On March 8th, Nashville’s Big Machine Label Group sent out an email in honor of International Women’s Day featuring images of female artists on their roster. “Today, and every day, we celebrate the women of Big Machine,” it read, with photos of Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, Carly Pearce, and Lauren Jenkins. The only problem: Jenkins wasn’t on the label. She was let go a few days earlier, just shy of the first anniversary of her debut LP No Saint.
“Two days after the tornado was when I got notice from someone at the label that they were dropping me,” says Jenkins, calling from Nashville, which is weathering back-to-back hits from a deadly March 3rd tornado and the coronavirus crisis. “All of my shows had started getting cancelled or postponed from the pandemic. I thought, ‘Well, what else could possibly happen?’ It was just blow after blow.”
Jenkins, who had just returned from a successful European run opening for Brett Eldredge, was notified via her management team that she would no longer be with Big Machine. Unable to tour because of the pandemic, she worried about paying her rent and about getting sick, and she tried to make sense of how abruptly her relationship with Big Machine had ended. Even more so, she wanted to make sense of a system that continually keeps female country artists from breaking through.
This kind of story isn’t unique to Jenkins. Instead, it’s symptomatic of the endless, crushing cycle that many women (and left-of-center country artists of any gender) endure in the Music Row system. Excellent singer-songwriters like Kelleigh Bannen and Cassadee Pope left deals when their music didn’t perform within the framework it needed to. Because country radio doesn’t play many songs by women, labels don’t invest the money to put them in contention. And when labels don’t push their artists to radio, radio gatekeepers claim they have less “inventory” to pull from. It all creates a climate that puts female artists up against nearly impossible odds, and leaves them working with a disadvantage from the start.
“If you are only working with half of the tools, the chances of you being able to succeed are almost non-existent,” Jenkins says. “It’s pretty close to impossible.”
In the past month, however, some women have seen chart success: Ingrid Andress and Gabby Barrett both hit Number One on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, and in consecutive weeks, marking the first time ever that two debut female artists’ singles went Number One back-to-back. (Andress is currently Number 15 on RS’s Breakthrough 25 Chart; Barrett’s “I Hope” peaked at Number 14 on the all-genre RS 100 in April).
The back-to-back chart-toppers are a great achievement, but one that Jenkins approaches with apprehension. “It’s bullshit that the thought of having two women is an achievement,” she says. “That shouldn’t be the reality.” Both artists are on Warner Music Nashville, and Andress (who co-wrote “No Saint” with Jenkins) both received ample institutional support and promotion. It proves that chart success is possible for women — if radio opens its doors and labels are willing to take a chance with their dollars on female artists.
It could have been Jenkins on the charts. When No Saint came out a little over a year ago, “Running Out of Road” was supposed to be her first big push to the airwaves, and the label had even prepared a radio edit, according to Jenkins, before plans to deliver it were tabled.
A rep for Big Machine did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
“Something happened,” she says. “I never found out why that didn’t go to radio and why they decided not to push it. It just didn’t happen and I don’t know why. With radio, it’s like catching lightning in a bottle, and you have to have a label that’s willing to go to bat. I don’t think they were willing to 100 percent get behind my music, and if you don’t swing, you’re not playing.”
Jenkins did have plenty of self-created steam in 2019, however. As No Saint was released to positive reviews, she made her national television debut, snagged a spot in Bobby Bones’ Class of 2019, found support on SiriusXM’s E Street Radio with her covers of two Springsteen songs, and stayed on the road endlessly, often self-financing her travel and any other related expenses while building a strong fanbase, particularly overseas. “It’s just sort of a mystery now why that wasn’t enough,” Jenkins says.
For her tour with Eldredge, she brought along her sister as her only support: they shared a twin bed in hostels, and Eldredge and his team picked up the slack where they could. “His camp was so kind,” she says. “They realized I didn’t have any tour support so they really stepped up to help me out. Ran my sound, carried my merch. I was surrounded by kind people. They were sold out, massive crowds, really beautiful.”
With a second album in the works, Jenkins came home feeling energized, only to have that optimism quickly shattered. When she saw the International Women’s Day newsletter from Big Machine, she laughed before wanting to cry. “I was like, ‘Well, I don’t feel very celebrated. But thank you?’”
Big Machine was Jenkins’ label home for seven years, a deal she signed after playing in bars and anywhere she could since the age of 15. The label, which famously launched Taylor Swift’s career, promised her a sense of family, she says, and that’s what she was looking for. “When I signed at 21 I didn’t know anything about the music business at all,” Jenkins says. “I didn’t have anyone to inform me about how the game works. My idea was that if I just did the work and wore all the hats I could, I would get the push. And I guess that’s not the recipe.”
Since parting with Big Machine, Jenkins has been finding a way to navigate her new normal without a label. She’s done a series of livestream events on StageIt and is plotting the release of her next record, which she plans to unveil through a series of EPs.
Her new song, ”Ain’t That Hard,” released Friday, is the first offering from Jenkins’ independent project, and it showcases the subtle strength she expressed on No Saint: her gift for a hook among sharp and humanistic songwriting, her raw and idiosyncratic vocals that look more for emotion than showboating.
“I wanted to release it right now because it strikes a chord with everything that is happening in the world,” she says, getting ready to go for a run after the day’s rainstorm. “Traveling so much and being in so many different towns across the world, I kept seeing the same stories. Lately I feel like I have had my heart crushed several times. It just feels like an appropriate song for right now. It’s not a sad song: it’s just a story about life. Getting dropped from the label was not something I was expecting, but now it’s just, ‘OK, well, let’s reset and start with a clean slate.’ Now I have the keys to do that.”