Is the Nashville music industry still a boys’ club? My new novel, The Farewell Tour, follows a fierce, ambitious female singer-songwriter named Lillian Waters who is trying to crack the country-music establishment from the 1940s through the 1980s. Lillian balances multiple day jobs, struggles with rejection, and even into her 40s, is categorized as a “girl singer,” instructed to sing about heartbreak and family rather than her real life, and told there’s not room for multiple women on a music label.
To see what’s changed, and what hasn’t, in the real world in the decades since, I spoke to three ascendant Nashville-based musicians about their lives and work. Americana artist Allison Russell uses her music, especially her first solo album, Outside Child, to explore her own abusive childhood, the triumph of surviving it, and the new community she’s made. Amanda Shires, a country artist who’s been fiddling onstage since she was a teenager, turned a bright light on the difficulty of marriage with her newest album, Take It Like a Man. And blues artist Adia Victoria grapples with the complexity and contradictions of life in the South, where she bristled against her evangelical Christian upbringing, in her music with her most recent album A Southern Gothic. We talked about creativity, representation, and blazing a path as women in a notoriously tough industry.
On the popularity of women artists:
Allison Russell: The industry itself is still so entrenched in its bigotry and resistant to coming out of it. Just look at the top 10 of country radio. It’s all white men, except sometimes there’s a straight Christian Black man who gets in the top 10 once in a while. But they’re not playing Brittney Spencer, they’re not playing Mickey Guyton, they’re not spinning all of these incredible Black women.
Amanda Shires: They don’t think women wanna hear other women’s voices, which isn’t true—like everything else that we’ve been told that’s not true, then we start believing in it. But that’s not the case. People want to hear other women’s voices. That’s the purpose of music, to give language to what another person might be feeling. And when we do hear from women, we want to hear real, substantive things. You might grow yourself some courage to get out of your own situation, or feel like you’re not alone in your world.
Adia Victoria: I’ve definitely experienced that kind of chatter in the industry, but I have to think about the people who are telling me this. That actually says more about the men—let’s be real. They understand what happens when they get a bunch of women in the room, artists of color, queer artists, that it automatically is going to change what we consider to be the objective truth of country music. So I understand why there is such limitation: welcoming more people to the table means that what’s gonna be served has to change.
On starting out in the Nashville music scene as a woman:
Shires: I’ve never recorded in a fancy Music Row studio. I go to a cold studio. I barely know which way to put the headphones on. There’s the producer way far away in a room behind glass. They tell you to sing and then they’re like, ‘I don’t like that.’ You don’t wanna say, ‘Wow, this really feels terrible right now.’ And then by the time you get out, you just keep becoming a smaller and smaller version of yourself.
I just kind of quit. I disengaged. Started touring on my own, playing a lot of house concerts, sleeping on weird floors….This was pre-2017, pre Highwomen [Shires’ group with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris]. It’s very difficult to travel as a woman around the country. It can be dangerous. When you settle up at a club, sometimes people expect other things on top of what you just did. Sometimes we’d run into situations where people are trying to get you to do drugs with them before you can get paid. All kinds of weird stuff.
Victoria: I can say for myself, I never experienced that kind of predatory aspect from men, where they tried to get too close. Since I was a little girl, growing up with not much armor in South Carolina, to protect my body, I’ve known how to adapt and survive men in a way that is not submitting to them. I’ve had to learn how to be okay with displeasing men, and not only be okay with it, but relishing it in some regard. I made a promise to myself when I signed my deal with Atlantic in 2015. I was sitting at my attorney’s desk in Nashville: the moment that you feel compromised, you leave. Get your little purse and go…I’ve always been a skeptic. I’ve always been a questioner. I’ve always been a doubter. I’ve always been a jester, too, when it comes to people in positions of power, because you’re only as powerful as I believe you are.
Russell: I’ve never been on the road by myself. From my earliest days, my impulse was to form circles with other women and collaborate musically. It took me ‘til I was 40 to make a solo record. There’s a lot of reasons for that, some more negative and limiting, like overcoming abuse and reasons I felt unworthy to put my name forward, but some much more positive, which is that I really love, and I’m inspired by, the collaborative aspects of art, of music. Like anyone with an intersectional identity—for me it’s woman, it’s Black, it’s queer—we find safety in our circles. We know that it’s dangerous and vulnerable to be alone. And so I’ve always been afraid of being alone on the road. I’ve never wanted to do that. My first 15 years of life were marked by isolation within an abusive family. So as soon as I escaped that, I found safety in the intersectional, misfit, creative arts community. I guess there’s one gift of having been shaped and having to form my identity in opposition to an extremely inimical force—in my case, my primary abuser. That has given me really good instincts, I think, for other predators.
