Jennifer Nettles Speaks To How 'Things Are Evolving' For Women In Country

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Jennifer Nettles has long been “a force for change in country music.”

The country star recently spoke with Southern Living Editor-in-Chief Sid Evans on the latest episode of the publication’s Biscuits & Jam podcast on Tuesday morning (April 2). Evans noted that Evans has constantly advocated for development in the country music genre, including calling attention to change for female artists and the LGBTQ community. That dates back to the early 2000s, when Nettles was rising in her career in the beloved duo Sugarland, which also included Kristian Bush.

“Jennifer Nettles was born and raised in rural South Georgia, where she got very involved in 4-H as a kid, a relationship that’s still a big part of her life. She went on to an extraordinary music career, winning a long list of Grammys, CMA Awards, and ACM Awards with Sugarland in the mid 2000s. By 2015, she’d started to work more in film and television, including her roles as Dolly Parton’s mother in Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors and Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors, and now she’s the host of a successful dating show called Farmer Wants a Wife. Jennifer never saw herself in that kind of role, but she talks about why this concept is so different from others in the genre, and why she’ll always feel connected to the farming community. She also shares a sneak preview of her upcoming album, Timeless, her thoughts on the evolution of country music, and what the hit song ‘Baby Girl’ means to her 20 years later.”

Evans wanted to know, “how would you characterize the differences in country music between then and now?”

“I think back at that time, we were just coming off the heels of what was an amazing career for women in both pop and country. We're talking the Shania Twains, the Faith Hills, the Martina McBrides, the Kathy Matteas, the Mary Chapin Carpenters, the Jo Dee Messinas, on and on, that women were very present and very celebrated in the genre at that time,” Nettles reflected in her response on the podcast. “And since that time, the evolution has continued to expand. Also we had the Dixie Chicks [now The Chicks] at that time, you know. So sonically, it was a very exciting time to be coming onto the scene, I have to tell you. It was a very exciting time. And one of the things that actually drew me to the project itself — 'cause Sugarland started as a writing project. We didn't know where it was gonna go — one of the things that drew me to it is that, at the time in pop music, things seemed to be leaning more towards like Britney Spears. It was kids, it was pop, it was music that, while I love like anybody else, that didn't feel like me. I felt like we had seen this before in Madonna, or we had seen it in Cher, certain other pop artists that people can tend to get really, what's a word that I could use? Just like really pigeonholed, right, as for who they could be and how they could evolve, even though obviously those women had a myriad of different images, but I didn't see that happening as much in like the Britneys and the Christina Aguileras, et cetera, in pop.

“And I loved the stories that country music was telling,” Nettles said. “I'd grown up on country music of course, even though I like everything. So for me, I was drawn to country music at that time because it was a place that a singer/songwriter could really tell stories, and it felt like a good match, and luckily it took off. But all that is to say, I continue to see it evolve musically in terms of, you know, always there has been a dance between country music and pop music. It used to be when you think about Elvis, he would do the blues, he would do gospel, he would pull from all these different influences. So did Johnny Cash, when he talks about his song, ‘Shoe Shine’ and he talks about the little kid who was shining the shoes and the rhythm that he had and that that inspired his guitar rhythm at the time. So an artist is an artist no matter where she is, no matter where he is, and she's finding inspiration through other people that inspire her, and so we've always, as country musicians, been influenced by all different other genre, but I definitely see that expanding. You hear way more rap influence now in country than you ever did.”

She noted that when she and duo partner Bush released “Stuck Like Glue” on The Incredible Machine in 2010, they included “that little rap snippet” in the Sugarland song, and Nettles said “that was scandalous at the time.” Though, now, blending elements of rap into country music appears to be more prominent in the genre, “especially all the dudes.” Nettles didn’t list examples; however, some country artists who have rapped in their music or collaborated with hip hop artists include Jelly Roll, Kane Brown, Breland, Blanco Brown and others.

“It's interesting to watch that evolution,” Nettles continued. “That's on one side of commercial country. Then you have the fantastic more like blues and Americana stuff. You've got your Chris Stapletons you've got your Jason Isbells. You've got those ones that feel much more classic in that way. Zach Bryan, you know. So it continues to evolve, and it's always going to. And there are always going to be the factions of those people who are like, ‘Oh, it's too pop. It's not country anymore,’ and there are always gonna be the diehards who are like ‘I’ve got to have it like this, or it's not country.’ Okay. Like, you all make up a beautiful tapestry of what is country music. So musically, it's evolved in a lotta ways. From an activism perspective, as you mentioned that, you know, still, still way, way struggling and way, way behind in terms of equity for women. I mean, is it better? I don't know, the conversations are being had. I definitely see more people of color than I ever have before. So, things are evolving, and they'll hopefully continue to do it and it'll never be fast enough for some of us. You have to keep being true to yourself and true to your heart and trying to pave the way and open the doors for those who come behind you. For that next little baby girl who has a dream, you have to keep paving the way and opening the door for her.”

Throughout the Biscuits & Jam conversation, Nettles also spoke with Evans about the famous Sugarland ballad “Baby Girl,” remembered what she thought about dating shows before hosting Farmer Wants a Wife, spoke about her upcoming album and more. Nettles teamed up with friend Noel Schajris to write and record her new album, Timeless, a bilingual record that features “beautiful, soaring, most of them romantic ballads in Spanish and English. …this is definitely an album of love songs, and it's big, big singing and big, big joy and passion and the plan is that we're gonna put that out this year.”

Nettles, the inaugural CMT Equal Play Award recipient, will team up with Sugarland duo partner Bush at the 2024 CMT Music Awards on Sunday (April 7). The duo will perform with Little Big Town (made up of Karen FairchildKimberly SchlapmanPhillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook), delivering the world premiere performance of an “electrifying” collaboration. it will mark Sugarland’s first CMT performance together since 2011, and coincides with Little Big Town’s 25th anniversary.

The 2024 CMT Music Awards lineup also includes Bailey ZimmermanCody JohnsonJelly RollKeith UrbanKelsea BalleriniLainey WilsonLittle Big Town with SugarlandMegan MoroneyNEEDTOBREATHE with Jordan DavisOld Dominion with Megan MoroneyParker McCollum with Brittney SpencerSam Hunt, and Trisha Yearwood, who will also receive the first-ever June Carter Cash Humanitarian Award. Ballerini is returning to solo host the show. See the full list of nominees here.

The 2024 CMT Music Awards will return to Moody Center in Austin, Texas, taking place on Sunday, April 7, and airing live (8:00-11:00 PM, ET/delayed PT). Viewers can watch on CBS and stream live and on demand on Paramount+.


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