Kalie Shorr—alone on the stage of City Winery—strummed her acoustic guitar with purpose, the chop-chop rhythms of Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” calling the packed room to attention. Before the chorus rolled up, the lanky Kelleigh Bannen strode out to join her, and then guitar sensation Lindsay Ell came out to blister a solo that reinforced the notion Country Music Television SVP of Music Strategy & Talent Leslie Fram had when faced with “TomatoGate” and the lack of women on country radio.

Next Women Class of 2018

Rather than whine, take action. And so The Next Women of Country movement was born. At times a tour, at others a featured rotation on the Viacom video channel, the project, which also includes events and information sharing, has spawned one of the must-attend events in a NASCAR-packed week of branded “opportunities” created around the Country Music Association’s annual CMA Awards telecast since Next Women’s 2013 launch. Over the years, Carly Pearce, Brandy Clark, Lauren Alaina, Maddie & Tae, Natalie Stovall, Aubrie Sellers and more have joined established stars Lee Ann Womack, Martina McBride and Jennifer Nettles to celebrate the future of a woman’s place in country music.

With Mayor Megan Berry on hand to welcome the crowd of several hundred, Fram and Warner Nashville’s RaeLynn cohosted this year’s event. Two complete writers’ rounds, showing the strength of the creativity coming down the pike, as well as a surprise for alumna Kelsea Ballerini, who received the Impact Award to recognize her incredible success, set the tone for the occasion.

But it was the naming of the Next Women Class of 2018 that people came out for. Signed and unsigned, Abby Anderson, Ashley McBryde, Bailey Bryan, Erin Enderlin, Hannah Ellis, Jo Smith, Kalie Shorr, Kassi Ashton and The Sisterhood Band make up another wave who will receive the support and full-court press from CMT to make sure their voices get heard.

Singer-songwriters Natalie Stovall and Ashley McBryde

There were several standout performances during the midmorning get-together/brunch. Ashley McBryde told the heartbreaking story of a teacher saying her dream of making music was “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” before bringing the room to pin-drop silence with the raw grit of “Girl Going Nowhere.” And of course, there were alumni Carly Pearce—on the verge of a #1 for “Every Little Thing”—and Natalie Stovall, whose smokey ache drove “Wine or Whiskey.”

Warner Bros. Nashville
head honcho John Esposito and the label’s Shane Tarleton, Black River’s A&R domo Doug Johnson, Q Prime South founder John Peets, Vector chairman Ken Levitan, Red Light’s Tom Lord, Messina Group Nashville anchor Ali Harnell, WME’s Greg Oswald and Joey Lee, John Prine manager Fiona Whelan Prine, Good Morning America’s Monica Escobedo and Cleo Andreadis, Bakersfield grassroots indie promo macher/Gretchen Wilson keyman Bob Mitchell, A&R consultant Tracy Gershon and artist Cady Groves were among the faces getting their girl power on.

Based on the quality of songs, the passion for making their own way and perhaps a changing tide, the future of girls with guitars looks strong. Five years in, Fram has built a franchise that’s—sadly, but also gladly—indelible.