Welcome to ‘Women Rising’, a new feature from The Shotgun Seat highlighting rising female artists in the country music scene. The project serves to amplify voices often not heard on radio, and to promote the unique and compelling work being done by rising women in country music. The project will serve to offer the perspectives of these women on their own work as well the country music landscape more broadly.
For years, the stylistic divides in country music have been stark: the mainstream pop tinges versus the barren sounds of Americana; the uptempo nature of radio hits versus the somber nature of the underground scene. Helping bridge those divides is Kalie Shorr, a vibrant young talent in country music who released her first full-length studio album, Open Book, this year. The title is strikingly appropriate. The project is raw, touching on uncomfortable topics and broaching deeply personal subject matter; it openly details substance abuse, death, and heartbreak with a stunning eloquence that blends intimacy with universality. With such a sharp sense of songwriting and the vocal chops to match, it is evident that Shorr is one of the most dynamic new voices in the genre.
In a sense, it seems Shorr was always destined for stardom. Born in Portland, Maine, Shorr moved to Nashville at just 19 years of age with little more than money saved up through high school and a deep passion for her art. It was also Shorr’s only true passion growing up, as she outlined: “I remember being like six and telling my parents I wanted to be a singer, and I would go through phases where I tried to be like ‘oh, maybe I’ll be a lawyer!’ or something like that cause I felt like it wasn’t very cool in middle school when they’d be like ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and to be like ‘I want to be a star’, you know, that didn’t feel like a logical option. But I think deep down always knew this was my passion. When I was like 9 or 10 years old I told my parents that I was gonna sign a publishing deal one day and be a songwriter and that’s what I did.”
What was it like, then, for Shorr to finally put her first full-length album of her career out into the world? “That’s something you build up to your entire life and I had released a good bit of music. Holding it in my hands, 13 songs and the story of my life so far in such a vulnerable way — I think surreal is such a good way to put it.”
The process of creating an album was a new one for Shorr, and one that posed new artistic challenges — both in terms of sound and songwriting. “There was so much about the process that was new to me. I would say a huge part that was new was I was co-producing it, and I co-produced one song for Song Suffragettes and I dabbled in it with demos but I never co-produced a record of mine and so that was exhilarating and fun and scary. But I think the real thing that sets it apart even more so than being an album is the level of being confessional, the confessionality if you will — I don’t think that’s a word — just the transparency of it cause I had gone through the hardest year of my life and catapulted back to how I wrote songs when I first fell in love with it, which was like writing in a diary and processing the world around me by making it rhyme, and so making this record was similar to me writing these songs in high school, it was sort of like a full circle moment. That was really what the newest thing about it was just how vulnerable it was and it’s been really cathartic to release something that’s that real.”
Shorr’s first full-length project is defined by two distinct traits: a raw, personal brand of songwriting with effective pop-tinged sonic stylings. “Lullaby”, perhaps the project’s most shining moment, blends pop-country acoustics with an anthemic, arena-rock chorus that grabs, and then holds, your attention. Similarly, “Alice in Wonderland” effectively takes pop tendencies and applies them with nuance and intelligence. The album is in a lot of senses what many critics yearn for from modern country music: an ability to evolve while not abandoning the genre’s roots, and not trading in style for substance. These musical blends are further evident in who Shorr lists as key artistic role models. Saying that she grew up equally on Pearl Jam and Alison Krauss and that she was previously both a member of a Nirvana cover band and her mom’s Bluegrass group makes her style of what she calls “vocally bluegrass and musically rock” unsurprising. She continued further with a diverse list of musical role models: “I would say the Dixie Chicks for sure, Avril Lavigne, and on the rockier side of things Third Eye Blind and like, Matchbox 20. Oh, and Alanis Morissette and Miranda Lambert were like huge influences, especially on Open Book, as well.”
So why country music in the end? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes down to songwriting. “I just loved lyrics, I loved words. I wrote my first song when I was six and I think that country puts so much more emphasis on lyric than any other genre, and I think that’s why the first songs I wrote always ended up sounding country, because of the structure that I grew up listening to, you know like 2000s country and 90s country”. Certainly, this is not a hard claim to believe given the heart-on-the-sleeve nature of Open Book.
