THE UNBROKEN BLACK MUSICAL CIRCLE
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
NASHVILLE — Inside a home they christened the Black Opry House for a few days in late September, some of American roots music’s veterans gathered with promising younger artists—many of them together for the first time—to laugh, cry, play music and make history.
The gathering, organized by Black Opry founder Holly G., a Virginia-based musicians’ advocate, served as a pivotal moment for Black artists who make great country and roots music.
As groundbreaking music journalist Marcus K. Dowling put it, these artists have emerged as a “galvanized, phenomenal force” in Americana and roots music after two years of isolation and protests over racial violence.
Their impact is reaching into the broader country music industry here in Music City—a generally open-minded place whose corporate-country machine has long been prone to welcome only one or two country artists at a time inside its door.
This was the setting as Dowling moderated a panel discussion put together by Holly G. for AmericanaFest. During the session, a few of these Black artists met in a sterile hotel meeting room to bare a little of their country souls.
“We still have this brilliant light that is undeniable,” veteran New Orleans jazz, folk and soul singer Lilli Lewis said during the panel discussion, calling herself “authentically boundless.”
“We all gather here in the city of Nashville that’s going to follow the dollar any chance it gets,” Lewis added. “This is a moment where we can integrate all these bodies of wisdom… (and) recapture these stories that have been lost to the market.”
“When you ain’t got nothing to lose, you start telling the truth like nobody else,” she said.
Dowling, the journalist who lives in Washington, D.C., but is often on the road visiting places like country music’s “birthplace” in Bristol, Virginia, noted that among the panelists and those who flocked to the Black Opry House, three generations of Black country-based artists were present and already prominent in their own ways.
He asked the panelists to introduce themselves.
There was Miko Marks, the country artist based in California’s Bay Area, who tried to break the Nashville country glass ceiling for women of color two decades ago—and was worn out by it. She’s back, though, with new music and powerful stories to tell.
“I am light, I am here to shine light into the world,” Marks told the audience.
“I’m a songwriter’s songwriter,” said Lizzie No, a self-described folk singer-songwriter (and harpist) based in New York City.
Donning a black western hat that he wears everywhere, Jett Holden said he’s an “openly gay country singer” who writes “country music that I didn’t have growing up as a gay Black Jehovah’s Witness.” He lives in Elizabethton, near Johnson City in east Tennessee.
Queen Esther, who lives in Harlem and has deep Georgia and South Carolina roots, said she’s a “harmolodic artist. I go in every door and any direction… and I am guided by the presence of God.”
Dowling, the moderator, turned to Miko Marks. saying: “Before there was a Mickey Guyton, you were there,” he said.
Indeed, she was.
“I got to Nashville in about 2005 and I met with a label that I won’t name,” Marks said. “I was basically broken—broken away from my dream… They held the keys to the gate, and when I was told I wouldn’t sell (many records), it literally made me stop pursuing my career—and I didn’t record another album for another 10 years.”
“It was earth shattering,” she said. “It took some growth spiritually, mentally, emotionally for me to get myself back. And right now, I make songs for me,” Marks added, as someone handed her a box of Kleenex.
Dowling asked Marks why she’d released two roots-country-soul albums in the past year after she hadn’t released an album in 13 years.
“There’s a racial reckoning right now,” Marks said. “We’re at a crossroads. I had a song called ‘Good Night America’… that really jumpstarted my truth, my truth telling.”
Marks’ beautiful, distinctive new album, Race Records, with her group The Resurrectors, arrived Oct. 1.
On the EP, Marks soulfully and lovingly singing her own takes on classic country and American folk songs such as Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” the bluegrass standard “Long Journey Home,” and a swampy reading of “Whiskey River,” made famous by Willie Nelson.
The album speaks to “issues that matter to me as opposed to what the music industry wants to hear,” Marks said. “I can’t stop now. It’s our time, it’s my time.”
The Black Opry gathering and AmericanaFest also felt important, Marks said, like “old souls just reconnecting, and I feel that energy in this room.”
Even so, the struggle of Black artists in country and roots was evident in an announcement that arrived during the conference session.
Holly G. stood and said she’d just gotten word that mainstream country-pop singer Mickey Guyton, whose songs speak directly to growing up as a Black woman in our society, would receive the award for Breakout Artist of the Year at the upcoming CMT Music Awards.
Guyton isn’t exactly new to the scene. She’s been toiling in Nashville for years, and her new album Remember Her Name was just released after a five-year delay.
Nevertheless, the audience in the AmericanaFest session sent her a big cheer by video.
Talent rides in
Dowling re-introduced Lizzie No by saying: “If y’all don’t know, she’s up next” in being a major success.
The folks-roots-alternative pop singer from… contends that country and roots musicians of color need not be martyrs anymore.
“As a black artist, I’ve heard all these stories of the doors being closed in the faces of some of the most talented people in this genre,” she said.
“But I’ve suffered enough, and so I’m willing to do the work. I have been doing the work. I think my music can be loved and appreciated by anyone,” she said. “I don’t accept that the rejection and the dehumanization… are just the dues I have to pay. I think that’s bullshit.”
Dowling referred to some of the session’s panelists as “deans” of country music. What do these veterans think of this moment in music and the potential for serious change?
“I’m gonna keep it a buck,” said Queen Esther, who always keeps it real. She said the Mormon faith, for instance, rejected Black Americans until it realized the need for global expansion and changed its ways.
“That’s where I think country music is right now,” she said. “More young folk listen to gay folk, people of color, Black women because they want to see themselves in the music they listen to.”
