Ashley McBryde, Bailey Bryan Among CMT's 2018 Next Women of Country

Five years in, the initiative to empower female artists adds nine new names

CMT announced the 2018 Next Women of Country class during an event on Tuesday in Nashville. Credit: Rick Diamond/GettyImages

"I am not only making my mom proud, but carrying on the legacy of female country artists," says Abby Anderson of being one of the nine acts named to CMT's Next Women of Country 2018 class on Tuesday.

The deep-voiced singer-songwriter sees herself, and the women with whom she shared Nashville's City Winery stage for the announcement concert, as carrying the torch of those who came before: Loretta, Miranda, Carrie, Wynonna and Shania.

Anderson's "With the Radio On," an autobiographical tale of her love of country radio, was one of a series of performances by a group that CMT believes are the women to watch in country music. "The format is full of guys, which I think is awesome because it is full of good music. Being a woman in country music is all about just making good music," Anderson says.

The fifth year of CMT's NWOC initiative kicked off the announcement with the live concert on Tuesday, hosted by 2014 alum RaeLynn and CMT's SVP of music strategy and talent, Leslie Fram, the woman whom many in the class describe as their "fairy godmother." The program highlights both unsigned and signed female artists as part of a yearlong initiative. The network offers year-round support on air (CMT and CMT Music) and online (CMT.com), and provides mentoring to inductees. In 2015, NWOC launched a tour, which will continue in 2018.

Nashville mayor Megan Barry (the city's first female mayor) joined Fram and RaeLynn to make the announcement of the new class: Anderson, Ashley McBryde, Bailey Bryan, Erin Enderlin, Hannah Ellis, Jo Smith, Kalie Shorr, Kassi Ashton and the Sisterhood (the duo of Ruby Stewart – Rod's daughter – and Alyssa Bonagura).

Anderson and last year's alumna Carly Pearce joked that as they dropped out of school to move to Nashville to pursue their music careers, the NWOC class became their de facto school class, finding in it both education and camaraderie.

This year's concert included Pearce (whose "Every Little Thing" debut has gone gold, a milestone for a country solo female performer in 2017); Danielle Bradbery (who was backed by Ellis); and alumnae Runway June. But it's the year-round work of the initiative that is most crucial.

"It is like why I go to church every Sunday," RaeLynn says of the need for a female-focused cohort. "I know I love Jesus, but it feels good to be with a community of other people who do, too."

Despite the success of many NWOC alumnae, including Ballerini, Pearce, Maren Morris, and Kacey Musgraves, the need to support the work of and promote female artists in the genre is far from over.

"Considering the climate, what is going on in the country, females being supportive of each other is more important than ever," Fram says.

With an industry team, Fram helps choose the class. While the group isn't selected for artistic diversity, it happens on its own, Fram says, illustrated by the 2018 class. Enderlin has a new Jamey Johnson-produced concept album called Whiskeytown Crier inspired by William Faulkner and the author's use of language. The Sisterhood is squarely in the middle of a country-rock-pop Venn diagram. Kassi Ashton, with her tough girl attitude, wowed the audience with "Taxidermy" and made fellow classmate Bryan quip that she knew who she'd call if she ever needed a bodyguard.

"This has become a movement," Fram says. She cites the way in which the artists support one another by promoting their colleagues on social media, through co-writing and in working together, under the idea that "a win for one of us is a win for all of us."

"This is more important than ever," she continues. "If you look just at terrestrial radio, of the Top 30 artists, only four are females. We can't control terrestrial radio but CMT's Hot 20 [Countdown] has been great. It's a lot of eyeballs on these women."

In addition to the strong performances, the event included a few surprises for the women. Songwriter Nicolle Galyon presented NWOC alumna Kelsea Ballerini with the CMT Next Women of Country’s Impact Award, and announced that she would be the mentor for the 2018 group, helping fine-tune their songwriting game.

On the floor after Tuesday's standing-room show, as audience members milled about, taking photos with performers, one woman leaned into her friend's ear: "Next year it will be us, girl."