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Country music's reckoning: Black women forge their own path in whitewashed industry

Women of color in country music are tired of being shut out of their own genre.
Country music singers, from left, Tiera, Linda Martell and Rissi Palmer.
Country music singers Tiera, Linda Martell and Rissi Palmer.Matt Nighswander / NBC News; Getty Images

Rissi Palmer was fed up with reading music articles that mentioned the same five country artists of color over and over again, seemingly erasing the expansive history of Black and brown artists' contributions to country music.

That's why Palmer, a successful country artist who has performed at the White House, Lincoln Center and the Grand Ole Opry, started her Apple Music radio show, "Color Me Country." The show aims to recognize and validate the presence and history of Black and brown women in country music, including Mickey Guyton, Tiera, Miko Marks and many others.

"There are so many people out there that look like me — or are Latina or Latinx or Indigenous or whatever — that want to be in the industry," said Palmer, who is Black. "And sometimes it just helps to just see somebody that looks like you."

Palmer's radio show is named after Linda Martell's 1970 album "Color Me Country." Martell was a trailblazer in country music when, in 1969, she became the first Black woman to perform solo at the Grand Ole Opry. But Martell's contributions to the genre, as well as those of other Black and brown country artists, have largely gone under the radar.

Women of color have long faced a culture of exclusion in country music, a genre that has typically favored white men, even though its roots are linked with early Black American music. Since country music's founding in the 1920s, only four Black female solo artists and one all-Black female group have charted on a country music chart. On the Billboard list of 50 Top Country Artists in 2019, only four are female solo artists and one is a female group, and none are Black.

Country music never had a reason to change, but now with an increasingly diverse audience and more recent cultural reckonings over gender and race, change may be inevitable. The genre's gatekeepers remain reluctant to accept the growing numbers of diverse country artists and listeners. Even so, some performers of color are forging their own paths anyway.

Erased history

Country music wouldn't be what it is today without the contributions of African Americans, Palmer said. Hank Williams Sr. learned to play guitar from Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne, a Black musician, and The Carter Family learned their guitar riffs from Lesley Riddle, also a Black man. A lot of country music's early style came from the gospel music sung at Black churches in the South.

"Black people and brown people have always had an interest in country music — they've always played it and always enjoyed it," said Amanda Marie Martinez, a doctoral candidate at UCLA, who has written extensively about race in country music.

The roots of Black artists in country music are even in the instruments themselves, Martinez said: The banjo is an African instrument, and the fiddle was played predominantly by slaves. The music played by African slaves was borrowed and implemented into the music of white Southerners.

Even though Black and white Southerners were playing the same music, country radio in the early 20th century mostly featured music by white men. Country radio thus carved out a niche in the market to appeal to the "anti-youth culture" of white conservatives.

A handful of Black female artists, like Martell, tried to break into the genre after Charley Pride, a Black artist, signed with RCA Victor (now RCA Records) in 1965. But they had little success.

"The guy who signed her consciously put her on his label, 'Plantation Records,' and basically marketed her as a novelty," Martinez said. "He ultimately dropped her after her first album."

In an interview this year with Rolling Stone, Martell described how Shelby Singleton Jr., the man who signed her to Plantation Records, stopped promoting Martell in favor of a white artist on the label. When Martell left Plantation Records in 1974 and tried to sign with another label, Singleton blackballed her, she said, effectively ruining her reputation and ending her country music career.

IMAGE: Linda Martell
Country singer Linda Martell in 1969.Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

While Martell's career began and ended in country music, the Pointer Sisters saw their career take off with their country album, "Fairytale." The twang-heavy, undeniably country album earned the Pointer Sisters their first Grammy for best country and western vocal performance by a duo or group in 1974. It was also the first country Grammy received by Black women.

The win, however, didn't set a precedent for Black artists in country music, particularly for Black pop and R&B artists who tried to enter the genre. Beyoncé's song "Daddy Lessons" was rejected by the Grammy Country Committee in 2016. Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" was steadily rising up Billboard's Top Country charts in the summer of 2019 when it was pulled off for not having "enough elements of today's country music."

Critics were quick to note the double standard by which white country artists like Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and Sam Hunt could incorporate elements of hip-hop and rap into their music without being removed from the country charts as Lil Nas X had been. The requirement to "sound country enough" is just another one of the many hoops Black artists must jump through to make it in country music.

Miko Marks, however, was an up-and-coming artist trying to forge her own purely country music path around the early 2000s. Country music was the genre that came naturally to her, but her talent and passion alone weren't enough to break down the white walls surrounding Nashville.

