You see it on awards shows and on the Billboard charts. Country music is seeing some changes, and it’s bringing with it storytellers of all backgrounds. Some say this is a very long time coming.
On Nashville’s Music City Walk of Fame, you see the names of those titans of country music: Merle Kilgore, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton. Another name peers out: DeFord Bailey, a Black country artist. He was the first person ever introduced on the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920s.
Of course, you know a few Black country stars like Charley Pride and Darius Rucker. The list may hold relatively few names. That’s not for a lack of effort from one woman.
Frankie Staton loves a gig where she can prove to a crowd that she knows country.
“They say, ‘That sister over there ain’t playin! Like, wow, okay! Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!’” she laughed. “I’ve always stood up for diversity in country music.”
In 1997, Staton became the force behind the Black Country Music Association with her members performing in showcases at places like the famous Bluebird Café.
“I knew I was on to something, and I wasn’t crazy,” she said. “As long as you’re in the shadows and can’t be seen, the world will never know what you can bring to the table. It was my dream to give these people an opportunity, even in the face of the country music industry thinking we’re nuts to give them a platform, where they felt like stars as well. We’re country too, and we’ve been country a long time.”
After years of work, the Black Country Music Association ended without the sort of industry change Staton wanted-- to create more Black country stars.
“I just did not have the support,” she said.
Staton said this is a new day.
“Genre has been created so you can segregate and box people in,” said Samantha Viotty, sitting in downtown Nashville. “I walk up and down Broadway and see lots of country music singers, very few of them are of color.”
Viotty is part of a group launching Rosedale Collective, a new record label looking to start signing artists of color to record country music.
“It lends itself to storytelling and for many people of color, telling your story is just a way of life,” said Viotty.
Viotty sees right now as a season of change. Just look at the side of the Country Music Hall of Fame. You’ll see Jimmie Allen who just won New Artist at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Besides Allen, other Black artists have landed on the Country charts in recent years, including Mickey Guyton, Lil Nas X, and Blanco Brown.
“We would love to see tokenism completely eradicated in country music,” Viotty said.
At the National Museum of African American Music, a summit was held for the new Rosedale Collective record label, bringing together country artists from underrepresented communities. There to talk about the history leading up to this day was Staton.
“I challenged the story,” Staton told the crowd. “It wasn’t the fans that stopped us. I’m just very proud of the work we did. My dream was to be the change I wanted to see.”
“I think we are on the precipice of something in history,” Staton continued. “I just never thought I’d live to see it.”