If you were a country fan in the late 90s, you probably heard about indie-rock’s Lilith Fair and thought, “Someone should come up with a Lilith Fair for country music.”
And now, someone has.
And sure, maybe it took more than 20 years since the first all-female music festival happened in 1997. But the lastest innovation in girl power is coming in the form of Zenitheve, a country festival stopping in six major markets in the fall of 2018.
All the performers will be female.
One of the festival’s founders, singer-songwriter Rae Solomon, told CMT.com that after touring on the west coast, opening shows for Blake Shelton, The Band Perry, and Granger Smith, she moved to Nashville five years ago to chase her neon dreams.
“I got my first record deal, and then I realized that that’s not always sunshine and rainbows, so I was out of that deal less than six months later. Since then, I’ve been writing, making music, and working on this festival,” Solomon said.
Solomon and her team at Zenitheve aren’t giving away the names of the artists who are performing until May, but her tweet the day the fest was announced promised “the biggest names in music.” And she did reveal that they are still making plans and taking names. “Right now we want to give women who want to participate a chance to. A lot of the artists will stay the same from city to city,” she said, “but then some will change so that we can fit more women in.”
“Country is a genre that is stuck about 30 years in the past with how it views females,” she added. “I was tired of doing things the way everybody else was doing it, so I decided to do it for myself.”
The way everybody else was doing it is obvious any time there’s an announcement about a country concert. It’s usually men, and more men. Sam Hunt and Jon Pardi are opening most of Luke Bryan’s shows, Rascal Flatts have Dan + Shay on the road with them, Kenny Chesney’s openers are Thomas Rhett, Old Dominion, and Brandon Lay.
Then there are the festivals. Chicago — which is one of the markets on Zenitheve’s lists — has two country fests planned for the summer. The Windy City Smokeout will feature two women and 16 men over the three-day event. And Chicago’s Country LakeShake festival has three female acts on the bill with 13 male acts. That was likely unintentional, and more a matter of who has hits on country radio. Last year, female voices made up less than 10 percent of all charted songs. So if a promoter wanted to balance the guy-to-girl ratio, it might not be so easy to do. With only a handful of women on country radio right now, and so many men, that could be a tough assignment.
And when you think about that, it makes the idea of an all-girl fest seem almost impossible. Picture a typical fest with two stages, and performances happening from about 3:00 until 11:00. That’s 16 hours of music. Are there enough women in country music — the kind of women who sell tickets — to make 16 hours of live music?
That climate of inequality in country now is almost the exact same climate that Sarah McLachlan faced when she had the idea for Lilith Fair in the mid-90s. At the time, McLachlan said she was tired of concert promoters who wouldn’t let two females perform in a row. She thought plenty of fans would want to see an all-female show, so she started her own festival. And in 1997, Lilith Fair was the top-grossing festival tour of the year. Some of the country artists who played the fest include Miranda Lambert, the Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride, Lori McKenna, Jennifer Nettles (when she was in Soul Miner’s Daughter) Sheryl Crow, and Emmylou Harris.
In keeping with the way Lilith Fair came to be, Solomon explained how she came up with the name for her fest. “We were looking for something strong, and something that embodied everything the tour stood for,” she explained. “So the zenith is the point at which something is most powerful. And Eve comes from the first woman, which is our way of paying tribute to Lilith Fair and to the women who came before us who worked to make equality better.” (According to rabbinic literature, Adam’s first wife was a woman named Lilith, who rebelled and abandoned Adam. That’s allegedly when God create Eve.)
But even Lilith’s founders had a hard time reviving the idea when they tried to reboot the fest in 2010. So how will Zenitheve survive if an established all-female fest couldn’t?
“We are an all-female festival, yes. But we are doing things differently. We are working with organizations that can help us change the way things are working,” Solomon said. “And right now with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it’s necessary to that we do this now. We will have more support because of this climate we’re living in now.”
“We are looking forward to showing people that women do sell, and changing the way the music industry sees its females.”
The six major cities that Solomon and her team chose for this year’s fest are ones that she says support womens’ movements and are very supportive of country music. Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, New York, and Nashville are all on Zenitheve’s calendar.