix it; what can I say in response to it, rather than just hearing a person.”

Armstrong brought her observations into a writing session with Lee, the two building the track’s instrumental before crafting the lyrics. Like spoken word poetry put to music, the song presents a series of questions that lead to the main point in the chorus that repeats, “Why won’t you listen?” She opens the song with a powerful question: “Why you gotta interrupt/when I’m not done talkin’?’” before proclaiming “Yeah, I know you want to help/but you’re deaf to the mission.” For Armstrong, the latter notion delves into her personal frustration with those who are more interested in the “gory pieces” of her work – with such organizations as the Oasis Center, which supports at-risk youth, or teaching songwriting to women who are incarcerated at the Tennessee Prison for Women – than they are with the meaning behind it.

“’Deaf to the mission’ to me means you’re not even hearing the purpose behind what I’m doing,” Armstrong explains, adding that she feels she can convey humanizing stories to her audience of the people she meets in places such as prisons and homeless shelters. “My mission is to be a voice and a vessel for those that feel lost, forgotten and silenced.”

In the music video, Armstrong captures the subtle tension of the song. She called on many of her family members and friends to help tell the story, pairing them up to have playful, yet effective arguments with one another. While their exchanges are muted, Armstrong reveals that to bring out that tension, the couples argued about a range of topics from what toppings to put on a pancake to her sister-in-law reprimanding her niece about her outfit. “They could feel that hum underneath while they were acting,” Armstrong describes of the atmosphere on set as the song was playing in the background. “This is what the song feels like – it’s just this tense moment. It’s about people and feelings.”

For Armstrong, the idea of “listening” all boils down to empathy, which involves stepping into someone else’s reality and trying to see the world from their point of view. She hopes that through the song, people will feel compelled to take action and engage in true listening. “I think ‘listen’ is a more active thing than it sounds like. Listen to someone else’s story, then try to put yourself in their shoes and see how they might walk through the world and might feel in this moment – just pan out from your own world,” she observes. “I hope people take a moment to really think about how can they listen more – or better.”

Tanya Tucker’s Revival on Full Display at Sold-Out Ryman Show

Photo by Derrek Kupish / dkupish productions

“Nobody logical in life ever gave me a shot. They were always a little left of center.”

This wasn’t just a proclamation made by Tanya Tucker during her headlining show at the Ryman Auditorium on Sunday (Jan. 12), but a defining factor of who she is as an artist. The 61-year-old country legend achieved one of her prodigious dreams when she headlined a sold-out show at the historic Nashville venue, serving as the kick off for the 2020 CMT Next Women of Country Tour that she’ll helm through June.

Days before the show, Tucker reflected on how her father brought her to the Grand Ole Opry, whose original home was at the Ryman, from their native Willcox, Arizona when she was 9 years old. Tucker made history in 1972 at just thirteen years of age, when she became the youngest artist to have a major country with “Delta Dawn” reaching the top ten. Tucker would later become one of the few female acts included in the outlaw country movement led by the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in the 1970s, and judging by the crowd’s reaction, she’s just as beloved now as she was nearly five decades ago.

Tanya Tucker performs with Billy Ray Cyrus during her headlining show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Photo by Derrek Kupish / dkupish productions

She received multiple standing ovations throughout the opening trio of beloved favorites “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” “Jamestown Ferry” and “What’s Your Mama’s Name Child.” “You remember!” she observed after a performance of “Lizzie And The Rainman” that inspired the crowd to sing along, a notion that continued as she powered through her storied catalog of hits, several of which she racked up before she was eligible to vote.

With a voice of endurance and consistency, Tucker’s spirit is perhaps more youthful than ever, with her wispy blonde hair dipped in hot pink tips, doing her best Elvis impression by swiveling her hips throughout multiple numbers in the set. The night was also jam-packed with surprise guest stars who were sprinkled in like precious gems, allowing Tucker to not only perform alongside her friends and fans, but soak in their affinity for her, as she did when Jamey Johnson came out and nailed “Don’t Believe My Heart Can Stand Another You,” vowing that he knew every one of Tucker’s songs.

