by Jada E. Watson
Since May 2015, the country music community has been grappling with issues of gender representation in the genre. The female artists active today – like decades of women before them – have been culturally disadvantaged by the industry’s practices. As these artists fight to carve out their own space in the genre, a number of remarkable women have been working tirelessly to support them. Through a variety of initiatives, they are working to change the conversation for female artists in the industry. In honour of International Women’s Day, SongData celebrates some of the remarkable women working behind-the-scenes in this fight for gender equality in country music culture.
“When women support women, even the most established foundations can be rocked.’- Kalie Shorr
In 2013, Leslie Fram, Senior Vice President of Music Strategy and Talent for Country Music Television, launched the Next Women of Country campaign to showcase female artists and provide a space for their development and exposure in this heavily male-dominated genre — followed two years later by Next Women of Country Tour. At a November 2018 event celebrating the 2019 class of Anna Vaus, Emily Hackett, Ingrid Andress, Lainey Wilson, Lauren Duski, Leah Turner, Rachel Wammack, Stephanie Quayle and Tenille Townes, Fram reminded those in the room that they “have the collective power for change.” Fram has continuously used her platform at CMT to champion female artists, to celebrate their music, and to provide a welcoming space for women to develop their narrative voices. One of my favourite collaborations to emerge from the Next Women of Country events is Kalie Shorr, Kelleigh Bannen and Linsday Ell covering Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” in December 2017. As CMT stated in promotional material, this cover highlighted the power of female voices, showing that “ladies are no longer afraid to speak up.”
Shortly after the launch of Next Women of Country, Fram joined forces with her colleagues Beverly Keel and Tracy Gershon to form one of the leading voices in this broader discussion. Change the Conversation formed in 2014 (before #TomatoGate) as a discussion between Keel, Fram and Gershon with the goal of improving the conditions for female artists. Their stated mission has been to “banish the myths and misconceptions that exist regarding female artists in the genre” and to “fight inequality with truth to create an equal playing field in country music.” Since their first meeting in Keel’s living room in 2014, the group has organized mentoring opportunities for women in country music and has actively sought ways to get more female artists recording and publishing deals. This includes hosting public discussions about gender inequality, encouraging songwriters to write for female singers, and getting more female artists on radio and mainstages during concert festivals (see Phyllis Stark’s story on the team). They have fostered a positive environment in which artists feel safe to ask questions and speak openly about their experiences. They have also encouraged female artists to better support one another. Both Reba McEntire and Sara Evans have joined the group, mentoring young artists and offering advice on how to navigate their careers. In April 2018, they led a critical conversation with Cam at the Academy of Country Music Awards — touching on a number of issues, including award show nominations, the declining statistics surrounding radio airplay and streaming, and repercussions on female artists for speaking out against industry practices.
At the same time as Change the Conversation started to take shape, the Song Suffragettes launched. With the support of Todd Cassetty and Helena Capps, the Song Suffragettes held their inaugural event on March 10, 2014 at 3rd and Lindsley Backstage in Nashville, TN. They became so popular by the end of the year that they had to move to the Listening Room Café in December—where they have performed every Monday for the last four and a half years. Working under the motto “Let The Girls Play”, this group has grown from a small group of young ambitious artists to a now 220-member collective that has seen 40 artists obtain publishing deals and 11 land recording contracts. In a promotional video called “Let The Girls Play sizzle”, Kalie Shorr speaks about the power of the Suffragettes movement, stating “when women support women, even the most established foundations can be rocked.” Song Suffragettes celebrates their 5-year anniversary on Monday, March 11 at the Listening Room Café!
Known on Twitter as WOMAN Nashville, the Woman of Music Action Network is a self-described anonymous collective of changemakers that has been working tirelessly behind-the-scenes to advocate for female artists and challenge industry practices. As their mission statement outlines, they are “working to secure more market share, opportunities, resources, and equality for women in the industry.” Through their Twitter feed and website, WOMAN Nashville are drawing awareness to the issues in country culture, including a written report on radio programming quotas (see “Breaking the Bowl”) and another discussing audience based research by several radio consultant operations (see “Breaking the Bowl: Part Two”). In their words, WOMAN is fighting for “a little less talk. A little more action.”
In June 2018, Elaina Doré Smith launched her “Women Want to Hear Women” podcast. Inspired by a common phrase women in the industry hear on a daily basis – that “women don’t want to hear women” – Smith has used her podcast to change the industry rhetoric surrounding female artists and prove that women, in fact, want to hear other women. Season 1 began with a conversation with Kacey Musgraves and ended in December with an inspiring conversation with Cam. With 23 episodes under her belt, Smith has helped reshape and reframe this conversation in a positive way. We’re looking forward to Season 2!
Of course, the industry’s leading journalists have played a critical role in shaping this conversation. I would like to highlight just a few key authors and pieces that have addressed the issues plaguing the industry. In August 2016, Jewly Hight led a Billboard roundtable with Kacey Musgraves, Mickey Guyton, Maren Morris, Cam, Aubrie Sellers and Margo Price focusing on a number of topics, including a gap in strong female subject positions on the radio. At the end of 2018, Hight published series of year-end retrospectives for NPR and Slate that consider the variety of ways in which women are navigating gender biases, and carving out new and creative spaces for themselves. Emily Yahr’s work has drawn attention to the harsh realities of the radio tour and to the ways in which country music has (…and hasn’t) dealt with the #MeToo movement. Marissa Moss’s ground-breaking exposé on the history of sexual harassment and misconduct in industry practices and more recent recap on Country Radio Seminar 2019, has drawn awareness to the concept of “connectivity” as it relates to male and female artists. She states that “connectivity” is hard to define: “For some artists, especially men … it’s the ability to be buddies.” For women, as Moss explains in her January 2018 article in RollingStone Country, this often means appearing accessible and use sexuality as currency. Each of these brilliant writers has shone a spotlight on the impact that these discriminatory practices have had on the lives and careers of female artists.
This list is not exhaustive, to be sure, but these women have been some of the most prominent in the broader discussion of gender inequality in country music culture. They have brought critical awareness to the issues, challenged industry practices, and encouraged those in positions of power to engage in meaningful conversation. It hasn’t been an easy ride, but their actions have been important. Thank you, Leslie Fram, Tracy Gershon, and Beverly Keel of Change the Conversation, the Song Suffragettes team, WOMAN Nashville, Elaina Doré Smith, Jewly Hight, Emily Yahr, and Marissa Moss for 5+ years of important work speaking about the power of female voices.