How Country Festival Dispelled Myths About Women in Country Music

It’s a few minutes after gates have opened for day one of Chicago’s LakeShake Festival and Rachel Wammack is sitting backstage surrounded by small trailers: ones for Lindsay Ell, Cassadee Pope, Lauren Alaina, Maren Morris and a shared one for Miranda Lambert and the Pistol Annies. This is an unusual sight — at any given country music festival, you’d be lucky to find the presence of two women on the male-dominated stages. But today is different. The entire lineup, from start to finish, is made up of female artists.

“I think we’re making history,” says Wammack. Though she’s new to the festival and touring circuit, Wammack’s already seen how being a female artist immediately puts her in the minority. According to the online initiative Book More Women, which charts gender representation across all genres of music, country festivals tend to be around 25% women, with women barely ever holding a headlining spot. Many are worse than that. Seattle’s 100.7 the Wolf’s Throwdown, set for September 1st, is pretty typical: just Alaina among names like Cole Swindell, Chase Rice and Jordan Davis.

Summer package tours are similarly male front-loaded, including Luke Bryan’s Sunset Repeat Tour (all dudes), Thomas Rhett’s Very Hot Summer Tour (also all dudes), Rascal Flatts’ Summer Playlist Tour (just dudes) and Florida Georgia Line’s Can’t Say It Ain’t Country Tour (100% dude). Consider it sunrise, sunburn, testosterone, repeat.

At its core, country’s male domination of summer festivals and tours is a byproduct of the lack of airplay for women on country radio. If female artists aren’t charting hits (or charting at all), they don’t have the familiarity that makes them favorable for booking. But it’s a chicken-and-the-egg scenario, too. If women aren’t on those stages, they have trouble building the fan base and name recognition needed to motivate programmers to play their music.

Live Nation, who books LakeShake and designed the all-women day, is not immune to criticism either. Its popular Country Megaticket campaign, which allows fans to buy a pass that gets them into a series of shows throughout the summer, is made up of those male-headlining tours from Bryan, Jason Aldean, Rhett and Florida Georgia Line. Still, Live Nation remains the only large promoter to take considerable steps toward gender parity. In March, they hired industry veteran Ali Harnell to lead Women Nation, their new female-focused division, and curated LakeShake’s Friday lineup, which is a significant step toward raising the profile of up-and-coming female artists. Fans who bought a three-day ticket to see LakeShake headliners Bryan and Keith Urban were also able to take in music from women they’ve never before heard on the radio. For the performers themselves, it was a chance to be in an environment they’ve never had the luxury to experience.

For [women] artists, their primary concern is to be evaluated solely on merit, which cannot be realized until equality is achieved.

“Sometimes we’re the only woman on the bill,” says Ell. “So it’s so nice to walk backstage and see all these women I look up to. To not be the minority for the day.”

For these artists, their primary concern is to be evaluated solely on merit, which cannot be realized until equality is achieved. “Women deserve more of a platform, and meritology doesn’t apply: you can’t acquire merits without being put in a position to acquire them,” Brandi Carlile told Rolling Stone back in January, talking about her own all-women Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival. She told a story about how, when she was growing up, the local gay pride parade switched its location from “gay street to straight street” — essentially, from queer-friendly Broadway in Seattle’s Capitol Hill to the city’s downtown. At first, she hated losing her comfortable corner of the world, but the battle for any kind of equality is never comfortable. “Yes, we don’t want to hear the words ‘female singer-songwriter’ ever again,” she said. “But we have to use it right now. Because we need representation. In the end, we’re going to get off Broadway and be on Main Street.”

But getting there requires more people willing to do the work instead of just paying lip service. It’s about booking women on tours, like Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Carrie Underwood are all doing, as well as a few men like Dierks Bentley, who has Tenille Townes as an opener and Morris as a headliner of his Seven Peaks Festival this Labor Day weekend. Writing with women and playing women on the radio also help move the needle. “It’s obviously being talked about. I think that’s rule No. 1: Get people talking about it,” Luke Bryan told members of the press during this year’s CMA Fest. But it’s only Cole Swindell and Jon Langston who are opening Bryan’s summer tour.

“I hope the talk ends,” Alaina says on the phone a few days before she headed to LakeShake. “I hope there is enough change that we don’t have to keep having the conversation.”

Such a change is essential to country’s future. Almost every female artist that Rolling Stone Country spoke to at LakeShake detailed the crucial years when they were children, in their parents’ car, hearing women like Trisha Yearwood, Shania Twain, and Reba McEntire come through the speakers. Alaina shouts out this experience from the stage during her new single “Ladies in the ’90s.” “I only get on stage every night because I grew up in a time when those women were heard,” she says. “If this problem doesn’t resolve itself, there will be no girls who feel like they can make a career out of this.”

Pope agrees. “All those girls in the crowd who are aspiring singers are going to see us and be inspired,” she says. “Some of them are growing up and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know if I should do this whole music thing, because it seems pretty hard to break though.’ A day like today really gives a lot of people encouragement.”

Fans at LakeShake last Friday saw exactly what women are capable of. Ell blazed through Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” proving herself one of the best guitarists in country music. Pope belted “Wasting All These Tears” with emo-twang grit and had audiences singing along to every word. And Rita Wilson wowed with personal songs and her Tom Ford-designed Nudie-style suit, illustrating how country music is for everyone, even those from Hollywood.

“I think individual people are [doing the work],” Wilson said backstage before her set. “The issue is the people in positions of power that are able to and need to hire women, put them on the radio, put them in positions of power.”

LakeShake also underscores that while the music coming from men who dominate the country charts seems to benefit from sameness — it’s often hard to distinguish one rising male artist from the next on the radio — women artists boast a diversity of sound. Onstage on Friday, the Pistol Annies’ spitfire country and the blues-tinged songs of Clare Dunn juxtaposed nicely with the anthemic pop of Morris.

“Draw your comparisons, tryin’ to find who’s lesser than,” she sang in “Girl.” “I don’t wanna wear your crown, there’s enough to go around.” It was a stunning moment, with the audience singing along so loudly that she barely needed to do much more than lead them along on guitar.

If Morris’ set helped debunk the myth that “women don’t want to hear women,” Lambert’s performance all but obliterated it. Songs like “Vice,” “Little Red Wagon,” and her new tune “Locomotive,” along with a few with the Pistol Annies, were devoured by the audience, female and male fans alike.

The way Lambert sees it, women in country music are undeniably unique.

“We’re completely different artists,” she says. “The only thing we have in common is that we are female, and we’re under the country format. Everybody offers something different.”

Which Lambert and the main stage roster of women — Morris, Pope, Ell, Alaina — exemplified with a show-closing cover of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” each woman putting their own spin on their respective line. As the night ended, it was clear that LakeShake is a step in the right direction, a rare admission by the industry that a problem exists and that it’s worth taking steps — even imperfect ones — to right the ship.

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