CMT, ‘Variety’ Host Pre-Show Panel Of Nashville Women Executives And Creatives

Pictured (L-R): Chris Willman, Leslie Fram, Callie Cunningham, Beth Laird, Stephanie Wright, Nicolle Galyon. Photo: Rick Diamond

Ahead of CMT’s Artist Of The Year live event on Wednesday, Oct. 17, Variety hosted its first brunch in accordance with a longstanding partnership to reveal its Nashville-focused print issue.

As with CMT’s 90-minute television event—designed to give female artists voice and airplay, exclusively honoring females this year—the Variety print issue also features the magazine’s top 25 picks of exclusive female country music executives.

Billed as Breaking Down The Barrier: A Conversation About Women In Country Music, the Oct. 16 brunch was held on Cambria Nashville Downtown hotel’s fifth floor True Bar & Music Room with a panel discussion in addition to a performance by Big Machine Records’ Carly Pearce. CMT’s Sr. VP of Music & Talent Leslie Fram co-hosted the panel with Variety writer Chris Willman. Four female executives and creatives on the stage were Red Light’s Callie Cunningham, Creative Nation’s Beth Laird, UMG Nashville’s Stephanie Wright and CMT’s Next Women Of Country mentor/songwriter Nicolle Galyon.

The 40-minute talk cited the marketshare for women on country radio airplay continues to decline, and a new trend for female country artists siding in pop music and tours (Maren Morris and Niall Horann, Cam and Sam Smith, Kacey Musgraves and Harry Styles, Kelsea Ballerini and Kelly Clarkson). The panel was asked if female writers/artist still feel they have a place in country music. The panel responded:

Pictured (L-R): Nicolle Galyon, Stephanie Wright, Leslie Fram, Carly Pearce, Chris Willman, Beth Laird, Callie Cunningham. Photo: Rick Diamond

Laird: “I work with Kassi Ashton, who is definitely an authentic female with a strong opinion that I love. The No. 1 question she gets is, ‘Are you country? Are you really country? Do you want to be country?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, I grew up country…I love country…I live here…’

“It’s interesting…making sure she proves she’s [country], defining her intentions if she wants to be played on country radio, and that she swears that’s what she wants and who she is. Why does she have to keep saying it?”

Cunningham: “…same experience with [my artist] Bailey Bryan. When she was on radio tour, it was having to defend why she wants to be in this genre, constantly. It’s so frustrating because country music was built on songwriting, experience and being who you are. We need to encourage that—especially in young female artists—but at the same time there’s this other side of the argument that there’s so little space for female artists in country radio, maybe they should [just] fit in. We need to be encouraging these artists to be confident and [that they] don’t need to defend themselves when they walk in a room. If they’re authentic to who they are, people will flock to that, otherwise it’s not going to be impactful and nobody’s gonna care.”

Wright: “You want the artist to be honest and true to who they are. I don’t know that they need to go pop, saying I don’t have a place in this format. They do have a place in this format. You don’t want to skew them one way or the other. You just have to figure out how to get exposure because there’s an audience out there who wants to hear what these artists have to say.”

Galyon: “Most of the female writers have discussed if we have made it this far, we’ve made a pretty deliberate attempt to write mostly male songs, whether that was natural or not. Luckily for me that came natural, so I’m very fulfilled with my job [as a writer]. But there are some writers where that’s not their strength. I can’t tell you how many times we feel great finishing a song saying wow any guy could sing that. But when we finish a female song and say anyone could sing that, we think nobody will do anything with it.”

Other vulnerable moments came when Galyon confessed although she had a community of men supporting her, she downplayed certain parts of her femininity in the writing room, being the only woman.

“I [didn’t] want to be too emotional or be too passionate or too aggressive,” she said. “Luckily for me, when I became a mom I didn’t have energy to have filters anymore, so I turned in to a lot bigger version of myself, in a beautiful way. It’s been cool to move forward being as feminine as I truly, honestly am, and to see what that brings out with the brothers I work with in a creative space.”

Laird also candidly confessed her multi-Grammy-winning writer Lori McKenna was hesitant to write down her goal to achieve music’s top trophy, prior to receiving them.

“We do goal sheets every year and [Lori] wouldn’t write them down,” Laird said. “I learned sometimes you’re almost scared to say exactly what you want and go after it. I don’t know why, as females, we’ll have our dream inside and not say exactly what it is because what if I fail, or can’t get there? It was really empowering for us to see the power in setting a goal, writing it down, telling people around you, and having the support—especially from other females—in reaching that goal.”

Carly Pearce performs at Variety and CMT’s Breaking Down The Barrier: A Conversation About Women In Country Music. Photo: Rick Diamond

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Eric T. Parker oversees operations and contributes editorial for MusicRow's print magazine, MusicRow.com, the RowFax tip sheet and the MusicRow CountryBreakout chart. He also facilitates annual events for the enterprise, including MusicRow Awards, CountryBreakout Awards and the Rising Women on the Row. [email protected] | @EricTParker

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