Harmony on the Horizon Aims to Elevate Humanity With Early Voting Concert Series

Photo courtesy of Harmony on the Horizon Early Vote Concert Series

While voting is a key component of the Harmony on the Horizon Early Vote Concert Series, orchestrated by Tennessee-based civic participation organization BriteHeart and music incubator nonprofit This Is Noteworthy, it’s merely one part of the overarching message the series aims to instill in viewers: your voice matters.  

This Is Noteworthy Founder and Chief Strategist of Community Development at BriteHeart Becca Finley is the visionary behind the series, born out of the original Harmony on the Horizon series that sees artists performing a virtual show from the comfort of their homes. Like many others around the world this year, Finley watched as people flooded the streets to make their voices heard. She took her own form of action by creating the musical narrative series filmed at The Caverns, a cave system-turned-renowned-concert-venue in rural East Tennessee, non-audience and socially distanced over three nights. With Go To Team Production behind the camera and a team of volunteers helping to coordinate the production, 18 musical acts all donated their time and talents to the cause that elevates stories through music and art.

My own role as part of the production and promotions team for the series provided exclusive insight into the vision and purpose behind the series; I worked alongside Finley to coordinate efforts behind-the-scenes for production, in addition to engaging in media outreach. But I also wanted to explore the creative side of this series, and what it means to trust in someone’s vision to create beauty and compromise, which in a way reflects our democracy. So I chatted with several artists and organizers to report the full scope of the poignant series.

Becca Finley, founder of This Is Noteworthy and creator of Harmony on the Horizon Early Vote Concert Series. Photo courtesy of Becca Finley

Finley, who also directed and edited all of the shows, says the concept behind the Early Vote series evolved from a series of questions: “How can we put all the stories together in one place that protects and honors each one of the stories as individual stories that deserve to be heard? When we put them all together, how do we have one story that everyone can relate to in some way?” This was no small task, considering that the series features artists as diverse as Langhorne Slim, Lilly Hiatt, Kyshona Armstrong and Louis York. “You visually see a lot of different people who have a lot of different stories, but they are underlying, and they’re all people who live in and love our country,” Finley explains.

Described by BriteHeart Founder and Chairman Chase Cole as “the box set of all civic concert events,” he says the meaningful concept only furthers the organization’s purpose in being a civic motivator. “BriteHeart’s mission is to use the arts to increase civic participation. This series is the ultimate embodiment of that goal,” Cole expresses. “We’ve gathered diverse musical voices to speak their truths to a broad group of viewers who we hope will be inspired to vote and remain active in their community.”

The invisible thread that binds each component of the series is intentionality, beginning with Finley’s request that each artist submit ten original songs that she then turned into sets of six songs, each harboring a unique story that connects to the show before and after it, creating a metaphorical book of our nation. “It was a feeling,” Finley says of what drove the song selection process. “It’s really sitting with all of the music. It’s taking the time to first listen and feel it and then going through and really reading the lyrics and dissecting those; what was going to honor all of these people and these two organizations who dedicate themselves to civic engagement and to the overall health of the music ecosystem and how does all of it fit together.”

The series, which airs each night of early voting in Tennessee along with a pre-election show on November 2, launched on October 14 with a stirring performance by Armstrong, “the warrior who’s going to fight and stand up,” as Finley describes, followed by Gustavo Guerrero, a native of Honduras who shares his story as an immigrant in the United States, one who loves his native land as much as he does the one he now calls home. The genre-spanning lineup also features Lord Goldie, a Nashville native making honest hip-hop music in the country music capital of the world, her songs ranging from the forewarning “Icaraus” to a letter she wrote to her late father who passed away when she was 14; Becca Mancari, a rising force in the Americana and roots music world who turns her experience as a gay woman into soul-searching lyrics; and Mel Washington, who speaks candidly about racial inequality in America and his experience being homeless, simultaneously staring his obstacles in the face with the motivational mantra, “fail forward.”

