Why Jennifer Nettles Is an Imperfect Advocate for “Equal Play”

The 2020 CMT Music Awards will be happening Wednesday evening (10-21), and though most any actual country music fan in their right mind will probably be forgoing the presentation, especially since Ray Wylie Hubbard’s long-awaited debut on Austin City Limits will be streaming at the same time, what happens will still have some reverberations in the country music world, as every awards show does.

Ahead of the presentation, CMT has announced the inaugural winner of their “CMT Equal Play Award,” which is part of the media company’s greater initiative to give the women of country music a greater voice. CMT has been promoting their “Next Women of Country” initiative since 2013, and at the beginning of 2020, pledged 50/50 play for female performers across their media formats.

The recipient of the inaugural CMT Equal Play Award has been announced as Jennifer Nettles, known both as a solo performer, and most notably for her work in the country music duo Sugarland.

“Jennifer Nettles is that rare artist who speaks her truth, calling out injustice wherever she sees it,” says Leslie Fram, Senior Vice President of Music Strategy for CMT. “Her commitment to equal female representation across the board in the music industry embodies the spirit of our equal play initiative and makes her the perfect recipient of the inaugural ‘CMT Equal Play Award.’”

Jennifer Nettles says about receiving the award, “As a proud part of the beautiful legacy of women in country music, I am honored to be the first recipient of the ‘CMT Equal Play Award.’ I look forward to celebrating the contributions of women, and all marginalized communities, within the country music format, and I am motivated in encouraging the non-artists, executives and investors in the industry, to do the same. There is much work still to be done.” 

But there is a problem with presenting Jennifer Nettles as a “equal play” advocate, and it’s quite a big one.

Granted, Jennifer Nettles has been quite outspoken about the lack of representation for women on country radio over the last few years, both on social media, and in interviews. In fact she might be the most outspoken when it comes to the performer class. Most notably, Nettles showed up to the 2019 CMA Awards red carpet in a white pant suit with a large pink sarong which she unfurled to reveal written on the interior, “Play our F*@#in Records” and “Please & Thank You.”

Jennifer’s wardrobe choice was one of the big stories coming out of the 2019 CMA Awards, especially since the theme of the show was celebrating the women of country, and especially after Carrie Underwood ended up losing Entertainer of the Year to Garth Brooks, when many believed Underwood should have won.

Most certainly, Jennifer Nettles has become one of the figureheads of the equal play movement. But her advocacy also deserves some important context.

As many dialed-in followers of country music know, Sugarland didn’t start out as a duo, but a group. They had a third member in the form of Atlanta, GA-native Kristen Hall when they first started out, including when they were first signed to major label Mercury Nashville, and released their debut record, Twice The Speed of Life in 2004. They also saw their first commercial success with three Gold singles on country radio while Kristen Hall was a member.

A few years the senior of fellow Sugarland members Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, Kristen Hall was the established artist in Atlanta who helped open doors for the group. According to Kristen Hall, she also financed the project’s first record on credit cards, was the individual most responsible for starting the band, and gave the band the name “Sugarland.”

But just as Sugarland was starting to take off, it was announced that Kristen Hall was leaving the group. The official reason given by Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush at the time was, “Kristen has decided that she wants to stay home and write songs, and we support her in that decision.” However, the reason cited by many industry insiders and what was later claimed in court was that Kristen Hall was forced out, and possibly paid-off to leave the band because of “image reasons.”

It’s also important to point out that not only was Kristen Hall a woman, and slightly older than the other Sugarland members, but Kristen Hall is also a lesbian.

Kristen Hall officially left Sugarland in December of 2005. In July of 2008, she filed a lawsuit against the duo for $14 million in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta for excluding her from sharing profits as had been agreed upon after she left, and for Sugarland excluding her from other benefits of the band’s success, despite her name still residing on the band’s trademark. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed figure in November of 2010, and all documents in the case were sealed, leaving the details of the settlement undisclosed.

Though we don’t know the specific in’s and out’s of Kristen Hall’s departure from Sugarland in 2005, it is arguably the most verifiable, and high-profile case of both a woman, and an LGBT member being excluded from a major label country music outfit in modern country music history, and is often cited as such by fans in-the-know. Jennifer Nettles has never addressed the controversy directly, saying she’s not allowed to speak on the legal matters.

