Monday, November 16, 2020

Playlist Project: Black Women in Country Music

This project is really a departure for me as I have never been a big fan of country music. And that is weird, given that I enjoy most genres of music. I can also sing all of the words to Tammy Wynette's Stand By Your Man and y'all know how much I LOVE Dolly Parton. Well, as you know, people are complex and several things can be true at once, even if they appear to contradict--one can know all of the words to a seminal country song, one can be indifferent to that same genre of music, and yet, one can have a huge woman-crush on one of its biggest stars because she is just that AWESOME in every way imaginable!

Because Dolly is forever...

I grew up in the 80s when country music and its aesthetic were ubiquitous. Everything was either country, soft rock power ballads, or grown-folks R&B. Country was hairspray, unnatural cleavage, aerobics, and cowboy boots (essentially, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders on the Love Boat). If you went into the hardware store, into an auto parts stores, or shopping at certain big box department stores, they only played country music. A good number of the popular movies/TV shows were centered around country and/or western themes--The Coal Miner's Daughter, The Dukes of Hazzard, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, and Dallas. I swear Jim Henson featured a country musical guest on The Muppet Show every other week. And then because Ronald Reagan had been an actor in westerns, I thought every White House Christmas special featured Barbara Mandrell and Loretta Lynn (not so, but both singers were very popular during that time). 

Perhaps the most country thing of all was what we ate. Fast food in DC in the 80s was all about fried chicken, which while not as country as corn pone, was a big deal. I have no idea why that was, but in the era before the Colonel expanded into the city, Roy Rogers was one of the more popular fast food chains. There were three in my general orbit growing up--at the mall, near my dance studio, and across the street from my Dad's job. If you ate in at Roy Rogers, you were getting good fried chicken served with all of the twangiest country music legally allowed in a chocolate city.

Problem was, there were no Black stars other than Charley Pride singing country music back then, but let's be honest, his brand of country wasn't very appealing to kids my age. In fact, I don't know of anyone my age who willingly listened to country music back then, save for some Lionel Richie and We Are the World (and yes, I am categorizing WATW as a country song). But once MTV made everything about pop and rock, country got the boot...relegated to being the music you only heard at the hardware store. Or right before you turned the volume down during the awards shows while waiting impatiently for Prince to perform. Or what you only heard at Roy Rogers.

All American popular music is interconnected, so gospel begat blues and country and bluegrass and folk and rock 'n roll and pop and R&B in one continuous loop along the radio dial. It is sometimes impossible to hear certain gospel songs and not hear a country twang. Or not to hear the blues as anything other Black folks and British pop stars singing country music. Or to hear an interview with any American pop artist and not have them say that they got their start in a church choir. 

So it is not surprising that this journey has taken me to some familiar places musically. I won't stray too far off course here, but this #PlaylistProject was probably inevitable, yet definitely not as urgent until I saw that fateful tweet on my timeline about Maren Morris's acceptance speech at the Country Music Awards. I had been paying closer attention to news about country music because the genre was being called out for sexism in the aftermath of #MeToo. Several female artists complained that they were not getting the radio airplay that their male counterparts received, and a study released in Spring 2019 confirmed their allegations. This was parallel to the complaints of female artists in other genres that they were not receiving award recognition in spite of their commercial successes. The issue became undeniable when none other than REBA MCENTIRE (also revered, just not as much as Dolly) called the Academy of Country Music out for the disparities at last year's award ceremony. 

Perhaps 2020 is the reckoning, an acknowledgment that good music might be defined by a genre, but it isn't confined to a particular group or ideology. If hip hop's biggest stars (Beastie Boys and Eminem) and fans are white men, then it is high time y'all made room at the Grand Old Opry for Black women. 

I posted a playlist on the Facebook page for Maren Morris, and there is still a lot I need to learn about her and the country supergroup she joined last year called Highwoman. For now, I will direct you to this Spotify playlist I created (a work in progress) since the focus here is on the Black women her speech elevated. Just know that if you were as indifferent to country music as I was, you might change your tune after listening to Morris, Highwomen, as well as these six sisters. There will definitely be another country music #PlaylistProject in the future.