These voices represent the genuine diversity at our nation’s core, a crucial element that compelled The Shindellas to sign their names to the series. The Nashville-based trio of Kasi Jones, Stacy Johnson and Tamara Chauniece, who will perform on the grand finale with their Weirdo Workshop counterparts Louis York on November 2, felt a sense of gratitude being part of the all-encompassing lineup. “[It’s] a story of empowerment,” Jones says on behalf of The Shindellas. “Seeing all of these different faces, but everyone has the same common theme of healing and community, it’s really empowering. It makes you feel like the world is presented as so crazy and chaotic, but when you look at these people here around us, they all have something in common as we do.”

The music is set against the equally awe-inspiring backdrop of The Caverns, the pure-spirited cause aligning with the meaning of the Sequoyah Cherokee script that The Caverns owner Todd Mayo had etched onto the cave doors: “Welcome to The Caverns where the great spirit brings all people together through music.” As a lifelong Tennessean, Mayo was inspired by the nonpartisan effort to motivate his fellow citizens to vote, which he cites as “one of the most American things you can do.” “America contains multitudes,” Mayo says, quoting Walt Whitman in reference to the series’ diversity. “I think that was celebrated on the Harmony on the Horizon series in all of those ways, and that’s really what I like, where I think the Harmony on the Horizon what they’re doing and what we’re doing at The Caverns, those entwined very easily together.”

Viewers will notice that in between songs, the artists share heartfelt reflections on a range of topics, some speaking about marginalized voices while others address mental health and unity. Prior to filming, the artists were posed with a series of questions inspired by their art, appearing strategically in the set as a compelling link between the songs and larger vision of the series. For SUSTO, his thesis statement centered around finding common ground with those who have differing viewpoints. The Charleston-based indie rock artist, who is a board member of This Is Noteworthy and one of the beneficiaries of the nonprofit’s healthcare grant initiative for touring musicians, notes that the marriage between the songs and the questions encouraged him to go inward, becoming “re-inspired” by his own work in the process. “That definitely lended for some deeper self reflection, and also figuring out what my piece is in all of this big drama of human existence, specifically here, at this moment in our country and what we’re trying to accomplish,” he says.

Like Mayo and The Shindellas, SUSTO was also inspired by the diverse lineup and honored to represent one piece in this “mosaic of stories.” “I think seeing that kind of variety in the artists speaks a little bit to what the democratic process is about,” he continues. “It’s hearing a bunch of different voices with different stories from different backgrounds come together in unity and sometimes agreeing to disagree, that’s part of it, and then sometimes just learning from each other. Being a part of this…I felt like a participant in something bigger.”

Oftentimes, being a part of something bigger than oneself involves trust, and epiphany that R&B soul singer Larysa Jaye let guide her through the atypical set and corresponding questions, aligning with the vision when she realized the connection between the songs and reflection points. “I was thinking how we need to have so much more grace and compassion and empathy for each other,” she says. “I think we can be so hard on each other a lot without knowing people, what they’re going through, what their background is, their mindset. We don’t have enough grace for other people to even have conversation.” Sharing these messages she in her show, she adds, “It’s important to keep conversations going, that’s how you grow. Each of our stories create who we are collectively. We all shape each other’s worlds and that’s why it’s so important for people to vote because if only one portion or one demographic is voting, your government’s not going to reflect your world.”  

The Shindellas, too, felt they’d become part of a grander mission as they stood on stage in the center of the earth, beginning their set with songs of self-acceptance and community and ending with the proclamation that loving oneself without fear enables us to embrace one another and become a unified force. And when Finley concluded the set by inquiring about their thoughts regarding the intention behind the event, they realized the magnitude of what they are a part of. “Somebody actually asking me these very specific, deep questions, you have to put your thoughts to it and have an opinion and really use your voice, and it is very humbling. You feel elemental or you feel like this communication is what we’re supposed to be doing,” says Jones, again speaking on behalf of The Shindellas. “Because there’s so much representation and people are being asked questions that when you answer, you can’t really answer without a point of view, you can’t be neutral on the questions that we got asked. So in that way it reflects democracy, in that all voices are being heard. The concerts were set up saying, your songs matter, all that matters, but your voice matters.”

The message of “your voice matters” is the beating heart of what this series represents – a timeless message that remains true long after the election cycle is over and encapsulates the profound element that unites us all: humanity. “What matters is the process. What matters is that we all chose to show up for each other. What matters is that we cared enough about our country and people’s voices to represent them and try,” Finley proclaims.

