In recent years there have been a number of articles written about the difficulties and resistance that female country artists have faced in improving the gender parity at music festivals and getting their music played on American country radio. in April 2019, Dr. Jada Watson of the University of Ottawa, in consultation with WOMAN Nashville, released a report called Gender Representation on Country Format Radio: A Study of Published Reports from 2000-2018. In 2000, women held 33.3% of songs on the year-end country airplay reports, but by last year, they came in at 11.3% – a decline of 66% percent. The data is striking and an argument for the disparity is untenable given the volume of high quality female songwriters in the contemporary country world.
Arguably, the Australian industry is ahead of the US in its efforts to achieve equality and opportunity. Within the Australian Americana scene we have an exceptional range of artists, each with their own distinct style and personality, who are all developing their songwriting and creativity in new and fascinating ways – and being recognised for it.
Two artists right at the peak of their artistry are Fanny Lumsden and Tracy McNeil. Both have given 100% commitment to their musical careers by taking partners and family on the road and embarking on tours that reach venues and regions that usually see very few visiting acts.
Lumsden has created an ecosystem around her folk/country blend, from playful, eye-catching merchandise to her unique annual Country Halls Tour. She’s in it for the long haul and the hard work is paying dividends with industry awards, chart placings, mainstream media exposure and on her latest album Fallow, her finest songwriting to date.
By contrast, Tracy McNeil’s sound is rooted in country and rock/pop – her songs draped in 70s FM radio melodies that sound both nostalgic and wholly contemporary. This year she and partner/guitarist Dan Parsons reduced their lives to the contents of a van with the intention of spending the year on the road touring her excellent new album You Be The Lightning. That plan has been cruelly curtailed yet the album remains, continuing to draw critical praise and new fans aplenty.
Both those artists possess huge appeal to traditional roots music fans, commercial radio and mainstream country media. Two other female songwriters that began their careers closer to those audiences but have began to really expand their sound and draw from a wider palette of influences are Ruby Boots (Bex Chilcott) and Katie Brianna. Chilcott re-located to Nashville a few years ago and released her album Don’t Talk About It in 2018. As much glam, indie and pop-rock as it is country, it sounded like an artist throwing off any shackles and expectations of how she should sound and just following her muse and instinct.
Katie Brianna came up through the Australian country music scene like many of the bigger names – winning an award at Tamworth and being hailed as the next big star. Instead of playing the game and chasing the bright lights she’s had a steady career, digging deep into more introspective, tear-stained and and soulful country music as an independent artist. She has a new album on the way and from the sound of the first single ‘Boots’, she too is taking a brave dive into the world of artists like Jenny Lewis, Neko Case and Ruby Boots.
Finally, the two other exceptional songwriters on our radar are Freya Josephine Hollick and Jen Mize. Musically very different, they’re both clearly passionate, hard working and musically fearless artists. Mize can sing like an R&B diva or a western plains balladeer – as she did on the Twilight On The Trail album. Riveting as a solo artist, she also knows what she is capable of, with a new project on the way under the name Jen Mize & The Rough N’ Tumble – a seven-piece ensemble that can blast out authentic soul, blues, country and rock ’n’ roll.
Freya Josephine Hollick’s earlier work was an enchanting and otherworldly form of folk music that could haunt the mind and warm the soul. Increasingly she’s shifted her writing into more of a cosmic country realm – first on her expansive 2018 album Feral Fusion and imminently on her next record, recorded in the Californian desert with Lucinda Williams’ band Buick 6, and renowned guitarist Greg Leisz. The first single ‘Nobody’s No Better Than No One’ hints at the atmospheric and more psychedelic path the album may take.
These are just a handful of the female artists that I consider are at the forefront of the Australian Americana scene. There are many more forging their own paths and staking their claims for an equal share of the contemporary cultural landscape.