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The New Forces of Female in Country Music

COWGIRL's list of up-and-coming country women.

September 09, 2019

In Nashville, there’s this thing that they say. There’s this rumor that goes around that women don’t want to listen to women,” says Clare Dunn. “And I’m like, ‘Who made this up?’ Because my heroes are all women.”

Women have always been an integral part of country music, and despite having to navigate an outdated system rife with sexism and paltry airplay, there’s a new class of ladies telling their stories, bringing one another up, and finding their own way.

“What country music is always going to address is real life,” Garth Brooks says at an event promoting his boxed set Legacy. “So when was the last time you knew real life? So Loretta Lynn is going to talk about the pill; is going to talk about women’s rights, right? Tammy Wynette is going to do the same thing. Well, let’s just fast forward,” he continues. “Maren Morris, Ashley McBride—they’re all going to talk about the same things—and it’s funny, they’re still battling the same things [Lynn and Wynette] were then.”

Brooks credits female powerhouses like Reba McEntire and The Judds for giving him his start, and hopes to see more women making it to the big stage. “If there is something I would like to contribute to save country music right now,” Brooks says, “we do not have the female’s voice in it enough.”

“I’m married to whom I believe is one of the greatest singers on this planet, and I watch her, every day, work one thousand times harder than me to get one-tenth as much as I do out of this business,” he says of wife Trisha Yearwood. “And she doesn’t complain about it, she rolls up her sleeves and goes to work, and so I admire her for that.”

Several of our featured artists grew up in ag communities, and they, too, are familiar with hard work. “I think agriculture is the great equalizer,” says Dunn. “It does not care whether you’re a man or a woman. The only thing that matters is if you got the job done.”

“A tractor doesn’t know who’s driving it, a cow doesn’t know who’s working it. Your bottom line depends on being competent,” she says frankly. “You’re a set of hands, you’re an able-bodied person, you’re a competent brain, and here’s the job.”

For many women—whether they’re in music, ag, or any other industry—it’s not about taking down or competing with the men, it’s about having a seat at the table. They don’t want to be seen as good or handy “for a girl,” but recognized as the capable, creative forces they are.

Every path has its potholes, and thankfully for country music, hardships come in tandem with stories to tell. “I love country music, and I always wanted to sing country music because I like stories, and I like real life, and I care about lyrics,” says Kassi Ashton. “Growing up, the music I was listening to were stories. An honest, real-life situation.”

Of the shallow and interchangeable “bro country” that dominates today’s mainstream, activist group WOMAN Nashville says, “Country was so much more than that for so long, and so we just whittled it down.”

“The women are out there working so hard, putting out such quality music and content that’s just getting missed over,” the group says, challenging fans to put their energy and dollars into developing artists. Buy concert tickets. Call a radio station. Follow as many artists as you can. Share music discoveries with your friends. Support female artists, and give their voices a chance to be heard.

Giving them the resources and opportunities to make a living at it, and support their families at it, and also give us incredible art is really important,” says WOMAN, which also believes the industry should continue to embrace female artists as they grow and evolve. “There’s absolutely no reason that all the women we loved in the late ’90s and 2000’s shouldn’t still be dominating,” WOMAN claims. “These are incredible women with incredible stories to tell, with the same talent—if not more so—having gained through the years.”

One of the most experienced performers on our list, Ashley Monroe embraces the struggle. “I look at past challenges in the music business—labels dropping me, albums not selling a ton, a lack of radio play—and I truly see it as part of my story. I think every detail of my musical career has unfolded and continues to unfold, exactly as it was meant to.”

In a crowded field with few opportunities, it’s difficult for artists carve out a distinct identity, but Jenny Tolman is up to the task. “I want to think that people expect more out of women, and that’s why there’s less women,” she says. “So I like to look at it as, ‘Okay, that’s a challenge!’”

“If you’re really looking for great country music, or to hear stories that sound like your life, or were written from a woman’s perspective, they’re out there,” says WOMAN. “There are so many out there.” As for the myth that women don’t want to hear other women? The group says, “In reality, when you look out on those concerts, and when women are on stage and you look out on the crowd, there are so many girls and women that are just loving it.”

We, too, love female musicians, and invite you to join us in turning the tides. Seek out new music. Champion and show up for one another. Check out a show and bring your friends. And while we’re doling out homework assignments, Carly Pearce issues one more: “I challenge anybody to come to one of my shows and not see grown men belting every word to ‘Every Little Thing’ and ‘Hide the Wine’ because I witness it every night. I challenge them to come and see it.” On that note: Bring your boyfriend, too. GT

Clare Dunn

Raised in an agricultural family in Eastern Colorado, Clare Dunn developed a love for country music and a penchant for truckstop coffee through pitching in on the farm. “I really did just sit there for hours on end, driving trucks or tractors or whatever, dreaming of getting to make music like I was listening to,” she remembers.

She’s come a long way from static-filled radio, silage trucks, and FFA, but credits her upbringing for cultivating the work ethic that has brought her this far. “Kids that come from these rural areas, I think it just makes our dreams bigger,” she says.