“I feel like on the whole, we want to be led and represented by people who care about us, by people who want to serve us, or people who have our personal best intentions, but also the best intentions of our nation at heart. I feel like this process was an exercise in that. It’s an exercise in leading and in compromising and paying attention and working together with all of us, with our democracy…It’s about using our voice. It’s taking the time to listen and figure out for yourself what is the story that each one of these people is telling and what is that thread. But I think if you really go through it, the thread for me that connects them all, it’s love of our country, but it’s the belief in humanity and it is that we’re all curious, and when we take the time, we all have the ability to listen and to be compassionate. And if we are willing to remove our ego,” Finley concludes, “then we have the ability to empathize and recognize a piece of ourselves in every other story.”

Watch the Harmony on the Horizon Early Vote Concert Series now via BriteHeart Live on YouTube. Donations are being collected for the artists through This Is Noteworthy’s PayPal Giving Fund, with a portion of the proceeds also benefiting The Caverns and This Is Noteworthy’s artist grants program.

AF 2019 IN REVIEW: Our Favorite Albums & Singles of The Year

Lizzo press photo by Luke Gilford, courtesy of Atlantic Records.

Every year I keep a running list of new album releases. The idea is that I’ll have new stuff on my radar, along with a go-to playlist if I’m feeling adventurous (or bored) and want to hear something new. This year that list grew to nearly 9,000 songs, and I’m still adding stuff I missed from this year to it. When it came time to make my year-end list, I had some ideas about what would be on it, but I decided to do something more immersive than I’d done years prior (basically narrowing my list down to ten albums). This year, I decided to rank every record I listened to that came out in 2019, resulting in a list of more than 200 albums. That’s a lot, certainly. It’s my job, of course, to listen to music. But what was more mind-boggling was that, when I made a separate list of albums I hadn’t had a chance to listen to or simply didn’t stick in my mind, it was more than double that number. Y’all, a lot of music came out in 2019. And a lot of it was really, really good.

I think our list at Audiofemme is unique in that it gives each of our regular writers (and some of our contributors) complete ownership over their favorites, and that makes our list unusually eclectic. That’s especially true this year; last year’s lists featured a lot of love for Mitski and Janelle Monae, while this year’s lists were so disparate there’s very little crossover from list to list. So while it’s hard to choose one overarching narrative around who slayed hardest this year – Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen releasing the best albums of their careers, Big Thief releasing two amazing records, Jamila Woods and FKA Twigs going big on concept albums – I think we all know that person was Lizzo.


  • Marianne White (Executive Director)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!
    2) Big Thief – Two Hands
    3) Boy Harsher – Careful
    4) FKA Twigs – Magdalene
    5) Cate le Bon – Reward

  • Lindsey Rhoades (Editor-in-Chief)

    Top 10 Albums:
    2) Hand Habits – placeholder
    3) Crumb – Jinx
    4) Pottery – No. 1
    5) Orville Peck – Pony
    6) Cate le Bon – Reward
    7) Kim Gordon – No Home Record
    8) Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
    9) Black Belt Eagle Scout – At the Party With My Brown Friends
    10) Big Thief – Two Hands
    Top 10 Singles:
    1) Sharon Van Etten – “Jupiter 4”
    2) SOAK – “Valentine Shmalentine”
    3) Jonny Kosmo – “Strawberry Vision”
    4) Mineral – “Your Body Is the World”
    5) Drahla – “Stimulus for Living”
    6) Mattiel – “Keep the Change”
    7) Girlpool – “Minute in Your Mind”
    8) Charlotte Adigéry – “Paténipat”
    9) Weyes Blood – “Andromeda”
    10) Palehound – “Killer”

  • Mandy Brownholtz (Marketing Director)

    Top 5 Albums (in no particular order):
    Summer Walker – Over It
    Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!
    Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
    Mannequin Pussy – Patience
    Raveena – Lucid
    Top 3 Singles:
    Summer Walker – “Anna Mae”
    Solange – “Binz”
    Jamila Woods – “ZORA”