“Strong Enough to Bend” got a particularly warm reception, as did “Love Me Like You Used To,” with the presence of Margo Price adding a nice touch. Billy Joe Shaver, Lee Ann Womack and actor Dennis Quaid – who unbeknownst to most is also a songwriter – were all pleasant surprises, but perhaps the most rewarding appearance was Billy Ray Cyrus. The two dueted on his famous “Achy Breaky Heart” before Tucker requested they sing his massive hit with Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road.” And try as she might, the trailblazing star didn’t exactly know all the words, but was clearly in the spirit of the song as she danced her way across the stage and struck as many poses as possible. The performance wasn’t merely a reunion among two friends, but a symbol of how courage, artistic vision and aligning with the right visionaries can revitalize one’s career in a meaningful way.

Tanya Tucker and friends perform during her headlining show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Photo by Derrek Kupish / dkupish productions

For Tucker, those visionaries are Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, who co-produced her new album, While I’m Livin,’  her first in 17 years. Tucker treated the audience to several numbers from the album, including the spirited “The Wheels of Laredo,” “Hard Luck” and “High Ridin’ Horses.” Tucker remarked how Jennings called her one day to remind her that she once told him she’d do anything for him – he decided to play that card early by encouraging her to make an album, knowing her talent needed to be re-showcased to the world. “The biggest song you’ll have is the one you’ll write yourself,” she added, recalling a sage piece of advice she received years prior that served as an introduction to “Bring My Flowers Now,” the somber, reflective ballad she co-wrote that’s since scored her three nominations at the 2020 Grammy Awards. The moment proved to be one of the best of the night, with Tucker perched on a stool with just a piano, her husky voice and the song’s potent lyrics about cherishing other’s appreciation and love while you’re still able to do so.

The evening came to a fulfilling close with the edgy “Texas (When I Die),” a duet with Quaid on his original number “On My Way to Heaven” and an all-star sing-along to the hit that started it all for Tucker, “Delta Dawn,” bringing the audience to its feet. “I think they’ve figured out, I’m not going anywhere,” Tucker remarked about her friends, a statement that not only applies to her revitalized career, but the loyal fans who continue to support her in days past and present.

Aubrie Sellers is Close to Her Identity on ‘Far From Home’

Aubrie Sellers’ sophomore album “Far From Home” will be released on February 7. Photo courtesy of Aubrie Sellers

When Aubrie Sellers’ new album, Far From Home, is released, you’ll notice a distinct message etched into the vinyl: “We are traveling through this wild, wild land.”

It’s a line from the title track that sets the pace for Sellers’ journey of self-discovery she poured into Far From Home. “This album was really about ‘I’ve got to make sure I’m embracing who I really am,’” Sellers shares with Audiofemme. “It’s a lot about me finding my place in the world as a person.”

Solidifying her place is something the singer has long been adamant about. Though the daughter of Grammy winning songstress Lee Ann Womack and hit country songwriter Jason Sellers, the young starlet established a distinct sound with her 2016 debut record New City Blues that strikes a delicate balance between grunge and blues that’s layered with an angelic voice much like her mother’s; a style Sellers has dubbed “garage country.” She carries this unique sonic identity into Far From Home, a 12-track display into the mind of an introverted artist who doesn’t shy away from a challenge.

 The 29-year-old notes more than once that the sophomore project feels “grown up,” a result of the past several years she’s spent touring. Being a front woman on the road made her feel exposed to the world, while powering through the grind of tour life and constant interactions with people caused her to break through her shell. She says being onstage was a “serious challenge” when she first began touring, especially as someone who lives with anxiety. As a self-described “intuitive being” who feels other people’s energy, Sellers compares life on the road to throwing herself into the deep end, knowing the only way she could become comfortable in the craft was to go through the uncomfortable growing pains. But the self-proclaimed perfectionist recognizes the importance of embracing imperfection, particularly in music. “It doesn’t feel human to be that way. I think it’s more important that we express ourselves vulnerably,” she says.

