DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Many of the modern country stars who've had the broadest cultural impact have been women. Think about Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift. But sometimes it could seem like the country music world is dominated by men, at least based on radio airplay. In early December, Billboard magazine announced that for the first time, its Country Airplay chart listed no women in the Top 20. But Jewly Hight reports that Nashville's enterprising young women are seeking out alternate routes to an audience.
JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Kalie Shorr was so driven to pursue a country music career that she graduated high school early and worked two jobs to save up for her move to Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAILBLAZER")
KALIE SHORR: (Singing) You're rocky terrain, but I know what I'm getting into. No need to explain everything that she did to you.
HIGHT: When she arrived in Music City in 2012, she knew the drill - find co-writers, a band and a producer, land gigs and a deal with a song publisher.
SHORR: And then meet with record labels, and then you get signed to one. And then you release that song to radio, and then, boom, you're there. And that's a lot of people's path. But I had a little bit of a derailment right around those last three steps because I'm a woman. Yeah.
HIGHT: Shorr learned that she wasn't alone. Decision makers seem more reluctant to take chances on young female singers and songwriters even when they showed talent. Three years into Shorr's Nashville tenure, a country radio consultant spelled out the gender bias in an interview with a food metaphor. He insisted it was best for radio ratings to treat songs by female artists as tomatoes garnishing an otherwise male salad.
SHORR: So when it happened, like, no one was surprised, but everyone was so [expletive] off. But then we were also excited because we were like, oh, great. We're talking about it. So it's going to - fix, right? And how many years has it been now?
HIGHT: Tomatogate (ph) hadn't even happened when Leslie Fram, a senior vice president at Country Music Television, launched a promotional campaign called Next Women of Country. Shorr is among the dozens of artists that Fram has included in video premieres, web features, live showcases and tours over the last half-decade.
LESLIE FRAM: We recognized early on, but the fact that we're still having this conversation is shocking. I feel like we have to do more. We have to get more exposure for these artists outside of terrestrial radio, outside of play listing.
HIGHT: Fram and a couple of other industry veterans also spearhead an advocacy group called Change the Conversation that spent the last four years hosting town hall meetings, presenting research on the marketing power of female stars and mentoring women. But since change has been slow to come, artists have taken on the issue themselves. Some use social media, a podcast or stage banter. Shorr and her collaborators have gotten buzz with topical songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME'S UP")
SONG SUFFRAGETTES: (Singing) Time's up for the ruthless, the wicked and the vain. Time's up for the cheaters, 'cause now the game has changed. It's been a long time coming. There's a new day dawning, going to stop you running today. The wait's over for the patient, the humble and the brave.
HIGHT: Along with fellow artist Savannah Keyes, Shorr recently agreed to co-host a daily radio Disney country segment on women that will reach listeners mostly through satellite and streaming.
SHORR: It's great because it does put me at the forefront of this conversation. I've gotten a lot of press from non-country outlets because they know that I'll be outspoken about it because I can be because I'm independent.
HIGHT: This year, Shorr applied that attitude to the sound of her self-released music. She kept on writing catchy hooks, but worked in the emo guitar riffs she loves.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAMN SKY")
SHORR: (Singing) Well, I never knew how strong I was until I found me and I gave you up. What do you do when you're lost in space and nothing really seems to shine?
HIGHT: And Shorr made it clear to fans that she was prioritizing being true to herself.
SHORR: I was like, I don't make music for rich people in suits. I make music for these people. And as long as they're happy with it and they connect to it and they're taking something away from it, I don't need a label.
HIGHT: So most Monday nights, Shorr performs in a songwriters round called Song Suffragettes alongside a rotating cast of like-minded peers.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SHORR: Hey, guys. Oh, y'all look so beautiful tonight. My name is Kalie Shorr, and we are the Song Suffragettes. And we are so excited that y'all decided to spend your Monday with us. We started Songs Suffragettes after noticing that there was a pretty massive gender disparity in country music.
HIGHT: Shorr's manager, Todd Cassetty, co-founded Song Suffragettes and says the fact that 1,400 writers have applied to join to date is a sign that it remains a much-needed outlet.
TODD CASSETTY: We started it almost five years ago with the hope that giving a platform, giving an opportunity would really help move the needle in a macro way - and in small ways, it has. You know, we've made a mark. A lot of our women have been able to score publishing deals or record deals.
HIGHT: Chloe Gilligan signed with the publisher who saw her at one of those shows. While she figures out the next steps for her career, she leans on the solidarity of the group, as she explains backstage.
CHLOE GILLIGAN: This, to me, is a different type of community of songwriters where everyone's just so supportive. And it's not really competition necessarily, more like, if you win, then I win.
HIGHT: Like a lot of Nashville's rising women, Gilligan fills her songs with intimate details and delivers them like she's allowing audiences into her imagination.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GILLIGAN: I ended up writing a whole song in the corner of a club because I was mad and bored.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That is the most on-brand Chloe Gilligan thing I've ever heard in my life, like go to the club, angrily type lyrics into your iPhone.
GILLIGAN: Oh, and he knows it's about him, too. Like, there ain't no bones about it that the song's about this guy. So this is called "Blow Your Cover."
(Singing) I can still taste the peppermint on my tongue. The bouncer said, have a good one.
HIGHT: That's a fairly new development for mainstream country. The genre's stars often used to turn to professional songwriters for tunes that were broadly relatable in arena scale. Now that a lot of the old rules no longer seem to apply for women in country, more and more of them are exploring the potential of an individualized singer-songwriter approach, says Song Suffragette Reagan Stewart.
REGAN STEWART: You can tell that everyone's perspective now is changing to, like, OK, I'm going to be me, and that's going to work. And I'm going to make that work.
HIGHT: For proof that it can work, both Stewart and Kalie Shorr look to what was accomplished this year by an artist who's been at this longer than they have. Kacey Musgraves took her latest album in a psychedelic and reflective direction without giving radio a moment's thought and was celebrated for it.
SHORR: I'd rather be Kacey Musgraves and, you know, be able to go on this world tour and get nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys than have a No. 1 people forget about.
HIGHT: Shorr and plenty of her counterparts are playing the long game. As Musgraves put it in a song...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOW BURN")
KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) I'm all right with a slow burn.
HIGHT: For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOW BURN")
MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Taking my time, let the world turn. I'm going to do it my way. It'll be all right. If we burn it down... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.