Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away,” in 2012, was the last huge chart-topper by a female country artist. Recently a radio consultant, in comparing country music to a salad, referred to male country artists as the “lettuce” and the female country artists as the “tomatoes.” Subsequently, a few of country music’s female luminaries (including Martina McBride and Jennifer Nettles) are speaking out against these remarks in an effort to put women in country music on equal footing as men, the debacle has been dubbed #TomatoGate.
Rootsy chanteuse Sunny Sweeney also offered her two cents on the matter with a screened a t-shirt depicting a cartoon image of her hoisting a salami over the text, “Sunny Sweeney – Breaking Up The Sausage Party.” When I heard she was playing CMA 2015 I made it a priority to see what she’s been up to.
Some of the Pandora crew and I showed up as Sunny’s band was tuning up and line-checking. She walked on stage, smiled to the audience and broke into a four-part acapella vocal harmony that introduced her first song, “You Don’t Know Your Husband.” Sunny specializes in the kind of tension-wrought relationship-turbulent country songs inspired by legendary women like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. But she sometimes infuses a Merle Haggard kind of danger to her tunes and then gussies them up with barbed, 21st century pop-hooks.
Sweeney asked for audience participation on “If I could,” a rollicking roadhouse stomper where she boasts some rapid-fire, auctioneer, vocal style singing. The centerpiece of her performance began with Sunny asking, “How many of y’all are married to the man of your dreams? Ok, now how many of you who raised your hands are his second wife?” She then welcomed those women to “The Trophy Wives Club” and then tore into a new song. “Trophy” played with a palpable tensity that’s thorny with lyrics aimed at her husband’s ex: “I know what you call me…yeah, he’s got a trophy now for putting up with you.” She closed with an equally rocking rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Can’t Let Go.”
Inspired by Sunny’s set we were determined to go see more female country artists. Over at the Hard Rock stage, Stephanie Quayle was belting it out like a countrified Pat Benatar. Songs like “Sugar High” and “No Parachute” balanced emotional vulnerability with a preemptive defensiveness.
Following her set we stumbled into a cool, new, unsigned band called Friends Of Lola who were covering “Fishing In The Dark” by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. They were really going for that ‘70s California country rock vibe. Frontwoman Cyrena Wages looked and sang like a young, Stone Poneys era Linda Ronstadt. They closed on their own song “Wildfire.” I don’t think they’ll remain unsigned for very long.
After Judy Jetson, Tanya Tucker very well may be my first human crush. My dad brought home her TNT on vinyl when I was a little kid and I used to wear out the grooves while sprawled out on the living room carpet, gazing longingly at that sultry gatefold. Tanya took the stage looking just stunning. She was decked-out in a black sleeveless jumpsuit with rhinestones and a silver furry vest. She opened with “Some Kind Of Trouble” and followed that up with the haunting “I’ll Come Back As Another Woman.” Alabama once sang, “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band).” Fittingly, a fiddler jumped on stage to join Tanya for “San Antonio Stroll.” Her daughters Layla Laseter and Presley Tucker sang backup on every song, but those family harmonies really rang out on “If It Don’t Come Easy.”
The end of the night found us back at the LP field. As Carrie Underwood took command of the stage and opened with “Blown Away” to an avalanche of applause, I was reeling from a day filled with awesome women country singers and musicians. I couldn’t help but think back to 2012 and wonder what the next female number-one single in country is going to be.