Billboard kicked f this year's CMA Fest week by teaming up with CMT Next Women Country for an empowering showcase featuring four impressive up-and-coming female artists on Monday night (June 4). The first-ever Billboard Live Featuring CMT Next Women Country hosted performances from Ashley McBryde, Jillian Jacqueline, Tenille Townes and Jo Smith, all whom shared inspiring performances and heartfelt stories in a night full girl power.
“Storytelling is what makes country music,” Billboard’s editorial director Jason Lipshutz said ahead the night’s performances. “And some the most compelling and inspiring stories are coming from women.”
That held true with each the four ladies who took the stage at one Nashville’s newest venues, Analog (inside the Hutton Hotel), with McBryde starting things out by bringing some humor: “The most common word we say in the band right now is just ‘weird,’” she said after CMT's senior VP music strategy and talent, Leslie Fram, asked her about her recent success. “Because two, three years ago we were just asking ‘Can we just have half-f appetizers?’ ‘Cause I gotta feed my men, you know?”
McBryde’s appearance marked her third show the night and the precursor to a performance at Ryman Auditorium alongside Darius Rucker, Brad Paisley, Lauren Alaina and more stars at Rucker’s ‘Darius and Friends’ benefit show later that night. Yet the 34-year-old seemed unfazed by her marathon day, delivering impassioned renditions “Rattlesnake Preacher,” “American Scandal” and “Girl Going Nowhere."
Before diving into a story about a high school algebra teacher that once called her aspirations becoming a singer in Nashville “stupid,” McBryde acknowledged that she didn’t just prove that “bitter old bat” wrong herself — CMT backed her up.
“One the coolest things that has happened to me since things started taking f is being asked to be one the Next Women Country,” McBryde said. "Because it means they like where you’re at and they like where they’re pretty sure you’re headed, and that’s a pretty great compliment.”
Jacqueline added some more amusement to the showcase, sporting a bold all-denim pantsuit that she joked gave her “Justin and Britney vibes.” Though she earned the honor being a Billboard Chartbreaker because her breakout single “Reasons,” Jacqueline opted to sing two deeper cuts as well as a brand new song called “Tragic,” which is part the next set music she plans to release this summer.
Her choice songs spoke to the kind vulnerable storytelling all the night’s performers put into their songwriting, as she said “Sad Girls” always brings her back to the breakup that inspired it (“That’s what you want from a song,” she asserted) and admitted that she was worried her song “God Bless This Mess” may be too honest to release.
“What I learned from recording that song and putting it out is, sometimes you have to be the vessel for the song to live and just be the messenger the message that’s really, really important for people to hear,” Jacqueline said. “I’ve had so many people come to me and tell me that this song got them through some really tough stuff … but] because I was willing to put this song out and share it, it touched someone else’s life. That’s the power songwriting.”
Townes arguably brought the most heart-wrenching story the night with her song “Jersey on the Wall,” which she explained came from an experience she had with high school students from her hometown who lost a star athlete in a car accident. “I thought, ‘Man do I have questions for God,’” she recalled. Those questions came into play in the song’s poignant chorus, which were both sweet (“How do you make a snowflake?”) and mournful (“Why can't you stop a car from crashing?”), making for an emotional performance.
Dressed in a sassy red jumpsuit, Townes — who recently signed with Sony Music Nashville — looked like a rock star as she jammed on her guitar through “Where You Are” and another compelling story a tune “Somebody’s Daughter,” ensuring that she’s taking her “Next Woman Country” title to heart.
The night's finale came from Nashville veteran Jo Smith, who has been in Music City for 15 years but jokingly suggested “you have to write a song about moving to Nashville about once a year to get it out your system.” She played one the Nashville tunes she’s penned titled “For This Town,” as well as a juxtaposing combination love songs about a happy relationship (“Bobby’s Heart”) and a booty call (“You Up”), covering a wide country songwriting spectrum.
Smith shouted out McBryde, Jacqueline and Townes for the incredible songs they showcased at the event, but more importantly the hard work all the ladies have put in to get where they are. “This group girls is killer,” Smith declared. “They’re all hustling, and that’s what you don’t see."
All four the women who were part the inaugural Billboard Live Featuring CMT Next Women Country event will be performing several more times throughout CMA Fest week. Bringing them together for a night honoring new women in country wasn’t just a kickf to a week ladies rocking stages, though — it was pro that the next generation female singer-songwriters is one hell a force to be reckoned with.