On grappling with motherhood as a touring artist:
(Russell’s daughter, Ida, is 9; Shires’ daughter, Mercy, is 7.)
Shires: I thought that everything I’d worked toward would go away. This is before you announced your pregnancy on the Super Bowl, before it was okay to be working pregnant. John Prine and Greg Allman were the two people that would let me go play music with them while pregnant because you’re a liability to most other people. “You’re gonna have an opener that’s pregnant? Something could happen, and what does that do to your tour?” It isn’t without reason, but it’s also like, can’t we trust the person here who says that they can do it?
Luckily there are those folks that know that it’s not a disease, that you can still function as a person in the world when you’re pregnant….In hindsight I put way too much pressure on myself. I didn’t see any role models for how you tour with a child; I was just like, I’m just gonna try. I bought into the idea that I learned earlier in Nashville, that you had to be “packageable” and “available.” Some of those things they push deep on you stay in there; you believe in them a little bit even though you try to pretend like you don’t. Two weeks after I had her—and I had a C-section—I was playing at the Ryman. Like, I was lactating through my shirt. I cried a lot. I admit to it cause I don’t want other girls to have to do it. They don’t have to put that much pressure on themselves. It will wait.
I tried staying home for a second and then I called Jason [Isbell, her husband and a fellow musician]. I was like, “I’m gonna lose my shit. I can’t do this.” He was like, “Well, you and Mercy will come meet us on the road and we’ll fucking figure it out.” And that’s what we did. I didn’t know what to do. I was putting pool noodles in the bottom bunk [of the tour bus, for Mercy’s makeshift crib]. A Moses basket and pool noodles.
Russell: In my case it was an unplanned pregnancy. I was very afraid of becoming a mother, just because of my own history. My mom had a psychotic break when she had me; her schizophrenia became full blown after my birth as well as really, really severe postpartum depression. I thought that if I had a baby that that would happen to me too, and that I wouldn’t be able to care for my child properly. But because I had a loving enough circle, I made the choice to continue with my pregnancy.
You have to keep working. People would say things like, “Oh, you’re so brave out there.” Like, I’m not brave. This is just necessity. I toured until I was 40 weeks pregnant, and then, similar to Amanda, I got back on the road. Ida was four weeks old. There was a great deal of beauty in having a nomadic community helping me raise my child. I didn’t experience postpartum depression, I think in large part because I was never in isolation. We have a lot of moms in our community and kids. They call themselves tour siblings; they’ve been in bands and buses and on festival stages and in every green room. They have an amazing ability, all of them that have been raised in this more communal way on the road, to self-advocate. It’s really fascinating to watch.
On finding songwriting inspiration:
Shires: [When I first started performing,] I met Cindy Walker; she was a wonderful songwriter. I talked to her once about writing and she was like, “You just gotta write 50 songs. You gotta finish ’em all, even if they’re bad. And then you gotta write more than that.”…A lot of times I’ll be like writing and I’ll be like, “This is really fucking bad. I should shred this immediately.” But the truth is you have to write that trash. When you start writing something, a lot of times the first two or three paragraphs are just complete dog shit and the good part starts later. You gotta trust that.
Victoria: For “Whole World Knows” [off Victoria’s 2021 album, A Southern Gothic] I had been thinking about growing up in Southern, white, evangelical Christianity, what purity culture had done to shape me and steal me from myself. And I thought about the pressure that is on a young woman’s body in the South growing up to not just be pretty, but to be holy. Where do you put that pain? Where do you put that feeling of exclusion, that feeling of shame that your community tries to attach to you just for being born a girl? I wanted to tell a lot of stories of my friends, myself, my family members, women who have struggled. I told their stories through the story of a preacher’s daughter who is in her father’s Cadillac on a Sunday morning in a parking lot outside church shooting heroin while he’s inside preaching. What happens when you cannot speak a truth? What does that do to a soul?
Russell: I feel driven and compelled to sing about secrets because I know the harm they’ve done. We are doomed to repeat and repeat those cycles endlessly, if we can’t get those skeletons out of the closet and talk about them. I mean, we are in an opiate crisis right now in our country for a reason, because people are so afraid of and ashamed of the trauma that they’ve lived. Shame is a really destructive force. When people feel that internal shame, it can kill you. It came very close to killing me, but at a certain point, because I was so lucky, music found me before more abusers did.
