CMT, Lee Ann Womack Celebrate Female Artists at 'Next Women of Country'

CMT adds four new ladies to its campaign to raise the profile of women in the genre

Jewel addresses the class at CMT's Next Women of Country event in Nashville. Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Country's biggest names hit the red carpet tonight for the 48th annual CMA Awards at Bridgestone Arena, but yesterday a smaller group of younger stars — albeit with plenty of stilettos, jewelry and carpet-cool wear — arrived at City Winery in Nashville for a different ceremony: CMT's second annual Next Women of Country gathering. The live, multi-artist performance is part of the country music network's ongoing initiative to give more airplay and attention to female country artists across its platforms.

The show was co-hosted by Leslie Fram, senior vice president of music strategy for CMT, and trailblazing country chanteuse Lee Ann Womack, whose mere presence made many of the up-and-coming female songwriters and singers shake in their well-appointed boots. The initiative, Fram says, celebrates female artists who have made it on their own but who also support one another to create more opportunities for women in country music.

John Esposito, president and CEO of Warner Music Nashville and one of the day's presenters, told the crowd he wouldn't be satisfied until "25 of 50 chart-toppers are women." While it remains to be seen if radio will get behind such a lofty goal, the talent on display yesterday at Nashville's newest music venue made the case that women could certainly compete with the genre's male powerhouses.

The event kicked off with an introduction from Gavin DeGraw (who has been spreading his country wings of late by working with Sara Evans and Martina McBride), followed by acoustic performances by nine of the Next Women of Country and the addition of four new ladies to the class: Maddie & Tae, Mickey Guyton, RaeLynn and Kelsea Ballerini.

The performances spanned the breadth of sounds in the genre right now. Maddie & Tae played their "bro country" rebuttal "Girl in a Country Song," reveling in its wordplay, and the Betty Boop-like RaeLynn displayed a flair for entertaining. Meanwhile, Guyton, a crowd favorite, exhibited a maturity that belied her years, even tearing up at the end of her song. And Kramer showed off a unique, complex voice that distinguished her from her peers.

"I do have a different voice and for a long time I was embarrassed of that," says Kramer, who originally pursued acting (she starred on One Tree Hill) because she wasn't confident she'd fit in with a field of singers who didn't sound like she does. But being a part of the Next Women group is "all about girl power," she says, using the catchphrase of the afternoon. "It is important to stick together."

Country-crossover singer/songwriter Jewel was named mentor for the new group of Next Women and delivered an open letter to the singers, while encouraging the industry to take more chances with female artists. Addressing radio, Jewel said, "It's okay to play women back-to-back."