Ashley McBryde, Jillian Jacqueline & More Rock Nashville at Billboard & CMT Next Women of Country: Event Recap

Billboard kicked off this year's CMA Fest week by teaming up with CMT Next Women of Country for an empowering showcase featuring four impressive up-and-coming female artists on Monday night (June 4). The first-ever Billboard Live Featuring CMT Next Women of Country hosted performances from Ashley McBryde, Jillian Jacqueline, Tenille Townes and Jo Smith, all of whom shared inspiring performances and heartfelt stories in a night full of girl power.

“Storytelling is what makes country music,” Billboard’s editorial director Jason Lipshutz said ahead of the night’s performances. “And some of the most compelling and inspiring stories are coming from women.”

That held true with each of the four ladies who took the stage at one of Nashville’s newest venues, Analog (inside the Hutton Hotel), with McBryde starting things out by bringing some humor: “The most common word we say in the band right now is just ‘weird,’” she said after CMT's senior VP of music strategy and talent, Leslie Fram, asked her about her recent success. “Because two, three years ago we were just asking ‘Can we just have half-off appetizers?’ ‘Cause I gotta feed my men, you know?”

McBryde’s appearance marked her third show of the night and the precursor to a performance at Ryman Auditorium alongside Darius Rucker, Brad Paisley, Lauren Alaina and more stars at Rucker’s ‘Darius and Friends’ benefit show later that night. Yet the 34-year-old seemed unfazed by her marathon day, delivering impassioned renditions of “Rattlesnake Preacher,” “American Scandal” and “Girl Going Nowhere."

Before diving into a story about a high school algebra teacher that once called her aspirations of becoming a singer in Nashville “stupid,” McBryde acknowledged that she didn’t just prove that “bitter old bat” wrong herself — CMT backed her up.

“One of the coolest things that has happened to me since things started taking off is being asked to be one of the Next Women of Country,” McBryde said. "Because it means they like where you’re at and they like where they’re pretty sure you’re headed, and that’s a pretty great compliment.”

Jacqueline added some more amusement to the showcase, sporting a bold all-denim pantsuit that she joked gave her “Justin and Britney vibes.” Though she earned the honor of being a Billboard Chartbreaker because of her breakout single “Reasons,” Jacqueline opted to sing two deeper cuts as well as a brand new song called “Tragic,” which is part of the next set of music she plans to release this summer.

Her choice of songs spoke to the kind of vulnerable storytelling all of the night’s performers put into their songwriting, as she said “Sad Girls” always brings her back to the breakup that inspired it (“That’s what you want from a song,” she asserted) and admitted that she was worried her song “God Bless This Mess” may be too honest to release.  

“What I learned from recording that song and putting it out is, sometimes you have to be the vessel for the song to live and just be the messenger of the message that’s really, really important for people to hear,” Jacqueline said. “I’ve had so many people come to me and tell me that this song got them through some really tough stuff … [but] because I was willing to put this song out and share it, it touched someone else’s life. That’s the power of songwriting.”

Townes arguably brought the most heart-wrenching story of the night with her song “Jersey on the Wall,” which she explained came from an experience she had with high school students from her hometown who lost a star athlete in a car accident. “I thought, ‘Man do I have questions for God,’” she recalled. Those questions came into play in the song’s poignant chorus, which were both sweet (“How do you make a snowflake?”) and mournful (“Why can't you stop a car from crashing?”), making for an emotional performance.

Dressed in a sassy red jumpsuit, Townes — who recently signed with Sony Music Nashville — looked like a rock star as she jammed on her guitar through “Where You Are” and another compelling story of a tune “Somebody’s Daughter,” ensuring that she’s taking her “Next Woman of Country” title to heart.

The night's finale came from Nashville veteran Jo Smith, who has been in Music City for 15 years but jokingly suggested “you have to write a song about moving to Nashville about once a year to get it out of your system.” She played one of the Nashville tunes she’s penned titled “For This Town,” as well as a juxtaposing combination of love songs about a happy relationship (“Bobby’s Heart”) and a booty call (“You Up”), covering a wide country songwriting spectrum.

Smith shouted out McBryde, Jacqueline and Townes for the incredible songs they showcased at the event, but more importantly the hard work all of the ladies have put in to get where they are. “This group of girls is killer,” Smith declared. “They’re all hustling, and that’s what you don’t see."

All four of the women who were part of the inaugural Billboard Live Featuring CMT Next Women of Country event will be performing several more times throughout CMA Fest week. Bringing them together for a night honoring new women in country wasn’t just a kickoff to a week of ladies rocking stages, though — it was proof that the next generation of female singer-songwriters is one hell of a force to be reckoned with.