Why Lindsay Ell Wants the Music to Move the Needle

Michael Hickey

You can talk about the gender disparity in country music all you want. But Lindsay Ell prefers that we all talk about the great music instead.

Ell was one of 11 female country artists to perform on opening night of Chicago’s LakeShake Festival on Friday night (June 21). It was the first time a country festival hosted an all-girl line up. And before she took the stage at the Northerly Island venue on Lake Michigan, she told me what she hopes will come out of a line up like this one.

But first, she had to give credit to a man.

“This is such a cool thing, and it’s all because of Brian O’Connell,” Ell said of the man who is president of country touring for Live Nation and the winner of last year’s touring lifetime achievement award from the Country Music Association.

“God bless that man. He is so creative and so supportive of the artists, and of the artists’ perspective. He is a leader of a new wave of festivals. He always wants to make shows have a full-fledged fan experience, where they can get right up to front of stage. He came up with this idea, and when he called me he was like, ’Hey, I have this plan.’”

After that call, Ell remembers thinking, “It’s time.”

“Selfishly, I get to be on stage with all of my friends in one day. I would pay to be part of this line up. Everything about it — from the Ms. Pac-Man game to the Ladies Night Punch in the artists’ area — is next level. We’re all so used to being at a festival where we are the only girl on the line up. Or the only girl on a tour. There is just not a lot of women even on the road. So to walk backstage today and see all these badass women, it’s really cool and it’s really inspiring. I have been looking forward to this day for a long, long time.”

And like the other 10 women at the festival — Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Lauren Alaina, Cassadee Pope, Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, Clare Dunn, Rita Wilson, Rachel Wammack and Kassi Ashton — they know their fans better than anyone in or out of the music business.

“When I look out at my fans at shows, it’s always 75 percent women. And seeing that again today, it’s so obvious that women want to hear women. I’m all for things that support women.

“But now the conversation needs to be less about the lack of females and more about just great music. Because great music is accepted in so many different circles, and is accepted so universally and unconditionally.”

LakeShake may be the first time a country festival has carved out an entire day to devote to female artists, but Ell acknowledged what Carrie Underwood has done for the movement as well. She’s currently on tour with two female openers, Maddie & Tae and Runaway June, but for years she’s been a pioneering advocate for what Ell called the girl-power movement.

“My first time playing on the CMA Awards show was with Carrie when she put together an all-girl band in 2016. We performed her ’Dirty Laundry’ on live television. To be part of that then, and see what she’s doing now, I really look up to Carrie. That was so inspiring. And today, it’s so inspiring to be part of a line up like this, and to be on the bill with women I admire.”

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Ell shared that she gets instant gratification from the crowd, when she can see happiness on their faces. “To see the crowd, that’s a good indicator that we are all moving this cart down the road. And hopefully it will help balance a few things out.”

The social media posts from the artists who performed at Friday’s girls’ night are another good indicator of how well the fest went over, for the artists and for the fans.

Alison makes her living loving country music. She’s based in Chicago, but she’s always leaving her heart in Nashville.