There is a phrase used in the sports world for when a player is having an incredible season right before their upcoming free agency: they are considered to be having a “career year.”
While it is more difficult to quantify when a singer may be having a “career year,” female country vocalist Jennifer Nettles may look back on 2015 as the year in which she made her most indelible mark as a solo female artist. Long the female counterpart in the superstar country duo Sugarland, Nettles took on television roles, signed a new contract for an as-yet-untitled solo album, and stepped to the forefront of the ongoing fight for equal time for female voices on mainstream country radio.
Now 2016 begins with the singer headlining the largest female-driven country concert tour on the market, as CMT’s 2016 Next Women of Country takes over the DPAC Friday night in Durham.
“I love touring in general, and playing my music in front of fans in and of itself is a joy, but to be able to do it on this tour headlining and championing these women who are all pretty new to the scene is super exciting to me,” Nettles says.
Many of Nettles’ fans are still growing accustomed to seeing her perform solo. Nettles helped form Sugarland with longtime musical partner Kristian Bush in 2003, but after taking maternity leave in the latter part of 2012, both members decided to branch out on their own. While the duo has not officially disbanded, Nettles admits that she and Bush are enjoying time apart creatively.
“We’re definitely taking the time to do what we both want to do right now, and we’re both enjoying it,” Nettles says. “Kristian is obviously doing well with his album (2015’s ‘Southern Gravity’), and is out on the road touring. I’m loving what I’m doing, not only in terms of music but in other areas as well. I did Broadway early last year, and have been given the opportunity to take on a couple of acting things. I appeared in ‘Coat of Many Colors’ this past holiday season on NBC, so I am loving being able to broaden who I am as both a storyteller and an entertainer overall.
“If the time comes and Kristian and I decide that we want to come together and do another project together, we will, but right now we’re both just enjoying what we’re doing.”
Nettles’ appearance in the TV movie “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors” remains fresh in her fans’ minds, as the film’s December telecast was a hit with audiences and critics alike. The acting debut was a goal of Nettles.
“I loved the experience of being in front of the camera for that movie,” Nettles says, “and being able to play a part as rich as Avie Lee Parton, who was Dolly Parton’s mom. I do hope to do more.”
But before stepping in front of cameras again comes the current tour, which calls on Nettles to be an ambassador of sorts for female country artists. Along with Nettles, the tour consists of Brandy Clark, Lindsay Ell and Tara Thompson. Two things that all four women have in common are that they are all talented musicians, and they all have found radio play on country stations severely lacking.
With the tour being backed by CMT, one can’t help but notice how differently female artists’ music videos are treated compared to their radio singles. As this is being written, CMT’s Hot Country Countdown features five female artists within its Top Twenty chart; Billboard’s country airplay chart only has two.
Nettles says, “The good part is that, while videos and radio can go hand in hand, they’re not enslaved to each other. CMT has the ability to play whatever they choose to play, and I love that they choose to champion women and play videos from female artists a lot.
“Yes, the difficulty women have in getting played on the radio is clearly documented, but I’d like to think that some of that is the reality of sexism that exists across all industries. I also feel that trends are cyclical, and I hope that many of those doors that are closed to female artists currently will open back up.”
What: Jennifer Nettles and The Next Women of Country Tour
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham