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."