  • Alexa Peters (Playing Seattle)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Guayaba – Fantasmagoria
    2) Ings – Lullaby Rock
    3) The Black Tones – Cobain & Cornbread
    4) Lemolo – Swansea
    5) Stephanie Anne Johnson – Take This Love
    Top 5 Singles:
    1) Lizzo – “Juice”
    2) Karma Rivera – “Do More Say Less”
    2) Heather Thomas Band – “When I Was Young”
    3) Stephanie Anne Johnson – “Never No More”
    4) Sarah Potenza – “I Work For Me”
    5) Ariana Grande – “Thank U, Next”

  • Sophia Vaccaro (Playing the Bay)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Charly Bliss – Young Enough
    2) PUP – Morbid Stuff
    3) Kim Petras – TURN OFF THE LIGHT
    4) Microwave – Death is a Warm Blanket
    5) Caroline Polachek – Pang
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Jess Day – “Rabbit Hole”
    2) Ashnikko – “Hi, It’s Me”
    3) Saweetie – “My Type”

  • Cillea Houghton (Playing Nashville)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Yola – Walk Through Fire
    2) Louis York – American Griots
    3) The Highwomen – The Highwomen
    4) Sara Potenza – Road to Rome
    5) Rising Appalachia – Leylines
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Kacey Musgraves – “Rainbow”
    2) Louis York – “Don’t You Forget”
    3) The Highwomen – “Crowded Table”

  • Luci Turner (Playing Atlanta)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger
    2) Harry Styles – Fine Line
    3) Brittany Howard – Jaime
    4) MARINA – Love + Fear
    5) Death Mama – High Strangeness
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Sam Burchfield – “Blue Ridge June”
    2) Pip the Pansy – “Siren Song”
    3) 5 Seconds of Summer – “Teeth”

  • Victoria Moorwood (Playing Cincy)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) YBN Cordae – The Lost Boy
    2) Wale – Wow… That’s Crazy
    3) Roddy Ricch – Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial
    4) DaBaby – KIRK
    5) NF – The Search
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) DaBaby – “Intro”
    2) Polo G – “Pop Out”
    3) Lil Baby – “Yes Indeed” (feat. Drake)

  • Amanda Silberling (Playing Philly)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Palehound – Black Friday
    2) Great Grandpa – Four of Arrows
    3) Charly Bliss – Young Enough
    4) T-Rextasy – Prehysteria
    5) Leggy – Let Me Know Your Moon
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Mannequin Pussy – “Drunk II”
    2) Charly Bliss – “Chatroom”
    3) (Sandy) Alex G – “Southern Sky”

  • Tarra Thiessen (Check the Spreadsheet)

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Karen O & Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
    2) FEELS – Post Earth
    3) Francie Moon – All the Same
    4) Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
    5) Crumb – Jinx
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Dehd – “Lucky”
    2) Bodega – “Shiny New Model”
    3) Y La Bamba – “Entre Los Dos”

  • Natalie Kirch (Pet Politics)

    Top 5 Albums (in Chronological Order):
    1) JANITOR — She Hates The Hits
    2) Haybaby — They Get There
    3) Holy Tunics — Hit Parade Lemonade Supersonic Spree
    4) Bethlehem Steel — Bethlehem Steel
    5) Francie Moon – All The Same
    6) SUO – Dancing Spots and Dungeons
    Top 5 Singles (in Chronological Order):
    1) Big Bliss – “Contact”
    2) Gesserit – “Silence”
    3) Vanessa Silberman – “I Got A Reason”
    4) New Myths – “Living Doll”
    5) Miss Eaves – “Swipe Left Up”


  • Liz Ohanesian

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Hot Chip – A Bath Full of Ecstasy
    2) (tie) Chelsea Wolfe – Birth of Violence // K Á R Y Y N – The Quanta Series
    3) !!! – Wallop
    4) Yacht – Chain Tripping
    5) Chromatics – Closer to Grey
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Billie Eilish – “Bad Guy”
    2) Roisin Murphy – “Narcissus”
    3) Boy Harsher – “Come Closer”

  • Lydia Sviatoslavsky

    Top 5 Albums:
    1)  Xiu Xiu – Girl With a Basket of Fruit
    2) slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
    3) Boy Harsher – Careful
    4) Thee Oh Sees – Face Stabber
    5) Sylvia Black – Twilight Animals
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Squarepusher – “Vortrack – Fracture Remix”
    2) Coyu & Moby – “I May Be Dead, But One Day The World Will Be Beautiful Again”
    3) Cocorosie – “Smash My Head”