Dunn continues to get buzz for “More” and “Tuxedo,” was tapped as one of CMT’s Next Women of Country, and keeps up an ambitious touring schedule of cities big and small. She’s looking forward to the NFR and wonders if she should start planning her outfits now.

Ashley McBryde

An unconventional and unapologetic addition to the modern country landscape, Ashley McBryde is tearing it up and taking names. Her debut album, Girl Going Nowhere, received a Grammy nomination, and the title track has become a popular cover for Garth Brooks, who lauds her tenacity and electric enthusiasm.

“Ashley’s not going to be that person who’s scared of death,” Brooks tells us. “She’s going to be that dog on the chain until it’s time to go, and I get to watch that.” Praised as refreshing and no bullshit, McBryde shows her goofy side, captioning Instagram photos with her CMT Breakthrough Video of the Year trophy, “They haven’t realized their mistake yet, so I’m taking all of the pictures I can until they do.”

Lillie Mae

After touring with a family band to hone her craft, and later backing Jack White, Lillie Mae conveys a depth and poignancy beyond her years with her music. As a solo artist, her gritty lyrics and edgy personal style stand out against the mainstream Nashville scene, and her tours in support of Tyler Childers and the Raconteurs, respectively, have put her on the radar of fans beyond the Top 40 crowd.

A revealing songwriter with an aptitude for mandolin and fiddle, Mae’s sophomore album Other Girls was produced by alt-country hitmaker Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Colter Wall), and follows her Jack White-produced 2017 debut album Forever and Then Some.

Tenille Townes

When Alberta singer songwriter Tenille Townes arrived in Nashville at 19, it felt like “walking into a dreamland” in contrast to her rural childhood home. Though young, Townes had already been picking up traction on local airwaves, and was nominated for Canadian Country Music’s Female Artist of the Year when she made the big move and signed with Columbia Nashville.

“Somebody’s Daughter,” her first release with a major record label, hit No. 1 on the country charts back home, and earned her a spot opening for Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town in 2018. She’s back on the road with Lambert this fall as part of the Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars Tour, and will perform in support Maren Morris later this year.

Ashley Monroe

A veteran songwriter, sultry vocalist, and one-third of Pistol Annies, Ashley Monroe is a triple threat. She boasts writing credits on tracks by Guy Clark and Dwight Yoakam, and channels classic honky-tonk on her Blake Shelton duet “You Ain’t Dolly” and the cheeky “Weed Instead of Roses.”

Tennessee native Monroe grew up singing in church and competing in talent shows and says, “As a country girl, it’s part of who I am, and the Appalachian angels haunt my soul.” Her sound has certainly taken on more soul as she’s become a mother and matured as an artist—evidenced in her 2018 release Sparrow. “Since my son was born I have written some of my favorite songs of my career,” she tells us. “I have this light of innocence back in my heart and it has caught like a wildfire.”

She and Pistol Annies bandmates Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley are back on tour this fall.

Lindsay Ell

Photo by Ken Amorosano.

Lindsay Ell weaves bright, pop country melodies with power guitar riffs for a sound that is catchy and current with soul undertones. A follow-up to her Billboard Country No. 1 debut, The Project, her latest album, The Continuum Project, slows it down and shows us why Ell caught the eye of bluesmaster Buddy Guy early in her career.

The Calgary singer has been making the rounds as one of CMT’s Next Women of Country and headlining the Monster Energy Outbreak Tour. You can see her this fall performing with Brantley Gilbert and Michael Ray.

Aubrie Sellers

Self-described as “post-country” and “garage country,” Aubrie Sellers navigates between noir ballads like “Liar Liar” and swinging forward propulsion in “Just to Be with You” and “Sit Here and Cry.”

Mega country fans may recognize Sellers from her appearance in Lee Ann Womack’s 2000 music video “I Hope You Dance,” but the young artist is insistent on carving her own path instead of riding her famous mother’s coattails. Sellers hopes to create friction with her music, and says that when you’re polarizing, at least you’re making people feel something. She has performed at New York Fashion week and appeared on tickets beside Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton.

Kassi Ashton

A wild card in the new crop of country talent, Kassi Ashton marches to her own drum, and has the uniform to prove it. She’s a creative powerhouse who designs and sews her own wardrobe, and brings her particular brand of sass to the high school set of her breakout video “Violins.”

Ashton takes cues from mainstream artists like Gwen Stefani and Amy Winehouse, and doesn’t seem too concerned by people who want to hem her in to a single genre. “Good music is good music, and nobody listens to just one thing, right?” she muses. “There’s room for more than one flavor of ice cream in the ice cream shop.”

Ashton is touring with Maren Morris this fall, working on her first album, and hoping to “shatter the glass ceiling, basically, of what a girl is supposed to be within my industry.”

Nikki Lane

Photo by Ken Amorosano.

“700,000 rednecks, that’s what it takes to get to the top,” sings Nikki Lane on her sun drenched third album Highway Queen. Pedal steel, boogie-woogie piano, grooving bass lines, and a couple of killer “yippee-ki-yays” punctuate Lane’s alt-country canon. Surf-rock sounds echo through songs like “Seein’ Double” and kinetic track “Jackpot,” like Lane’s star, keeps gaining steam.