The journey to releasing a full-length album, becoming a critically renowned performer, and performing at the Nashville New Year’s Eve festivities was, by Shorr’s own account, not always an easy one. Indeed, moving to and living in Nashville as a 19-year-old came with its share of challenges. “It’s interesting looking back cause I feel like I had the gumption to do it because now at 25 I’m a little bit more apprehensive just because I’ve seen more, but at 19, I think that naiveté took me really far because like, ‘yeah of course it’s gonna be fine, why wouldn’t it be?’ Well Kalie, I don’t know, but a lot of things could go wrong, but I didn’t know, I didn’t care,” Shorr said.
“I graduated high school early so that I could work full-time, for the second semester of the year, at a pizza restaurant so I could save up and move to Nashville. It was definitely interesting because I think that was the hardest part of all it wasn’t like right when I got to Nashville but it was like the working up to it, because A) I was so checked out from life in Maine cause I was so ready for Nashville, but also, I was working a full-time job and finishing school. I would go to school at 7:30 in the morning, I’d have two classes, I’d leave at 10:30, get to my other job at 10:50, work there till four, then I would go and work at a clothing store from five to nine, then go home, do my homework, and do it again. And that was like, crazy, but I knew that was what I needed to do in order to get to Nashville. I was missing out on, you know, football games, and I went to prom but it was kinda weird cause I was so close to moving to Nashville and I hadn’t been in school for like a full semester. So that was definitely the hardest part I think.”
Continuing, Shorr added “Once I got to Nashville the excitement just got me through the tougher parts. I definitely ate a lot of ramen noodles and didn’t do a whole lot, like I was 19, you can’t really do much, you can’t really go out, I didn’t have any friends so I was just like ‘okay, just gonna hang out with my dog I guess, great’.”
Was it worth it in the end? That’s an easy answer for the singer-songwriter: “I would it all over again to be here for sure”.
READ MORE: On the Verge: Kalie Shorr’s Candy-Coated Country is Empowering Women
Making the transition a little bit easier on Shorr was the support of her family. “They’re so supportive, I definitely talked about it with my siblings recently and I think deep down they knew that it was going to work out, like no one thought I was gonna go to Nashville and completely embarrass myself, but they were definitely like, ‘okay, you’re a baby, you’re in the youngest in the family, are you sure?’ and I was like ‘yup, pretty sure'”. She continued by saying “My parents, I love them so much and I respect them but from a pretty young age I think they realized that with the amount of drive that I had that I was probably just going to do whatever I wanted to do anyways, so they just tried to be supportive and guide me in the right direction, but they never once said ‘don’t do it’ they were more like, ‘okay, be careful, but you seem to know what you’re doing?’ So that’s really good, I’m really glad that they didn’t force me to go to college because that would have been a four year detour that I’m happy I didn’t need to take”.
Family also plays a key role in Shorr’s creative process, as is likely evident to anyone who has given Open Book a thorough listen. “I would say another scary part [of releasing vulnerable music] was me having to go to my family and say ‘so, we’re really just gonna talk about all of it’ and I wanted to make sure that no one was like — I asked them if it was okay for me to go there first because it’s my story for sure, but it’s also other people’s, but on the happy ending side of it, my siblings relate to this album so deeply because it’s also part of their story, so on songs like “Escape” about our family’s unhealthy habits, and songs like “The World Keeps Spinning” which I wrote about the day I found out my sister passed away, those united us in a way and have made us closer, and I thought it would be the opposite but it’s been really great.”
She further added, “My sister said something about “Escape” and she was like ‘I didn’t even realize –‘ like the bridge of that song goes back to guy and not even realizing that you’re choosing to hurt yourself by how you let people treat you, and she was like ‘I never even realized what I did with my college boyfriend and when you put it like that, like I realized that that was a direct product of the family stuff that you talked about at the beginning of the song’, and it was a really healing moment for us and it’s really beautiful.”
That theme of vulnerability is one that penetrates Shorr’s work in numerous ways. A studio recording is one thing, certainly, but live performances are a different realm with their own unique feelings attached. Shorr told a particularly compelling story about performing at the Listening Room in Nashville with the Song Suffragettes — a weekly writer’s showcase in Nashville presenting female artists — and being able “to test the waters by playing [the songs off Open Book]”.