Sellers defines vulnerability in Far From Home, particularly as she conveys what it’s like to have anxiety in “Worried Mind.” “Change is the only way we move forward and we grow, but for somebody who’s anxiety prone, you constantly feel like you’re fighting battles because it’s so difficult to make that change,” she explains. “Something I’ve learned about myself is that all change, it’s going to be hard for me, and you cannot move forward or grow without it and the only way to learn whether it’s right for you is to do it until you feel like it’s wrong for you to be doing it.”

She cites the ethereal “Haven’t Even Kissed Me Yet” as one of the album’s most potent moments, comparing to a journal entry that captures the feeling of going against one’s intuition. “Drag You Down” is an edgy, guitar-heavy rocker that’s more about empathy and less about dragging someone into the depths of depravity, while “One Town’s Trash” is a tribute to all the outliers looking for sanctuary in like-minded people, something Sellers has experienced first-hand. “I definitely feel a lot of the time like I don’t quite align with the people around me,” she chuckles. “[It’s] about realizing that maybe if you find yourself constantly in a situation where you feel like the people around you don’t get you, that you can go continue your journey to search and find the people who do.”

Sellers intentionally opens the album with its namesake song, one that symbolizes her personal self-discovery and hopes it inspires others to do the same. And just as purposefully as she begins the album with such an ode, she completes it with “One Town’s Trash,” a symbol of venturing on one’s own path to find their place in the world. “We’re all here together and part of this human experience and it’s challenging and it feels like we’re in the jungle half of the time. I think that message and that song are the embodiment of this album and how I feel and where I am as a person,” she observes of “Far From Home.”

“It’s almost like you’re looking at your reflection in a way because you’re imprinting your own life on to these songs,” she continues about the album. “I hope they listen to the record and it’s a self-discovery process for them and they can hear themselves in it.”

 Far From Home will be released on February 7. Sellers will join Robert Earl Keen for several tour dates throughout January and February. She’ll also support Tanya Tucker on the CMT Next Women of Country: Bring My Flowers Now Tour during select dates in February and June.

5 Feminist Country Songs of 2019

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Let’s face it: country music isn’t known for being the most welcoming genre to women. Since its inception circa 1920, women have long been embroiled in a battle of equal airplay and representation, a battle that still rages on today. But the female artists who are the fabric of the genre’s history have been vocal about equality and social awareness, particularly through song.

From Loretta Lynn to Margo Price and many others along the way, women have delivered a variety of feminist anthems that show country music exactly where they stand. This theme is still relevant today, with new artists and burgeoning superstars alike stepping into the forefront with songs that speak directly to women – here are some who did just that with power and eloquence in 2019.

The Highwomen – “The Highwomen”

When Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby united to form The Highwomen, they told the world that women’s voices are even more powerful when they come together. The namesake song that opens their revered self-titled album puts a spin on the Jimmy Webb classic made famous by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson with new verses – penned by Carlile and Shires – that finally give a voice to feminine archetypes. Each verse sees one of the members taking on a fictional character who sacrificed her life during a distinct era of history, from a woman wrongly accused during the Salem Witch Trials to a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights Movement, the latter of which is made even more compelling with a guest vocal from up-and-comer Yola. “The Highwomen” is one of the best jewels country music has to offer in 2019.

Best lyric: “We are the daughters of the silent generations/You sent our hearts to die alone in foreign nations/It may return to us as tiny drops of rain/But we will still remain.”

Maren Morris – “Flavor”

While her chart-topping single “Girl” gets plenty of attention for its female empowerment theme (and rightly so), “Flavor” is the hidden gem on Morris’ acclaimed 2019 album, Girl. Throughout her young career, Morris has been building a reputation for supporting women, whether by publicly speaking out about inequality on country radio or hopping on the trend of taking an all-female lineup on tour with her. She demonstrates her sharp tongue with the song’s opening lyrics “ain’t gonna water down my words or sugar up my spice/sometimes the truth don’t always come out nice.” What follows is an anthem about originality and celebrating those who challenge the norm, all delivered with confidence and conviction that comes through in her voice. It’s a shining moment on the project that earned her an Album of the Year distinction at the CMAs – and one that defines her as an unflinching creator.