Linda Martell

The first Black woman to perform solo onstage at the Grand Old Opry was Linda Martell (born Thelma Bynem), in 1969. In my mind, she should have been a star or at least had a better chance at having a more consistent career, considering that she was unique and had a co-laborer in country music legend, Charley Pride. Alas, the familiar story of racism, accentuated by sexism, had derailed her career by the mid 1970s as recounted in this recent article in Rolling Stone magazine.

Before she made it to the Opry, Martell's career began in the classic way that R&B girl groups typically start out--a group of talented sisters/cousins/friends with beautiful voices and big dreams. In Martell's version, her group was The Anglos (later the Angelos) from a small community in South Carolina. They recorded A Little Tear (Was Falling From My Eyes) in 1962 which sounds exactly like a song that might have been released from Motown or from Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. That association is especially apparent on The Things I Do For You, the B side to A Little Tear, as well as on Lonely Hours released in 1963, so I cannot help but wonder how her career might have been different had she been in Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis (with Otis Redding at Stax), or with a more prominent record label to promote her prior to her switch to country music.

Instead, she made it to the Opry in 1969, thanks to her cover of Color Him Father, a song that had been previously recorded by the R&B group The Winstons that same year. Her only album, Color Me Country, was released that same year, which included Before the Next Teardrop Falls and Bad Case of the Blues, which she performed on the popular variety show Hee Haw in 1970. Her manager at the time was Shelby Singleton, who initially helped to clear the path that led Martell to the Opry several times before she ultimately left the business in 1974. Check out the Rolling Stones article for the specifics, but I found it interesting that his decision to promote Jeannie C. Riley (Harper Valley P.T.A.) and then Martell's refusal to accept being passed over is what led to her disappearance from the country music scene. 

After Martell, other Black female performers of note were Ruby Falls (nee Bertha Bearden Dorsey) and Dona Mason. Now if I had heard either of these songs by Falls in those Roy Rogers days, You've Got to Mend This Heartache or He Loves Me All To Pieces, I would never have known any different. Mason's claim to fame is that she was the last Black woman to appear on the country music charts in 1987, thanks to her collaboration with Yankee-born singer Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass on Green Eyes (Cryin' Those Blue Tears). In hindsight, that seems pretty remarkable given how music collaborations in the 90s and 00s could have yielded more opportunities for hits; nevertheless, this is exactly why it is so unfortunate that we're only just coming to this moment when Black women are getting a chance to be heard in country music in their own right.

Mickey Guyton

Every listing of contemporary Black country music artists includes Guyton, but as an afterthought at the end of a list of male performers. So her story of consulting Google for a list of the Black women in the genre, and only then learning of Linda Martell in 2014 is not surprising. And to know that Guyton made her debut at the Opry 45 years after Martell's is Hopefully, hers will be a name that will be remembered as a trailblazer for the next generation of up and coming artists who want to follow a musical path less traveled.

Perhaps it works out in Guyton's favor that she could be one of the more successful American Idol rejects, along with Jennifer Hudson, Amber Riley, and so many others. Yet, I can only wonder how much further along she could be if she had received the career boost that show gave Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Well, knowing that she's on Queen Dolly's radar is a great start, as is receiving an Academy of Country Music nomination for her debut single, Better Than You Left Me. A couple of other notable singles she has released include: Sister, Hold On, and Heaven Down Here. She released an NPR Tiny Desk Concert at Home earlier this year, which also includes Black Like Me, the single she released on Instagram this past Spring. That song probably won't win her any awards from the country music establishment...but I'm hoping that when Linda Martell hears about Guyton's courage, she feels some pride and vindication.

Rissi Palmer

Speaking of country songs that probably don't get much airplay, Seeds, released in 2019, definitely was inspired by the same kind of discontent and civil unrest that prompted Guyton's Black Like Me. The video features an allusion to the children locked in cages along the Southern border and includes the dramatization of a police shooting of an unarmed Black man. The messages are unrelenting, and Rissi Palmer, who has been paying her dues for more than a decade, is fearless. Since she had the distinction of being the first Black woman to chart twenty years after Dona Mason in 2007 with Country Girl, Palmer has earned the right to say whatever is on her mind.

In addition to Morris's acceptance speech that mentioned her, Palmer drew my attention on Twitter when she tweeted about her podcast, Color Me Country, the morning after the CMAs. Y'all know I will check it out, but in the meantime, here are a few of her songs that I like: No Air (yes, same as the Jordin Sparks/Chris Brown duet), Sweet Sweet Lovin, Soul Message, Revival, You Were Here, and Summerville.

