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Bonus Issue: Jimmie Allen & the Never-Changing Culture of Nashville
It's the poisoned soil, not just one or two trees
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On Thursday, Variety broke a story by the reporter Elizabeth Wagmeister on Jimmie Allen that details serious, shocking allegations of sexual assault and abuse by a woman only known as “Jane Doe,” a former manager of the country artist. Jane Doe filed a lawsuit in Tennessee district court this week alleging that, over a period of nearly two years, she endured numerous instances of sexual assault from Allen as well as negligence by her place of employment, Wide Open Music, and her boss, Ash Bowers, who urged her to see the “sexual harassment as normal.” The extent of the lawsuit and the allegations are extreme and very troubling — the acts themselves, first and foremost, but also the people who refused to help Jane Doe and who repeatedly tried to convince her that what she had experienced was acceptable, and that her silence was necessary to keep her job and her celebrity client happy.
As I read the lawsuit, I felt sick. For Jane, of course. But also because I’ve read some of this language before in other lawsuits. This is not an aberration, or an outlier. This is a product of a culture of silence, and of tolerance for the worst behaviors imaginable in favor of power, in favor of money, in favor of success. Any time a story like this comes across my desk, I am not as surprised as I wish I were. Not just because of the specific individual involved and related allegations, but because Nashville fails again and again to change the culture here to one that does not foster a deep, deep rot. It is a city that uses its morality — and often, its faith — as a convenient cover for harassment, misconduct and a “way of life” that is peddled as the acceptable, immoveable truth. Nashville is a family. Nashville takes care of each other. It’s a small town, a handshake town. We don’t need an HR department here – we’re like brothers and sisters, who needs something like that?
When I reported a piece on this culture and specifically how it manifested itself in country radio for Rolling Stone in 2018, I stumbled upon this idea often: that Nashville and Music Row is a “island of morality” where people (often women, but not just women: see Kirt Webster, who is very much still working in town) are expected to endure, at best, ugly behavior and, at worst, misconduct or allegedly violent actions, in favor of keeping their career in place, with the perpetrators hiding behind a curtain of moral good. This paragraph in the Variety story jumped out at me:
“[Ash] Bowers was aware of his client’s behavior, the lawsuit says, even warning Jane Doe during her hiring process that Allen “was known to push inappropriate sexual boundaries.” During her interview process with Bowers, he advised Jane Doe that Allen was “promiscuous but harmless,” according to the suit, “implying that it was inevitable that Allen would make sexual advances” on her.”
If you are uttering the words “inevitable sexual advances” in a workplace, that’s beyond a red flag — it’s a five-alarm fire. Yet, this kind of thinking is baked in, and expected, in this town: learn to live and around the behavior, never fix it. Don’t get an HR department, just handle these things in a “friendly” way. Never, ever fix it. Maybe do a one-hour seminar or two that everyone snoozes through (a pattern that everyone adopted again in 2020 as almost all-white staffs around town took DEI training courses but never actually hired Black employees). But how can you fix something that the men (and the occasional complicit women) in power refuse to believe is ever broken?
“Wide Open Music did not have a Human Resources department,” the article states. This is common — Nashville has a slew of small shop operations, offices existing in scrappy, shadow states in houses or virtually or nowhere central at all. It’s a recipe for a disaster: with no HR to report assault or harassment to, most women are left with little to no options (and HR departments are there to protect the company, not the employees, anyway). Jane Doe reported it to her boss, the head of the management company she worked for, and ended up losing her job.
When stories like this break I think about the gatekeepers, the rings of the tree. The “family.” If Nashville is a family, then who is holding the family secrets? Who stayed quiet to protect the family crest? Always back up, and look around. Tree sap is sticky — feel around for it. The culture of creativity and songwriting here can be immensely fruitful and incredibly beautiful - but what are we, you, us all allowing so no one shakes loose a rock that supports the whole thing? What “inevitable sexual advances” are still being allowed this very day, very moment?
I don’t know what will happen next. Rolling Stone reported that Allen has been suspended from his label and dropped from CMA Fest, and I hope for a just trial for Jane Doe. I hope for peace and protection for Allen’s ex-wife and children. I remember when the Times Up movement made its way to Nashville, flapping to the ground like half-cooked pasta on a wall. Not because people weren’t trying, or even legislators (a bill, SB1984/SB 2130, proposed by Democrats Rep. Brenda Gilmore and now mayoral candidate Sen. Jeff Yarbro, which would have granted full-time employee rights to artists and freelancers concerning sexual harassment, died in the house) weren’t trying. It’s that Institutions were not changing, and individual comforts were too strong.
“I don’t have just one story. I have countless stories,” the musician Bri Murphy said in 2019, testifying on the house floor. “I have literally lost track of how many times I’ve experienced sexual harassment in the music industry. I find myself to this day in situations where I expect to have to fend off unwanted advances. I doubt these stories surprise anybody in this room, thanks to the countless brave women and men who have spoken up about the harassment they have encountered. I’m one of many. And it doesn’t have to be this way.”
I once again feel sick when I continue to read Murphy’s statements, on “memories and stories I have of being grabbed, chased, held down, blackmailed, drugged, stalked, catcalled, solicited for sex, followed, threatened and raped.” It is so eerily familiar to what I read in the Allen filing. I think of the over thirty women I spoke to when I reported on this in 2018, and the numerous ones that have come since. I think about the ways people in the know rationalized keeping quiet. I think of men who dismissed this reporting because they needed these women to “name names,” when they didn’t understand that this is not only about one or two bad apples, it’s about an entire orchard growing in poisoned soil.
On Thursday, only one person at the ACM Awards — Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey — made the vaguest possible reference to the mass shooting (committed by a fervent white supremacist) that took place five days earlier just 12 miles away in Allen, Texas. Dolly Parton sang “don’t get me started on politics.” “And so the cycle completed itself, a big pats-on-the-back party during which we could carry on as if things happening here in the real world aren’t a complete nightmare,” Jon Freeman wrote in his review of the show. There is no such thing as a vacuum, though. The world is a nightmare, including the world of country music. Wake up.
Safe Tracks bystander intervention training for the music industry: Safe Tracks is a primary prevention bystander intervention training program designed specifically for the music industry. The one-hour training program is 100% free and can be attended virtually or in-person. Sign up for the next training session in July.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
Sexual Assault Center: 1-866-811-RISE (7473)
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