Besides, the country music industry as reflected on most radio stations is not just a new twist on an old genre’. Much of it has become an affirmation of white American culture, sometimes harmless, sometimes the worst of it, Queen Esther added.
“Now, I like coffee… (but if you take) milk and put a few drops of coffee in it, that’s not coffee,” she said. “Everybody up here makes really good coffee. … We’ve got coffee on our side and they don’t. They just don’t.”
“We’re gonna keep going,” she continued. “Everybody’s gonna find out where all the good music is, because not only is their market waning—they’re dying.”
No stopping now
Lilli Lewis from New Orleans said she’s worked in music professionally for 20 years and has released nine albums on her own or with groups. Her new album Americana comes out Oct. 29.
“My problem is I won’t stop making music. I won’t stop singing,” she said. “It’s like all my internal organs are organized around making music, and that’s never not been the case, and so I don’t have an out. … If it kills me that’s how I’m going out.
“It’s not about whether or not this industry has the space for you. It’s a matter of walking your space with integrity,” Lewis said. “The rest of it is somebody else’s business. … This is a matter of life and death. … If all your music is, is you in a cave… well, then that’s what it’s gonna be.”
One of the younger voices, Holden, who wears a black western hat all the time, reflected on the turn his life and music have taken lately.
Holden posts his intense, heart-rending commentary-songs on social media and has drawn the interest of a major record label. “When they realized I was gay, they told me I could be one or both, but that I couldn’t be gay and black,” he said.
His Instagram performances include “Taxidermy,” in which Holden sings of police brutality and fake allyship.
“Holly (of Black Opry) hit me up on my DM’s and said she needed that’s song—and she got me a grant from Rissi Palmer and that allowed me to record my first song ever,” Holden said.
“Six months ago, I was at home in my trailer… (in) quarantine and I didn’t see a future in this.” Then he met Holly G., whom he said “reinvigorated me.”
Apple Music host Hunter Kelly, whose program highlights LGBTQ artists and music, invited Holden to Nashville. “He recorded an entire EP for me” for no charge, Holden said.
Since then, Holden has become friends with artists in the room and even started writing with others.
“That makes me less alone,” he said. “I write music so I can hurt out loud—because hurting in silence is death.”
Tears and hope
At that powerful moment, Dowling asked Holden to grab his guitar and play “Taxidermy.”
“I’m not a martyr,” Holden began to sing. “I’m a man with some dreams… I’m more than taxidermy for your Facebook wall… I believe that my life matters.”
He offered a high-pitched “oooo,” like a sad yodel, in the middle of the song. Then he broke down into tears and couldn’t finish. Holden’s fellow artists comforted him and the audience blanketed him with applause.
“I’m just looking forward to being able to do what I love. It’s just that simple,” said Holden a few minutes later. Now 32, he started playing music for a living when he was 19.
“If it wasn’t my race, it was my sexuality,” he said. “This is the first time that I’m allowed to exist as I am and do what I love in the manner which I love. … I have to keep going so the next person won’t have to go through that.”
Queen Esther echoed the importance of this time and that she won’t stop writing and singing and working.
“I feel like a transcriber. I’m writing down the stuff I’m hearing in my head,” she said. It’s “like I’m writing a letter sometimes—and then I hear another one… clear and as easy as a blues record.”
“‘Whiskey Wouldn’t Let Me Pray’ sounds like a country record… but then you go to Europe and you go to Belgium,” she said. “Sweden is gobsmacked about America and Black Americana. It’s the exact opposite of what you get in America. The rest of the world is embracing what America (is rejecting).”
Lilli Lewis had a slightly different view. “I’m not convinced America is rejecting it. They’re just co-opting it,” she said, when “it’s actually the food that humanity needs.”
That’s why Lizzie No says she’ll never stop hitting the road to play music and connect with others.
“Day to day, I’m just like playing shows and meeting regular people,” she said. “That’s why I got into this industry, because people are nice. … That’s where there’s hope, I think.”
“Regular folks that show up to shows just want to hear music, have a good time,” she continued.
At the same time, artists of color are few—and fans seem even rarer. Lizzie No said she plays the “depressing game” at festivals of searching for the one or two people of color who aren’t there as laborers.
“There’s no reason country music shouldn’t be marketed to Black and Latino and indigenous audiences,” she said. “There’s just no reason it should be that way.”
Lizzie No said she even feels that audiences want the situation change. And that can become a burden for an artist.
Since the high-profile murders of George Floyd and others, she said, “I sort of feel like a weird energy from audiences that I’ve not felt before… I feel like people want to suck my blood.
“People are suddenly like, I want it… Inspire me, shake me up,” Lizzie No continued. “That’s not sustainable either. I’m here to play music. I’m not here to teach you about something you should have googled a long time ago,” she said.
On her album released earlier in 2021, Gild the Black Lilly, Queen Esther sings the spiritual “John the Revelator” as a tribute to her grandmother, who died in recent years.
“When my grandmother sang that song, she just brought down fire from the mountain,” she said. “What I’m doing… is a poor imitation of that lady.”
Now living in Harlem, Queen Esther was raised on the edge of Charleston, South Carolina. “I grew up in the country singing,” she said.
And she’s still not past the loss of her grandmother, who “wasn’t just some old lady.”
“She made biscuits every day, and there was always pound cake on the table, and she would always call me in the middle of the day” to talk about recipes.
More than that, her grandmother was a parent, adviser and guiding presence in for her life.
“So that’s what I’m putting into what I’m doing, and I’m convinced whatever it is that you create is infused with the spirit that you carry,” Queen Esther said. “I think the music is a spiritual conduit. I know it is.”