“A song like “Gatsby”, as uptempo as it is, that’s one of the scarier songs on the project to sing and to put out into the world, like ‘hey, I have unhealthy coping mechanisms and daddy issues, let’s just talk about it and then put a really loud fiddle on it.’ And so that one I played at Song Suffragettes and was shaking when I first played it and I was there with Candi Carpenter, who’s my best friend and who I wrote the song with, and we were playing the show together and so I had that moral support, but then I looked in the audience — like, I would say one of the edgiest lines on the project from a ‘putting it all out there’ standpoint is ‘when I get up, I get down / I take my meds, I hit the town’, and that’s the outro to “Gatsby”, and so I was singing it on stage and I was so nervous for that one part and it’s right at the very end and then I look out and all these middle-aged women are singing along and I know they’re all elbowing each other like “Cheryl! She takes anti-depressants too!” And I realized that’s where we’re at in society and it’s really not that scary to admit it because so many people from all walks of life relate to that, and there shouldn’t be this shame and stigma around these things, so that was just a process that repeated itself over and over. Like with “Escape”, admitting that there’s a lot of addiction in my family and with “F U Forever”, talking about the ins and outs of a toxic relationship so playing them made everything so much less scary.”
On the topic of the Song Suffragettes, it’s impossible to tell the story of Kalie Shorr’s artistic journey without significant focus on the group. By Shorr’s own testimony, the experience has been formative. “I’ve been doing it for almost six years now, and when I started playing Song Sufragettes at the first show, there were like fifteen people in the audience and now we regularly sell out. We’ve had almost 300 girls play and it’s just crazy what it’s grown into and that’s amazing. So that’s been really rewarding but through the process of Song Sufragettes, like that’s where I’ve met pretty much all of my best friends. That’s where I met most of my early collaborators and current collaborators.”
She added: “I just don’t know what my Nashville story would have looked like without it and I think it’s made me a better artist by being surrounded by women I’m inspired by and who were and are better than me so that I can like step up my game, and learn from great songwriters and be okay with being around people who are better than you, I think that’s a really great growth technique. And also like, growing as a woman by being in a community that is so not-competitive and so supportive, and it’s not about being best friends with everybody and being fake, it’s about being like ‘hey, I see what you’re doing and I respect it, and you’re badass’, and that’s the tone there and that’s been so, so rewarding.
Empowering women in country music is a running theme for Shorr throughout her career. Another project she’s involved in is Radio Disney Country’s ‘Let the Girls Play’ program, where she hosts a show dedicated to uplifting female voices in country music.
“Radio Disney Country is one of the most supportive outlets of women in country, and they’re always looking for different ways to make that happen and to further the conversation and to take action. So that’s been really cool just to see them do that from an outside perspective but also being welcomed into the Disney family, like working for them with one of my closest friends Savannah Keyes — we’re neighbors, we wrote a bunch of songs together on my album, and now we get to have this radio show together which we script ourselves and we produce it ourselves, we’re doing it out of the Radio Disney Country studios in Nashville, and that’s a really cool thing to be so involved in and to have Radio Disney Country trust us with that show and not try to micromanage it. It’s really cool and very empowering.”
While Shorr is doing her part, through yet another compelling artistic endeavor, she had some pointed words for the well-documented lack of representation of women on country radio. “There’s really great people out there championing for women tirelessly, like [Senior VP of Music Strategy] Leslie Fram at CMT and [VP of Marketing] Phil Guerini at Radio Disney Country and their entire team, they’re the ones that are kind of spearheading it. But, at the same time, there are a lot of people who are just not getting on board, and I think that so much of the industry has come around to acknowledging the problem and taking steps to fix it, but there still isn’t a massive initiative from country radio to correct the problem and that’s the biggest piece of the problem.”
She also acknowledged some women having success despite country radio. “Throughout this whole drought of women in country, we’ve seen them — like, Margo Price played SNL, that’s one of the biggest things you can do in your career, but hasn’t been able to get on country radio. And women are getting the critical acclaim and they’re getting these opportunities, like Kacey Musgraves touring with Harry Styles before she was headlining her really big shows and stuff. So they’re getting these mainstream opportunities, that’s not really the problem, it’s just country radio refusing to — and I don’t know exactly who it is — I think it’s just that country radio’s such a giant infrastructure with so many gatekeepers, who do you fault for it when there’s such a long network and web, you know? So I don’t really have an answer and nobody else does, but I’m hoping that one appears.”
