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, I went out and found Color Me Country. I loved her voice. It still sounded soulful even though it was a very country record. I can’t even imagine what kind of heartbreak she must have gone through in order to completely leave music.
Mickey Guyton: It’s devastating that Linda would want to leave music like that, but I get it. I was on my way to doing that at the top of the year; that’s how painful it is to pursue a career in country music and be a Black woman — or be a woman, period. It’s so painful because the odds are completely stacked against you. And to go through what she went through, during the time that she went through it… I can’t even imagine.
How difficult was it for you to break into country music as a Black woman?
Rissi Palmer: During the seven years between my arrival in Nashville and the release of my single “Country Girl” in 2008, there was a lot of “Why are you doing this?” and “Do you really like country music?” A lot of people asked if I was going to use country to try to get to pop, and I was, like, “Why would I take the longest route possible to get to pop music, when I could just be a pop singer, if that’s what I wanted to be?” Some of it was just new artist stuff, and some of it was, I think, a little extra because I was a Black woman.
Mickey Guyton: When I came to Nashville, my management had instilled this fear in me, which Rissi hit on, that people were going to question my sincerity. So I was trying to do everything that I could to prove that I was country. I think the resistance came from that. People were picking my songs, and I was trying to do everything the Nashville way — I used their hair stylists, their makeup artists, the top photographers in town. And I would look at them and ask: Do you know how to do Black hair? Do you know how to do a Black woman’s face? Do you know how to dress a Black woman’s body? Do you know how to take photos of a Black woman? Do these people understand me? Nine times out of 10, they didn’t, and I was looking crazy. I felt ugly; I didn’t feel like myself; I didn’t feel like I was singing my truth.
But there have been some successes. Mickey, your new single, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” was hailed as the number one song of February’s Country Radio Seminar, and Rissi, you mentioned in another interview that your Blackness gave you even more visibility than other artists who were releasing music when you debuted.
Mickey Guyton: As much resistance as I’ve had, there are so many people who want to support [diversity] in Nashville. I have to say that. There was more support than there was resistance.
Rissi Palmer: When we got to Nashville, my managers and I didn’t know anybody, and their expertise was in R&B and hip-hop. We were literally cold-calling people and knocking on doors, but thank God there were people who were like, “Let me listen to this CD.” And then they were like, “Okay, we’re gonna call you back because this sounds fantastic.” Or, “We like your sound, and we think we can help.” I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those people.
Diversity can mean a lot of different things, and in country music, there’s the issue of all women, including White women, having a harder time breaking in. Do you think it’s important to fight, not just for women in general, but for Black women, specifically?
Mickey Guyton: Personally, I think it is necessary. Black women have been so overlooked, and once we’re finally seen, that gives everybody else the ability to win as well. We are literally at the bottom of the totem pole in America. That has to change, and I think it is changing.
Rissi Palmer: I saw the Full Frontal with Samantha Bee segment, “Sexism in Country Music,” and I was just like, “Why is Mickey in the shortest segment?” They’re talking about women in country music, but they stuck her at the end. I just don’t understand. We’re here, and it’s not just Black women [getting excluded].
When “Country Girl” came out, there was an artist, Crystal Shawanda, who’s Native American. She was signed to RCA Nashville and radio touring at the same time. And there was a Mexican American artist, named Star De Azlan, whose record came out at the same time, too. Women of color in country music is a big thing, even though it’s not what you see. And I felt like that story was deserving of more time than it was given in the [Full Frontal] segment. Everyone always talks about Carrie Underwood, or they talk about Miranda Lambert. They should be talked about, because they’re great artists. But in the same breath, there are also Black women, Hispanic women, Native women, Asian women, who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, who are out doing work that is just as good.
Mickey, you have your new song, with more music to come this summer. Rissi, you dropped your latest independent album, Revival, last October. What is the best thing that the general public can do to support both of you as individual artists, as well as other Black women in country music?
Mickey Guyton: Show up. Show up for us.
Rissi Palmer: Show up… but also do your research. With Lil Nas X’s success and everyone getting excited about Black Western culture, I saw lots of articles and think pieces from different publications stating that there had never been a successful Black woman in country, or they would have these horrifyingly incomplete lists of Black women artists. I got so mad that I decided to sit down and make my own list, and I put it on Twitter. I just want people to know that we, as Black people, have a stake in country music. Black people have been here since the beginning; just do your research.