Photo: Scott Slusher, Mama Hot Dog, Alysse Gafkjen, Aisha Golliher, Kait DeAngelis, Lucy O'Rourke
Summer Dean probably shouldn’t be here, out on tour to support the upcoming release of her new album, The Biggest Life, produced by country music icon Bruce Robison. In the small Texas town where Dean grew up, young girls with professional aspirations aimed at the bank, courthouse, or classroom. Her mother was a teacher, and Summer followed in her mama’s footsteps, earning an education degree and teaching elementary school for 10 years. On a familiar and predictable trajectory, gravity’s rainbow should have done the rest.
Instead, not wanting to later grieve her own inaction, Dean quit her job—and her gig singing backup in a local cover band—to pursue a career making her own music. About a year later, she released Bad Romantic, a classic country music album that stood out for its studied adherence to the genre’s rich traditions, its Texas attitude, and its startlingly original voice.
Songs like “Picket Fence” and “Can You Hear Me Knocking” landed like hymns for women—or anyone really—tired of waiting on someone else’s validation. Dean is a 43-year old single woman whose life has revolved around her family’s cattle ranch, who never married or had children, and who speaks honestly—in her music and other settings—about her lived experiences. Her art reflects a certain type of rural femininity. “This is not ‘Chick Country,’” Dean says. “It’s not rhinestones and fringe. It’s blue denim. It’s ‘Woman Country.’ ‘Real Woman Country.’”
Like Dean, it took one of life’s inflection points for Hannah Juanita to finally start writing her own songs. In her case, she was stuck in a failing relationship and homesick, working on a farm in Washington state a continent away from her beloved Eastern Tennessee. “I was hauling water from the forest, cooking dinner by candlelight, and pouring my tears into my music,” Juanita says now. She got her hands on a free guitar and turned her anguish into the songs that would make up Hardliner, a tour de force album released in 2021 that was equal parts gentle songbird and Fuck You Honky Tonk.
Melissa Carper has been performing onstage since she was 12, but it wasn’t until she was able to release Daddy’s Country Gold in 2021 that her solo work was widely recognized. Going at it alone, she poured every last cent she had into the record. With its melodic blend of country, jazz, and blues, and Carper’s captivating, old-time voice (alongside her standup bass), the record arrived like an unearthed time capsule. A sudden legion of passionate fans hoped more like it would follow, and Carper didn’t disappoint. Last fall’s nationally released Ramblin’ Soul was hailed as a breakthrough and even landed on Rolling Stone’s list of best country albums.
Mainstream country music has historically been inhospitable to female artists, an embarrassing cultural injustice, not to mention a curious business strategy. But the music of Summer Dean, Hannah Juanita and Melissa Carper is intended for the independent country music scene that is exploding across today’s musicscape; a community of artists, fans, supporting labels, festivals, and new media platforms that are reclaiming America’s older music traditions—and creating something wholly new in the process.
And in a development that feels both radical and fantastically normal—Sara and Maybelle Carter were two of the genre’s founders, after all—this current country music revolution is decidedly female.
Like many of her peers, Sierra Ferrell’s first record release came in 2021. But today, with 1.2 million monthly Spotify listeners, a crowded trophy case that includes last year’s Emerging Artist Award from the Americana Music Association, and now on a nationwide tour of sold-out venues, she’s been something of a trailblazer for this generation of female country music artists. A dazzling multi-instrumentalist and singer, the West Virginia native already has a beer named after her, Wild Mountain Peach, a bit of astute branding that captures Ferrell’s assertive, playful, seductive music and presence.
Not only is she a vocal advocate for women, particularly around issues like body image and mental health, but she also stands up for her fellow independent artists trying to make it in a system stacked against them. Rather than being overly combative, she gets her point across with a sly grin, shrug—clever Instagram post—and plowing ahead on her own terms.
All this makes her in-demand as a collaborator. She has worked with The Black Keys, Ray LaMontagne, Shakey Graves, Margo Price, Old Crow Medicine Show, and plenty of her peers. Artists like Dean, Carper, Juanita, and Bella White, all express reverence for Ferrell, both for her direct participation on their work and her tireless support for their contemporaries.