  • Tamara Mesko

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Bad Books — III
    2) Pedro The Lion — Phoenix
    3) Laura Stevenson — The Big Freeze
    4) An Horse — Modern Air
    5) Black Belt Eagle Scout — At the Party With My Brown Friends
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Kevin Devine – “Only Yourself”
    2) Rain Phoenix feat. Michael Stipe – “Time is the Killer”
    3) Sigrid – “Strangers”

  • Erin Rose O’Brien

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Stef Chura — Midnight
    2) Angel Olsen — All Mirrors
    3) Lisa Prank — Perfect Love Song
    4) Carly Rae Jepsen — Dedicated
    5) Cheekface — Therapy Island
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Caroline Polachek — “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings”
    2) Priests — “Jesus’ Son”
    3) Lana Del Ray — “The Greatest”

  • Katie Wojciechowski

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) The Highwomen — The Highwomen
    2) Better Oblivion Community Center — Better Oblivion Community Center
    3) Various Artists — Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’
    4) Vampire Weekend — Father of the Bride
    5) J.S. Ondara — Tales of America
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) MUNA — “Good News (Ya-Ya Song)”
    2) Lizzie No — “Narcissus”
    3) Noah Gundersen — “Lose You”

  • Micco Caporale

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Orville Peck — Pony
    2) Boy Harsher — Careful
    3) Lingua Ignota — Caligula
    4) Heterofobia — Queremos Ver El Mundo Arder
    5) Knife Wife — Family Party
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Dorian Electra – “Flamboyant”
    2) Orville Peck – “Dead of Night”
    3) Solange — “Binz”

  • Jason Scott

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Allison Moorer — Blood
    2) Gabriella Rose — Lost in Translation EP
    3) Emily Scott Robinson — Traveling Mercies
    4) Girl Wilde — Probably Crying EP
    5) BHuman — BMovie
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) Dua Lipa – “Don’t Start Now”
    2) The Highwomen – “Redesigning Women”
    3) Katy Perry — “Never Really Over”

  • Ysabella Monton

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) King Princess – Cheap Queen
    2) Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
    3) Tyler, the Creator – IGOR
    4) Kim Petras – Clarity
    5) Charli XCX – Charli
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) King Princess – “Hit the Back”
    2) FKA Twigs – “holy terrain”
    3) Charli XCX – “Gone” feat. Christine and the Queens

  • Holly Henschen

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Marielle Allschwang & the Visitations – Precession of a Day: The World of Mary Nohl
    2) Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
    3) Sudan Archives – Athena
    4) Karen O & Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
    5) Sigur Rós – Sigur Rós Presents Liminal Sleep
    Top 3 Singles:
    1) King Princess – “Hit the Back”
    2) Sleater-Kinney – “Hurry on Home”
    3) Lizzo – “Tempo”

  • Erin Lyndal Martin

    Top 5 Albums:
    1) Jenny Hval – The Practice of Love
    2) Mariee Sioux – Grief in Exile
    3) Carolina Eyck – Elegies for Theremin & Voice
    4) Julia Kent – Temporal
    5) Rhiannon Giddens – There is No Other (with Francesco Turrisi)

  • Rebecca Kunin

    Top 5 Albums (in no particular order):
    Mal Blum – Pity Boy
    Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!
    Durand Jones and the Indications – American Love Call
    Tony Molina – Songs from San Mateo County
    Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
    Top 3 Singles:
    Brittany Howard – “Stay High”
    Angel Olsen – “New Love Cassette”
    Jacky Boy – “Get Along”

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.

PLAYING NASHVILLE: Louis York Carry the Tradition of “American Griots” on Debut LP

A “griot” is defined as an oral storyteller in West Africa, the roots of the tradition tracing back centuries. Nashville-based duo Louis York not only bring this tradition into the modern era with their debut album, American Griots, but prove they’ve long been griots themselves.

