Looking for the next emerging trend in country music? We have two words for you: girl groups.
A slew of all-female trios and quartets are in various stages of development in Nashville, including Runaway June, which has already landed a label deal — on BBR Music Group’s Wheelhouse Records — and will embark on a radio tour in April.
But these groups have a potentially difficult road ahead. There hasn’t been a successful all-female band on country radio since Dixie Chicks and SheDaisy both ended their chart runs in 2006. In the ensuing decade, there have been surprisingly few attempts at launching another girl group until now, and out of those, only Sony’s Pistol Annies still has a deal. Others have come and gone without success, like Show Dog’s Carter’s Chord and BNA’s The Lunabelles (both sister trios), as well as Skyville’s Stealing Angels. But one member of the latter group clearly wasn’t discouraged: Former Stealing Angels member Jennifer Wayne is now one-third of Runaway June.
These are some of the players to watch for:
• Farewell Angelina: This Nashville-based quartet of singer-songwriters (Nicole Witt, Andrea Young, Elizabeth Elkins and Lisa Torres) is working with producers Keith Stegall and Jan Ketner on its debut EP, due this summer, and has released a video for the single “Hillbilly 401K.”
• The Joseph Sisters: The Wheeling, W.Va., sibling trio of Marybeth, Jamie and Shalyn Joseph released their debut single, “Crazy in Love,” to radio in February. It was co-written by Chase Bryant and produced by Steve Marcantonio.
• Maybe April: This trio of singer-songwriters describes its sound as “country indie folk” with three-part harmonies. Members Katy Bishop, Kristen Castro and Alaina Stacey met at a music industry camp in Nashville in 2012. They have appeared at numerous Song Suffragettes shows in Nashville, a weekly showcase for female songwriters that also nurtured South Haven (more on that act below).
• Runaway June: The trio (guitarist Wayne, lead vocalist Naomi Cooke and mandolin player Hannah Mulholland) has cut nine tracks with producer Mickey Jack Cones so far and is narrowing down choices for a debut single, due in June.
• Sister C: The sibling trio from Texas was first discovered on season two of The X Factor. It has an EP, Demo Session, Vol. 1, at iTunes that includes the single “Faint of Heart,” produced by Lee Brice and Jon Stone. The sisters (Cirby, Carli and Celbi Manchaca) are opening tour dates for Clint Black in April.
• Southern Halo: A trio of teenage sisters from Cleveland, Miss., Natalie, Christina and Hannah Morris are working debut single “Little White Dress” (from their 2015 self-titled album) to radio with the help of GrassRoots Promotion.
• South Haven: A genre-bending quartet (Nicolette Mare, Ray Taaffe, Maddie Walker and Brit Willson) that describes its sound as “two clicks off-center from the mainstream.” The group just dropped its first single and video, “Firestarters” (co-written by another Song Suffragettes alum, the likely soon-to-be-signed Kalie Shorr), and manager Todd Cassetty plans to begin shopping for a label deal for the band soon.
While they share some common traits in configuration, sound-wise these bands are all over the map. Runaway June has drawn comparisons to Dixie Chicks with a sound Wayne calls “organic, rootsy and country … It’s old-school country that sounds new because you haven’t heard it in so long.”
Meanwhile, South Haven is taking more of a Sam Hunt approach with a sound the band describes on its website as one that combines “classic country influences with modern sounds and melodies from pop, rock and EDM,” marking perhaps the first time electronic dance music has ever been referenced in a country band’s bio. “We just want to shape something new,” says Willson.
Because there hasn’t been a successful female country act since she was a child, Willson says, “We don’t really have anyone to follow as a precedent. So we’re just kind of going for it and using all the influences we like and throwing them into the music.” She adds, “What worked for the Dixie Chicks then, that doesn’t speak to us now, and I don’t think it would be as relevant.”
Wayne and Willson are aware of the challenge they face, but choose to see opportunity in it. Both believe the music they are making with their respective bands will find a home at country radio. Willson says, “I see this wave of female empowerment in country music right now, and I think a girl group — this is the perfect time to do it.”
Wayne believes country music fans are “craving” the sound of a female band because they haven’t heard it in so long. She may be right. Runaway June was well received during a performance at Country Radio Seminar in Nashville earlier in 2016, and KMPS Seattle PD Kenny Jay says the group has “a lot of potential, which is great. We need it.”
Rubber City vp operations/WQMX Akron, Ohio, PD Sue Wilson finds the new girl group trend “interesting. Solo acts, especially male solo acts, have had success, and since female solo acts … haven’t achieved the same success, perhaps this is Nashville’s attempt at getting women out there,” she says. “If the girls solo don’t get the attention or airplay, maybe the girl groups will. And while I appreciate that effort, I think this glut of so many at once will make it extra challenging to set any of them apart …One or two will really have to stand out with an exceptional song or angle beyond just being a girl group.”
While he notes that Nashville “has a storied history of jumping on the bandwagon with seemingly every label cloning the hot new thing and then overcorrecting in the aftermath when the hot new thing isn’t the hot new thing any longer,” WBEE Rochester, N.Y., vp/programming Bob Barnett still thinks there is room for these new female acts to at least “get up to the plate and swing.”
“Bring ’em on, but don’t expect them all to be hits, let alone home runs,” he adds, noting that the relative uniqueness of an all-female country band configuration “doesn’t give you any special treatment … It doesn’t matter what your gender is. Country radio is looking for hits and stars.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.