Banding together: From country and R&B to hip-hop and rock, female artists are taking their show on the road
When legendary rock duo Heart hits the road this summer for its Love Alive Tour, Ann and Nancy Wilson will be expanding their sisterhood. A lineup of opening acts and special guests comprising all women, including Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, Elle King, Joan Jett, and Lucie Silvas join the reunited Rock & Roll Hall of Famers.
Hearteningly, says Ann Wilson, the female-centric bill was not a conscious choice. “The fact that we ended up with all female artists happened by accident—a fantastic accident!” says the mighty-voiced frontwoman of the tour that kicks off July 9 in Missouri. “This show is a chance for everyone to enjoy the power of these artists. They were chosen because of their talent, not their ovaries. Hopefully, soon, people will be accustomed to seeing as many talented women as men everywhere, and it will not seem like such a novelty.”
(L-R) Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart hit the road for their Love Alive tour in July with all female openers.
Alas, for many, the idea of women touring together continues to be treated as just that: a novelty. For others, particularly those in the industry itself, it’s viewed as a huge financial risk. It’s men, the mythology goes, who sell out the big arenas and bank the big tabs at the venue bars.
And it’s male artists who, by a sweeping percentage, dominate the festival lineups. Those myths perpetuate a cycle that feeds itself. If women don’t get the high-profile festival bookings or headlining slots, then they don’t get played on the radio. But if they don’t get played on the radio, then they don’t get the bookings. In country music, this disparity is more prevalent than ever. According to a new study by Dr. Jada Watson at the University of Ottawa, the landscape has never been as bleak for women on the airwaves: Last year, female artists represented just 11.3 percent of the songs on terrestrial country radio. And because women are systematically diminished, it’s that much harder for them to land that prized summer tour.
“A lot of people say it’s the boys club that’s in charge of the booking,” says Carlile of these stubbornly enduring myths. “To be honest with you, I think it has a lot to do with [the fact that] it just worked at one point. Like the music industry does, it just kept doing it because it worked.”
Carlile, along with a tidal wave of female artists, has decided to call BS and, more importantly, take action.
In the past year, women from all genres have been quietly, and not so quietly, attempting to debunk these bogus myths with real camaraderie: by focusing exclusively on taking other female artists out on the road. They’re fighting back by selling out arenas, traveling the globe and persuading thousands of fans to fly to Mexico — in the case of Carlile’s distaff Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival — to support and see female artists they love.
Over 20 years since Sarah McLachlan’s groundbreaking Lilith Fair launched, female musicians aren’t waiting around for one massive festival to disrupt the touring paradigm. They’re doing it on their own, city by city, one sold-out date at a time.
Kacey Musgraves continues to sign up female warm-up acts for her Oh, What a World tour.
“It’s a movement,” says Ali Harnell, president of Live Nation’s new division, Woman Nation.
Just a few of the recent examples include Kacey Musgraves inviting Weyes Blood, Yola, Soccer Mommy and Natalie Prass on her Oh, What a World Tour, Maren Morris taking out newcomers like Kassi Ashton and Hailey Whitters on her GIRLworld tour, and two of country music’s biggest stars of any gender, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood corralling huge lineups of support acts, who all happen to be women. For Underwood’s Cry Pretty Tour 360 it’s Runaway June and Maddie & Tae. Lambert’s Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars jaunt will include her supergroup Pistol Annies, Morris, King, Tenille Townes, and Ashley McBryde. Hard rocker Lzzy Hale engineered an all-female-fronted band tour in 2018 and currently has Beasto Blanco on board to open up for her band Halestorm. Kelly Clarkson snagged Maggie Rose and Kelsea Ballerini. And, let’s not forget the pop crossover queen herself, Taylor Swift, who signal-boosted Charlie XCX and Camila Cabello on her Reputation Tour in 2018.
In country music specifically, Morris, Lambert, Musgraves, Underwood and other artists are taking their colleagues on tour in order to try and flip the script, and to condition the country fan to different voices. “The support shown from other women who have paved the way for newcomers like my friends and I is unreal,” says Caylee Hammack, who is a part of Lambert’s Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars tour. “It’s a tour of badass women who are doing it their own way and owning it completely,” says Kassi Ashton, who is appearing with Morris. “I think that’s really powerful.”
