When veteran artist and songwriter Frankie Staton spoke to the denizens of the temporary but indelible Black Opry House at the 2021 AmericanaFest, she gestured around a living room packed with Black artists and supporters and said, “This is something that’s never happened. I’ve been here forty years, and I never saw what’s happened (here) today until today.”
Staton, as a talent who was marginalized by Music Row in the 80s and co-founded the Black Country Music Association in the 90s, is the godmother of the effort to end the exclusion of Black voices and artistry in country music. She was thus uniquely qualified to understand the import of the Black Opry as well as the initiative and passion of its founder Holly G. Holly launched the fast-morphing project as a blog and artist directory at BlackOpry.com, which inspired the AmericanaFest gathering space last September, which in turn inspired a touring Black Opry Revue that’s been filling theaters around the country since last October.
On Monday night, the Black Opry’s official Anniversary Party takes place at the City Winery. Tickets can be found here.
The event synchs up with a flourish of news celebrating the new wave of Black artistry in roots music, including the new documentary For Love And Country streaming on Amazon Prime, a big spread in Vanity Fair featuring five Black women who’ve become favorites of the roots and Americana community over the past few years and a book coming this fall by Francesca Royster from the University of Texas Press.
Making this all more remarkable, Holly G works entirely outside the music business as a flight attendant. For these many months, she’s been organizing a growing talent pool for shows in Houston, Chicago, Atlanta and beyond from hotel rooms and cars in between flights and short bursts of sleep. These in-the-round and ensemble nights have included Aaron Vance, Lizzie No, Joy Clark, Tylar Bryant, Jett Holden, the Kentucky Gentlemen, Kam Franklin, Nikki Morgan, Roberta Lea, Autumn Nicholas and others who’ve been out there working for years but rarely showcased on a national platform. The Revue played Nashville’s Exit/In last December and is set to play the Troubadour in LA, the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, CA and more on into 2023. It was tough to pin her down, but I was finally able to reach Holly from another of those many hotel rooms to ask about this vibrant and important roots music movement.
WMOT: In a short period of time, you’ve become a web publisher, a journalist, an activist and a concert promoter in country and roots folk music. What in your background might have led you this way?
I have no idea (laughs). I just really love and enjoy country music. And I’ve been obsessed with music for such a long time, dating back to when I was probably like seven or eight years old. I’ve just been very fascinated with the music industry. So I don’t really think there’s anything specific. It just kind of like happened on its own. I did work in hospitality management for like five years. So I think that helped a lot with the business side of things. I never had any inclination to be a writer or anything like that. But I’ve been a huge social media fan for so long. I guess just because I’ve been so used to documenting my thoughts, it was easy to change format.
And then when did the light go on where either the Black Opry name came into focus for you, or the cause of improving inclusion in roots and country music motivated you?
I was always aware that there was an issue with diversity within country music, but I think for a long time, I just kind of accepted it as just the way things were and compartmentalized it. But then after the summer of 2020, George Floyd got murdered and everything started coming to a head with social justice. It certainly wasn’t the first time that it happened, but it was the first time in my adult life there had been that big of a focus on it. And so I started to pay attention to all the different things that I was consuming in a different way than I had before. And I didn’t know or attempt to have, you know, that big of an impact other than being able to share my own thoughts on it. And when I did start doing that, I started to realize and see that I wasn’t the only one thinking or feeling that way. And I was able to really dive into it and see that there were a lot of people that had actually been doing this work for so long before I came along. And so I was able to kind of like build off of the work that had already been going on and dive in and put my own spin on things.
Is there anybody that comes to mind immediately that you’d cite as having been an inspiration, who had run the ball somewhat up the field?
Absolutely. The first person that I found was (artist/broadcaster) Rissi Palmer. And I found her a couple months before she started her Color Me Country radio show. And when she started that, I started paying attention, and she exposed me to so many different artists of color that were within the genre making this music that just weren’t getting attention. And it kind of blew my mind that there were so many of them, but we’d only hear three. And something that Rissi says all the time, like if there’s one person doing something, there should be five, you know, just kind of like pushing the effort along. That was a big thing that kind of propelled me towards starting Black Opry to open up another platform for these artists to get some exposure and also just to find other people that were fans like myself that might be as surprised and excited to see some of these artists. And then after I started it, also through Rissi actually, I found Frankie Staton, who worked with Cleve Francis to start the Black Country Music Association back in the 90s. That was when I really realized how long people have been fighting for inclusion and equity in the genre.
