Revealed on Tuesday night (Jan. 17) at Nashville’s City Winery, the 16 rising female artists in the class of 2023 are Sony Music Nashville/Columbia artist Alana Springsteen, Angie K, Big Loud’s Ashley Cooke, Warner Music Nashville’s Avery Anna, Carter Faith, Catie Offerman, Sony’s Georgia Webster, Julie Williams, Kasey Tyndall, Kimberly Kelly, Mackenzie Carpenter, Black River’s MaRynn Taylor, Sony Music Nashville/Columbia’s Megan Moroney, O.N.E The Duo, Pillbox Patti and Roberta Lea.
Over the next year, the new CMT Next Women of Country class will receive cross-brand support for their music and videos on CMT, CMT Music, PlutoTV’s CMT Equal Play Channel, CMT Hot 20 Countdown, CMT.com and CMT’s social channels, as well as cross-promotional opportunities for Paramount Media’s MTV Entertainment Group brands via live events, the Paramount Times Square billboard in New York City and more.
“So many women broke through this year and had success stories, whether it was signing a publishing deal, or breaking through on TikTok, that we couldn’t not make it a big class. It just happened to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the franchise,” Leslie Fram, CMT senior VP of music strategy tells Billboard. “You have women who are amazing songwriters, women who have been working for years and some who just broke through on streaming. Each one has an incredible story.”
Cody Alan and CMT Next Women of Country alumnus Rissi Palmer will host the event, with program alums including Maddie & Tae (2015), Ingrid Andress (2019), Kelsea Ballerini (2015), Brittney Spencer (2021), Caitlyn Smith (2017), Brooke Eden (2015), Chapel Hart (2021) and Mickey Guyton (2015), as well as singer-songwriter-producer Nicolle Galyon, among those in attendance.
“We remember when Next Women of Country was starting and we really had the opportunity to see the sisterhood work,” trio Chapel Hart, members of the CMT Next Women of Country Class of 2021, tells Billboard via a statement. “Social media was just kinda kicking off, and we watched the ladies share each other’s music & art on the other’s platforms because radio just wasn’t playing many women but they found a way to innovate…We admire angels like Leslie Fram and the staff at CMT because it’s one thing to talk the talk but they are actually putting in the work and walking the walk! NWOC is hands-down one of the greatest accomplishments of our career.”
Including the Class of 2023, 111 female acts have been supported through the program over the past decade, among them Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark, Brooke Eden, Carly Pearce, Gabby Barrett, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Runaway June, Lainey Wilson, Lauren Alaina, Maren Morris and Morgan Wade.
“CMT’s Next Women of Country is an incredible beacon in this town, shining a light on new female talent,” Spencer, who was part of CMT Next Women of Country’s Class of 2021, tells Billboard via a statement. “Whether it’s giving touring opportunities, advertising support by displaying new female artists’ music videos on Viacom’s billboard in Times Square, or ensuring male and female artists’ music videos receive equal play time on its platform through its equal play access initiative, CMT leads the way in providing tangible, useful support to an often times overlooked group of Nashville artists.”
Beyond launching its CMT Equal Play Initiative to help amplify underrepresented voices in country music, as well as promoting music and content from female artists across its range of platforms, CMT has also teamed with social impact firm The Change Agent-cy for a third consecutive year to offer Next Women of Country members access to individual consulting, media training, and planning for specific social impact and advocacy campaigns.
Celebrating 10 Years of Changing the Narrative
Fram launched the program a decade ago after seeing the need to amplify female voices.
“I came into this genre from the rock world and over the course of that first year at CMT and seeing a lot of women start to disappear from playlists in general, the percentages were so low of women being supported by terrestrial radio, way before we had started talking about playlisting on DSPs,” she says. “It was concerning because we’ve seen this in all genres, the myths of ‘You can’t play two women back-to-back’ or ‘Women don’t want to hear women,’ and there’s no research that backs any of that up. We thought, ‘How can we as a network–knowing that we play videos and that we have content and Hot 20 and all these platforms– support female artists?’”
Talent was the defining criteria for inclusion. “We started seeing a lot of these artists that were getting zero support, but who had these amazing voices and talents, like Ashley Monroe and Brandy Clark,” Fram says. “Brandy was one of my early inspirations, because I was such a fan of Brandy’s and I wanted to support her. I knew if she’s not signed to a label, it would be hard to get exposure. That was another reason to start this program, because they did not have to have a publishing deal or a record deal—it was just about great music and great artistry.”
In 2013, the inaugural CMT Next Women of Country class, which included Clark, Monroe, and Musgraves, effectively put the industry on notice as to the lack of female voices being heard on country radio, two years before what would become “Tomato-gate” in 2015, when radio consultant Keith Hill drew ire after calling female artists the “tomatoes” of a male artist-filled “salad.”
“If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” Hill told country radio trade publication Country Aircheck. “Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
It was a stark contrast, given the proliferation of female country artists heard on country radio—and winning awards—in previous decades, including Country Music Hall of Fame member Loretta Lynn (the first woman to win the CMA’s entertainer of the year honor, in 1972) and Barbara Mandrell (the first artist—male or female—to win two consecutive CMA entertainer of the year honors), to Dolly Parton, The Judds, Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker, and a plethora of female artists who stormed the country radio charts in the 1990s, from Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill to LeAnn Rimes, The (then-Dixie) Chicks, Terri Clark and more.
