NASHVILLE, TENN. — Sometimes when Carrie Underwood steps out onto the stage at a country music festival, she might be the sole female artist to perform.
"You're at a festival and they will talk about potentially having another woman on there and then they are like, 'No, no, we already have one. We can't have two,'" Underwood recalled. "I don't understand that mentality."
Women have been struggling to get heard on country radio since the bro-country movement took over, but that has also had ramifications for female artists trying to get exposure through major tours or country music festivals. So when the Academy of Country Music asked Underwood to headline the first night of their Party for a Cause festival in Las Vegas ahead of their 51st ACM Awards, she said she'd do it only if she could pick an all-female lineup.
"Why not just ask women? Why not have a whole night that is just all strong, amazing women kicking butt onstage and entertaining and having fun?" Underwood said.
The Women of Country Night Friday will include Underwood, Martina McBride, Kelsea Ballerini, Maddie and Tae, Kellie Pickler and Cam on the main stage and more new female artists on a side stage. Across the three-night festival there will be 13 female artists or groups performing out of the total 32 acts.
Underwood, who has sold out all of her American stops along her current Storyteller tour, has been known for her high energy, exciting concerts such as her 2012 Blown Away tour. But the seven-time Grammy winner said even with her decade of success, she has had to fight for headlining spots alongside the male artists.
"I have been at places where they wanted me to play before a guy, just because it was a guy," Underwood said. "Someone who hasn't necessarily sold as much or done as much or been around as long. And I am like, 'No!' It has nothing to do with ego. It just makes no sense to me."
ACM CEO Bob Romeo said the all-female lineup was a perfect fit with the nominations at Sunday's awards show. Cam is up for six awards, including for her Grammy-nominated hit "Burning House"; Ballerini has already won new female vocalist of the year and is also nominated for female vocalist of the year; and Maddie and Tae are also up for vocal duo of the year.
"It seems like for the first time in a lot of years the women are finally getting some due," he said.
Many new country music festivals have popped up in recent years leading to a saturation of the market, so a smart promoter would add diversity to draw the largest audience possible, said Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor-in-chief at Pollstar.
"It would be foolish to put an all-male lineup on if there's a significant demand for female artists and there certainly is," Bongiovanni said. "Why would you have a country music festival and not have Kacey Musgraves or Cam or any of the newer acts coming up?"
Erick Long, senior vice president of operations and events at ACM, said when Underwood proposed the all-female lineup, he admitted that the idea was highly marketable for the four-year-old festival to stand out among the crowded field of festival options. They are expecting about 22,000 people for this year's festival, an increase from the 14,000 that attended the last time the festival was held in Las Vegas in 2014.
"When Carrie said that, I was like that sets us apart from other festivals," said Long. "As the festival producer, I think everything on that stage should focus on empowering women and women of country music."
For Cam, the atmosphere behind the stage at a country music festival is pretty male-dominated. "All the musicians are dudes. All the crew are dudes. All the promoters are dudes," she said. "I feel like there is a comradery among women when you see them in music 'cause there aren't so many."
Like most new artists, whether male or female, Cam said she had to get a single on the radio before any promoter would consider her for a tour or a festival. But once "Burning House" started making waves at radio, she found that being one of the few successful female country singers made her a hot commodity. She was booked to open for Brad Paisley on his latest tour along with singer-songwriter Eric Paslay.
"So while I was out with them, I actually got to sing a lot of duets, because they both had duets in their sets with female parts and there's no girls anywhere to be found except for me," said Cam, ever an optimist. "So in that way, I feel like it's good to be the scarcity because I feel like you have a lot more opportunity."
Underwood said she's hopeful other festivals and tour promoters will take notice.
"I think it's going to be awesome," she said. "I think the crowd is going to love it and want more nights like that."