Rhiannon Giddens

I first heard about Rhiannon Giddens a couple of years ago when she was profiled on NPR for having been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant back in 2017. I posted about it on the Facebook page, so when I listened to her music then and revisit it now, I don't get consistent country. In fact, I would categorize her music as firmly in the folk tradition with a world music vibe (listen and decide for yourself based on this 2019 Tiny Desk Concert). However, as we know these definitions are fluid, and being agile enough to transcend genres is what makes Giddens' voice and influence so powerful.

For example, Cry No More is exactly the anthem for this moment--weary of pandemic, in despair over racism and sexism, yet hopeful for the future if we remain undaunted. And to follow that up, there is the upbeat All You Fascists Bound To Lose, a remake of a Woodie Guthrie song. Not only is the message timeless, it is also timely (I say we play it on a continuous loop every night in front of a certain residence so that its Occupant gets the point). Finally, this duet with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Build A House, released for Juneteenth, is a beautiful fusion of various musical traditions and genres.

But this is a country music playlist, and Giddens' has country in her soul, which can be heard on Shake Sugaree (not nearly as gritty as Elizabeth Cotton's version), Louisiana Man, and She's Got You (an homage to Patsy Cline). 


The big shock here is that Yola is from the UK, so in the tradition of Black Brits who come across the pond to blow us away with their incredible pipes and unique sense of style, here she comes to break down barriers. Yola makes an appearance as the Freedom Rider on Highwomen, from the album of the same name, from the supergroup and the movement that has us paying closer attention to women in country music. (You real country music fans recognize this as an homage to the 1985 version of Highwayman.) And of course she nails it!

I should have discovered Yola sooner, as she also performed a Tiny Desk Concert, and that is typically how I discover new artists. I also missed her at the Grammys this year, but now that I've found her, I'm all in! I love her take on Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (and after watching that video, I feel like we all need to get high). Speaking of interesting music videos, Ride Out in the Country is exactly is Shady Grove (which I had to watch a few times to figure out). Love All Night (Work All Day) is classic country, as is Walk Through the Fire.

Brittney Spencer

How does a young woman born and raised in Baltimore, who grew up singing in the AME church, end up pursuing a career in country music? Did I mention that she said she sang with THEE Twinkie Clark? Well, here she offers an explanation in her own words; there is also this interview she did with a local TV station.

Of these ladies, she is the one on the cusp of stardom, so hopefully Morris's shout out will open more doors for Spencer's career to take off. I found a few of her songs on YouTube via the Communal Hymnal site where her blog was posted. There I found Whiskey Lows and God is Not Abusive, the kind of millennial Christian worship songs that are consistent with the spiritual and musical journey Spencer appears to be following. Because of her youth, it occurred to me that a song like Thoughts and Prayers, which alludes to what we often say in the aftermath of tragic events expresses her generation's frustration, respectful yet earnest. I found more of her music on Spotify, most of it released this year such as Sorrys Don't Work No More, so I'm guessing that the pandemic has stymied her breakthrough somewhat. Thus her choice to release If You Say So, which was apparently recorded at a friend's home, is peak 2020.


If you can believe it, there are MORE artists to discover, more Black women who are going against the grain in pursuing a musical journey off the beaten path of R&B, pop, and gospel. I saw from Rissi Palmer's Twitter page that there are other artists that Maren Morris did not mention, so perhaps they will be included in my follow up. 

As I noted on the FB teaser playlist, these sisters are #WOKE. Some of the music they have dared to record and release is bolder than what has been attempted by artists in other genres. I'm not sure that songs like Black Like Me or Seeds would even get much radio play on the college or local public stations, let alone on the commercial country stations. But the messages are unmistakable and powerful, like some of the women who sang in another era of civil unrest. Nina Simone, Odetta, Miriam Makeba, and Mahalia Jackson went against the grain in their day, so maybe Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Yola, and Brittney Spencer are following in their footsteps. Rhiannon Giddens invokes the spirit of Sweet Honey in the Rock. And Linda Martell is finally getting the belated recognition she deserves. If we were wondering where to find the artists who are capturing the sentiments of this moment, these sisters are definitely some of the ones we have been waiting for.

1 comment:

  1. They are black beauty. All of them were best in the fest. I loved the event.