Female Songwriters In Nashville Share Stories Of Sexual Harassment | Nashville Public Radio

Female Songwriters In Nashville Share Stories Of Sexual Harassment

Mar 27, 2018
Originally published on March 27, 2018 9:14 pm

As the #MeToo movement ricochets through Hollywood and into other industries, Nashville musicians and legislators alike appear to be coming to terms with the country music industry's role in dealing with sexual harassment. After assault allegations surfaced against former PR executive Kirt Webster in October 2017, clients including Dolly Parton and Kid Rock (the latter of whom addressed the situation publicly) stopped working with the company. Rolling Stone Country's January investigation into harassment during radio promotion campaigns spurred Nashville lawmakers to propose a bill extending Tennessee's sexual harassment protections for employees to contract workers.

Outside of the public eye, female songwriters in Nashville continue to grapple with harassment in the industry. In private conversations and online forums, many women say they've had moments with collaborators that cross the line into harassment.

Almost every week, Laurel Sorenson invites Katie Crone over to her house to write: They make coffee in the kitchen and then head upstairs to the loft, where Sorenson keeps a keyboard. This is called a co-write, and it's a quintessential part of making music in Nashville. Sometimes it's a team of songwriters, but often it's just two — sitting alone in a room, swapping personal stories as fodder for lyrics. If the session goes well, they end up with an original song a few hours later.

"The whole point of a co-write is [to be] very vulnerable," Crone says. "It's like, 'Let's talk about your breakup, let's talk about your feelings. Let's get really emotionally intimate.'"

According to music publisher Bobby Rymer, emotional intimacy is where the magic happens. "When a co-write goes great, sometimes we share information that our spouses don't even know, because that's where we have to dig in order to get to the truth," he says.

As Rymer puts it, artists get intimate for "the greater good of the song." But the unique blend of business and art is hard to navigate — especially if you're a young woman like Sorenson, who has sometimes found herself writing with older men.

"If you're talking about love or sex or relationships or whatever, it allows them to talk to you inappropriately in a way that's hard to tell where the line is," she says.

Sorenson says that some male co-writers have blatantly crossed the line, like when she was asked about her sexual preferences. More often, it's just an ambiguous discomfort. Either way, it's not conducive to getting emotionally intimate on command — and as a result, she's decided to focus on writing with women.

"It was not really a conscious decision, but more of just something that I put into practice," Sorenson says. "I don't really write with men anymore one-on-one."

For most female songwriters, cutting themselves off from their male counterparts isn't an option. Co-writing is networking, so it's helpful to work with people who are further along in their careers, and most of the hit songwriters in Nashville are men.

Several women told me they'd agreed to a co-write, thinking it would help them professionally, only to realize their male writing partner assumed it was a date. One story involved a man who kept placing his hand on his female co-writer's knee, even though she kept moving it away. Another man started calling in the middle of the night.

In the case of Sarah Clanton, a singer and songwriter who plays cello, her co-writer crossed the line and then pulled rank. Just after Clanton moved to Nashville three years ago, a songwriter she admired took an interest in her. "I thought, 'Oh, I've got this kind of mentor," Clanton says. "He's got connections and he believes in me."

Then he started texting Clanton increasingly sexual messages.

"He was like, 'Sleep with me or I won't talk to you anymore.' He's like, 'Don't tell anybody about this.' And literally I didn't tell anybody until the hashtag #MeToo started going around," she says. "And I was like, 'I need to talk about this!' "

Clanton says nothing quite so aggressive has happened since, but she's also not quite so vulnerable anymore. Now, her publisher, Rymer, sets up her co-writing sessions. Rymer says Nashville's music scene feels like a small town: He knows who has an unsavory reputation.

"Your ears perk up once you hear it, and they damn sure perk up if you hear it more than once," Rymer says. "I believe 99 percent of the people are good ... but that one percent sure does get around a lot."

It's unclear, of course, how big of an issue this is. Bart Herbison, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International, the largest songwriters' trade group in Nashville, says no instances of sexual harassment during co-writes have ever come to his attention. In a private Facebook group for female Nashville musicians, however, women periodically swap stories of inappropriate collaborators, and sometimes call them out by name. Attorney Stephanie Taylor says she's happy to see more musicians talking to each other about harassment.

"Some people think they have to put up with it and it's just par for the course," Taylor says. "I hope that this #MeToo movement is helping more people realize, 'No, it's not.'"

Taylor has been a part of that shift. She represented country singer Katie Armiger in 2016 when Armiger was sued by her label and filed counterclaims alleging the label had encouraged her to kiss and flirt with radio DJs so her songs would get played. But Taylor says most songwriters don't have any kind of legal recourse. So, some women might stop writing with men — or, Taylor suspects, stop songwriting altogether.

"There are people that have left songwriting because of the experiences they've had," Taylor says. "And that, to me, is the real shame of it."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As allegations of sexual misconduct have ricocheted through much of the entertainment industry, Nashville has seemed pretty quiet. But privately, many female songwriters say they've had moments with male collaborators that crossed the line. Emily Siner of member station WPLN reports on a key part of music making that can be especially fraught.

