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New roots: Black musicians and advocates are forging coalitions outside the system

"Some of the work is deliberately remaining outside of the structure," says musician and advocate Lilli Lewis of the efforts of Black musicians to make it in country and roots music industries. "We want to center different values and it's really difficult to do that from inside." Lewis just released a new album called <em>Americana.</em>
David Villalta
Courtesy of the artist
"Some of the work is deliberately remaining outside of the structure," says musician and advocate Lilli Lewis of the efforts of Black musicians to make it in country and roots music industries. "We want to center different values and it's really difficult to do that from inside." Lewis just released a new album called Americana.

In late September, the annual Americana Music Conference and Festival returned to in-person programming in Nashville. A pared-down virtual version had served as a stopgap in 2020, but for many involved in the industry ecosystem of Americana and its rootsy country, indie folk and bluegrass tangents, this marked the long-awaited return of irreplaceable interaction, at and between showcases, panels and cocktail meet-ups at rooms big and small around town, many of which were sponsored by music companies.

Not far from one of the rock clubs hosting official shows, a new series of gatherings debuted that week, one that wasn't listed on the festival schedule, didn't cater to the usual crowd and wasn't paid for out of a promotional budget. In a brick bungalow west of downtown, rented by music journalist Marcus K. Dowling and temporarily dubbed the Black Opry House, the living room and kitchen furniture had been pulled into a big circle for what felt like a combination between a support group and a guitar pull. With acoustic guitars resting on their laps, the invited participants, all of them first-time attendees and Black, went around introducing themselves.

"I'm Jett Holden, from Elizabethton, Tenn., and I've been writing music since I was 17," said the occupant of the couch, "but I quit, like, two years ago, and just started getting back into it. So I'm gonna stick with it this time. I'm not gonna let anyone break me this time around."

His neighbor chimed in from the ottoman: "My name's Tylar Bryant. That's T-y-l-a-r. If it's spelled with an 'E,' that ain't me, which when I put out my first song, it was a whole thing, because there's another guy named Tyler Bryant, and he's white. I've been doing country music since 2016."

He meant country of a thoroughly mainstream variety, a stylistic sensibility shared by Roberta Lea, a singer-songwriter from Norfolk, Va. seated next to the kitchen island. She offered her astute take on genre tropes with a brisk, buoyant country-pop original, "Ghetto Country Road" (sample lyrics: "Double dutch and play with dirt / Ditch the car and walk a mile / Lemme see that Kool-aid smile / Eat the berries from the wild / and don't forget to be a child").

Musicians (including Tylar Bryant, seated in foreground; Roberta Lea, with guitar at table; Joy Clark, right) play in a round at the Black Opry House rented by journalist Marcus Dowling (standing at left) during the 2021 Americana Fest in Nashville
/ Jewly Hight
Jewly Hight
Musicians (including Tylar Bryant, seated in foreground; Roberta Lea, with guitar at table; Joy Clark, right) play in a round at the Black Opry House rented by journalist Marcus Dowling (standing at left) during the 2021 Americana Fest in Nashville

The next chair over from her was Joy Clark, a lyrical lead guitarist who'd put in a decade playing in New Orleans bands, including one of Cyril Neville's, and was now venturing into performing her own folk-leaning, confessional material. Holden's songs were viscerally confessional too, but also possessed the crescendoing dynamics of Chris Stapleton, whose recordings he'd studied, and a touch of emo intensity.

When it was his turn to sing, Holden first offered a disclaimer: "Excuse my mismatched socks." That elicited an expression of solidarity from someone across the room — "If anybody judge you, they takin' everybody" — a playful vow drowned out by collective laughter.

In that space, there was little use for distinctions between markets, formats or categories. These performers congregated around shared experiences, having each encountered formidable barriers in the way of their aspiration to work anywhere along a continuum of country, contemporary folk and roots music that's been preserved and promoted as a domain of whiteness.

"The way that I always understood that you were supposed to do it is to just pay your dues, pay your dues, pay your dues," said Lizzie No, a singer-songwriter who balances contemporary folk subtlety and alt-country sturdiness, arrived at the house the next day. No had made the rounds at industry conferences and music festivals like this before, laboring under the notion that she could get ahead simply by proving herself, she explained, "and then at some point hopefully it'll start to be paid back in a way. I never felt like I knew the right people."