This a passion of Shorr’s that dates back to the infamous ‘Tomato-gate’ controversy, wherein radio executive Keith Hill referred to women as being the as the “tomatoes” of the country music salad while male artists were the “lettuce”. Out of the saga grew Shorr’s breakout, a track entitled “Fight Like a Girl” that received buzz on The Highway, a Sirius XM program. “That was really born out of the beginnings of the giant conversation that spiraled out of this thing called ‘Tomato-gate’. We wrote it really directly about women in country and for that to be all three of ours — me and [co-writers] Hailey Steele and Lena Stone — our first big breakout song as writers, and mine as performer, was really ironic in a beautiful way. And singing a song like that, even though I wrote it four or five years ago now, it’s still a message I’m really proud of and that’s a blessing because a lot of times as artists, especially at the beginning of our careers when we’re trying to find ourselves, we can release something that we don’t want to really stand behind as much four or five years down the road, but this song it’s always gonna be something that’s important to me, and that’s really a huge blessing.”
Shorr also acknowledges that while country radio is a flawed entity, our modern scene has born much greater opportunities for consumption of music. “I think that it’s been amazing because in a different time, if I couldn’t get radio support I wouldn’t be here now and I wouldn’t have even made a full-length album, so that’s huge” Shorr said. “Yeah there’s been times where it’s challenging and I feel like I’m just hitting my head against the wall, but also, seeing really unique opportunities come out of a non-traditional path, like having a radio show [on Radio Disney Country], that’s pretty non-traditional and not something a lot of artists get to do, and so that’s really cool and really fun for me because I used to really want to be a journalist and want to do that, to get to collect stories and talk about them on a really big platform so that’s really cool. I’ve just been able to say yes to a lot of interesting opportunities because I don’t have to conform to anything. I’ve never had a record label, so there’s no boardroom full of people telling me what to do, it’s literally just me and my team deciding what to do and if something’s worth the risk.”
This string of opportunities for Shorr led her most recently to her first trip to the Country Music Association (CMA) awards show this past Fall. On this experience, Shorr’s enthusiasm was evident. “It was so cool. Seeing all of these women who have influenced me all in front of me, and I was in the artists section and I was just like, ‘what is my life?’ I watched this show my entire life and finally getting to be there was really cool and I’ve — this is such a funny thing to say — but I’ve become really good friends with Randy Travis, like we have the same publicist but also I’m really close with his daughter so I got to hang out with Randy Travis at the CMAs and go back stage with him, and I was just like ‘what is my life like, this is absurd’.”
Continuing on the theme of role models, Shorr exuded an immense appreciation for female role models on her creative journey. She also spoke to the importance of role models for young women hoping to establish a career in country music. “That’s something I always talk about with my other friends who are female country artists is like, where would we be if we hadn’t seen Martina McBride, or Sara Evans, or the Dixie Chicks, or Taylor Swift? Where would be if we hadn’t seen that, and are we missing out on a future generation of women in country cause they’re not seeing themselves represented and so they think ‘oh maybe I shouldn’t do country, maybe I should do something else’ or ‘maybe I shouldn’t do it at all because I don’t see a lot of people who look like me or hear a lot of people who look like me’.”
She continued further on the theme of representation: “You know it’s the same thing with race representation and sexuality representation, it’s so important for young people of color to see that there’s a black superhero on the same — it’s the same conversation of representation, so I think it’s hugely important that kids can have role models that they can see themselves in and put themselves in their shoes, and also, I like listening to music by women because a lot of women are dealing with the same issues, which is like, self-esteem and where they fit in in the world that’s constantly changing with feminism and being progressive but also trying to hold on to like, what does chivalry mean in 2019 and boys and all of this stuff, like I want to hear songs that are about my life experience and that I can relate to, so I hope that’s not an issue we run into with a lack of representation.”
The conversation finished on a note of appreciation for her fellow rising female stars. “I really love seeing how well [“More Hearts Than Mine” singer] Ingrid Andress is doing, she’s blowing up, she’s killing it on radio, her music’s amazing. She’s such a real songwriter, I love Ingrid Andress. “I Hope” by Gabby Barrett is such a snap, I’m obsessed with that song and it’s climbing really quickly too. And then my friend Savannah Keyes has some really great music coming out in 2020 and she released her first singles this year and I just believe in her so much too. And Candi Carpenter, who wrote for the songs on my record, she’s being produced by Brandi Carlile and really just doing so well and I just love seeing these women, both who I’m friends and just kind of secret admirers of make great music.”
The country music community is still striving to find an identity, to find itself in the realms of style, substance, and inclusion. These are not easy challenges, and they do not have simple answers. To solve them, the genre will need ambassadors who can both bring forth music of meaning and stand up for values of equity and opportunity. It is clear that moving forward, Kalie Shorr may just be one of those artists.