In the fall of 2016, country singer Meghan Linsey came forward on social media with a sexual assault allegation against an unnamed industry heavyweight. Disgusted by Donald Trump’s attitude toward women — in particular, his comment that he would “grab ’em by the pussy” — Linsey wrote of her own experience with groping. The Voice star said that, in 2010, “a very powerful man in the music business grabbed up my skirt. He was groping me and proceeded to try to pick me up by my ass on a bus in front of a lot of important people.” She rejected him, and the next night he told her he could drop her into the middle of the ocean where she’d never be heard from again, she recalled in a Facebook post.
When she publicly told her story last year, she received some support — but also considerable scorn. Commenters criticized her for not naming the man she said assaulted and threatened her; some questioned her decision to wait six years to say anything; and others told her that this kind of abuse should be expected in the entertainment industry. “It was very mixed reviews a year ago, and part of that was the reason I didn’t come out with the name,” she said, days before the release of her new album, Bold Like a Lion. She declined again to name him to BuzzFeed News this November.
Linsey has watched with interest as the surge of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein prompts public allegations against a series of powerful men, many of whom work in other industries. But she’s not sure whether that will happen for country.
“Country music is so hush-hush about everything,” she said. “It’s so much harder to speak out.”
Linsey was insistent that, although country music has largely avoided the fallout of the Weinstein revelations, it does have a problem with harassment and assault. According to her, there are abusers in the industry whose misdeeds are open secrets. She pointed to Kirt Webster, the powerful country music publicist whose clients included Dolly Parton: Just this week, Austin Rick, his former client, publicly alleged that Webster molested and sexually assaulted him. Webster denied the allegations, but his firm, Webster Public Relations, was promptly renamed, and a spokesperson announced Webster had gone on leave.
“When you have a person like [Webster], everybody kind of knows, and nobody says anything,” Linsey said. “People do dismiss it, and they go, 'well, he’s so important, he works with all these people.' I hope that people start to open their eyes to it and see what’s going on. … This business is so small — it’s such a small town.”
For real change in the country music industry to happen, she said, “More people are gonna have to start speaking out.”
She said that after she wrote in 2016 about being groped, several women came to her and told her they’d been harassed or assaulted by the same man, too. But all these conversations happened “under the table … a lot of women in country music feel like they can’t say anything, and they can’t talk,” she said. Privately, they told her “he’s handsy and grabby and thinks that he can do whatever he wants.”
There’s an expectation in the country music industry that performers should never address anything that might provoke their fans: “You’re supposed to sing and shut your mouth,” Linsey explained. As she understands it, that includes a code of silence on allegations of sexual harassment or assault. She recalled both her manager and the head of her label at the time telling her she should not pursue any action or make accusations against the individual she said groped and threatened her, because it would be detrimental to her career. Neither Big Machine Label Group nor Linsey’s manager from 2010 responded to BuzzFeed News’ request for further comment, although the label denied her account last year, saying that it would “never” condone such harassment and would never advise an artist not to complain about it.
Linsey is not afraid of controversy: She took a knee after singing the national anthem during an NFL game in September, showing her solidarity with protests against police brutality faced disproportionately by black Americans. At the time, she wrote in the Washington Post, “My decision may hurt my career, but it was the only choice for me. This cause is more important than my record sales.”
Despite her demonstrated moxie, the risk in naming her alleged assailant is too great to bear alone, she said. She noted that as influential women such as Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, and Rose McGowan told their stories about Weinstein, it made it seem safer for others to come forward. Linsey said, “As women, you really feel like you can’t say anything until you get to a place in your career where you’re winning, and you’re empowered.”
Until women in the country music industry band together, Linsey believes silence will prevail. “When you’re the only one, it’s hard,” she said.