Over the next several days, the circle at the Black Opry House would expand to accommodate accomplished performers and total newbies alike, all of whom received respectful attention when they sang their songs in the house.

Dowling had come to the realization that casual hangs like these are where things happen that further careers. "Every time I talk to white country artists," he related, "they talk about these amazing experiences they have when they go write a number one hit song about drinking beers while they're sitting in bars or they're sitting in houses or they're just hanging out all the time." That kind of environment was what he wanted to recreate at the Black Opry House, without outside interference, for those who hadn't been included in the past.

Over the last decade, recognition of the ways that BIPOC and LGBTQIA people have been marginalized in folk and roots music bubbled to the surface periodically, then with growing frequency. In 2020, public reckonings reached certain sectors of the country ecosystem, where the discourse tends to downplay identity, outside of region and class. Music journalists on these beats wrote about these realities with varying degrees of clarity and urgency. Trade organizations created diversity committees, awards shows doled out appearances more strategically and there were panel discussions galore.

But these were often top-down measures whose effects didn't really reach musicians working in grassroots fashion or those struggling to get in the door in the first place. Meanwhile, there were Black and queer music-makers who saw the conditions of their participation, the lengths they had to go to in order to justify their claims on the music, more clearly than ever and grew impatient.

There was an instructive moment in 2018, when Our Native Daughters became both a group and a coalition of sorts. That was when Rhiannon Giddens, already celebrated as a historically knowledgeable roots virtuoso, convened three other banjo-playing, Black women songwriters — Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah — to join her in recording a collection of music that lifted up the agency of Black women by taking narratives of enslaved people, minstrel songs, colonial-era poetry, folkloric balladry and other musical artifacts as its source material. Giddens was creating a circle and inviting her kindred spirits inside, nudging them forward for recognition in their own rights.

That helped empower Russell and Kiah, in particular, to ascend in their solo careers and showcase their artistic individuality on albums they've each released to considerable acclaim. Russell was entrusted with assembling the lineup of the high-profile superjam that closed out this summer's Newport Folk Festival, and she made the occasion into a celebratory summit of Black women visionaries. Her friend and artist peer Yola, who shared that stage, in turn made known in interviews that she'd insisted on adding other Black women songwriters to her core group of collaborators in the process of making her new album.

Those were examples of what coalition-building could look like. Another significant model is emerging now, as BIPOC and LGBTQIA musicians, fans and advocates who know what it's like to be shut out themselves are forming grassroots networks to support themselves and each other. They see the potential in applying the tools of political organizing tools to music communities.

Dowling, who studied political science in college, had been writing about hip-hop, dance and electronic music for years, but couldn't find opportunities to cover country, despite his longtime interest in the genre. "Being a Black writer in a space which is so demonstrably and overwhelmingly white, when you don't have a pitch about, say, a Black country artist, when you're trying to write about white artists, you're oftentimes the least heard or at least wanted opinion on something," he said.

In July of 2020, Dowling finally saw his pitches translate into assignments, lots of them. He picked up regular outlets like The Boot and CMT.com, contributed to an array of other publications and quickly become a prolific and prominent presence in the field, a status underscored when he won the Chet Flippo award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism in May. It's clear from the way that he presents himself, striding into industry events in pointy cowboy boots, colorfully embroidered snap shirts, flared jeans and wide-brim, feathered hats — his burlesque of a '70s entertainer's stage costume — that he recognizes he is being watched as he works, with one foot now inside the system and the other still outside it.

"If I'm here in this space that's been really white since the beginning of time almost," he recounted of his thinking, " I have to hold that door and let everybody [in]."

Dowling used his income from the first six country-related articles he was assigned to secure that Airbnb in Nashville during Americana Fest. "I feel very good to say that white people paid me to write about country music," he exulted casually, as a song swap went on downstairs. "I then paid for Black people to come down to Nashville and to write songs about country music."

The co-host of the house, Holly G, had a day job entirely unrelated to music. Her connection to country was as a fan, one who'd always been told that her taste was "strange." "I'm just a person that was very tired of loving something that did not make space for me," she boiled it down. "Last year when George Floyd got murdered, it made me take stock of everything that I was consuming in my life. And one of the biggest things that I consume is music. And the most important way that I do that is with country music. That's always been what I've connected with. So when I began to take stock of that, it became a thing of 'Either you let it go because there's nothing there for you or you figure out a way to enjoy it better.'"

