On a hot summer morning in downtown Nashville, six young country standouts take seats around a table, making small talk while awaiting instructions from a surrounding film crew. “Pretend like we’re not here,” urges a producer.
“Yeah, it sure feels intimate,” deadpans singer-songwriter Margo Price, 33, drawing knowing laughter from the five other women who also have tiny microphones inside their dresses. Once the tape rolls, they’re anything but timid, though, as they freely discuss the highly competitive, male-dominated industry in which they live and work.
A lot has changed in the two decades since divas like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride filled the ranks of country’s leading hitmakers. In May 2015, a radio consultant publicly advised country programmers not to play too many female artists if they wanted to maintain ratings, likening songs by women to tomatoes scattered in an otherwise all-male salad. Dubbed “Tomato-gate,” the controversy spelled out an insidious industry bias, but also threw a spotlight on the genre’s serious female contenders -- women working to establish their individuality, broaden the genre’s subject matter and raise the bar artistically. Women like these six.
All millennials, they’re a savvy, forward-thinking, casually irreverent bunch. There’s Price, who is the first solo female act to reach the Top Country Albums top 10 without a charting single, and Maren Morris, 26, whose country-pop blockbuster Hero debuted atop the country albums chart in June (and features her blasé use of the word “shit” on single “Rich”). Also here is Cam Ochs, 31, who performs as Cam and broke through with the anguished, stripped-down number “Burning House,” a Hot Country Songs No. 2. Mickey Guyton, 33, turned heads in the summer of 2015 with the neotraditional power ballad “Better Than You Left Me.” Aubrie Sellers, newly signed to Warner Music Nashville, is the 25-year-old daughter of Lee Ann Womack, but the second-generation singer has carved out her own tempestuous, garage rock-informed sound. Kacey Musgraves, 27, is the group’s relative veteran, a devotee of clever word-craft with the platinum single “Merry Go ’Round,” the 2013 gold album Same Trailer Different Park and the chart-topping 2015 follow-up Pageant Material under her belt.
Over the next hour, these six leaders of Nashville’s new power generation discuss everything from Dolly Parton and Hillary Clinton to the state of industry sexism -- including an ugly social media feud with the guy behind Tomato-gate.
How has country changed for women in the last 10 years? Or 20?
SELLERS We went through a little lull, but women are coming back in a big way. There’s a lot more freedom for women to be themselves.
MUSGRAVES For a while, you had to have a pretty face and a big voice. Now, I don’t feel like that’s as important -- what you’re saying and the substance behind it is more important. That makes me excited.
MORRIS Ever since the Dixie Chicks, the female perspective on country radio has been love songs. I love love songs, but we do have more to talk about, so it’s nice that other perspectives are coming back.
GUYTON Maren, your song “Rich” -- I freaking love that you curse. It makes me so happy, because it’s so taboo. Women -- we’re real, you know? We’re not just trophies that you put on the shelf.
You all sound optimistic.
CAM I know! It’s heading in a good direction, but we still have a way to go. If this was a “male power roundtable,” it would be a bigger table. (Laughter.)
GUYTON I grew up listening to women singers. Where did they all go?
GUYTON They weren’t mediocre. They were really, really good. I mean, Dolly Parton owned what she did. She had big boobs and she didn’t care what anybody said about her: Yeah, I get plastic surgery — and? And look at her. She has her own theme park.
MUSGRAVES She and Loretta Lynn did a really good job of balancing all these things: sexuality, humor and brains. They weren’t just pretty faces; they had it all. Dolly wasn’t afraid to be the smart woman in the room, but also wasn’t afraid to pop out her cleavage.
It has been a year since Tomato-gate. How have you directly experienced sexism in the industry?
PRICE A lot of times when I play a show, I’m the only girl on the bill. We’re a minority, for sure. I was so fired up when that tomato thing happened, I made a shirt that said, “You say ‘Tomato,’ I say ‘F— you.’ ” (Laughter.) I tweeted it at [Keith Hill, the radio consultant responsible for the uproar]. I had an argument with him. There was just no changing his mind. He actually made my photo his Facebook profile picture and got all these people to say bad things about me -- how I’m ugly and need a nose job.
GUYTON Are you serious?
PRICE Yeah. I ended up getting rid of my personal Facebook and blocking him on Twitter. I can feel my blood pressure rising talking about it.
CAM It was nice [that Tomato-gate] acknowledged there was something going on -- everybody knew there was something -- but there are these excuses sometimes.
MUSGRAVES If they can’t get your song off the ground, it’s immediately blamed on your personality, or the fact that you’re female, or that you didn’t make a radio station program director feel important.
