(November 12, 2020). The surprising number of artists who had to cancel their appearances at Wednesday night’s Country Music Association awards due to Covid-19 wasn’t the only headline associated with this year’s ceremony.
An unexpected highlight was when popular singer and rising star Maren Morris gave a heartwarming speech as she accepted the CMA award for Female Artist of the Year.
“I have a lot of people to thank and they’re the typical ones that lift me up and made this dream come true with me,” she began. “But there’s some things in my mind that I want to give recognition to because I’m just a fan of their music and they are as country as it gets, and I just want them all to know how much we love them back and…just check out their music after this.
“It’s…Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer and Rhiannon Giddens”
Morris added, “There are so many amazing black women that pioneered and continue to pioneer this genre, and I know they’re gonna come after me – they’ve come before me – but you’ve made this genre so, so beautiful I hope you know that we see you…
“Thank you for making me so inspired as a singer in this genre,” she concluded.
So just who are these women Martell, Yola, Guyton, Palmer, Spencer and Giddens?
The fact that Morris, who this year broke country chart records left and right with her huge smash “The Bones,” saw fit to recognize women of color as “pioneers” in a genre where Black women have not fared well, was heartwarming. Yours truly was certainly inspired enough by Morris’ speech to do a search on the names she mentioned and share what I learned with my readers.
Here’s what I found:
Martell is probably the truest pioneer among the names Morris celebrated. She was the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in the 1960s and even made an appearance on the popular 1960s and ‘70s country music television variety show “Hee Haw” in 1970. Check out this beautiful performance below:
Martell, now 79, is still around today and was recently featured in a story in Rolling Stone magazine, where she recalled her unexpected entry into country music in the late 1960s and how much racism she endured (she recorded on a label called Plantation Records for goodness sake, although there were white acts on that label too, like Jeannie C. Riley of “Harper Valley PTA” fame). Martell had minor country chart success, including the song “Color Him Father,” the first song by a Black woman to reach the country chart (it peaked in the top 30).
Martell’s desire to devote time to her growing children, along with the lack of legitimate promotion by her label, resulted in her country music career being cut very short. By 1974, she was back in South Carolina living at her parents’ and caring for her four kids, en route to eternal country music obscurity. Well, that is, until Rolling Stone and Maren Morris acknowledged just how much of a pioneer she truly is.
Born Yolanda Quartey in 1983, British singer Yola is more Americana and roots rock than she is country. In fact, in 2019, she took the country by storm with her emotional debut album Walk Through Fire, which was inspired literally by a fire that damaged her home and figuratively by a bad relationship from which she escaped. The album garnered her four Grammy nominations at this past year’s ceremony, including overall Best New Artist and three Americana awards.
Here’s a video of her performing in 2019:
Like Yola, Guyton is 37 years old and has been recording for the better part of a decade. Born in Arlington, TX as Candace Mycale Guyton, Mickey has two full studio albums and one extended play record under her name – all three are pure country in nature.
Her love of country music came honestly. Her mother was a Patsy Cline fan and her father loved Johnny Cash. In 2015, she became one of the most recent black female singers to sing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, where she performed her debut single “Better Than You Left Me.” In 2016, she was nominated for best new female artist at the Academy of Country Music awards and, in 2020, she became the first Black female to perform solo at those same ACMs.
Check out this Mickey Guyton performance of her debut single:
Country singer Rissi Palmer was born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania in 1981. Her initial claim to fame was in 2007 when her debut single, “Country Girl,” became the first song by a Black female to make the Billboard country singles chart in 20 years (Dona Mason was the last before Palmer in 1987). Her debut album, the first of three studio releases she’s had, is her only one to make the Billboard charts (peaking at No. 56 in 2007. Her only three singles chart entries, all from her debut year, peaked no higher than 47 on the country singles chart and none of them crossed over to the Hot 100.
Before her modest chart success, Rissi was featured in a 2004 CMT documentary, Waiting in the Wings: African-Americans in Country Music, which questioned why so few Blacks have made it in country music despite their many contributions.
Palmer has largely faded from view in country music circles, but hopefully will see new interest thanks to the love shown to her by Morris at the CMAs.
Here’s a video recalling her debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 2007:
There aren’t many women born and raised in Baltimore who later find a life in country music, let alone Black women. But such was the fate of country singer Britney Spencer, whose parents urged her to move to Atlanta to pursue her career. Spencer, whose childhood musical loves included the Dixie Chicks (now just the Chicks) and gospel music, had designs on another southern music capital: Nashville.
There, she discovered how tough it is to make it as a Black woman in a genre dominated by white men. She recently told Baltimore CBS affiliate WJZ-13, “You feel like you’re fighting to exist, not just fighting for a chance…you’re fighting to exist in a space that doesn’t like to acknowledge the presence that doesn’t look, sound, behave…like itself.”
In a more pointed quote during a separate interview in Billboard, she said “Being Black, a woman, and not a size 2 has certainly presented additional obstacles on my musical journey here in Nashville… artists like me keep showing up with whatever amount of hope we’ve got that day, choosing to find a ray of sun in what sometimes looks like a sky full of gray. I recognize my journey is not just about my personal success — there’s a much bigger purpose.”
Here’s a recent performance of “God Is Not Abusive” by Spencer:
The multi-talented Giddens is the most prolific of the six artists who were name checked by Morris at the CMAs. She’s had at least a dozen albums and EPs either solo or with her groups The New Basement Tapes (a British-American band that included Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford among others) and the Carolina Chocolate Drops (one of the few African-American string bands).
Giddens has dabbled in nearly a dozen different musical genres with country, bluegrass, folk and Americana being among them. She also plays the fiddle and banjo and is the only Grammy winner among the six people featured in this article. Her album with the Carolina Chocolate Drops entitled Genuine Negro Jig won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2011.
Giddens was born in 1977, making her the second-oldest and second-most veteran among the six artists here, behind Linda Martell. But unlike Martell, Giddens has already been enshrined in a Hall of Fame, specifically the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame with her CCD bandmates.
Check out this Rhiannon Giddens performance of “Wayfaring Stranger”:
And those are the six Black women that Morris graciously thanked for paving a way for her and others in country music.
In summary, diversity in country music may be better in the present day than what people like Charley Pride – who was honored at this same show Wednesday with a lifetime achievement award – and Linda Martell had to endure half a century ago. The Kane Browns and Darius Ruckers of the world are indications that Nashville’s doors have opened more (for men, at least) in recent years.
It’s that other glass ceiling, however (you know, the black female one), which relegates the familiarity of names like Martell’s and the others above to search engine fodder, only to be recalled when someone like Maren Morris brings them up during a high-profile awards show acceptance speech.
With that said, I want to thank Maren Morris for enlightening me and, I hope, countless others by shining a spotlight on the Black talent that is so often overlooked in country music – for reasons that are as obvious as they are archaic in this day and age.
Thank you, Maren Morris, and congratulations on your big win, both at the CMAs and in life!
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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