When Taylor Swift officially left country music in 2014, it wasn’t long before fans and critics alike were searching for “the next Taylor.” But whether she was tall and blonde with crossover appeal (like Kelsea Ballerini) or had songwriting chops and spunk (like duo Maddie & Tae), no one stuck. Of course, some of these artists’ career hurdles can be chalked up to the reign of bro country in the 2010s and the shifting sands of the music industry. Taylor’s brand-building album roll-outs, for example, are of a bygone pre-streaming era that now works only for, well, Taylor. 

But the point remains. There’s an audience in country music for young women who sing about their feelings. An audience that’s largely been ignored on the genre’s mainstage for half a decade. It was only five years ago that, in the metaphorical “salad” of country music radio, women were infamously dubbed the “tomatoes” to men’s “lettuce” (in an incident now known as Tomatogate).

With women accounting for just 10 percent of country radio airplay in 2019, not much has changed. But it’s not for a lack of talented artists. While there is no “new Taylor,” there are plenty of up and coming women in country who, if given the chance, could help close the gender gap or, dare I say, be part of the “lettuce.” Keeping that in mind, let’s review the scene’s newest contenders and their debut albums, all released within the last six months. 

Ingrid Andress

Ingrid Andress’s Lady Like is like butterscotch candy — sweet, palatable and difficult to categorize. This makes sense considering her long road to Nashville. Andress competed on NBC’s “The Sing-Off” and has worked with a variety of artists, from Alicia Keys to Charli XCX (she co-wrote “Boys”!). Her years of songwriting flower on Lady Like, taking shape in unusual song concepts. Her hit “More Hearts than Mine” is a conversation between Andress and a new boyfriend going to visit her family for the first time. She promises him that she would be fine if they broke up, but everyone else wouldn’t. 

Despite the album opener “Bad Advice”, which features a lush Western string arrangement, the rest of Lady Like’s sonic canvas lends itself to Nashville pop. Piano driven with hints of steel guitar, Andress co-produced the album to best serve its lyrics. While “Life of the Party” and the title track each tactfully explode into their respective choruses, Lady Like on the whole is mellow. Andress is a little bit of everything, which makes her music  pleasant-sounding but not very memorable. 

Gabby Barrett

With roots in American Idol (she placed third), a hit song scorning a cheating ex and deeply held religious beliefs, Gabby Barrett might seem poised to become “the next Carrie Underwood.” But that’s where most of the comparison stops. If Andress’s Lady Like is a Werther’s Original, Gabby Barrett’s debut album Goldmine is a Valentine’s Day conversation heart. Too sweet. Songs like “Hall of Fame,” “Strong” and her current single “The Good Ones” make the case for a counterpart to the boyfriend country trend — “girlfriend country,” with Barrett as its poster child. Generic lyrics and over-the-top romance might be true to Barrett’s newly-wedded bliss, but it gets boring. 

At 20, Barrett is the youngest on this list and has hundreds of thousands more social media followers than her peers. But Goldmine demonstrates that she’s still searching for an identity outside of gushing over her husband. Her powerhouse vocals are undeniable, but best served with attitude. Successful follow-up singles might prove that she’s carving out her own lane of lovey-dovey country music, but her deliciously scathing delivery of “I Hope” makes me hope she isn’t.

Tenille Townes

Already well known in her native Canada, Tenille Townes’s The Lemonade Stand shows off her experience as an artist. The album’s title alone is thoughtful. A metaphor for a neighborhood gathering place, The Lemonade Stand is meant to inspire optimism and togetherness. Relatedly, inspiration for many of the songs comes from the kind of inquisitiveness and wonder characteristic of a little kid. “Jersey on the Wall” asks how snowflakes are made and why car accidents happen in the same breath. “Somebody’s Daughter” humanizes the homeless woman she sees on her drive home. 

While it’s clear Townes has curated her own perspective, some of Jay Joyce’s production choices can feel a bit jarring. Whereas “Where You Are (Acoustic),” included on a previous project, sounds like a dark, romantic trip deep into the forest when stripped to just a guitar, the album version of “Where You Are” sounds like a trip to the county fair, springy and distorted. No matter the production style, however, Tenille’s distinctive, soulful voice and substantive subject matter signal a star in the making.

Caylee Hammack

Caylee Hammack’s If It Wasn’t For You is the introspective flip side to Townes’s keen observations. The delicate, guitar-laden “Small Town Hypocrite” is a masterclass in storytelling. And it’s Hammack’s own story. She turned down a music scholarship to Belmont University for a boy who ended up breaking her heart, but remained in Nashville anyways. From recovering from a house fire on “Forged in the Fire” to rummaging through a junk drawer on “Looking for a Lighter,” all while stringing lines of fiery wordplay together, Hammack’s lyrical cleverness is a step above. 

Though she is a self-described “maximalist,” Hammack’s co-production work on the record never over does it. It’s just really, really fun. A quiet, drawn out introduction gives way to an unexpected electric guitar riff in “Just Friends.” The raw, acoustic “Gold” is followed by the album’s poppiest track “New Level of Life.” Whichever direction she goes next, country music would be lucky to keep getting whimsical, drama-filled peeks into Hammack’s personal life. Also, getting country music’s most famous redhead, Reba McEntire, to collaborate on a song called “Redhead” is iconic.

Daily Arts Writer Katie Beekman can be reached at beekmank@michigandaily.com.

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