Best lyric: “Yeah I’m a lady/I make my dough/Won’t play the victim/Don’t fit that mold/I speak my peace/Don’t do what I’m told/Shut up and sing?/Well hell no I wont.”

Runaway June – “Buy My Own Drinks”

The trio of Naomi Cooke, Jennifer Wayne and Hannah Mulholland released a direct female empowerment anthem to country radio this year in the form of “Buy My Own Drinks.” The song chronicles a young woman’s solo night on the town, not needing a lover or even her friends to keep her company. Between paying her own tab and spinning herself around on the dance floor, the upbeat track raises a glass to those who are perfectly content enjoying their own company. The empowering message also made Runaway June the first female group to reach the top 10 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in 14 years since SHeDAISY.

Best lyric: “I can walk my own self to the front door/I can take my own self to bed/I can medicate my own headache/I can be my own boyfriend.”

Ingrid Andress – “Lady Like”

Ingrid Andress released several new songs this year that proved her to be a sharp songwriter with lyrics that reject all the traditional country norms. But no song does that better than “Lady Like,” her ode to the “untamable,” “unframeable” women who drink tequila straight, don’t own a dress and kiss on a first date. The lyrics are pure defiance against all the double standards and stereotypes placed on women, and in a genre that’s dominated by straight white males singing about trucks, beer and life in God’s country, a voice like Andress’ cuts through in a potent way.

Best lyric: ““Sometimes I forget/Not to talk ’bout politics/When I’m in the middle of me gettin’ hit on.”

Katie Pruitt – “Loving Her”

Pruitt may be a new voice in country, but the truths she delivers are ones the genre desperately needs to hear. Take “Loving Her,” the gentle, lullaby-like ode to her girlfriend. Raised Catholic in the suburbs of Atlanta, Pruitt is honest about her previous fears of her sexuality being revealed. But “Loving Her” is a beautiful response to that suppression. Using clips from the 2019 Nashville Pride parade to tell the story in the video, the lyrics paint a striking picture of someone stepping out of the closet and into the light, relying on clever wordplay and poetry to convey the profound love they’re no longer ashamed to express.

Best lyric: “But if loving her is wrong/And it’s not right to write this song/Then I’m still not gonna stop/And you can turn the damn thing off.”

AF 2019 IN REVIEW: A Year in Country Music

With the end of the year comes a time of reflection. Looking back on this year in country music, the firestorm of conversation about the lack of women on country radio spilled into 2019, while new artists like Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown broke down barriers, and names including Billy Ray Cyrus and Tanya Tucker saw a resurgence in their careers.

Renaissance Moment

 In 2019, country fans saw two legends experience an unexpected, but celebrated resurgence in Billy Ray Cyrus and Tanya Tucker.

Though known as ’90s country star with the breakthrough hit “Achy Breaky Heart” and as the father of Miley Cyrus, his name is now synonymous with the global hit that is “Old Town Road.” While the Nine Inch Nails-sampling Lil Nas X penned rap gained traction as a viral favorite on Tik Tok, it was a remix version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus that came to define the newish genre of “country rap.” Kicked off the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart based on the claim that it “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version,” “Old Town Road” quickly grew into a smash hit that broke the record as the longest running No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 – and Cyrus was a significant part of this. Though the song was already a jam in its original state, the unlikely pairing of the millennial rapper and baby boomer country star made for an important moment in pop culture. The song feels complete with both on the track, and Cyrus’ affinity for the song and ability to see how it connects to the history of country music is part of what gave him a second life in the genre.

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X. Photo by Derrek Kupish/ dkupish productions

Tucker enjoyed her own renaissance moment in 2019; the 61-year-old icon, who had her first hit single at age 13 with “Delta Dawn,” released her first album in 10 years, While I’m Livin,’ produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings. Partnering with a new generation of talent gave Tucker an edge and refreshed identity while still delivering a strong body of work, and earned her four 2020 Grammy nominations. It was gratifying to see two iconic stars rise like phoenixes for a new phase in their lives.