Since 2013, just over 50 songs featuring female voices (including solo female artists, duos and groups including female artists and female artists featured on songs released by male artists) reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. Several alumni from CMT’s Next Women of Country have earned radio chart-toppers, including McBryde, Lindsay Ell, MacKenzie Porter, Ballerini, Barrett, Morris, Maddie & Tae, Lauren Alaina, and Pearce. Barrett, who previously earned two No. 1 hits with “I Hope” and “The Good Ones,” is currently in the top 10 on the Billboard’s Country Airplay chart dated Jan. 21 with “Pick Me Up,” while Wilson has two songs in the top 15 (“Heart Like a Truck” and “Wait in the Truck,” a collaboration with HARDY). Pearce is at No. 15 with “What He Didn’t Do.” Other past and present NWOC participants on the chart include Hailey Whitters (“Everything She Ain’t”), Moroney (“Tennessee Orange”), and Ballerini (“If You Go Down, I’m Going Down Too”).
“We are seeing more females getting signed and when artists like Lainey and Megan have success, it opens the door for so many more,” Fram says. “We see those success stories and the gatekeepers begin to say, ‘Ok, we need to pay attention to this.’ I would love to see the percentages increase on terrestrial radio, but we are seeing more women get on tours. A lot of our male superstars are taking women out on tour with them, too. It’s helping that crazy cycle that we are trying to break. You are seeing women getting signed, like Ashley Cooke to Big Loud.”
Many members of CMT’s Next Women of Country have picked up awards accolades and nominations in recent years. At the 2019 Grammys, Musgraves earned the most coveted trophy of the evening, when her Golden Hour project earned the all-genre album of the year trophy, in addition to country album of the year. In 2020, Mickey Guyton earned a Grammy nomination for best country solo performance for “Black Like Me,” and followed with a CMA new artist of the year nomination in 2021 and Grammy nominations for best country solo performance, best country song and best country album (all for the single and album “Remember Her Name”). Pearce and McBryde have earned awards recognition from the Grammys, CMAs and ACMs for their No. 1 Country Airplay hit “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” while Pearce won the CMA’s female vocalist of the year honor in 2021. Ballerini picked up Grammy nominations for best new artist (2016), best country album (2019 for Unapologetically) and returns to the Grammys nominations ballot again this year, earning a best country solo performance nomination for “Heartfirst.” In 2021, Ballerini earned her first two CMA Awards wins, picking up musical event and video of the year for her song “half of my hometown” (a No. 1 Billboard Country Airplay hit, written by Ballerini, which flips the script on having female artists guest on a male artist’s song, by welcoming her fellow east Tennessee native Kenny Chesney). In 2022, Wilson earned six CMA Awards nominations, and picked up two wins, including female vocalist of the year and new artist of the year. Morris and McBryde are each up for best country album at the upcoming Grammy Awards.
CMT’s Next Women of Country has done more than dispel myths about who women want to hear on radio—they’ve worked to revise the notion that female artists cannot sell concert tickets. The program has included seven CMT Next Women of Country tours, with all-female lineups spearheaded by artists including Jennifer Nettles, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Tanya Tucker and Maddie & Tae.
“There was this weird cycle—if you didn’t have a song on the radio, you couldn’t get on a tour,” Fram says. “So a lot of them couldn’t get on a tour, so we wanted to create a platform where they had a stage to play on. I talked to a lot of [promoters] in town, like AEG and Live Nation and they were all about it. The first tour was Kelsea Ballerini and Jana Kramer in these clubs, but it was successful. It was women and men coming to see them and we were proving that women do sell tickets. The other myth was that women don’t sell beer, but I’ll tell you what, they do sell a lot of alcohol. Then we started talking to headliners about anchoring the tour.”
When CMA Fest returned in downtown Nashville in 2022, so did CMT’s Next Women of Country showcase at Nashville’s City Winery.
“It’s great because it’s not a big ask for the artists, they can do a couple of songs, and it gives them a stage to play on. We’ve started having a bit of a following, of people who come to everyone, because they want to support women,” Fram says of the showcases.
Since the inaugural CMT Next Women of Country Tour in 2015, country music’s touring sector has also seen a slew of successful, all-female country tours from Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Maren Morris sell out arenas across the country, as have more recent all-female lineups including Reba McEntire’s Live in Concert tour featuring Terri Clark (in 2023, the tour adds The Isaacs) and The Judds: The Final Tour, with Wynonna welcoming McBryde, Little Big Town, Ballerini and more. Twain will launch this year with a primarily female lineup of openers, while Ballerini is also bringing newcomer Georgia Webster along on her own tour.
“That’s exciting for all of us, frankly, when you see artists like this, like Miranda, Maren, Kelsea and Shania doing this and putting their money where their mouth is and bringing women on tour with them,” Fram says. “It’s a celebration of women.”