Ampersand

21 years later, Black country music finds a home at AMERICANAFEST 2022

AMERICANAFEST’s Black country music programming kick starts a new chapter of a movement.

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I’ve heard love called a divine madness. My divine madness drew me back to my southern country music roots. Attending AMERICANAFEST, in a way, was both intoxicating and frightening. When love comes calling, you’ll do crazy things you’d never imagine.

That’s what I felt after joining the Black Country Music Association (BCMA) and coming to Nashville, Tennessee in 1999 to sing in a showcase of Black country singers. We all had sent our songs ahead to Nashville to be arranged and played by a backup band of professional studio musicians who were so good, I couldn’t believe they were playing my songs.

Frankie Staton, founder of the BCMA, took us on a Nashville tour in 1999, which included promoting our showcase at Fan Fair where country music fans wait in long lines to get autographs from their favorite country music artists. Many of the attendees just stared at us standing behind our table while crumpling up our show invitations and throwing them on the ground.

During that tour, Staton also introduced us to DeFord Bailey Jr., son of the first Black member of the Grand Ole Opry from 1926-1941, at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. That meeting with Bailey inspired me to promise that by the end of my life, I would do everything I could to make sure there were more Black members in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

After Fan Fair, I sang at a showcase at the Gibson Guitar Café in downtown Nashville with singers like myself who had come from all over the U.S. We sang to a mostly white audience who looked at us as though they didn’t understand what they were seeing. The looks on their faces said it all. Why would Black people be singing country music? Maybe the alcohol they were drinking made it all seem like a dream when they woke up the next morning.

Before the 2021 AMERICANAFEST, The Americana Music Association, which produces the festival, established a new Diversity and Inclusion Committee, tasked with “addressing issues of inclusivity, representation and identity within the Americana community.” This year’s program showcased 175 diverse artists at 36 venues and access to 300 events from Sept. 13-17 in Nashville.

Last year’s AMERICANAFEST started a movement in the world of Black country music by presenting at its festival, Black Opry and Black Opry Revue, a blog and showcase of Black country music singers, which has grown to over 200 artists since its founding by Holly G in 2021.

Holly G’s Black Opry network of Black country music artists in 2021 led to her creating The Outlaw House, an Airbnb where all Black country music singer-songwriters would have a place to network and provide support for each other after their nightly performances. The growing number of performers who were a part of Black Opry Revue in 2021 led to an even larger gathering in 2022, as this year’s festival and conference gave many new artists the opportunity to join this tribe.

I arrived in Nashville on Tuesday afternoon and on Wednesday evening while attending AMERICANAFEST 2022, watched a viewing party of the 21st Annual Americana Honors & Awards being held at the Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. There, Allison Russell, a Black country music artist, won the Americana Award for debut album. This viewing party was followed by an amazing live performance by War and Treaty, an R&B singing couple who had performed earlier during the awards ceremony.

On Thursday – my third day at AMERICANAFEST – there were so many panels and live concerts to choose from that it helped to have a focus. Because mine was Black country music, I attended Black Opry: Path To Joy, featuring a panel with Holly G and other Black country music singers like Rissi Palmer, Leon Timbo, Autumn Nicholas, Jett Holden and artist management representative Gina Miller. Sitting in the audience I saw Frankie Staton, founder of the BCMA, who provided the showcase opportunity for me to sing 22 years earlier.

That evening I went to see Rissi Palmer and members of the Black Opry Revue perform during their own showcases at local venues in and around downtown Nashville.

Because I had mentioned that I was a part of the BCMA showcase 22 years earlier during the Black Opry: Path To Joy panel, I was invited to The Outlaw House after their performances, where they were in the process of making a film about Black Opry and over 200 artists who had joined this movement.

My ticket for admission was that I was asked — no, required — to perform and I chose a song from my showcase 22 years ago, “Best Kept Mystery.”

On Friday, my last day at AMERICANAFEST, I felt as though I had come full circle. My journey that began during the Country Music Hall of Fame visit in 2000 was perfectly bookended by attending a discussion panel and performances by Black country music singers in the Ford Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Featured at the event were Holly G and Black country music artists The Kentucky Gentlemen, Nikki Morgan, Aaron Vance and Julie Williams.

The Country Music Hall of Fame groundbreaking ceremony was the location where I made a promise to myself, 22 years earlier, to make sure there were more Black country music members in the Hall of Fame by the end of my life. I was now witnessing how far Holly G had come on her path to making my vision a reality.

With the rising popularity of Black country music since last year’s AMERICANAFEST and the changes Holly G’s Black Opry have brought to Nashville since my initial visit, I’m more inspired than ever to see how my experience and skills can be used to increase the growth of Black country music and this movement in the future.

Black Opry Revue will be performing at the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Saturday Nov. 5 at 7 p.m.