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