Holly G searched around for a media platform whose primary focus was to center Black voices in any style of country, folk or roots music and found just one, Rissi Palmer's Apple Radio show Color Me Country, which began spotlighting BIPOC performers — those omitted from the historical accounts and those active at the genres' margins — to instant impact last summer. Inspired, Holly G launched the Black Opry website on her own dime.

She initially anticipated modest traffic, say, 10 or 15 visitors a month, and considered her goal of finding a different Black artist to post about every day for a month to be a bit ambitious. So she got resourceful, scouring social media and streaming platforms for telltale hashtags and for Black and brown faces doing covers of familiar songs and down-home originals. Soon, she was flooded with followers and, just as significantly, with inquiries from artists. "What it turned into was finding not only other Black country music fans," Holly G explained, "but all of these amazing Black country music artists that have since expressed their needs to me."

Back in April, she came across a snippet of music that Holden had posted on Instagram, an excerpt of his song "Taxidermy," meant to vent his desperation at seeing Black lives devalued. Holden had given up on making headway in the industry, having faced a dozen years of rejection as a Black and gay man trying to launch a music career. When Holly G messaged him, it was from the suspiciously blank-looking profile that she'd just scrubbed of content which no longer seemed meaningful to her. He was doubly skeptical. "It was just a person on Instagram reaching out to me saying, 'Hey, I want to back you, help you get where you need to go,' and all these big promises,'" he recalled.

She followed through, helping Holden get a microgrant from the Color Me Country fund, money handed out by Palmer, who's not just the host of a radio show, but an artist herself, one who encountered racial barriers in country music in the early 2000s and has carved an independent path since. That enabled Holden to start recording, and Holly G has continued trying to assist his career. "It's just opportunities that I was denied for so many years — resources that were denied to me so many years," Holden marveled. "And then now in the last six months, so much is happening that I didn't think was even an option for me."

He didn't even think that country-leaning, queer, Black performers "existed." "The industry had let me think that I was alone," he said, "because there was no representation."

Holden wasn't the only member of the Black Opry crew for whom rolling to events in Nashville as part of a unit was a new experience. Even more established, working musicians like Lizzie No and the veteran artist and activist Lilli Lewis saw the landscape of Americana Fest from a different vantage. All three spoke on the official Black Opry panel at Americana Fest, and played sets at the Rainbow Happy Hour, a lineup of LGBTQIA artists at a neighborhood bar and record store. (This was the latest iteration of grassroots showcases celebrating marginalized voices, connected in spirit to the thoroughly intersectional efforts of the virtual Country Soul Songbook Summit, the nonprofit Bluegrass Pride and Hunter Kelly's Proud Radio show.)

No's mentality was, "'At any moment, if I'm with my pals from Black Opry, I am where the memories are being made. I am where I need to be.' Now we see what it's like when there's a bunch of us together and we're not going to go back."

But she was clear-eyed about the fact that old star-making hierarchies remain intact across the industry: "I still think that it's mostly the white artists that are building wealth in this game. I'm still really skeptical until I see more Black and queer artists headlining the big festivals, getting the big label deals. I'm interested in more of us getting the long-term power and the long-term resources, and I'm not seeing that happen just yet. But let's hope that the momentum here makes that possible."

At the happy hour, No took her turn performing, accompanying herself on guitar and harp on songs that quietly hit a nerve. She nursed a beverage at a table against the wall as Lewis played ballads with deep feeling and classical poise, accompanied by yet another of their house mates, Clark, on clean-toned electric guitar. To capture the spirit in the bar, Lewis worked in an unexpected selection, a confessional version of Radiohead's "Creep," introing it with a dedication: "I sing this one to celebrate the power of the misfits."

Lewis has been doing accomplished, knowledgeable work with compositions, interpretations and ensemble vocal arrangements steeped in countrified folk, jazz, blues, soul, gospel and sophisticated pop since the 2000s — and pointedly demonstrates her mastery of these Americana tributaries on a new album by that title — but that doesn't mean that she's always been received and respected as the roots authority that she is.