How did the website evolve into the live shows?
Yeah, the website was the only thing that I had intended, a blog where people could connect over the conversations that we were having on Twitter already and that Rissi and Frankie and all these other people had already started. And it very quickly just snowballed into other things. I think because I didn’t have a big picture vision when I started, it was really easy to let it become what it needed to be without me projecting too much onto it. A couple months later was AmericanaFest. And that was the first opportunity for us to get together in person. Everybody was coming out of quarantine and starting to get together in person again. That sparked a community and made everything that we have been talking about online real. And the meeting at AmericanaFest is how we ended up doing the shows. (Songwriter) Lizzie No spent some time with us at the house at AmericanaFest. And a couple of days after she had a show in New York and other artists had to back out at the last minute. And so she called me and she’s like, Hey, do you think that we can get some artists to do the show in New York from the people that were at the house? I called them and everybody said yes immediately. So six days after AmericanaFest, we had an impromptu show in New York. And it went really, really well. And even just when we announced the show that we were going to do in New York, I had so many venues reaching out to me and asking can you bring it here? Do you want to do it again? Like I said, I don’t have any background in the music industry, so it became very overwhelming very quickly, just because I wanted to make sure that I was doing it right. We were luckily able to secure a booking agent. And this was October of 2021. And by December of 2021, we had already had shows booked all the way out until November. Now we’re booked through spring of 2023. At the moment, we’re pretty busy.
I could just tell the workload that went behind the number of dates in the major venues and the travel involved, you’re all over the place, but you’re not traveling as a caravan or a package show everyone has to get to these places. It’s logistically really impressive.
It’s so much logistical work, especially because there’s a learning curve. I’m having to learn the industry as I’m doing this really huge thing. This is not typically the way that people tour, so there’s not really a roadmap for it. We’re having to try to do trial and error and figure out what works and the best way to get people together and promote the shows. But everybody has been so gracious and allowing me to kind of learn and helping along the way. It’s been amazing to see how enthusiastically everybody has come together to make all this happen.
I’ve been involved in roots music, bluegrass, folk and Americana for about 30 years. And years ago when I used to ask why aren’t there more Black artists participating, especially in traditional blues and songwriting, what I heard was, well, the banjo and the blues are really historically loaded and freighted, so young people just don’t tend to get excited about it when they’re choosing an instrument and choosing who they want to be as a musician. What’s right, wrong or missing about that?
So there’s a huge piece that’s missing there. And it’s the fact that they have been interested. None of the artists that I’m working with currently are new to what they’re doing. The problem is that the industry has been so closed off that they’ve never gotten the same exposure that the white artists have. So it’s not really a matter of drawing people into it. It’s a matter of creating platforms for people that are already there and have been doing this work for such a long time and just haven’t been acknowledged for it. Especially if you talk about the banjo. The banjo was a black instrument. And I’ve even been surprised to see how many Black artists that we have that have been playing the banjo. And they learned it from, you know, their parents who learned from their grandparents, something that has been passed down. And this roots music is not new to us. The platform is new to us – being able to have opportunities where we get exposure for it.
How do you distinguish between Americana and country music? Are they distinct worlds to you? Do they overlap a little bit? Do they have different track records on inclusion and diversity as far as you can tell?
That’s such a loaded thing. Because it seems to me from what I see that the genre labels like folk and Americana have been used mostly as a function of exclusion. So if you have a Black artist that’s doing country music, the industry looks at them and goes, oh no, that’s not really your thing. You must be Americana. But the problem is that when you go to Americana, they kind of tell you the same thing. Oh, that’s not Americana. You must be doing R&B. And just like with any other artists that have been successful within all of these different genres, black people have influences from their perspective, their stories, their church music growing up. And when they bring these influences to the table, it’s not regarded with the same respect as it is when the white artists do it. And so they use the functions of the genre labels and industry to further exclude Black people. And that’s why we try to be really careful and really give the artists the freedom to identify as whatever they feel like. I always say, if an artist tells me what kind of music they’re making, I don’t care what it sounds like to me, that’s what I regarded as. Because nobody knows better than the person that’s doing it. But the people that, you know, have control of the money are the ones that push people into different spaces. And so when you start to listen to the actual music that’s in the different spaces, there’s so much overlap. And a lot of it really, I don’t want to say sounds the same, but it has so many of the same styles and characteristics. There are white artists that do country music that sounds like R&B. But nobody codes it as that because they’re white. So they are allowed to function in that space however they like. But Black artists have historically been forced – if they want to participate in something – to hone in on a certain sound that they feel like they can argue has a place, because they have so many other things that work against them that are trying to push them out of that spot.
