Song Suffragettes Tackle Gender Bias In Country Music By Showcasing Collaboration

Reba McEntire

Can musical performances help inspire the change needed to eliminate the extreme gender disparity in country music? The forces behind the Song Suffragettes are counting on it. For nearly six years, this country music initiative and weekly showcase featuring the talent and collaborative power of female artists has highlighted the fact that great music isn’t all about the boys.

It was the continued and seemingly escalating gender disparity in Nashville that fueled music executive Todd Cassetty’s interest in creating Song Suffragettes.

“I grew up around country music and was always drawn to female voices and perspectives. As I like to say, ‘I’m a guy, I get that perspective—females are more complex and interesting.’ Plus, I’ve worked with a lot of great country females in my career including Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Dixie Chicks, Kelsea Ballerini, Reba McEntire and more. Most importantly, I have two young daughters (7 and 5), and I hate that today’s country radio no longer reflects their female perspective like the multitude of female voices–Shania, Faith, etc. that charmed the ’90s. I thought if we build a weekly, female-only show that showcases the best female talent in Nashville, maybe we can give these women a greater voice both individually and collectively,” explains Cassetty.

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Every Monday night, The Listening Room Cafe hosts the singer-songwriter collective that has become known for its sell-out shows. The Song Suffragettes has welcomed over 250 female artists since its inception. Of those artists, 16 have gone on to receive recording contracts and over 40 have been offered publishing deals.

Founding member Kalie Shorr credits Song Suffragettes with helping to give her a collaborative community and the foundation to find her voice—not a common combination in the music industry. Her single “Fight Like A Girl” (co-written with colleagues and co-Suffragettes Hailey Steele and Lena Stone) got major airplay in 2016 and her first album, the highly acclaimed Open Book was named one of the best country albums of 2019 by Variety.

“It’s also been just such a great unifier for the community of women here,” says the 25-year-old about the group. “And for me, you know, growing up doing music, it was always like being pitted against other girls and I’m not naturally an incredibly competitive person…But it is hard to not let a society that’s completely motivated by ‘Who wore this better?’ and stuff like that, to affect you as young girls. So coming up in Nashville as a teenager and a young adult with this community of women who are so motivated to support each other and change the culture surrounding it, made me such a better woman in the long run. And I don’t know who I would be as an artist without Song Suffragettes—and just as a person.”

These days, Shorr, who has quickly become a role model for female empowerment while shifting from opening act to headline her own tour, says she finds herself more mindful and cautious of the language and negative stereotype perpetuation in singing and songwriting.

“I think that the way I sing about other women is directly impacted by my work with Song Suffragettes,” explains the artist.

Cassetty says the #LetTheGirlsPlay core mission remains the same, but there are bigger aspirations than sell-out shows.

“We want to broaden the scope of what Song Suffragettes can contribute and are working on television/streaming prospects, touring opportunities and even releasing music. Essentially, we’re working toward a larger ‘window to the world’ so that more female-crafted music can be heard, and we can expose Nashville’s gender disparity problem to a wider audience—aka the fans, so that they get as fired up about it as we do. The more voices that care and clamor about this problem, the better chance for real change.”

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What would Cassetty like the public to know about Song Suffragettes and the current climate of women in country music?

“We started Song Suffragettes almost six years ago, and there has sadly been no macro movement on the gender disparity front. The percentage of solo women who get played on country radio is still in the 8% to 15% range annually. That said, awareness of the issue is at an all-time high and both established and nascent female musicians no longer recoil for fear of reprisal when talking about the issue. The women of music are emboldened, standing together arm-in-arm and their solidarity is growing their power. If we can just get the mostly male gatekeepers, especially the ones who bombastically profess to care, to enact actionable changes that will provide more opportunities for female musicians, we can begin to advance toward long overdue parity.”

Cassetty isn’t the only one who believes change is possible. University of Southern California’s entertainment diversity think tank, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative concluded in a 2019 research brief that despite the gross disparities in female representation in country music (Women represented 16% of the artists across 500 of the top country songs from 2014-2018. From 2015-2019, 85% of the Academy of Country Music Award nominees were male.), positive action could help level the playing field for women.

“The current reality in country music does not have to be the future of the genre. By taking action as an industry, executives, programmers, advocates, and even consumers can leverage their influence to create a space that produces great music— by male and female artists.”- Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, University of South California.

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If talent and passion alone could drive the necessary change, the Song Suffragettes might have retired their hashtag (#LetTheGirlsPlay) years ago. But despite the abundance of great female-driven music, statistics suggest that industry decision makers are still favoring the boys’ club and its subliminal message— #NoGirlsAllowed. That’s one of the reasons why the Song Suffragettes keep playing.

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Bless Your Heart!

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