All-Female ‘CMT Artists of the Year’ Spotlights Exec Leslie Fram’s Advocacy for Women

"We were in a place where women dominated the chart,” says the CMT senior VP, “and we lost our way." A telecast spotlighting Carrie, Miranda, Maren, Kelsea and others is one step toward making up the difference.

Leslie Fram of CMT
Shannon Fontaine

When you think of the public face of women in country, you think of Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris or any of the other artists who’ll be spotlighted on the “CMT Artists of the Year” telecast Wednesday night. But if you live and work in Nashville, the first name that might instinctively spring to mind in connection with that phrase, even before any of the celebrities’, is that of Leslie Fram. The senior VP of music strategy for CMT is indelibly associated with heightened attention to the issues facing women in the genre, not just as the driving force behind her network’s ongoing Next Women of Country initiative, but as a co-founder of the awareness group Change the Conversation.

This year’s female-focused “CMT Artists of the Year” is essentially a culmination of her vision distilled down into one night, so you would naturally assume the idea was hers — especially after all the honorees last year were men, which for better or for worse really did reflect who’d spent the year on top. She credits this year’s reactive lineup as a group decision on CMT’s part. “It was really a collective idea internally,” Fram says, “based on all the work we’ve been doing with Next Women of Country and seeing what was gradually happening with the lack of support for female artists at the format even before Tomatogate” (a term that arose in 2015 when a country radio programmer controversially declared that women represented tomatoes, at best, in the vast salad that is country music). “Artists of the Year has been traditionally about the biggest artists of the year, through sales and touring and streaming, but unfortunately the format has created a situation where there isn’t an equal playing field. So the timing is perfect for us to honor all women.”

Fram isn’t just a fan of women in country… she’s a super-fan, in general, and so deeply knowledgeable about, yes, both genders in the genre that you’d think she grew up immersed in it. So it’s strange to remember that, at this time last decade, she was a rock radio queen in New York City, with scant thought of ending up in Music City. Looking back to what first planted the seed for her interest in country when she was still an alt-rock gal, it’s not surprising it was a female artist.

“I have to credit Skip Bishop” — a former Sony Nashville country promotion SVP of some renown in the genre — “who, when I was in New York working in rock radio, called me about this young female artist he’d started working named Miranda Lambert. At the time there was not a country station in New York, so he asked if he could bring her by for an interview, and we said yes, because I had this great morning show with this rock legend, Matt Pinfield, from MTV, and we just wanted to talk to great artists. I had only been to a handful of country shows in my life. That night I went to her show at Terminal 5” — which, fatefully, was a CMT-branded tour — “with Eric Church opening, and I was like: ‘Oh my God.’ My eyes were completely opened to this genre that really wasn’t part of my sphere” — and, cutting to the chase a few short years later, “I moved here and completely fell in love with the music and the songwriters.”

Since arriving down South, she’s become the most visible champion the city has of female musicians… and execs, since she’s just as quick to call out the fellow Ladies of CMT, like Suzanne Norman and Margaret Cuomo, as she is a Carrie or Miranda. She started up the Next Women of Country initiative in 2013, before Tomatogate turned that advocacy into a true cause celebre.

There’s been considerable growth in what Next Women of Country represents. “It really just started to say, hey, we are going to support you by playing your videos.” That extends beyond CMT’s programming of music videos, which takes place mostly in the morning, before movies and reality specials take over, much like with sister network MTV. For 24/7 music videos, there’s a separate CMT Music channel in 35 million homes. “And then it grew into: We’re going to support your content.” CMT actually helps young and even unsigned female artists make videos, for online dissemination. “And then it grew into a tour — and next year will be the fifth year — because of that cycle where if you don’t have a song on the radio, then you can’t get on a tour.”

It may be partly because of Fram’s long history in non-country radio before joining CMT that she never got trained accept the uneven playing field for women in Nashville as a given. “I’m the most positive person you’ll ever meet and I always want to say things are getting better. But then you look at the charts and you’re like, wow, it really isn’t getting any better,” she says. “It’s shocking when you look at the most played artists in the top 30 and you only see a handful of women. I’m looking at a list of the most-played artists year-to-date so far, and Carrie is at No. 12 and Kelsea Ballerini is at No. 30.

“Yet Top 40 celebrates women. Everyone loves that pop’s female artists are not one-dimensional and their fans relate to them on so many different levels, whether it’s fashion or anything else that the artist is into. And I feel like country could be the same. We were in a place where women dominated the chart” — in the Faith/Shania/Reba/Chicks era — “and I can’t explain how we got to where we are right now. For some reason we lost our way, and I think we’re all trying to figure that out. And then it becomes as Martina McBride said, it becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy that the fewer females that are signed, then the fewer publishers that sign female writers, and then it just goes beyond that.”

There’s plenty to celebrate about the artists appearing on CMT’s telecast Wednesday, notwithstanding the struggle that virtually all of them except for Underwood have had in achieving and then maintaining chart-topping status.

“Carrie keeps reinventing herself, and I love the sound of her new record (“Cry Pretty”). I think she sounds very soulful on this record and has something to say. Miranda put out this critically acclaimed double album (”The Weight of These Wings”) that is a record I continue to listen to, and the songs are so meaningful. With Miranda, she pours her life into her music. I don’t think that record really was celebrated at all commercially, if you really look at the singles that were released and what got played and what didn’t get played, but that record to me kind of stands the test of time. I don’t think Maren’s album even got its due. There are songs on that record I think could have been released that I feel could have been huge, and sometimes it’s interesting what’s picked as singles and what isn’t. But she’s another amazing songwriter that I believe had important songs on a record that may have been overlooked. ‘My Church’ was such a breakout song because sonically it was different, and it was so active as far as streams and sales, and I was shocked that that song wasn’t a number one song. It had every indication of being a number one song, and I can’t explain why it wasn’t.” Morris’s album did eventually have one song that got to the top (“I Could Use a Love Song”), but Fram is counting on the sophomore album the singer just completed to be the 2019 project that country radio enthusiastically embraces from start to finish.

She’s just as high on some of the younger artists who won’t be appearing on “Artists of the Year,” many of whom will be in the audience, waiting their turn. On the freshman or sophomore side, Fram thinks singer/guitar shredder Lindsay Ell could have her breakout with her next single, “Champagne”; believes in critical fave Ashley McBryde; and cites recent Sony signees Tenille Townes and Rachel Womack and Black River’s Abby Anderson as strong contenders in the gate. “And there is an artist in town who I can’t believe is not signed because everyone says, ‘Oh my God, she’s amazing… but we don’t know what to do with her.’ I’m like, I think you sign great artists and you figure out what to do with them! Right? Maggie Rose is that. She’s a Triple Threat, she’s incredible, and I can’t believe that she’s an artist who is in our town and is not signed.”

Fram expects the backstage situation at “Artists of the Year” to be one big support-fest. “Women have been told there’s one slot, and that it was very competitive for that slot, but we’re like, no, we want to create an environment where a win for one is a win for all. And you see that all over social media. You see Maren reaching out to one of her fellow female artists to congratulate them on something, and it happens every day. These women are all supporting each other and congratulating each other and celebrating each other. I don’t see any other format doing that, by the way,” (Listen up, Nicki and Cardi.) “I think it’s very healthy, because they’re all going through the same exact thing.”