 It’s disappointing to think that even in 2019, you can count the number of mainstream African American country artists on one hand. Over the past few years, we’ve seen acts like Kane Brown become rising superstars, while Jimmie Allen reached No. 1 with his debut single “Best Shot” last year. But with Lil Nas X breaking down the walls for artists creating country trap, it feels like the beginning of a tidal wave of diverse artists who we’ll see breaking through in the next few years.

Yola is one of the many artists blazing this path. The elegant British country singer had a banner year with her debut record Walk Through Fire. Her spell-binding voice and awe-inspiring songwriting solidified her as a major breakthrough act this year, so much so that Kacey Musgraves invited her to be one of the opening acts at her first arena headlining show in Nashville and Elton John declared himself a fan after hearing her cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” She’ll embark on her own headlining Walk Through Fire Tour in 2020.

Blanco Brown also took country by storm with his original “Cotton Eyed Joe” style dance song, “The Git Up,” which was the longest running No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and spent 13 weeks as the top selling country single in the U.S. Meanwhile, former X Factor contestant Willie Jones spent the year building momentum with songs that range from the sweet (“Down For It”) to playfully observing the influx of bachelorette parties in downtown Nashville with “Bachelorettes on Broadway,” while up-and-coming singer-songwriter Tiera was named to CMT’s Next Women of Country class of 2020.

Jimmie Allen also joined forces with dynamic duo Louis York for a poetic number titled “Teach Me a Song” on the twosome’s American Griots album, and when they all performed on the Grand Ole Opry, it marked the first time three African American artists have appeared on the Opry stage at one time. With Louis York set to make their own Opry debut in February, it feels like we’re at the start of a revolution of multi-racial artists finally becoming a mainstay in a genre that has been sorely lacking in diversity.

Women in country

 The conversation surrounding the lack of women on country radio was a dominant theme in 2018, with the likes of Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert and countless others speaking out. At 2018’s end, there were no women in the top 20 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart for the first time in the chart’s near 30-year history, and they didn’t fare too much better in 2019, as there are no solo female artists on the year-end list of Billboard Country Airplay songs. With the conversation being so loud, it instilled a false sense of hope that radio would take action and begin to move toward more balanced playlist.

But where radio faltered, women united in the form of all-female tours in 2019. Underwood set this precedent by inviting duo Maddie & Tae and trio Runaway June as her opening acts on the Cry Pretty 360 Tour, proving that a troupe of half a dozen women can sell out arenas across the country. Lambert followed suit, as her Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars Tour featured a massive all-female bill with openers including Maren Morris and CMA New Artist of the Year Ashley McBryde, along with newcomers like Tenille Townes, Kassi Ashton and many more.

Morris also set a standard by joining forces with Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby to form The Highwomen, whose debut album serves as one of the year’s best (and their surprise performance with Dolly Parton at 2019 Newport Folk Festival is arguably one of the highlights of the year in music). Morris continued with her support for women by bringing a mix of five female friends and rising artists in country on her aptly titled Girl: The World Tour named after her CMA Album of the Year. Even legends like Trisha Yearwood stepped up, taking an all-female bill out on the road with her for the Every Girl on Tour.

In addition, several new female artists not only made an impact on fans and the industry alike, but brought a distinct element with them: empathy. It’s the foundation of Townes’ “Somebody’s Daughter,” a compelling narrative inspired by a woman she saw on the side of the road who was homeless that should have been a No. 1 hit, but just barely made the top 30 on the country charts. Meanwhile, Ingrid Andress broke hearts in the best way with her powerful debut single “More Hearts Than Mine” that made her the only female artist to have a debut single reach the top 20 in 2019.

Though the fact that Carrie Underwood lost Entertainer of the Year to seven-time winner Garth Brooks during a year where she put on an impeccable production that led to growth as an artist while supporting deserving young women felt like another major blow to the cause, it was inspiring to see so many women uniting in the face of adversity – there is something truly special about seeing a group of gifted women lifting one another up in a bold way.

