It’s quite easy to forget the raw, unfettered female talent in Nashville. Radio is deceiving that way. But snatch up a dozen or so of the brightest, most promising singer-songwriters and plop them down in an intimate setting, and they’ll recharge your optimism for the future of country music. That’s what happened during Sunday night’s (March 1) Girls of Winter showcase at City Winery, as America’s Got Talent’s Emily West, The Voice champion Cassadee Pope, high-flying songstress Caitlyn Smith, the calmly-measured chanteuse Maren Morris and more gathered to share giggle-inducing anecdotes, charming recounts of songwriting sessions and brand-new never-heard-before songs. Proceeds benefited the non-profit Safe Haven, an effort to combat homelessness.
The central theme? The storytellers wasted no time: they rattled the windows of heartbreak, pain, loss, moving on and engaging female empowerment in ways that were both organic and breathtaking. With the evening spliced into three equally-matched in-the-round jam sessions, each soloist stepped into the limelight to deliver powerfully-fueled vocals, decorated with grounded stories and sparse accompaniment. “I’m blown away by how many people are here,” singer Maggie Chapman introduced, looking wide-eyed and polished before Meghan Kabir launched into the rock-soaked “Kiss and Break Up.”
Ashley Ray‘s Texas-laced “Dirt Cheap” (penned by Luke Bryan, Dallas Davidson and Hillary Lindsey) set the tone for some of the more finely-crafted songwriting of the night. ” My love ain’t dirt cheap,” she sang on the song’s gritty hook: a proclamation that her love and adoration isn’t easily attainable. Emily Weisband‘s cleverly-structured “Getting in the Way”—”it’s about making out,” she quipped—allowed the audience and the music to breath. Chapman followed with “Wonder Woman,” a blistering performance with the key lyric: “Do you wonder, woman, if you’ll go down in history?”
For this group’s second set, Kabir performed a high-octane, stripped-down rendition of Kelly Clarkson‘s “People Like Us,” which she co-wrote with Blair Daly and James Michael and is featured on Clarkson’s 2012 Greatest Hits—Chapter One. On the pop singer cutting her song, Kabir gushed: “When something happens like that, it reminds you why you do what you do.”
Ray then ripped into “Get Gone,” a living fast and free fire-jam, followed by Weisband’s “I’m Making Mine” (which she swapped in at the last minute). “You probably haven’t it heard it yet,” she sheepishly looked back at the band. Chapman closed the first knock-out vocal round with “Rockstar,” an indie-pop track as haunting as it was perfectly baked. “Baby, when are you coming home?” she asked.
The evening’s proceedings were yanked up several notches as West sauntered out on stage, joined by Morris, Heather Morgan and Sarah Haze. West’s Lana Del Rey-spun delivery of “Fallen Hard” was a hard pill to swallow, and not because it was bad: no, her brilliant voice echoed across the crowd as every single concertgoer was frozen in time. It wasn’t until her last lilting notes that everyone was able to snap back to reality and comprehend what they had just witnessed. Needless to say, the audience erupted in such explosive applause, there was surely an avalanche of lava just outside the Winery doors. “I’m gonna pretend I can collect myself after that,” Morris sighed, dusting off her own guitar to attack Clarkson’s “Second Wind,” a brand new pop-thumper she co-wrote (with Shane McAnally and Chris DeStefano) for Clarkson’s forthcoming Piece by Piece (out March 3). Here, Morris licked each lyric with a poise and confidence that not even the most prolific of performers can attempt. Hearing what could soon be a huge Top 40 smash (directly from creator’s lips) was an ethereal experience.
The evening chugged along with authoritative performances from Morgan on “Lonely Long Enough” and Haze with the urban-tinged “Hey Breakup” (featuring an expertly-honed rap-style breakdown on the bridge). But it was West’s new gemstone “Games” that became the night’s best-written masterclass of wit and intelligence. “It’s about trying to win the game of love,” she retorted. Musician K.S. Rhoads took the stool beside her (strumming on guitar) as they high-tailed it into the “he said / she said” portrayal of relationships, flirting and sex. Possessing a classic country story-song structure, the duo unfolded each stormy lyric with a tongue-in-cheek glance, a toss of the hair and a wink ‘n nod to the crowd.
Morris turned (the night) on a dime to release a cheeky Luke Laird and McAnally co-write called “Company You Keep.” “It’s not about what you do but who you’re with,” she cooed. “Whatever. We’re all in this together: birds of a feather…” The round closed with Morgan’s “Beat of the Music” (Brett Eldredge), co-written with Eldredge and Ross Copperman) and Haze’s piercing “Riot” (Rascal Flatts), co-penned with Jaron Boyer.
And that was only the beginning: the third round brought out Pope, Smith and Lucie Silvas to echo the female empowerment chant. Pope heaved a sweltering performance of her platinum-selling Top 10 radio hit “Wasting All These Tears,” with the song’s co-writer Smith supplying luscious harmony. Linking together the idea of commercial appeal, Smith took over the reigns for one of the more emotional moments: laying into the steely ballad “Carry You Home,” co-written with Gordie Sampson and Troy Verges and recently featured on the hit ABC drama Nashville. Silvas, with her smokey alto floating across the room, performed her soul-drenched “Smoke.”
Since her time on The Voice, Pope has been developing a strong songwriting skill set, demonstrated by her brand new song “Let Me Go.” Co-written by Tina Parol (who joined the singer onstage to add background vocals) and Kevin Rudolf, the track was a reminder of Pope’s sheer power and often-overlooked nuance. She soared into the ether and then showered down like a summer mist. It’s one of her finest career moments, setting up a potentially intriguing sophomore album (rumored to arrive later this year). She’s clearly found her voice, and now she’s not afraid to use it. She explained of the song’s inspiration: “Someone just stopped believing in me, and I got no sleep. I think it was my most raw moment.”
Poised to become 2015’s breakthrough female, Smith then performed “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” included on pop hit-maker Meghan Trainor‘s debut LP Title (as a duet with R&B crooner John Legend) and co-written with Trainor and Justin Weaver. The marvelous thing to witness about Smith’s material is its wide-ranging, universal qualities: one minute she can be yielding dynamic harmony on a folk-pop track and the next she can be slicing into a smooth R&B record or slamming on the breaks for a harrowing roots ballad.
As time seemed to race by (and three hours of compelling music fluttered to a close), Silvas didn’t let the energy fade for the final four minutes, standing behind her keyboard for the intense alt-rock “Stoned.” Smith, whose most loyal of fans was seen waving and swaying at the end of the stage, invited the young girl up to have a seat next to her. The chemistry onstage vibrated and erupted into the audience; looking around, there was nothing but satisfied smiles and beaming eyes. The night, quite profoundly, was a prosperous endeavor.
The Girls of Winter not only obliterated the misplaced and abhorrent notion that “if you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist,” but these eleven stunning vocalists proved that truly great country music (told through the eyes of reality) can shake mountains. From beginning to end, the listener was beaconed on a marvelous journey through what was, could be and is the future of music.
Written and photos by Jason Scott – @JasontheScott
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