Former teen singer sued after speaking up about sexual harassment in country music

Former country music singer Katie Armiger said success in country music often means facing Weinstein-esque sexual harassment and assault. PHOTO: TWITTER/KATIE ARMIGER

(WASHINGTON POST) - As the impact of the Harvey Weinstein scandal was whipping like a wildfire through various industries over the last couple of months, former country music singer Katie Armiger sat down with Fox News to discuss her own uncomfortable experiences in the music business.

Armiger, who now is a 26-year-old full-time student, entered the country music world at age 15, and eventually had a top 10 album on the charts with 2013's Fall Into Me. But the singer said success in country music often means facing Weinstein-esque sexual harassment and assault.

"I was at a radio station in Texas and was taking a promo photo with one of the on-air DJs after doing my performances and he grabbed my butt during the photo," Armiger told Fox News in October. "And at the same time he was whispering in my ear, 'When are you going to be legal?' "

Armiger said in the interview she was given no support when she talked about her experiences at the time."I brought up my fears and I was told that's how it was and if I wanted to be in music, I'd have to get over it," she said. "There's something really horrible going on behind the scenes."

The comments have thrown the former recording artist back into an ugly legal battle with her old record label. Last month, Texas-based Cold River Records filed a lawsuit against the company's former artist, alleging Armiger's on-air commentary constituted a breach of a non-disparagement agreement included in the settlement of a previous 2016 lawsuit between the two parties.

In response, Armiger has filed her own counter-suit against the label and its owner, Pete O'Heeron, setting up another standoff in a Nashville courtroom.

In an interview with Billboard Magazine, O'Heeron, who is Armiger's father's first cousin, denied the backstage world of country music was rife with anything approaching Weinstein-like behaviour, referring to the industry as an "island of morality" in the entertainment world.

"I think there is an undercurrent of that in Hollywood, but I just haven't seen it here," he told the magazine. "These new accusations - for (those at the label) - seem nothing more than her trying to attach (herself) to the national conversation about, you know, real abuse."

O'Heeron also denied ever hearing Armiger's complaints about harassment. "She said at 15 a program director - or radio personality - in Texas touched her leg," O'Heeron told Billboard. "One guy you're reading about in the newspapers luring women to his hotel room... this guy touched her leg. And I can tell you this, that happened when she was 15, and Katie's 26 years old now; in 11 years, we had never heard this story."

The singer's comments come as a growing number female artists within the genre are pushing back against the "bro-county" attitude that had traditionally marked the music.

Artists such as Kacey Musgraves (Good Ol' Boys Club) and Margo Price (This Town Gets Around) have called out the male-dominated music scene in Nashville and beyond for strictly boxing women artists into traditional roles as jilted lovers or arm candy.

As The Washington Post's Emily Yahr wrote last year, the new wave of female country singers are "releasing songs with a notably different theme: They have swagger. And they're the ones in control".

Armiger had signed a five-album deal with Cold River Records in 2007, the Tennessean has reported. By 2015, however, artist and label separated. Cold River filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the artist in federal court. Armiger responded with her own counter-suit, alleging a host of charges, including breach of contract and sexual harassment.

In her lawsuit, Armiger claimed she felt pressed by her label to sex up her image and flirt with radio program directors to get her music airtime. "I'm not going to flirt relentlessly to get my music played," Armiger texted O'Heeron in 2015, according to documents filed in court. "Maybe that's the truth of what this industry needs from a female artist, but I have integrity and I'm going to believe that you can be a sincere person with great music and still make it."

"It's not 'losing' your integrity... it's 'playing' a role," O'Heeron responded. "You need to 'get over' that! I play a role when I hug these guys. ... It's not losing my integrity. ... It's playing a role... just like 49 yr old Tim McGraw shaking his a-. ... It's playing a role."

In another message, the label head told Armiger: "If that makes you uncomfortable, I'm very sorry... but that's the market you operate in."

In 2016, Armiger and Cold River resolved their differences with a confidential settlement. According to court records, the terms of the settlement included the stipulation that the label would give back the rights to music, videos, artwork and distribution accounts associated with her musical career. The agreement also included a non-disparagement clause.

"It was pitched to me at the time that if maybe I just settled, if we said less even though we wanted to say everything and shout it from the rooftops, that I might get my music back," Armiger told the Tennessean.

In her counter-suit, Armiger claims Cold River never handed over the material she was entitled to under the contract. Because O'Heeron has not lived up to his side of the bargain, he "has forever waived the right to enforce the terms of the non-disparagement agreement" in the 2016 settlement.

In a statement to the Tennessean, O'Heeron's attorney said it was "ironic" for Armiger to take issue with the non-disparagement. "There is certainly a legitimate policy discussion to be had as to whether non-disparagement agreements should prohibit parties from airing legitimate concerns regarding matters of public interest," the statement said.

"However, in this case, it was Ms. Armiger who wanted the non-disparagement provision and she is seeking to enforce it against Cold River. So it is ironic that she would now claim such enforcement is barred by public policy."

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