Americana was formed as a reaction to country because country was this sort of immovable industry object that gave artists so little freedom to sound like anything that wasn’t already in the top ten. I notice you all took the Black Opry House to Americana fest, not to the CMA Music Festival. Maybe there’s not a particular reason there. But have you seen a bit of a difference in those two worlds?
Part of it was just timing. That was the big thing that was coming up. But the reason that we took the Black Opry House to AmericanaFest was not an effort to patronize Americana music over country music. The reasons for the house was because we spoke to a whole bunch of Black artists that had been trying to participate in AmericanaFest and Americana music. And what was happening to them is they would get representation, but not inclusion. So they would be invited to play the festival. But after they got off of their showcase, they were not getting the same opportunities as their counterparts. They weren’t being invited to the networking opportunities or being included in panels. They weren’t given the same voice and the same options. You know, when you go to a conference like that, the purpose is to propel your career to whatever the next level is for you. So you can meet whoever you need to meet or be seen. But they weren’t getting that. I mean, there are a bunch of houses where people do the exact same thing we did, but Black artists were not being invited to them. And so we had the house there to create the opportunity for those artists that were feeling excluded to have a place to gather and create some of the same networking opportunities. And it worked. That’s how we ended up with the show. Because Lizzie met those artists, and she was able to network with them. There are so many artists that met at that house that have now written songs together. Aaron Vance was at that house. Sarah Shook was there. Sarah Shook is a white, queer artist. They’re just amazing. And they do so much to try to move things forward. Aaron is now opening for Sarah. So it was not to patronize Americana music. It was to create opportunities in a space where they felt like they were being tokenized.
As you’ve as you’ve done these across the country, what’s emerging? How are the artists responding to having this vehicle? How are the fans reacting to them?
Well, like I said, none of these artists are new to doing music. Some of them have been working in other genres. And some of them have been making music but just not been seen. And the biggest piece of feedback that I get from every artist that I work with is: this is the first time that I’ve walked into a room and not been the only one. And so there is a different level of comfortability and confidence that they have when they come into a space and they know that they’re not being tokenized. And they’re being respected for the value of what they bring to the table, as opposed to being, you know, a diversity hire or being the only black person on the bill. I think that’s the biggest advantage – just the community that it’s created. And the cool thing about the lineups is all of these artists sound completely different. There’s so much diversity within the space of Black roots music, that people don’t realize. So if you just look at Black artists in country music, there’s only a few. You’ve got the big ones, Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown. And they all kind of operate within the same space stylistically. And so people really haven’t been exposed to the full gamut of what Black artists can bring to the table in roots music, because there’s never been more than one at a time. But when you come to our show, we’ve got four or five different artists, and they all sound completely different. And to me, the beauty of having them on all together is just that piece of it where you get to see that there’s diversity within marginalized communities the same way that you would expect if you had it open to anybody.
Congratulations on the one-year anniversary. You’re going to celebrate here in Nashville. And then how are you thinking ahead to another year?
Man, I think I’m finally catching up to what’s happened. It took a while just because things were happening so quickly. And I always say I feel like I’ve been chasing around a small child for the past year and just trying to make sure it doesn’t die. And so I haven’t been able to think forward very much. But now as I get a grip on everything, I have a better education about the industry and the landscape and how everything works. Now we’re at a point where we can start looking forward and trying to figure out how to make this sustainable. Because what’s going to happen is the same thing that always happens if you look at when everybody started talking about Black Lives Matter – that’s died down now. When George Floyd was murdered, everybody was posting the black squares and talking about diversity, but it very quickly went away. And I know just based on what I’ve seen in the past, like, we’re having a really good moment right now. But we need to build this in a way so that it’s sustainable beyond when people get tired of talking about it. Because especially white people get very exhausted having to talk about race, just because it’s not something that they’re used to having to do. And so now that they’ve been talking about it for so long, they’re gonna get tired of it. So we’re trying to figure out how to build our own structures, so that we can sustain ourselves, because the industry is not going to change the structures that are in place. I’ve seen how much they’re willing to give. And it’s not enough to make structural change. It’s not enough to make a cultural change in the way that we would like to see. So I think that my focus is to get what I can get out of them for the artists that do want to participate in those systems, but then also to build our own things that sustain ourselves where we know that we can support each other and have a safe environment to work within.