But in order to see real change, there needs to be integration, and there seems to be signs of that going into the new year. Dan + Shay, the country duo behind the wildly successful, Grammy winning crossover hit “Tequila,” recently announced that Andress will be joining them as an opening act on their 2020 Arena Tour. Jordan Davis, who has two country hits to his name, is bringing a pair of compelling singer-songwriters, Ashton and Hailey Whitters, as his openers on the 2020 Trouble Town Tour. I hope this is a trend that turns into a movement in 2020.

5 Christmas Songs by the Women of Country Music You Need to Hear

Katie Pruitt, YouTube

Year after year, the same holiday standards come pouring through our speakers when the calendar flips to December (or before Halloween in recent years). While these often become ubiquitous, there are several artists who deliver original renditions of these holiday standards, in addition to offering new classics of their own.

The women featured below deliver a mix of original songs and covers that uniquely shine, whether it’s three superstars uniting for an iconic holiday number or a burgeoning superstar penning one of the saddest Christmas songs you’ve ever heard. Check out Audiofemme’s pick of five Christmas songs by the women of country music.

Kelly Clarkson, Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire – “Silent Night”

When Clarkson, Yearwood and McEntire took the stage during Clarkson’s 2013 special, Kelly Clarkson’s Cautionary Christmas Music Tale, they delivered one of the most beautiful renditions of the holiday standard regarded as “the most beautiful song ever written.” The trio defines the word “perfection” with their performance, as Yearwood’s powerful voice reaches new heights, while Clarkson provides enchanting harmonies. And when McEntire joins in, her voice adds even more magical layers. When they end the performance a capella, their harmonies knock the wind right out of you.

Kacey Musgraves – “Christmas Makes Me Cry”

Challenge: Try not to tear up when listening to “Christmas Makes Me Cry.” Between singing about broken hearts and those who couldn’t make it home for the holidays, Musgraves doesn’t try to disguise the fact that there’s a somber side to Christmas that’s often forgotten. “I wonder if I’m the only one/Whose broken heart still has broken parts/Just wrapped in pretty paper/And it’s always sad/Seeing mom and dad getting a little grayer,” she sings. What I appreciate most about the track is how Musgraves extends a hand to those experiencing grief during the Christmas season, and this compelling country queen recognizes them with this gem. “Christmas Makes Me Cry” is poignant, emotional and beautiful, reflecting the intense emotions of the Christmas season and the foundation that Musgraves builds her artistry on.

Loretta Lynn – “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas”

Before Musgraves, Loretta Lynn set the precedent for melancholy Christmas tunes, and “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas” has all the makings of a Christmas classic. Penned solely by the country icon, Lynn turns tear-in-my-beer mainstay country lyrics into her own Christmas original. Between the twinkling of the piano keys and her timeless voice, she paints a peaceful scene of decorative Christmas trees and flying snowflakes. But the pain inside her is anything but peaceful as she sings of missing the person she loves. “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas” is a highlight on her 1966 Country Christmas album that features six original numbers, including heartbreaker “Gift of the Blues” and sassy “To Heck With Ole Santa Claus.”

Cam – “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”

Get ready to be stunned when you press “play” on Cam’s cover of this holiday classic. With a voice that’s timeless and modern at the same time, Cam truly captures the sadness and longing expressed in the song in a way that resonates. While I’ve heard the track countless times during the holiday season, Cam’s version made me realize how heartbreaking this standard is, written from the perspective of a solider who hopes, but ultimately doesn’t make it home for the holiday, making for one of the most powerful renditions of the popular hit I’ve heard.

Katie Pruitt – “Merry Christmas, Mary Jane”

If you want a Christmas song that’s original and modern with a dash of humor, then look no further than Katie Pruitt’s “Merry Christtmas, Mary Jane.” With a soulful voice that cuts like a knife, Pruitt tips a cheetah-print Santa hat to the one thing that’ll take her spirits high: marijuana. Her voice is so striking you almost miss the humorous little gems she sprinkles in (“All these Christmas lights would look twice as good/As we hotbox around your neighborhood”), all of which she expresses in the midst of bluesy guitar riffs. This unique holiday tribute demands a spot on your playlist.