SELLERS There’s extra pressure to not piss anyone off. Men don’t have that.
PRICE I had the most frustrating thing happen when I was trying to find a label. I sent my album to this indie label and they were like, “We already have two girls on the label. I’m so sorry, we just can’t take your project.”
As if there’s a limited number of spots for women.
PRICE Right. You can have 15 guys, but if you have two girls, the quota is filled.
MUSGRAVES In my head, it’s never about female versus male; it’s always about good songs versus bad songs. If you’re singing and writing good songs, I don’t care what gender you are or if you’re trans -- if it’s a great song, it should be played.
CAM Sometimes the gatekeepers -- everybody loves that word, but whomever decides what is going on in mainstream country music -- don’t give country audiences enough credit. There’s a lot of different kinds of people listening and they’re all smart.
MUSGRAVES I’ve been asked to change lyrics, among other things, and I refuse to compromise. I’d rather go down in flames, work at Walgreens later, say what I want to say and be who I want to be. I could not sleep at night if I compromised anything; there’s no chance.
MORRIS I’m so flattered when people laugh at my songs because I use the word “shit” in them, but it shouldn’t be that shocking, because it’s like real-life conversation.
You all write your material and many of you are involved in arrangements and production. Has it ever been hard to get ideas taken seriously?
MUSGRAVES If it was, I’d walk out the door.
PRICE You’ve got to find people who respect you.
MUSGRAVES Don’t go into a situation where your integrity or your thoughts would be questioned. Find your tribe.
SELLERSThat’s why I made my record before I had a label. I put it out independently -- in a way, out of fear -- because I didn’t want anyone to change it.
How involved are you all in the business side?
GUYTONFor a long time, I let people kind of dictate -- well, not dictate who I was, but I just assumed people in powerful positions know what’s hot. Then finally I realized, “You don’t know who I am. I have to stand up and dictate who I am.” Nobody cares more about your business than you.
MUSGRAVES Sometimes I’m probably way too hands-on, but I love knowing what’s going on with my money, with my crew. I want to be hands-on without letting it drive me crazy and take away from my creativity. I’m not a number-cruncher, but I want to have a say.
PRICE It’s your name. It’s your face.
When was the last time you had to choose between being liked and being respected?
PRICE Every day. It’s easy to be a people-pleaser, but that’s not what makes me happy. Women get labeled “bossy” when it’s like, “Maybe I’m a leader. Maybe I just know what I want.”
MUSGRAVES Maybe I just know what’s best for me.
Mickey, you’re one of the few women of color who have achieved measurable success in country. Are people hyperconscious of that?
GUYTON Everybody has been very kind to me and very open. The reality is music doesn’t see color.
Still, you often get asked about country and race in interviews.
GUYTON I do. But people outside the entertainment world don’t talk about that. I’ve only had one awkward comment. Someone said, “Oh, my God! You’re so tan!” (Laughter.)
What do you make of the presidential race?
MUSGRAVES I’ve got to go. (Laughter.)
But what do you make of a woman being a major party candidate for the first time?
MORRIS I’m going to be honest. I was really into the last election, but this one, I just feel so dejected. It’s a sound-bite culture of people saying the worst things, and I just want to put my head in the sand.
SELLERS It’s so representative of our time that it’s a reality-show freak show. It’s not a real presidential race.
CAM It is kind of tough with Hillary because you do want to be really excited. But it’s probably the same as it is with us: I’m glad that other women are glad that I’m a woman making music, but it probably should go deeper than that.
MORRISI don’t want to get political here, but everything I’ve heard out of Donald Trump is definitely, um, shocking. The fact that he’s got women fans is very alarming to me, because some of the stuff that has come out of his mouth is just so awful.
Musgraves Can we have more options? Is this it? Where’s Ron Paul? Bring him back.
PRICE Bernie Sanders has some great ideas, but it’s almost splitting the Democratic vote.
MORRIS It comes down to the lesser of two evils, which is very sad. It’s also so polarizing: If you have opinions that are middle of the road -- you’re not super-left, you’re not super-right -- you’re labeled wishy-washy.
What are the most important social issues facing your generation?
PRICE The pay gap. In Tennessee, women make 78 cents on the dollar compared to what men make.
MUSGRAVES People are worrying about which bathroom to walk into when there are people walking into clubs, shooting? Use whatever bathroom you want!
SELLERS People don’t read anymore. They read Twitter feeds and Facebook -- that’s how they get their information.
PRICE Nobody has the attention span to actually sit down and do the research.
CAM But we all have a big mouth. Our generation needs to learn how to deal with that a little better.