Does country music still have a female problem? Yes, actually. But the talent on display at CMT’s Next Women of Country show at Nashville’s City Winery on Tuesday (Nov. 3) inspires hope that the format’s male-heavy balance may soon be shifting.
Label executives hope so too, and they credit CMT -- and specifically senior vp, music strategy Leslie Fram -- for championing up-and-coming female acts with the network’s three-year-old Next Women of Country initiative, which helps boost the profile of select artists with exposure across all of CMT’s platforms. “It’s tougher on females to break through,” said Warner Music Nashville president/CEO John Esposito, "but I think the winds have changed on that. I want to thank Leslie for that. When she came to CMT [in 2011] she made a commitment to women in country. It’s profound, and it’s helped.”
Referencing some controversial remarks from earlier this year when a country radio consultant referred to female artists as the "tomatoes" in the musical salad, Sony Music Nashville CEO Randy Goodman thanked CMT for giving young female acts a platform. “It’s not easy being the tomato in the salad, so Leslie, thanks for helping [women] become the main course,” he said.
The 10 female artists who performed -- including surprise guest Jennifer Nettles -- ably demonstrated that the music soon to come through the pipeline is powerful. Both Nettles and Brandy Clark debuted first singles from their respective upcoming albums that empower women in a fun, feisty way. Nettles sang “Drunk in Heels,” a song about balancing work and home which she says she wrote while “nursing a baby on a tour bus blind with exhaustion,” while Clark performed the hilarious “The Girl Next Door.”
The two women joined forces to write the majority of the songs on Nettles’ next album, which will be her first for Big Machine Label Group. They also announced Tuesday they will hit the road together on the 2016 CMT Next Women of Country tour, joined by Lindsay Ell and newcomer Tara Thompson.
Fram co-hosted Tuesday’s event with 2015’s most successful female breakout star, Kelsea Ballerini. In addition to Nettles and Clark, they welcomed performers Lauren Alaina, Danielle Bradbery, Cam, Clare Dunn, Brooke Eden, Ashley Monroe, Maren Morris and Cassadee Pope.
Alaina kicked things off with a medley of songs by female country and pop stars ranging from Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” to Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” Dunn, introduced by Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Mike Dungan as “a badass,” performed her debut single “Move On.” Eden accompanied herself on piano as she showed off her impressive vocals on “If I Would Have Known.”
Monroe brought out Sarah Zimmerman of the duo Striking Matches to play guitar and provide harmony vocals on “Has Anybody Ever Told You,” offering a spectacular, understated performance. Said Fram of Monroe, “She’s one of the reasons we started CMT Next Women of Country.”
Cam encouraged audience participation during her current smash “Burning House.” Goodman then introduced Morris, the first artist he’s signed since taking over at Sony. The petite powerhouse performed her hooky debut single “My Church,” a likely future hit going to radio early next year.
A pair of former The Voice winners took the stage next. Bradbery performed a new song she wrote, “Room for Two,” followed by Pope belting out her inspirational current single “I Am Invincible.” Pope also told the crowd that the show’s performers have “all been backstage gushing over each other” and called the camaraderie among the female singers “such a community.”
Nettles was the only performer to sing two songs. In addition to “Drunk in Heels” she introduced another powerful new song “Unlove You,” commenting, “What country music does better than any other genre is it celebrates brokenness.” Nettles then led a group a 21 current, past and future Next Women of Country in a sing-along of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” to close the show.
Fram and Ballerini also took to the stage at Tuesday’s event to introduce the artists who have been chosen for the Next Women of Country class of 2016: Ashley Campbell, Courtney Cole, Sara Haze, Carly Pearce, Rainey Qualley, Aubrie Sellers, Morris and Thompson.
In the crowd at Tuesday’s event were numerous industry executives including Big Machine Label Group president/CEO Scott Borchetta, Universal Music Group Nashville president Cindy Mabe and BBR Music Group executive vp Jon Loba, plus a handful of other female country artists on hand to root on the performers, including Mickey Guyton, RaeLynn, Ashley Gearing and Leah Turner.