It was a highly unusual sight in Nashville on Wednesday night: a country music award show where the female artists far outnumbered the men.
That was intentional, as CMT’s annual Artists of the Year ceremony decided to honor only women: Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Hillary Scott, Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman.
“This year, we’re evolving the special to reflect what’s happening right now in culture and in the lives of our fans,” Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president, said last month. She has been one of the most outspoken voices about the much-discussed gender imbalance in country music, where there is a serious lack of women played on the radio, listed on streaming playlists and included in festival lineups. “Dedicating one of the biggest nights in the genre to applaud female country artists not only solidifies our commitment, but we hope will spark a much-needed change in the industry.”
The 90-minute special was purely celebratory, with performances from honorees who collaborated with Gladys Knight, Tori Kelly, Brandi Carlile and Alison Krauss. But the artists also didn’t hold back about frustrations. One pre-taped segment featured the singers calling out country radio, known as the launching pad to mainstream success in the genre.
“I don’t know why they’re not playing women on country radio,” Lambert said. “I think that the women are doing their job and so it’s really not a reflection on us at all. At the end of the day, the best song should win, it doesn’t matter who sings it.”
“They’re saying women don’t want to hear women,” added Morris, echoing one common explanation from radio programmers who point to female listener demographics. “I will have to call BS on that one, because I grew up listening to women. That’s why I’m here today.”
“For a while, ‘bro country’ was a trend,” Ballerini noted of male-centric party songs that took over country radio. “We’re not saying this music’s bad — we’re just saying that you’re leaving people out.”
That set the stage for quite the acceptance speech from Fairchild and Schlapman, also known as half of quartet Little Big Town.
“I can’t say enough about CMT for just honoring women and celebrating women when it’s really important right now. And I’m humbled and I hope I can live up to this honor,” Fairchild said. Then she turned her attention to her phone and started reading.
“But I just want to say in case anyone’s watching: that Danielle Bradbery, Runaway June, Kelleigh Bannen, Kassi Ashton, Ashley McBryde, Cassadee Pope, RaeLynn, Mickey Guyton, Lucie Silvas, Jillian Jacqueline, Heather Morgan, Abby Anderson, Aubrie Sellers, Tenille Townes, Rachel Wammack, Maddie & Tae, Carly Pearce, Ruthie Collins, Maggie Rose, Caitlyn Smith, Lindsay Ell, Jana Kramer, Clare Dunn, Lauren Alaina, Margo Price, the Sisterhood Band, Natalie Stovall, Kree Harrison, Brooke Eden, Candi Carpenter, Lillie Mae, Emily Hackett, Little Feather, Kalie Shorr and Lacy Cavalier are there for you to support — and play on the radio if you want to.”
The audience cheered wildly at the lengthy list, which includes acts on major labels; independent artists; singers who have had singles flop on the radio; and some who recently had their first hits. Still, those 35 names merely scratched the surface of the talented female singer-songwriters in Nashville. It was a jarring and unsettling contrast to hear that list and compare it to, say, this week’s Top 50 country radio chart, which has only five songs by women.
In other words, in just 45 seconds, Fairchild provided one of the most powerful award show moments of the year. Social media started buzzing, and some of the artists who were named couldn’t quite believe what they just heard.
Not to mention the show was capped off by a stellar medley from Carrie Underwood, joined by Maddie & Tae and trio Runaway June, the two acts she’s taking on tour with her next year. It was another rare sight at a country award show, as six women stood on stage and sang hits by female stars: “Stand by Your Man,” “9 to 5,” “Rockin' With the Rhythm of the Rain,” “Independence Day,” “Wild One,” “Why Haven’t I Heard From You,” “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” and Underwood’s own “Cry Pretty.”
Underwood was also candid in her acceptance speech, as she addressed her fellow honorees.
“Thank you, CMT, for doing this. We need more things like this,” Underwood said. “But I definitely want to say to all of the incredible, amazing talented women that have been on this stage tonight: You are not here because you are women. You are here because you are dang good."