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.”

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.”

Carrie Underwood Follows CMA Snub With Brash New Video

Photo by Jeff Johnson

Carrie Underwood gets in touch with the bold side of her artistry with her new single “Drinking Alone.”

This week, Underwood released a music video for the smoldering track, and in the four-minute clip, the superstar acts as a singer in a swanky club, donning a fedora and sequined, sheer black ensemble, making eyes with a heartbroken stranger from the stage. It turns out the singer is a lonely patron herself, later joining him in a corner booth, sipping a glass of whiskey as she croons “We should be drinkin’ alone together/Drownin’ the pain is better/With somebody else who got problems/We ain’t gonna solve ’em/The misery loves company.”

As beguiling as the video is, the real intrigue lies in the song itself. “Drinking Alone” finds Underwood tapping into an R&B sound she hasn’t really experimented with before, mixing jazz flavor with slick wordplay. She doesn’t go over the top with her vocals, belting out the powerhouse notes when need be, but letting the softer tones in her voice really do the talking. The track has long been a standout and fan favorite on Underwood’s acclaimed 2018 album Cry Pretty, pushing her out of the sonic comfort zone that’s largely seen her play it close to the mainstream country line, whereas “Drinking Alone” feels like a significant growth spurt.

The video’s release comes on the heels of Underwood’s killer performance of the track at the 2019 CMA Awards. It was more of a theatrical display, really – oozing with confidence and flawless vocals. The show marked the twelfth consecutive year that Underwood served as host of the awards show, previously sharing duties with Brad Paisley.

This year, the CMA’s tone shifted to shine a spotlight on the women of country throughout the broadcast, pairing Underwood with legends Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire as co-hosts on a night that opened with a tribute to generations of hits recorded by women and featuring performances by the all three of them, along with The Highwomen, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Tanya Tucker and many more.

But the female-centric night ended with Garth Brooks being crowned Entertainer of the Year – one of the highest honors in country music – for the seventh time, an outcome that somewhat rattled the Nashville industry. Eric Church, Chris Stapleton, Keith Urban, and Underwood herself were all nominated, with Underwood considered the top contender.

But Entertainer goes beyond touring. Many industry giants (including Miranda Lambert) had voiced their support for the lone woman nominee in the wake of her massive Cry Pretty Tour 360 that had her selling out arenas throughout 2019 and doing her part to support women in the genre by bringing duo Maddie & Tae and trio Runaway June as her opening acts. Cry Pretty is one of the most critically acclaimed albums Underwood has released in her 15-year career, on which she served as producer for the first time, during a season that saw the reserved star opening up about her experience with three miscarriages in a two-year period before welcoming a second son, Jacob, in January 2019. She also continues to cultivate her lifestyle brand Calia and is working on a health-focused book, Find Your Path: Honor Your Body, Fuel Your Soul, and Get Strong with the Fit52 Life, to be released in 2020, and has made impact outside of the genre, as NFL fans know her as the singer of the Sunday Night Football theme song.

Albeit, Brooks was headlining stadiums this year, setting records with ticket sales of 80,000 or more each night, while simultaneously reaching fans in a more personal way with his Dive Bar Tour that sees the superstar performing in intimate dive bars across the country. Still, this truly felt like Underwood’s year. While she’s the first woman to be awarded Entertainer of the Year twice consecutively at the ACM Awards, she hasn’t been able to break that glass ceiling at the CMAs, despite the buzz surrounding her with nominations in 2016 and 2019. While she’s always been at the center of a grand production, the Cry Pretty Tour was a spectacle, taking her show-womanship to the next level with fireworks, moving stages and interactive 360 degree staging that literally put her in the center of the crowd. And speaking as a fan for over a decade, she had me in tears throughout the show, taking us through a “walk down memory lane” segment where she shared her connection to a collection of early fan favorites while also realizing she now has so many hits that she had to perform snippets of several in one take. These are just a few of the factors that proved how much she’s grown as an entertainer since the first time I saw her in concert in 2012.

If you’re going solely based on ticket sales, it makes sense why Brooks was awarded the elite prize. But if you take into consideration the impact of an artist’s branding, how they challenged themselves musically and in their stage show, leading to overall growth as an artist, then Underwood defines the title of Entertainer of the Year.

Underwood is nominated for Favorite Female Artist (Country) and Favorite Album (Country) for Cry Pretty at the 2019 American Music Awards, airing on Nov. 24 on ABC. Here’s hoping she finally gains some long-deserved recognition.

CMT Next Women of Country Proves There’s a Sisterhood in Nashville

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.

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)

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.

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)

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.