And it’s not just killing us. It’s causing a great deal of harm because either you don’t survive and you die, or you’re walking wounded, or you become the monster that hurt you. All of these outcomes are unacceptable to me, and they are fed by our silence. That’s why it’s so important to me to continually revisit that discomfort.
The music, I hope, has joy in it, because I feel that joy. When you survive against all odds and you find a community, a chosen family, that’s a wildly joyful thing. Survivor’s joy is very powerful. Joy is resistance. And we need to share and amplify that too.
On being married to creative partners:
(Russell is married to, and often plays or writes with, JT Nero; Victoria to Mason Hickman; and Shires to Isbell.)
Victoria: I realize that we are both flawed, fallen, hilarious, beautiful human beings who have been blessed with the desire to distill our lives into art. That’s not always gonna look one way. It’s not always gonna be one way. There’s no formula.
Russell: I love that. Same, basically. We each have things that we do individually. I do Our Native Daughters [Russell’s group with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla] and we do different writing things separately too. It isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s taken time. We’re understanding that the relationship is in constant transition—it isn’t one thing—and you’re choosing each other every day. It’s not a given. I think that helps to remember that.
Shires: In the studio, [Isbell] would sometimes pick on me out of pressure he was feeling. Not even real musical criticism; he was feeling a way and I’m the person there that he can dish that out onto. That’s sometimes what you get into when you have a husband and wife doing the same things. Meanwhile, I also happen to be the only woman in the room. But I think we’ve sorted that out. You know, take it out on someone else. Don’t make me feel small. I’m already five foot three.
The part that I didn’t know how to manage was the part where Jason was an independent artist on his own. With a lot of going back and forth, we eventually figured out whose name is on the sign, whose show it is. Sometimes we have to remind each other, whose American Express bill got us here with the gas? If that’s me, I’ll be in charge. And if you don’t like it, you can go watch.
On the joy of playing with other women:
Victoria: That [Once and Future Sounds, a 2021 Newport Folk Festival performance that Russell curated with artists including Victoria, Chaka Khan, Amythyst Kiah, Yola, and Carlile] was the first time when I was on the stage and I was surrounded by primarily Black women and other women of color, queer women, just women. It was the first time that I felt that spirit of abundance. There’s so many times in this industry, in my career, that I am the only me in the room. I’m the only one that looks like me. I’m the only one that understands the shit I’ve had to walk through to get into that room. So it felt like a release for me. And I will cast some aspersions on a specific demographic when I say that they want to practice the spirit of scarcity when it comes to us: only have one of us on the bill, on a lineup. When they practice the spirit of abundance with so much white male straight mediocrity—you don’t gotta have any new insights in the world, you know?
Russell: It felt to me that it was a seismic shift for the perception of folks that had been swallowing the Kool-Aid that you can only have one or two of us; the exponential goodness and excellence and joy that was present on that stage. Not to cast any aspersions at any other demographic, but there’s been a very severe misrepresentation on stages, not just gender-wise, but color-, every-identity-wise. There’s been a preponderance of straight white men on stage, and that’s what we’re used to seeing. And all of us, whether it’s just because we’re women or any other added intersection of removal from the center of the story, we’ve been told that there’s not room for us up there, that we’re not needed, that we’re redundant and we’re interchangeable. It made very clear to ourselves and to everyone that was, I believe, privileged to be there with us that that’s a false story.
That’s the magic and the alchemy of musical collaboration that I am so hooked on. Everybody felt included. Every 65-year-old straight white man in that audience was joyfully singing along to “I’m Every Woman”; Chaka Khan was every bit as folk canon as “Goodnight Irene” in that moment. Everybody was dancing. They weren’t like, “There’s too many Black women on stage. I don’t feel seen. It’s not for me.” They were thrilled. We formed a circle together and everybody felt part of it. And that’s why it was such a joyful moment.
Shires: I knew it all was a lie, that women didn’t want to hear other women sing. When we started playing together [with The Highwomen], it feels like we all want the same things in the world. It’s just we’re all trying to figure out how to get to them. There are powers that have set up roadblocks and gates for us all. But I think we all will, eventually, get there. You can see in just [the past] 10 years that steps are happening. It can be depressingly slow and sometimes overwhelmingly still ugly, but when you go and you have a moment like that and you can feel it, it just renews your sense of continuing.
Because of scheduling issues, Clifford interviewed Russell and Victoria together, and Shires separately. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Stephanie Clifford is an award-winning journalist writing about criminal justice and business, and author of the bestselling novel Everybody Rise.