“Eventually country radio is going to get its shit together and play everyone,” Maren Morris told the crowd gathered yesterday at CMT’s Next Women of Country showcase at Nashville’s City Winery. There to celebrate the 2019 class and accept the annual Impact Award presented by Natalie Hemby, Morris (part of the 2015 class) peppered that “eventually” with a certain kind of punch: maybe country radio will get its shit together, and maybe it won’t. But Morris, along with CMT’s Leslie Fram and co-host Cassadee Pope, and the new class — comprising Anna Vaus, Emily Hackett, Ingrid Andress, Lainey Wilson, Lauren Duski, Leah Turner, Rachel Wammack, Stephanie Quayle and Tenille Townes — are all proof that the women have done the work. They’ve written the songs, they’re sung their hearts out, they’ve lobbied for equality and they’ve built the fan bases: and in 2019, it’s time for everyone else to get on board.
“We all in this room have the collective power for change,” said Fram, who opened the gathering with Pope. At CMT’s events, that change always feels palpable: on the heels of the women-only Artist of the Year event, the network is laser-focused on tackling the problem of gender representation in country music. At present, there is currently only one song from a female artist in the Top 20 of Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart (Morris’ “Rich”), which means it’s actually outnumbered by songs from men named Chris (Stapleton and Young). There are also zero women of color represented on the Airplay chart or in CMT’s new Next Women class, a sobering reality that the industry must also address when it comes to discussing a true and complete picture of inclusion.
Despite those dismal stats, at yesterday’s event the breadth of talent and range of voices is staggering: from the gut wrenching storytelling of Townes, who loads her breed of country with a bit of Ani DiFranco fire, to the gorgeous piano balladry of Wammack, to the witty pop sensibilities of Andress with a preview of her forthcoming single, “Ladylike.” Some had songs that would be no-brainer hits if a man recorded them, like Clare Dunn’s “More.” Some had messages of encouragement along with their music, like Duski with her ode to self-empowerment, “Costume Party.” “I’m always going to be a work in progress, and that’s ok,” Duski told the crowd. Other veterans of the program, like Kelleigh Bannen, spoke about the importance of a core of true believers.
“All you need is a handful of champions and you can do anything you want,” she said before playing her tender ballad “Happy Birthday,” reflecting on a decade in Music City. “I’m still standing. Just a little more Botox than last year.”
Amongst those from the new class and alumni performing yesterday afternoon, Pearce was the only one to gain any real momentum on radio in 2018 — and she sung “Every Little Thing” for the second year in a row to try and bring her story full circle. “It can be done,” she told Rolling Stone before the show began. “It can be done even when you are at the bottom, feeling like its over. Part of my platform is sharing those vulnerable moments and telling people my story.”
Pearce, like many of the women gathered for the afternoon, is eager to find a place where the focus doesn’t always have to be on her gender, or “women in country” — and that difficult balance between trying to simultaneously lobby for better female airplay and focus the conversation on the art was a recurring theme of the event.
“It’s about the music at the end of the day,” Dunn told Rolling Stone. “The music will, at the end of the day, win. The music will find its way and overcome. At least that’s what I dream of.” Hackett was similarly focused. “These are just amazing artists,” she said. “Period.” If country radio could see with that same kind of clarity, then there would be more songs from women in rotation than anyone would know what to do with. Until then, events like Next Women of Country will simply keep reminding programmers what the airwaves are missing.
Or, as Andress put it, “if your shit is good, it shouldn’t really matter.”