The journey begins with Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, Grammy nominated songwriters and producers who spent more than a decade writing era-defining pop hits (Kelly wrote “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” while Harmony penned Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette” and produced Ne-Yo’s six-time Grammy nominated album, Year of the Gentleman). After breaking away from the grind of the mainstream music industry, they created Louis York and launched their own artist collective, Weirdo Workshop, in Franklin, Tennessee (just outside of Nashville) in 2017. Deriving their namesake from Kelly’s native New York and Harmony’s home city of St. Louis, Louis York introduced themselves as a genre-defying act with an important message to share on a succession of EPs: 2015’s Masterpiece Theater – Act I, 2016’s Masterpiece Theater – Act II, and finally, Masterpiece Theater – Act III, released in 2017.


But with the turn of the new year in 2019, the duo knew it was time to create a comprehensive body of work in order to evolve, setting their sights on a debut album. As they began writing songs and developing themes for the impending project, Kelly and Harmony discovered the word “griot” – a traveling musician, poet or performer who would visit the villages of West Africa and share stories of the people and culture through art. “That part really resonated with us because it felt like there was an ancestral tradition to why music and soul music and this mission will always feel so familiar,” Kelly tells Audiofemme. “That was a beautiful thing to embrace.”

The album reflects a tapestry of the experiences, frustrations and lessons they’ve gathered through their journey, reclaiming the griot’s mission of transforming valuable life lessons into art that not only entertains, but instills education, intellect and spirituality. “We’re asking more questions than we’re giving solutions,” Harmony says of the project. “The songs go different places and take on different twists and turns in ways that I think a lot of people now don’t think fans and consumers can take, but we don’t buy that. We know that music has always been adventurous and progressive and fun and poetry, that’s what we fell in love with when we first came into it,” Kelly describes. “These are all soul songs, each one is kind of a realization for us.”

Louis York called on a team of Nashville griots to help them share these realizations. Caroline Randall Williams, an award-winning poet and co-author of NAACP Image Award winning book Soul Food Love, opens the project with her “piercing” voice, as Kelly notes, on an original poem that proclaims over a groove of horns and drums, “this, an American story / a fists up story / an our power story.” Her moving words take shape again on the reprise of “Teach Me a Song,” the duo’s duet with country star Jimmie Allen, while The Shindellas, the powerhouse trio founded under Weirdo Workshop, follow in their footsteps on “No Regrets.” The ’80s style electro-funk melody doesn’t disguise the uplifting lyrics that encourage self-love and personal freedom, and The Shindellas’ glistening harmonies shining alongside Kelly’s voice as they declare, “I want the world to know / you don’t have to be alone / we don’t have very long / so love anyone you want.” “That part was an important message, so we chose to repeat it over and over again so it could be drilled in people’s heads,” Kelly says.


For Harmony, the album’s profound identity lives in “I Wonder.” Originally released on Masterpiece Theater – Act I as an eclectic R&B number titled “Nerds,” Louis York give the song a new identity on American Griots. Inspired by hymns and Negro spirituals, “I Wonder” intertwines spoken word poetry, jazz, hip-hop and R&B to ponder how Civil Rights pioneers Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X would perceive the world today. The almighty voice of opera singer Patrick Dailey unites with Harmony’s cinematic production of strings and booming drums to elevate the compelling notion, “I wonder / if Martin was alive now / would he be proud? / I wonder / if Malcom was alive now / would he be proud?” “It’s such a vital part of our social message and it’s a missing part musically in pop culture,” Harmony explains. “It feels like it’s encompassing all of what African Americans have contributed artistically to pop culture, and still sounds futuristic,” Kelly remarks, calling Dailey’s presence a “stand alone moment.” “We wanted to feel reverent, but we also wanted it to feel like it was the best of who we are.”

The griot tradition is in capable hands as Louis York continue on an artistic journey that finds them channeling expression, attention to detail, honesty and true musicianship into their craft. These elements reward them with a true sense of freedom, the liberating gift they pass on to those who embrace American Griots. “With us spilling our guts and pouring our hearts on this album, we’re hoping that listeners will have a revelation, which is deeper than inspiration,” Kelly says of the most “complete” body of work they’ve created in their careers. “This album is also a reminder to them that this is what freedom can sound like. Now take that same feeling and apply it to yourself.”

“The only thing that we can offer people is love and happiness and having fun and being introspective. But at the end of it is love,” Harmony observes. “That’s what the world needs.”

American Griots is available on Oct. 18.