The South Carolina native first left home to pursue a career in fashion, and keeps Nashville in snazzy duds from her vintage boutique, High Class Hillbilly. She’ll embark on a European tour this fall following stateside runs with Band of Horses and Gov’t Mule.

Margo Price

Perhaps the most accomplished artist you’ve never heard of, Margo Price is the first lady of the new outlaw country scene. She’s collaborated with Willie Nelson and John Prine, received a Best New Artist Grammy nod, and continues to be outspoken about everything from scenesters (“Cocaine Cowboys”) to wage discrimination (“Pay Gap”) to sleazy industry folks (“This Town Gets Around”).

A veritable road warrior with a dedication to touring, Price continued performing through the late stages of her pregnancy with daughter Ramona Lynn, singing a tribute at Mavis Staples’ 80th birthday party at the Ryman just days before delivery. She’s back on the grind this fall supporting Chris Stapleton, and appearing at the Bourbon & Beyond festival in Kentucky.

Carly Pearce

Carly Pearce continues to pick up momentum on the heels of her No. 1 hit “Every Little Thing” with the flirty drunk-dial anthem “Hide the Wine,” and a new album on the horizon. “I think you’re going to hear a more centered, sure-of-herself Carly, versus the first album,” she says. “I was just kind of finding my way and finding myself, hoping that people were going to like what I do.”

Pearce received a Breakthrough Video of the Year award from CMT, and continues to climb the country radio charts—not bad for a kid who got her start singin’ 9-to-5 at Dollywood. She gets personal with her songwriting, and famously thanked the man who broke her heart for the cache of inspiration. “I think that it’s our duty as artists to be vulnerable and write our truth,” she says. “I dare to go deep, and all of the people that influenced me were always really authentic in that way, so I want to be like that.”

“I challenge anybody to come to one of my shows and not see grown men belting every word to ‘Every Little Thing’ and ‘Hide the Wine.’”

Lauren Alaina

American Idol alum and chart-topping superstar Lauren Alaina reps her fellow Clinton-era babies on “Ladies in the ‘90s.” It’s the celebratory leadoff single for her forthcoming album—a follow-up to the soundtrack-worthy Road Less Traveled and 2011’s fresh-off-Idol Wildflower.

Earlier this year, Alaina showed off her honey-rich vocals in a stripped-down reprise of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” complete with O.K. Corral banjo and plucky acoustic guitar. Following a stint in the country music-crazed UK, you can catch the ACM New Female Vocalist of the Year cruising around the States this fall.

Abby Anderson

Country’s hottest good girl, Abby Anderson carved out a name for herself as a teen with the patriotic “Let Freedom Ring,” and made her Opry debut last year singing her hit song “Make Him Wait.” Anderson puts her own spin on Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” in a duet with Jimmie Allen, and brings the good vibes on her new single “Good Lord.”

Now in her early 20s, the bubbly Texan keeps fans engaged on her social media channels, and no doubt made some new ones supporting Rob Thomas on a 44-date tour, and performing at Stagecoach and Country Thunder.

Caylee Hammack

A Georgia girl with a face like young Pricilla Presley, Caylee Hammack is living the dream. From camping out in her car and losing everything in a fire, to joining Miranda Lambert on the Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars Tour, Hammack is holding on for a wild ride.

First pulled out of obscurity by Luke Bryan’s mom (who convinced him to give her a listen), Hammack moved to Nashville at 17 with a song and a prayer as they say. She shows off classical chops in the opening bars of “Just Friends,” giving way to a pop punk sing along as the song carries on. Her retro video “Family Tree” pulls back the curtain on a charmingly flawed, pink flamingo-loving family, and features her actual relatives in the starring roles.

Jenny Tolman

Her concept album There Goes the Neighborhood emerged when “High Class White Trash” artist Jenny Tolman and producer David Brainard (Brandy Clark, Jamey Johnson) decided to create a home for all of the quirky characters running around inside their heads. “It was something that resonates with everybody,” she says of the debut album’s fictitious setting, Jennyville, “Because we all have a little ‘High Class White Trash’ in us at any given point of the day.”

Counter to her fun and flirty tracks, Tolman battles self-doubt on “Love You Too” and “So Pretty,” an introspection through the lens of a boyfriend’s ex. Tolman uses songwriting to cope with jealousy and insecurity, to move through it, and to grow from it. “It kind of opens the door to shining a light on yourself, and looking internally as to why you feel that way, and that they’re not actually a terrible person, just because you want them to be.”

Ingrid Andress

Ingrid Andress spent her childhood as a homeschooler, tagging along across the country with dad, a MLB baseball coach, and eventually landing in Boston to study music. Before embarking on a solo career, Andress put her musical talent to work co-writing songs with artists like Sam Hunt, Alicia Keys, and Charli XCX.

Now she’s taking her turn in the limelight with heartfelt tunes like “Both” and “More Hearts Than Mine,” while channeling a kid who grew up roller blading around baseball stadiums and defying cultural norms with her self assured “Lady Like.”

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