Sitting at a picnic table outside the bar, she reflected on the resistance she's come up against. "Up until this moment, when it comes to, in particular, BIPOC artists in these spaces, there's been a sort of a 'there can be only one' dynamic," she said, measuring out her words reflectively." The industry might form around one or two artists who they say, 'This is somebody you really need to know,' ignoring the fact that there are thousands of others out there in the field," a reality that's become increasing obvious to anyone with an ear out for the voices cutting through in folk and roots scenes over the last few years. She went on, "I've even been told point blank by record label executives, serving as an executive myself, that Black people in particular don't have the interest, the knowledge or the passion when it comes to Americana music."

Lewis guides the careers of working musicians on the tiny, independent roots label Louisiana Red Hot Records. She also planned the Black Opry Fest, which began live streaming this week, with Holly G, and volunteered to assemble the Country Soul Phone Book, a directory of underrepresented musicians, endeavors that call for a mix of DIY experience, business acumen and organizing savvy.

"Some of the work is deliberately remaining outside of the structure," Lewis noted. "And I think that's mostly because we want to center different values and it's really difficult to do that from inside. And then at the same time, you understand that there's a pipeline inside, and if you really want to support these artists, you definitely want them to be able to monetize their work. And that means having some kind of relationship with the pipeline, whether it's being able to send artists through the pipeline or whether it's knowing what the pipeline looks like and being able to recreate that on your own terms."

One way that Black Opry participants boosted the visibility of their efforts that week — an aim of so many industry events — was to keep the social media posts, live streams and videos coming, to let the FOMO work in reverse, to convey to the outside world that that was where the action was.

As the happy hour wound down, the house contingent divided up to head to the simultaneous showcases of Brittany Spencer, who's gaining notice at the country scene's stripped-down, singer-songwriter fringes, and Miko Marks, who tried to break into country in the mid-2000s, then gigged quietly for over a decade and has reemerged as a supple, charismatic roots artist, and a hero to many musical heirs. There was a sense of duty to support anyone doing anything during Americana Fest who was LGBTQIA or a person of color, or both, and Holly G had created a customized itinerary to highlight them. During the Black Opry panel, the discussion even paused momentarily to applaud the announcement that country-pop star Mickey Guyton, who wasn't present, had been named CMT's breakout Artist of the Year.

Lewis felt the gravity of the moment. "From the outside looking in," she said, "It could be, 'Well, Mickey's at the top of the mountain. Why does she need us to show that kind of support?' And yet, it's visceral. Like, we viscerally know that she needs us and that she needs our smiles, our tears, and she needs it just as much as any one of us would."

Marcus Dowling (standing at right) rented the house dubbed the Black Opry in an effort to recreate the kind of casual industry hangout sessions that often lead to networking and artistic breakthroughs, but for Black artists and activists who had been excluded from the industry.
/ Jewly Hight
Jewly Hight
Marcus Dowling (standing at right) rented the house dubbed the Black Opry in an effort to recreate the kind of casual industry hangout sessions that often lead to networking and artistic breakthroughs, but for Black artists and activists who had been excluded from the industry.

Most of the invited guests who passed through the Black Opry House that week didn't move in a spotlight the scale of the one that Guyton at long last commands, but at a Friday morning brunch at the property, the unofficial guest of honor was someone who's come to be recognized as a forebear by all, Frankie Staton, who co-founded of the Black Country Music Associationin the late '90s. She held court from a keyboard bench, while people packed the loveseats, sat on the floor and leaned over the staircase above her, a rapt audience.

In one sense, she was passing the torch, but she was also still carrying it, still writing songs, still performing weekly lounge gigs and still talking about what she and her BCMA peers tried to do during the decades between Charley Pride and the next Black country superstar, Darius Rucker. "I represent the gap," she said. "So I'm trying to sit here and say build on everything that you have here and take it everywhere you go with you proudly."

She played a bluesy hard country tune that she'd once hoped Lee Ann Womack would cut, and the BCMA anthem, "Under the Southern Sun." She spoke of doing her own research into Black contributions to country music, and her belief in the power of a song to penetrate beyond people's prejudices. She also testified to how isolating her efforts in the business had often been.

"I went to everything alone," said Staton, recalling standing up at town hall meetings and setting up booths at CMA Fest and a country radio conference. "I never wrote with anybody," she continued. "I couldn't write with the Music Row writers. I couldn't write with the Black writers, because what did I bring to a black writer if I wasn't a staff writer [at a publishing company] that would help them? Nothing."

Her eyes swept across the room: "It does my heart well to see you here today. I've been here 40 years; I never saw what happened today until today."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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