“Camaraderie & Community” At The Core of Nashville’s Gender Revolution

Yola, Lillie Mae and other leading country women are paying it forward—and carrying a movement

Music Features Lillie Mae
“Camaraderie & Community” At The Core of Nashville’s Gender Revolution

It’s raining when I arrive at Leah Blevins’ house, and she’s mercifully quick to open the door—though her dog, the residence’s official greeter, gets there first. Blevins has a flight to catch; she’s heading to Dallas’ Modern Electric to record her next album. But with two hours to spare, there’s time enough for us to settle in on her couches and talk Nashville. Unsurprisingly, we start by talking about who else but Erin Rae.

“She has been such a force for me personally,” Blevins says, “for feeling comfortable and walking through this whole beautiful journey that we’re all on.”

Everybody in Nashville has their favorites; Rae, as Blevins describes her, is an exceptional human being, within and without the music industry, a soft-spoken, nose-to-grindstone and gentle leader for her peers. She works hard. More importantly, she compels others to work hard, too. “She makes you feel worthy when you’re with her,” Blevins professes.

Rae’s text chain with Michaela Anne, Kelsey Waldon, and Caroline Spence is proof that women supporting women means more women enjoying success in a competitive scene couched within a doubly competitive business. But as Blevins and I have our colloquy, it becomes clearer minute by minute that support extends beyond intimate micro interactions to public macro interactions: Nashville’s ecosystem isn’t made up of private exchanges between individuals alone, but comprises a giant reciprocal web, which might actually be more of a Möbius strip, or perhaps an ouroboros. Regardless, the very existence of one woman’s success can facilitate the success of others. As the crusty old New England aphorism goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

For Nashville critic and journalist Brittney McKenna, author at Nashville Scene, NPR, and Rolling Stone, among other outlets, the tide swells with two recurring keywords in my conversations with Rae, Anne, and Waldon: Camaraderie and community.

“People are very willing to help each other and collaborate, and advocate for each other,” she explains. “I think that’s something that women artists especially have done a really great job with. Look at The Highwomen project. That’s a great example of women artists coming together to do something bigger than the sum of their parts.” And because Rae’s name cannot go unmentioned in any discussion of Nashville, McKenna of course references her as a champion for other women, someone who tirelessly works to promote other women in Nashville, whether she’s singing their praises in interviews or taking them out on tour with her. (If there’s a drum with Rae’s name on it, the batter head’s busted by now.)

Actionable gestures like these are essential to overcoming inequality in country music (and, to a degree, Americana music, too). The sense of worthiness Blevins invokes is the soul of Nashville’s modern day gender revolution.

“There’s this transformative state that we’re all in.” she muses. “We’re all acknowledging that as women, we’re just as profound and powerful as the driving force, and behind the scenes too.” Acknowledgment takes time, certainly, but in the late 2010s (and now the 2020s), the iron’s hot, and folks are striking. “I just think people are talking about it,” Blevins adds. “There’s a buzz, and there’s a lot going on in pop culture, and in the world in general, as far as putting the spotlight on the entity of a woman.”

When I run this by fiddler and singer/songwriter Lillie Mae a few days later while hanging out at Third Man Records, she recalls her surprise at there being a spotlight on women in Nashville at all. Partly, that’s a marker of her personal experience. “I’ve been in bands with my sisters, and so many other girls, too,” Mae says. “I’ve been in lots of different female bands. And also Layla’s [Honky Tonk], where we’ve played for 15 years. She’s the only girl who owns a club on Broadway. So I’ve always been around super dominating girls.” But her wonder also signifies just how far women are pushed off to Nashville’s sidelines. “You turn on the radio,” she points out, “and for every hour you hear two songs from two women, or maybe more now that it’s an actual issue.”

Mae’s reaction to the sexism she’s encountered throughout her life spent playing in honky-tonks—she’s been performing since she was 11—is completely understandable. “The amount of shit that I’ve dealt with being a female musician,” Mae sighs, recounting a few memories of groping and grabbing, workaday microaggressions that most likely all the musicians I’ve spoken to for this project have endured (and probably still endure). To her, the blatant harassment and sexual, physical misconduct is a sign of the world, and the time, we live in. Though, as she tells me, “it’s changing a lot.” As much as the ever-increasing appreciation for Nashville’s contemporary women-led movement took Mae off-guard at first, it ultimately makes sense to her. Before we start chatting on the record, I rattle off the names of artists I’m set to interview while I’m in town. Mae’s response? “What a good lineup.”

Mae’s admiration for her fellow performers reemphasizes McKenna’s point about the community’s necessity, though she sees this as a chicken-and-egg situation: Which came first, women banding together or the need to band together? She does note that the quality music coming out of Nashville isn’t authored by women alone; she cites Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson as male songwriters whose most recent records didn’t get much any airplay, either. But she does feel that some of Music City’s most talented artists are women, and that their voices simply aren’t being heard to the degree they should be.

“Take Kacey Musgraves for example,” McKenna says. “Her most recent album obviously has been a huge critical hit, and it’s been a big hit with fans and listeners as well, in and outside of country, but you haven’t heard it on the radio.” And Musgraves’ first two albums, which McKenna describes as “about as country as you can get,” didn’t crack top 25 airplay either, save for maybe “Follow Your Arrow,” which still faced its share of road blocks.

“I do think that since a lot of the women artists have been forced to the margin, there’s been a greater need for community or advocacy among one another,” McKenna says, noting that gender inequality has led women toward alternate paths that don’t involve radio play. Those paths tend to include collaboration, something that Yola, Bristol-born and Nashville-based, knows well. Yola contributed two tracks to The Highwomen’s debut album and functioned as an unofficial member of the band while on tour with them. “I didn’t feel like a token,” she expressed to me back in November. “The group is a genuine cross-intersection of women in country music; they are awesome, and it’s an incredible project to be a part of.” The best thing about working with The Highwomen? Success, as she put it, “is a great middle finger to anybody who suggests that women can’t be leading lights in the genre.”

That’s something Yola plans on paying forward. “I know first hand the experience of sexism in the music industry,” she tells me, “and do all I can to help my fellow female artists.” Earlier in her career, Yola was marginalized by what she poetically describes as “the white bro-tocracy,” who gas-lit her while insisting she didn’t really want to be a guitarist, which, for anyone who’s heard her 2019 album Walk Through Fire, is the most ridiculous manipulation anyone could level at her.

But that’s the common thread found across these testaments: Women helping women make their way in an industry that’s innately biased against them. Nashville, ultimately, is just the stage—a phenomenal stage, for sure, one any country singer would give a leg to play on. The city has given them opportunities to tell their individual stories. But by telling their stories, these women are telling the story of Nashville in 2019.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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