When a male radio consultant told Country Aircheck in late May that female acts are the equivalent of tomatoes garnishing the salad of the country format, it was the metaphor heard round the music industry. At CMA Music Fest, it was clear that plenty of country fans took big issue with the statement, too. The first day of the festival a group of them were selling “Let the Tomatoes Play” T-shirts right out of a rolling suitcase.
It took no time at all for the subject of “Tomatogate” to come up during CMT’s Next Women of Country show at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. CMT has presented similar events in previous years, but none of the others have had such a clear target: disproving the notion that listeners don’t really want to hear female country artists.
The show’s emcee, Leslie Fram — a CMT SVP and the creator of the Next Women campaign — went out of her way to emphasize that the artists on the bill have been receiving notable responses to their music: that Kelsea Ballerini’s debut single “Love Me Like You Mean It” is Top Five and climbing on the Billboard Country Airplay chart; and that Cam’s confessional ballad “Burning House” began raking in the iTunes downloads just as soon as it was featured on a syndicated radio show.
“As listeners and as fans, you guys know what you want,” Cam told the crowd, eliciting a hearty round of applause.
Fram asked Cam, Ballerini and the other three artists perched on stools on stage how they got their starts in music, giving them the opportunity to talk about drawing inspiration from other female artists. RaeLynn traced her journey back to seeing Miranda Lambert play guitar in a music video; Angaleena Presley said she grew up with her mom singing along to Loretta Lynn records in the kitchen (Presley called Lynn her “mom’s therapist”); and Ballerini recalled listening to her share of Faith Hill and Taylor Swift. Presley also credited her singing, songwriting bandmates in the Pistol Annies (Lambert and Ashley Monroe) with helping clear the way for her solo career.
Presley, a brunette, quipped that the Next Women show lineup had her flanked by young blonds. The joke landed both because that’s exactly the kind of appearance-based categorizing that female performers face all the time and because all the artists up there were, in truth, easy to tell apart. RaeLynn sang, in her girlish rasp, of wanting emotional vulnerability from a guy “(For a Boy”). With her feathery timbre and conversational delivery, Presley wryly narrated moments when she got by on down-home resourcefulness (“Lemon Drop”). Danielle Bradbery, a clear-toned, unadorned belter, conveyed the story of a woman leaving an unsatisfying life behind (“Heart of Dixie”). Cam sang, with her agile, twinkling lilt, of taking a self-aware risk on a doomed romance (“My Mistake”). And with sultry, R&B undertones to her voice, Ballerini dressed down what she called “boys who don’t know how to grow up” (“Peter Pan”).
The five of them were models of mutual admiration through two rounds of songs, quietly singing along with lyrics they knew, sometimes even piping in with unrehearsed harmonies, and expressing appreciation for each other’s performances and perspectives.
“We can’t get by coasting,” Cam said of the challenges they face as women in the industry, “so even if we wanted to be mediocre, we couldn’t.”
Presley, who’d been in Nashville the longest, was even more pointed: “I’m not a tomato. I’m a hard-working, sophisticated woman. My mama didn’t burn her bra for nothing. I’m here to stay.”