EMILY SINER, BYLINE: Almost every week, Laurel Sorenson invites Katie Crone over to her house to write. They make coffee in the kitchen, then head upstairs to the loft where Sorenson keeps a keyboard.

LAUREL SORENSON: (Singing) I can't even look at you dredging up the past like it's something new.

SINER: Today they're writing a song about a fight Sorenson had with her boyfriend over her past relationships. Crone prompts her to go deeper.

KATIE CRONE: You're dredging up the past like it's something new. Like, you didn't know what you got into. What do you want me to do?

SORENSON: Yeah.

CRONE: You know?

SORENSON: Yeah. That's what...

CRONE: Like, what would you say...

SORENSON: Yeah.

CRONE: ...Next?

SINER: This is called a co-write. It's a quintessential part of making music in Nashville. Sometimes it's a team of songwriters, but often it's just two sitting alone in a room, swapping personal stories as fodder for lyrics. If the session goes well, they end up a few hours later with an original song.

CRONE: The whole point of a co-write is very vulnerable.

SINER: Katie Crone.

CRONE: It's like, let's talk about your breakup. Let's talk about your feelings. Let's get really emotionally intimate here.

SINER: Emotional intimacy, or getting to the truth, as songwriters often say. This is where the magic happens, according to music publisher Bobby Rymer.

BOBBY RYMER: When a co-write goes great, sometimes we share information that our spouses don't even know because that's where we have to dig in order to get to the truth.

SINER: They get intimate for the greater good of the song, he says. But this unique blend of business and art is hard to navigate, especially if you're a young woman like Laurel Sorenson who sometimes found herself writing with older men.

SORENSON: You know, if you're talking about love or sex or relationships or whatever, that is a really vulnerable place. And it allows them to talk to you inappropriately in a way that's hard to tell where the line is.

SINER: Sorenson says sometimes male co-writers have blatantly crossed the line, like when she was asked about her sexual preferences. More often it's just an ambiguous discomfort. Either way, it's not conducive to getting emotionally intimate on command. So she's decided to focus on writing with women.

SORENSON: It was not really a conscious decision but more of just, like, something that I put into practice. Like, I don't really write with men anymore one on one.

SINER: For most female songwriters, cutting themselves off from their male counterparts isn't an option. Co-writing is networking, so it's helpful to work with people who are further along in their careers. And most of the hit songwriters in Nashville are men. But several women told me they'd agreed to a co-write thinking it would help them professionally only to realize their male writing partner assumed it was a date. One story involved a man who kept placing his hand on his female co-writer's knee even though she kept moving it away. Another man started calling in the middle of the night. Or in Sarah Clanton's case...

SARAH CLANTON: I was told that, you know, oh, my gosh, you're just so talented, and let's talk about your career.

SINER: Clanton is a singer and songwriter who plays cello, often plucking it like a guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER LINING")

CLANTON: (Singing) Trapped in separate cages on the shadows between us. Want to bend the bars till they give, let the light shine in.

SINER: Just after Clanton moved to Nashville three years ago that songwriter she mentioned, someone she admired, took an interest in her.

CLANTON: And I thought, oh, I've got this kind of mentor. You know, he's got connections. And he believes in me.

SINER: But then he started texting with increasingly sexual messages until she got this one.

CLANTON: He was like, sleep with me or I won't talk to you anymore. You know, he's like, don't tell anybody about this. And literally I didn't tell anybody until the hashtag #MeToo started going around. And I was like, I need to talk about this.

SINER: Clanton says nothing quite so aggressive has happened since. But she's also not quite so vulnerable because she now has a publisher who sets her up on co-writes. That's Bobby Rymer again. And he says Nashville's music scene feels like a small town. He knows who has an unsavory reputation.

RYMER: Your ears perk up once you hear it, and they damn sure perk up if you hear it more than once. I believe 99 percent of the people are good. It's that 1 percent that sometimes maybe takes things a little too far. But that 1 percent sure does get around a lot.

SINER: It's unclear of course how big of a deal this is. The president of the largest songwriters trade group in Nashville says no instances of sexual harassments during co-writes have ever come to his attention. But in a private Facebook group for Nashville female musicians, women periodically swap stories of inappropriate collaborators and sometimes call them out by name. Attorney Stephanie Taylor says she's happy to see more musicians talking to each other about harassment.

STEPHANIE TAYLOR: Some people think they have to put up with it and it's just par for the course. I hope this #MeToo movement is helping more people realize, no, it's not.

SINER: Taylor has been a part of that shift. She represented country singer Katie Armiger in 2016 when Armiger was sued by her label and filed counterclaims alleging the label had encouraged her to kiss and flirt with radio deejays so her songs would get played. But Taylor says most songwriters don't have any kind of legal recourse. So some women might stop writing with men. Or as Taylor suspects...

TAYLOR: There are people that have left songwriting because of the experiences they've had. And that to me is the real shame of it.

SINER: For NPR News, I'm Emily Siner in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER LINING")

CLANTON: (Singing) Can you heal me? Want to... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.