Speaking to Billboard last year about the uphill battle faced by women in country music, the songwriter Lori McKenna — who helped pen Little Big Town's Grammy-nominated 2015 smash "Girl Crush" — offered a possible way to raise the profile of talented females in the genre. "Somebody needs to start a country Lilith Fair," she suggested, alluding to the all-women festival founded in the Nineties by Sarah McLachlan. "Think about how great that would be!"
The CMT Next Women of Country tour, which stopped at the Beacon Theatre in New York City last night, offers an all-female line up on a smaller scale. The event brought together a disparate set: up-and-comers Tara Thompson and Lindsay Ell, successful songwriter and solo artist Brandy Clark and Jennifer Nettles, who scored a number of hits as a member of the duo Sugarland but has been working solo since 2013.
Thompson and Ell are both still relatively unknown, and their sets were limited to a handful of songs. Thompson performed with help from a seated guitarist and finished with a rendition of "Someone to Take Your Place," the lively single that she released last month. Ell supplied her own riffs, using loops to build out her tracks — a rarity during a country show. Her latest single "By the Way" shares several characteristics with "Someone to Take Your Place" — crunch, up to date production, and exes-be-damned optimism.
You can find this spirit in Clark's work as well — she excels at writing songs with sharp protagonists driven to the brink by the senseless, irresponsible behavior of their partners: see "Mama's Broken Heart," which she co-wrote for Miranda Lambert, or "Hungover," which appeared on Clark's solo debut 12 Stories. Her other strength is portraits of romance, affecting both for remarkable tenderness ("What'll Keep Me Out of Heaven") or humor ("Illegitimate Children").
Clark is gearing up to release her sophomore album — according to an interview with Rolling Stone last year, the in-demand producer Jay Joyce is involved — and she unveiled several new songs during her set. She acknowledged that it's hard to spring fresh material on an unsuspecting crowd, but the tracks were consistently compelling, showing both sides of her writing: "Girl Next Door" — her new single, out Friday — was slashing and assertive, while "Homecoming Queen" related a heart-rending story about being stuck in a dead-end marriage and the gulf between dreams and reality.
Clark has opened for Nettles on at least two tours, and the pair have developed a writing relationship: Clark helped out with Nettles' latest single "Unlove You," along with another new tune titled "Drunk in Heels." Nettles is an authoritative vocalist with a strong grounding in southern soul; her first post-Sugarland record, That Girl, was ahead of its time. Though the album's singles did not crack the top 25 on the country charts, the climate is different now — between Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" and Chris Stapleton's eruption into popularity, country soul was one of 2015's biggest success stories. Many of the arrangements on That Girl, put together with help from the legendary Rick Rubin, are close to the Muscle Shoals studio trappings of Stapleton's Traveller.
Nettles' fire and brimstone style was on full display at the Beacon Theatre. "Unlove You" rose and fell in massive waves, with a guitarist chopping the rhythm in classic R&B ballad style. "Sugar," another recent single, is swampy funk, and Nettle made the connection explicit by segueing into a classic Stax tune, Linda Lyndell's "What a Man." She then rapped her way through a verse of Salt-N-Pepa's "Shoop." (Nettles has shown a flair for hip hop in the past: revisit the rap-reggae bridge of Sugarland's "Stuck Like Glue" from 2010.)
The southern gospel flavor carried into the final song of the evening: all four singers — along with Sara Bareilles, who dueted with Nettles earlier in the night— joined forces and hollered their way through a slow-roar version of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends." It was a pointed message: a display of unity and power, and hopefully a sign of more to come.