Ferrell waves off such praise and cites her own adoration for fellow country artist Nikki Lane, who Ferrell credits for helping give her own career a boost when she needed it. She also speaks to the overall value of female friendships in music. “It’s good to have someone you can relate to for being a woman,” Sierra said over coffee in East Nashville. “Just knowing what it’s like in the industry, what we have to deal with just because we’re women.”
That sense of camaraderie pulsates through the community. Many of these artists cross paths and share bills on Nashville’s stages or the festival circuit. They have formed close bonds, sharing their work—and lessons from the road—with one another, and leaning on each other for support.
Before her current, sensational album On the Ranch came out, Emily Nenni’s most streamed song was “Long Game,” a cheerful ode to determination in the face of impossible odds. I can attest to its appeal. The song was played so much in my own house that even my six-year-old son had the lyrics memorized. I’ll admit to assuming the lovely song was autobiographical, but when I asked Nenni about it, I learned otherwise.
“I wrote that song for a friend and fellow singer-songwriter. She was going through a real hard time,” said Nenni. “She was hurting, feeling defeated and doubting herself, and I wanted to remind her what she could do.”
Several years ago, music business executive Tracy Gershon wanted to start a movement called “Bra Country,” not only as a rejoinder to the “Bro Country” moment, but because the music and artists were, as she says, “supportive and uplifting.” Instead, she and her confounders, CMT head Leslie Fram and MTSU Dean of Music Beverly Keel, started Change the Conversation, an organization that challenged the labels on their poor record signing female artists, and country radio over the lack of airplay. “We’ve seen improvement on the label side,” said Gershon. “But not much at radio or on the DSPs. There is still a lot of work to do.”
Even in the indie country scene, structural issues of marginalization stubbornly persist—closed doors, double standards, rude behavior, pay inequity. Every woman I spoke to for this piece has encountered them. “It’s a lot harder to be a female musician,” said Kassi Valazza, a Portland-based artist whose highly anticipated second album is dropping May 26. “You hear that every now and then, but it’s truly a lot more difficult.”
At the same time though, some things are changing. In particular, the artists cite a new generation of independent labels, record stores, venues and festivals that are more readily available to them as women, especially compared to what their foremothers faced. Indeed, many of these entities were launched in the past few years precisely to support this music—and by people expressly hoping to upend entrenched systems.
Western As Fuck is one of those supporting entities that is helping provide oxygen to the revival. Wyoming friends Brian Harrington and Mike Vanata wanted to document the gathering wave of underground country and folk music they were seeing back in 2020. They began shooting artful, authentic performance videos of artists and uploading them to YouTube. Today the channel has nearly 200,000 subscribers and tens of millions of views. For artists not played on country radio, the exposure is invaluable.
Valazza still marvels at how Western AF’s video of her performing “Johnny My Dear” sparked a surge of new fans. In her case, it was during the pandemic when she had no way to play in front of live audiences.
“What’s amazing about WAF is that they’re able to capture people in their environment and in a way that is completely authentic,” said Valazza. “That is what people want right now, that they’re not really getting from radio music. It’s always been difficult for women in the industry to be their own authentic selves. And now we’re at a place where people like Mike are filming women being themselves, playing their songs. It’s changing things a little bit.”
In fact, Western AF strives to maintain 50-50 parity between male and female artist videos on their site. Mainstream country radio, for comparison, has had a roughly 90-10 male split for decades. “When we started,” Harrington and Vanata told me recently, “we thought that it might be hard to find women artists to film because of the industry’s traditions. But it turns out there’s a lot of incredible ones out there, and if our mission is to show the very best music in this community, then we’re compelled to film these women. The music is just that good.”
“Most likely,” said Melissa Carper, “women have always been present. Nowadays, hopefully because conditions are improving, more of them are making the choice to pursue a career with their music.”
LaHonda Records co-founder Connie Collingsworth is optimistic that we’ve entered a new era. The independent label she started with Travis Blankenship has released records by Riddy Arman and The Local Honeys, among others. “The biggest change is that more men are open to this music,” she said. “It’s still hard for women artists to be treated fairly in the industry, but what’s different is that there’s a bigger audience for their music out there. And that’s the name of the game for the industry, and what could finally drive more change within.”