It’s not just individual tours, either: Festivals and special series devoted to amplifying female voices are popping up left and right. CMT’s Next Women of Country Tour, featuring Cassadee Pope, is heading over overseas, and the currently announced line-up for Shoals Fest, Jason Isbell’s new festival in Alabama this October, currently features an all-female line-up, save Isbell himself, including Amanda Shires, Mavis Staples, and Sheryl Crow. An entire day at Chicago’s Country LakeShake on June 21is devoted to women, and on the pop/rock end, Lykke Li’s Yola Fest in Los Angeles on June 8 boasts a stellar array of acts from across the spectrum: Charli XCX, Cat Power, Courtney Love, and more.
Cardi B is one of more than a dozen artists featured on the new Live Nation Urban tour initiative Femme it Forward.
In one of the biggest, multi-date efforts, Live Nation Urban has launched Femme It Forward, a string of curated shows across hip-hop and R&B featuring, among others, Cardi B, Teyana Taylor, Jorja Smith, Jill Scott, Brandy, Faith Evans, Monica, Ashanti, Keri Hilson, Amerie, Mya, Kali Uchis, and Ari Lennox. “It’s a priority of mine to play a part in changing [the dearth of women on festival lineups] and ensuring that touring is not only inclusive, but also reflects diversity,” says Heather Lowery, VP of Talent & Touring at Live Nation Urban.
“This is taking it a step further than just talking about what we can do,” adds Naomi Cooke of Runaway June. “It’s action.” Her bandmate, Hannah Mulholland, adds, “These quotes that we’re hearing that ‘women don’t want to hear women,’ ‘women aren’t selling tickets,’ it’s just not statistically true. I’m loving the fact that all of these females are going, ‘okay, we’re about to show you guys.’”
Carlile has been one of the bedrocks of the movement. She engineered the massively successful Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival in Mexico, which returns in 2020 with a stellar line-up including Crow, Patty Griffin, Wanda Sykes, Yola, Jade Bird, Ruby Amanfu and more. The festival sold out the same day it went on sale. Live Nation’s Harnell, who attended the first installment, remembers feeling “safe” in an environment that wasn’t so heavily skewed to the male experience and perspective.
Harnell calls Carlile “my unicorn,” and Kelly Viau, director of business development at Cloud 9, the booking agency for the festival, believes “it was time for something important to happen,” she says. “[Carlile] is so driven and so passionate and so focused, it really wasn’t a hard sell at all. Everybody wanted to play. I didn’t see the sorts of hurdles [that I normally do]. It was a safe space, surrounded by likeminded people who have mutual respect and similar consciousness.”
Additionally, the Grammy-winning Americana artist has pledged to support artists at lower rungs on the industry ladder—not just having them open for her. “It’s one thing to take out women to open, but it’s another thing to support other women,” says Carlile. “I called my agent and I made a commitment to a run of shows opening up for other singer-songwriter women in small venues.”
For Harnell, it’s about putting as many women in front of the audience as possible and rebuilding the way fans think and respond to music, from the ground up. “It’s an absolute moment and what we do with it and how it ultimately effects real change is to be determined,” she says. “But we have to change the listener’s ear as much as anything.” That’s the goal of CMT’s Next Women of Country initiative: to not only get women on the road but “put them in front of decision makers so they end up getting exposure,” says CMT’s senior vice president of music strategy Leslie Fram.
Brandi Carlile (third from left with, l-r, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby of the Highwomen supergroup) is helping the lead the charge with her all-women festival Girls Just Wanna Weekend. Morris has also been taking women on her global GIRL trek.
Other than consistently selling out date after date, the real barometer of these tours and festivals will be if, one day, it’s possible for them to not have to actually exist, except out of the sheer desire of women wanting to play together — or, as in Heart’s case, a happy accident — and that no one will blink an eye, just as they don’t now when an all-male lineup is announced.
“It’s as important as men supporting men, which they have been doing,” say country-soul singer-songwriter Yola of the banding together, who is not only opening for Musgraves and appearing at Girls Just Wanna Weekend, but also taking women on the road herself. “And because that support is already there, you don’t think about [men touring together] being desperately important because it seems to just happen. We need to get to that point of it just happening [for women]. We need to consciously [take other women on tour] until we get to that point. Until we can unconsciously do it.”
Now that many female artists and executives are doing their part to continue moving the needle, they believe it’s time for more male gatekeepers and allies to work to help level the playing field in radio and on the road—and not just pay lip service to equity. “It’s something that everybody’s going to have to decide together, unanimously, to change,” says Carlile. “It’s really gonna take the boys and their support for it to really shift.”
But like the women who came before them, neither she nor her sisters in song are depending on the cavalry to arrive. Says Sheryl Crow, an inaugural Lilith Fair performer: “I think women lifting other women up is going to be what changes the world.”
Additional reporting by Sarah Rodman
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