Country Music Is Nothing Without Black Artists
Fifty years after Linda Martell’s ‘Color Me Country,’ current singers discuss her legacy
In 1969, Charley Pride scored his first number one on the country charts, proving, once and for all, that a Black man could be successful in the White world of country music. With hopes of replicating his triumphs, Linda Martell quite literally stepped onto country music’s stage that same year, when she walked into the Ryman Auditorium and became the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry.
Born in 1941 in Leesville, South Carolina, Martell grew up singing in the church, and brought congregations to their feet with her buttery vocals. Even then, the influences of gospel, blues, and folk swirled inside of her the same way they did in country music itself.
In 1970, Martell released her debut album, Color Me Country, and her lead single, “Color Him Father,” rose to number 22 on the U.S. country charts. But just as quickly as her star seemed to rise, it faded into obscurity. Martell would later say that family obligations caused her to trade in the bright lights of Music City for the anonymity of Leesville. But those who know Nashville and the country music industry suspect that there was much more at play. After all, Martell was signed to Plantation Records and made to sing in front of fans who held their Dixie flags proudly overhead, even as they swayed gently to her songs.
In the 50 years since the release of Color Me Country, a lot has changed in country music, though, according to artists Mickey Guyton and Rissi Palmer, it hasn’t been enough. Despite the subsequent mainstream appeal of Darius Rucker and Lil Nas X, Black women are still struggling to find their collective place.
Here, we talk to Guyton and Palmer about Linda Martell’s legacy, what it’s really like as a Black woman in country music, and how Black people can help make the next 50 years of country music a lot more colorful.
ZORA: When did you first discover Martell’s music, and what impact has her short-lived career had on you?
Rissi Palmer: Linda and I were in a documentary called Waiting in the Wings: African-Americans in Country Music, but I didn’t get to meet her. After that…