"I met with a label in Nashville, and they basically told me the music's great, you're just phenomenal, but you're not going to sell," Marks said. "I just didn't get that. And then I got it as I matured and grew. I wasn't going to get it because I was Black."

The culture of exclusion aggravates efforts by women of color to break into the genre. Martell often needed a couple of drinks before facing a particularly white audience that she knew would yell slurs at her. When the Pointer Sisters tried to enter a party in Nashville, they were mistaken for the help and told to use the back door. Marks said that during a concert at a crowded Louisiana bar in 2006, she got menacing glares from audience members as she made her way to the bathroom. Marks remembers that walk clearly and how she hoped "I got to come back out of that bathroom."

Palmer has her own set of stories, as well: being called the N-word at her own concerts, belittled by a radio host about her knowledge of country music and told to hide her hair (which she described as "Chaka Khan curly hair" at the time) under a straight-haired wig.

One incident Palmer recalls in particular was when a security guard wouldn't let her go onstage for a festival performance.

"He was like, 'Ma'am, where are you going?' and I was like 'They're playing my song right now. I have to go onstage,'" Palmer said.

IMAGE: Rissi Palmer
Rissi Palmer performs during the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in Washington in 2008.Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP

After some convincing from her radio promoter, she was allowed onstage — and was welcomed by a sea of Confederate flags flapping in the wind. It may be a part of the culture, but seeing Confederate flags is never something you get used to, Palmer said.

A changing audience

As the American population becomes more diverse, the listeners of country music have similarly diversified. According to a 2016 poll by the Country Music Association, the number of country music listeners has increased by 33 percent among Black Americans and 25 percent among Latino adults since 2005.

"We are a country that is rapidly becoming less and less white, and that is something that the industry is really going to have to grapple with," Martinez said.

Country music has been around for nearly 100 years, making it one of the most enduring genres of American music. Diversifying an industry long entrenched in its own whiteness would take a "monumental" effort that Martinez said she isn't sure the industry is willing to undertake.

Black country artists such as Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown and Mickey Guyton have become increasingly vocal in their demand for the industry to make substantial changes to diversify country music. Guyton's latest single, "Black Like Me," is an anthem about her personal experiences of discrimination as a Black woman and a call to action for empathy and respect toward the marginalized — both in country music and in the country as a whole.

Several white artists, such as Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris, as well as several record labels and country music organizations, have echoed those demands.

The support is encouraging and necessary, but Palmer said substantial change will come only when every part of country music takes a hard look at itself: "Who are you hiring? Who is your A&R? Who are your producers? Who are your musicians? Who are your writers? If you look around in your board room and everybody looks exactly like you, then it's a problem," Palmer said. ("A&R" — "artists and repertoire" — is shorthand for a record label's talent scouting division.)

It's not a matter of there not being enough female country artists of color, Palmer said, but a problem with the preferences of the industry.

And if country doesn't want to change, then female artists of color are going to move on without it. Marks recently returned to the studio to work on a project with Redtone Records, a nonprofit record company. She feels supported to create the music she's passionate about now, thanks both to her record company and to fellow female musicians.

"We're banding together. There's a sisterhood going on," Marks said. "As my friend Rissi said, if they don't want to give us a seat at the table, then we'll make our own table."

Rising country artist Tiera didn't sign with a traditional country record label to make a name for herself. She started out by performing country music covers and original songs on Instagram and YouTube, which helped connect her to songwriters, publishing companies and a steadily growing community of diverse artists and fans who want her to succeed.

She now has over 15,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and is planning to release three singles before the end of the year — including "Found It in You," which will be released Friday — with the female-focused publishing company Songs & Daughters, which she signed with in March.

"It just makes me so happy," Tiera said. "For a long time, people thought that we weren't out here, you know — like there weren't Black people in country music that wanted to do this. But there are so many of us."

Besides getting an endorsement from Shania Twain and being named one of CMT's Next Women of Country, Tiera is also hosting a show for Apple Music's Country Radio Station. She's paying it forward on social media, encouraging aspiring country artists of all backgrounds to pursue their dreams.

"I used to get messages from other Black females along the lines of 'I want to do country music, but I'm scared to move to Nashville. Can you give me some advice?'" Tiera said. "Over the past few months, those messages have shifted to 'I want to do country music. I just moved to Nashville. Do you have any advice?' It warms my heart just seeing them make that step."

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CORRECTION (Oct. 15, 2020, 10:25 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of a prominent country music artist. He is Charley Pride, not Charlie. Also, Tiera signed with her publishing company in March, not June.