It was only fitting that Heather McBee managed to tie a song by a classic country artist into the theme of the fourth annual “WHO KNEW Women Who Rock” event. McBee, formerly of Sony Music and now vice president of operations at Nashville Entrepreneur Center, served as emcee of the fourth annual event, which featured TedTalk-style speeches from six female executives in the music industry, closing out the Music Biz conference on Wednesday.
“We are here to celebrate women tonight — what we’re going to talk about is who is going to fill their shoes,” McBee said, referencing George Jones’ 1985 hit that questioned who would be capable of carrying on country music’s legacy. McBee applied the title to the group of powerful executives on hand, as the ones who will follow in the footsteps of Nashville’s other female pioneers like veteran exec Mary Martin and CMA CEO Sarah Trahern. “Badass women are going to fill their shoes,” McBee stated.
One of these women is Amy Kurland, founder of the revered Bluebird Café. Kurland shared how the Bluebird started as a lunch restaurant by day that turned into a live music club at night. She was paid a visit by legendary songwriters Don Schlitz and Fred Knobloch one night, who were equipped with a game-changing idea. “They told me that they thought we should start doing songwriter shows in the middle of the room and put the audience on the outside,” Kurland said. The suggestion led to the famous in-the-round style shows that have made the Bluebird a Nashville institution where Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Keith Urban and more got their start. “The one thing that the Bluebird provides is a place where the musicians are really going to be heard and people care,” she said.
A dominant theme in Toni Wallace’s words was determination. Currently the head of music brand partnerships at United Talent Agency, Wallace began her career in the tech world leading consumer and entertainment solutions at Microsoft. Wallace left her position to follow her passion to the music industry, but realizing that she needed to work her way in from the ground up, she worked for free at six different companies in two years, including Columbia Records, where she eventually ran the label’s entire U.S. branding team. She started with UTA in 2017, building its branding division from scratch while working alongside a team of women from around the world, establishing 250 partnerships with the agency in 2018.
In between the speeches, attendees witnessed the bright talent Nashville has to offer outside of country music with a three-song set from the Shindellas, the trio of Kasi Jones, Stacy Johnson and Tamara Chauniece. The pop, jazz and R&B group is produced by accomplished songwriting duo of Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, who acknowledged that they were aiming to fill a void in the music industry with the powerhouse singers. “What we thought personally was missing was the presence of girl bands, but also powerful, bright, beautiful, talented, intelligent black women singing songs together,” Kelly said, introducing the Shindellas for empowering performances of “Chills,” “Happy to See You” and “Reconsider.”
Empowering women has also been an influential part of Neeta Ragoowansi’s journey. Though she’s been involved with several organizations, the accomplished entertainment lawyer cited Women in Music as “the thing that put the fire under me.” Ragoowansi, who’s previously worked as the head of artist label relations at SoundExchange and as legal counsel to the Kennedy Center, has played an important role in Women in Music since joining in 2003, currently serving as the global co-chair of chapter expansion, helping it expand to 19 chapters globally with more than 8,000 members. She also assisted in the launch of Women in Music India. “The community organizer in me pulled out the hammer and the nail and I found an amazing group of women who pulled out their hammers and their nails to help build something that’s really quite special,” she said.
After sharing her journey to head of country music programming at YouTube and Google Play, Rachel Whitney used the final minutes of her speech to address the much-discussed lack of women on country radio, drawing attention to a new study by Jada Watson published through SongData that assesses gender representation in country music since 2000. Whitney called on the industry to “please join me in working towards making at least 30 percent of your real estate dedicated to servicing the work of women and not just women-only spaces.” She also addressed country music’s lack of diversity, but cited viral phenomenon Lil Nas X, Jimmie Allen and newcomer Blanco Brown as groundbreaking acts opening the door for more diversity in the genre.
“The genre has always struggled with inclusion, but we have a chance to get it right with this wave of new talent,” she said. “The internet is blowing the doors off of generations of misconceptions about people who make country music and the people who like it, and I encourage you all to join us.”