Since CMT launched its Next Women of Country franchise in 2013 as a way to support and expose developing female artists, the list of acts who have come through the program reads like a who’s who of current hitmakers.
Among the 75 artists who have taken part in past programs in the early stages of their career are Maren Morris, Gabby Barrett, Kelsea Ballerini, Kacey Musgraves, Lauren Alaina, Carly Pearce, Ashley McBryde and Mickey Guyton.
Now, CMT has picked the next 10 rising artists for the 2021 edition of the franchise. This year’s class is being announced Saturday (Jan. 23) on a three-hour edition of the CMT Hot Country Countdown that includes a number of famous alumni.
The CMT Next Women of Country class of 2021 is Ashland Craft, Brittney Spencer, Chapel Hart, Hannah Dasher, Harper Grae, MacKenzie Porter, Priscilla Block, Reyna Roberts, Sacha and Tenille Arts.
“These artists represent the best of fresh new talent and the diversity of styles that country music has to offer,” says Leslie Fram, senior VP, music & talent, CMT.
Now in its eighth year, the program has evolved to offer more touchpoints for participating artists. “Over the years, we’ve moved beyond a standalone event to a 365 day-a-year exposure vehicle that provides significant exposure across CMT platforms, six national Next Women of Country Tours and cross-promotional opportunities within [parent company] ViacomCBS,” Fram says.
Over the next year, the participants will receive cross-brand support for their music and videos across CMT and CMT Music channels, CMT Radio’s more than 250 channels, CMT Hot 20 Countdown, CMT.com and @CMT social channels, in addition to opportunities through MTV Entertainment Group.
New this year, the women will be featured in music video rotation on the CMT Equal Play channel on Pluto TV, which offers country music 24/7 with an equal male/female playlist.
On Sunday (Jan. 24), past participants Caylee Hammack, Rissi Palmer and Alaina will host CMT Presents: New Women of Country Class of 2021, a one-hour special airing on CMT’s Facebook and YouTube channels that will feature full performances by this year’s class.
Next Women of Country alumni say their experience in the program was invaluable, both professionally and personally. “When Next Women of Country selected me to be a part of the class of 2018 there was a strong feeling of validation that we were on the right path and having a strong group of women you can lean on is irreplaceable, especially in this industry,” McBryde tells Billboard. “My advice to any members of the new class is: do it. Lean on this strong group of women that are available to you and who truly want to see you succeed.”
Pearce, who was a member of the class of 2016, valued the camaraderie. “When you’re first starting out in this industry, it can be isolating,” she says. “What I love about this sisterhood is that you are surrounded by a family of women that will build you up, support you and know what you’re going through. If you’re lucky enough to be a part of it, then you know what I mean. I will never take for granted the relationships I’ve made through CMT Next Women of Country.”
Similarly, Guyton, class of 2015, found kinship with her classmates through CMT. “The CMT Next Women of Country community is very near and dear to my heart,” she says. “When I was struggling as an artist and finding my voice, having CMT’s help meant so much and I’m very grateful for their support. I’m thankful that CMT continues to shine a light on amazing women, and hope I can support them in every way possible.”
Guyton was the only women of color in her class. This year’s class is the most diverse yet and includes three solo Black artists— Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts and Sacha—and family trio Chapel Hart, which includes sisters Danica and Devynn Hart and cousin Trea Swindle.
“As part of CMT’s Equal Play program, which includes Next Women of Country, we are committed to diversity and inclusion across all CMT platforms, tentpoles and music specials,” Fram says. “Equally important is leveraging synergy within our MTV Entertainment Group,” she says, citing CMT video premieres for Black artists Willie Jones and Valerie June, which then received cross-network support on sister networks BET and MTV.
As CMT continues to develop the franchise, this year’s program also includes an advocacy component to teach artists how to use their voices to support causes they believe in. CMT has linked with The Change Agent-cy to help participating artists partner with national non-profits and grassroots organizations, as well as social justice movements, should they so desire.
Fram says she’s benefited as much as the participants over the years. “What I’ve learned is that all these women want is an equal shot to be heard. Give them an equal playing field, and they’ll soar,” she says. “No path is the same and it’s important to encourage [the artists] to stay on their personal journeys, never lose sight of who they are as individuals and not let the pressure of expectation weigh them down. Equally important is giving back and celebrating the wins of your fellow artists — that’s what we’ve tried to create with Next Women of Country. A win for one is a win for all.”