Though it’s fashionable at the moment to rage against country music for excluding women, minorities, and LGBT members from its ranks of performers, it’s often done under hypotheticals drawn solely from the small numbers representing these marginalized classes in country music. The specter of intrinsic racism and white supremacy is often cited in think pieces and academic papers as the reasoning for these low numbers, when there is less specific evidence as such, and more evidence that over the genre’s history, these marginalized groups are just less likely to be drawn to country music’s more traditionalist community—something that has been slowly changing over time, with arguably more marginalized groups represented in country music at the moment than ever before.

But the situation surrounding Kristen Hall’s departure from Sugarland might be the most smoking gun example of exclusion of a performer ever, yet it’s rarely or ever cited, likely because many of the claims about country music’s exclusionary environment are being made by individuals well outside of the country community who not only have no knowledge of Kristen Hall or early Sugarland, but are uninformed about many of the specifics of the country genre, instead citing the same set of go-to Cliff Notes facts utilized in every think piece making these claims.

Granted, none of this takes away from the advocacy and outspokenness of Jennifer Nettles on the issue of equal play for women in country recently, or the veracity of her claims about the issue. Undoubtedly, women face a greater uphill battle in country music than their male counterparts. But the case of former Sugarland member Kristen Hall most certainly needs to be presented to the public as a qualifier if Jennifer Nettles is going to be foisted onto a pedestal, and given an inaugural “equal play” award.

What Kristen Hall experienced at the hands of Jennifer Nettles and Sugarland certainly doesn’t seem like a moment of “equality.” At least, Hall didn’t take it as such. Not only are Kristen Hall’s contributions to Sugarland commonly overlooked, she is also commonly overlooked as one of the first LGBT contributors and performers in country music.

It’s also worth pointing out that during the recent ACM Awards, Jennifer Nettles was the originator of the idea the awards show had never had a black woman perform. Nettles tweeted out, “Brava Mickey! It makes me so happy to see you shine, and share your talent and love for country music, with the world! Mickey Guyton is the first black woman to ever perform on the ACM Awards. Ever. The first ever. May this be the first of many! Cheers!”

This claim by Nettles was then picked up by numerous news outlets and retweeted hundreds of times. These type of topical tweets are what feed into the idea of Nettles as an advocate for the marginalized. However, Mickey Guyton had actually performed the year before on the ACM Awards as well, Valerie June had performed on the show in 2013, and Jennifer Nettles herself had performed with Rhianna on the ACM Awards in 2011 on the song “California King” as a duet—something apparently she forgot when composing her viral tweet. This is one of many examples of how some of of the most common moments of exclusion in country music at the moment are coming at the hands of journalists and others looking to paint country music as exclusionary, and erasing the contributions of POC and LGBT members to make their incorrect claims.

The greater concern in this issue is one that surrounds many of the actions involving identity politics and woke ideology, which is that words speak louder than actions, and as long as you say the right things on Twitter, or cause a spectacle on a red carpet, you can be lauded as a champion and advocate, while hiding actual moments of exclusion. The Highwomen disinviting Mickey Guyton from a video shoot for their song “Redesigning Women,” while also not including a single woman of color in the 17 performers who were invited to attend is another example. Yet recently when Highwomen member Amanda Shires tweeted out criticism for the CMAs for not having a single person of color on their board, she was praised for her advocacy.

Advocating for women and minorities in country music has very much become an action of fashion and performance to gain social capital, favorable media coverage, and even perhaps, major awards, while often the individuals behind-the-scenes doing the grunt work for these inclusion initiatives get forgotten, or even criticized for not speaking out more, or sooner, as we saw with the misguided Accountability Spreadsheet surrounding Black Lives Matter.

Leslie Fram and CMT have put actions behind words with their initiatives. Whether dictating equal play for women as a mandate is the right way to truly give women equal footing in country music is something that can be debated, while as Fram has said herself, one of the major issues facing the representation of women in country music is simply an inventory issue that needs to be solved on a more fundamental level. There’s just less women making country music these days than men, and by a wide margin. But what CMT is doing is at least a start, and offering context to Jennifer Nettles inaugural Equal Play award is in no way an attempt to undermine the spirit behind the award whatsoever.

But if country music is ever going to become an equal playing field, it’s going to take more fundamental action and honest understanding of the issues, and less performative grandstanding, cherry picking of facts and historical accounts, and blanket accusations against the entire genre for sexism and racism, as opposed to targeted assaults on the lingering sexism and racism that does still exist within the country music ecosystem.

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