The first time Spencer performed music from her EP Compassion was in March, with, remarkably, The Roots as her backing band. When she sang "Sorrys Don't Work No More," it felt like both a once-in-a-lifetime thrill and a perfect emblem for her skyrocketing career. "It has been a whirlwind, a wonderful one that I honestly never saw coming," she says. Spencer has been welcomed into writing rooms with a who's who of Nashville's creative community, including Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, Jimmie Allen, Brandy Clark and Jason Isbell, and in May, she made her Grand Ole Opry debut.
She is also among CMT's 2021 Next Women of Country, which for the first time honors multiple artists of color. Her co-honorees include Roberts, who will join Dierks Bentley for his Seven Peaks Festival and whose single, "Stompin' Grounds," was featured on ESPN's Monday Night Football; Canadian singer Sacha, who was recently named iHeartRadio's Future Star and whose single "Standards" reached No. 43 on Billboard's Canada Country chart; and family trio Chapel Hart, whose members are filming a reality TV pilot focused on their budding career, even as they embark on their first national tour. "It's exciting, and it's fast," says the band's Danica Hart. "Those are the two words that best describe this past year."
For all of these women, "successful" could define it as well — though perhaps depending on who's doing the defining. They've all enjoyed support from the media and have been added to digital service providers' playlists. But the traditional indicators of mainstream success — signing a record and/or publishing deal — have mostly remained elusive for them. (Tiera, a 2020 NWOC graduate who signed a publishing deal through a partnership between hit songwriter Nicolle Galyon's Songs & Daughters/Big Loud and Warner Chappell Nashville, is the exception.)
Though a few of these artists and their managers do recount meetings they've landed with labels and publishers, they also recall their disappointment when those meetings did not lead to offers. "We can never be on the same platform as Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris if they don't sign us," says Amber, who has amassed nearly 40,000 Instagram followers, almost 30,000 monthly Spotify listeners and a feature on The Bobby Bones Show. "Things are changing; they're featuring us in articles and doing things like that. But the true change has to happen with the gatekeepers."
But driven by their undeniable talent and ambition, these women also aren't waiting around for doors to open. Instead, they're focusing on what they can do. "It'll stress me out if I think about the issues within the industry," says Spencer. "Of course we know they're there, but I still have to be an artist. I still have to be me in the meantime. And for me, that is what power looks like right now: being in control of who I am and what I'm able to do."
Initially, says Hart, her band "wanted to jump on a label and have them say, 'OK, this is what we see for you guys.' But a few showcases later, we're doing so much on our own that gets to be authentically us. And I'm realizing the importance of our independence."