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BMAC Panel Examines Black Artists’ Challenges in Nashville, Asks Whether Beyonce’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Will Help or Hinder Country Artists of Color

At the Black Music Action Coalition’s “Rooted in Country” discussion panel Thursday night — addressing the many challenges Black country artists continue to face breaking into the genre — it was just a matter of time before the conversation turned to Beyonce’s “Act II: Cowboy Carter” country-themed album that drops next Friday.

The all-female panel (in honor of Women’s History Month) featured Rissi Palmer, a pioneering country singer-songwriter and host of the “Color Me Country” podcast; Holly G, founder of the Black Opry collective; and Live Nation Country’s Julie Matway; it was moderated by label veteran and author Naima Cochrane, who wrote a powerful study on the subject called “Three Chords & the Actual Truth: The Manufactured Myth of Country Music & White America” that was published in June of 2022. The event, which was presented by the BMAC, Live Nation’s “Curated” program and Variety, also featured a brief performance from Academy of Country Music OnRamp honoree Carmen Dianne, who performed solo and, unusually for a singer-songwriter, accompanied herself only on bass. (Pictured above, L-R: Palmer, Holly G, BMAC CEO WIllie “Prophet” Stiggers, Cochrane, Matway.)

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Not surprisingly, considering the subject matter, some strong opinions were aired.

Palmer, 42, is an O.G. of the movement: Her 2007 single “Country Girl” was the first song released by an African-American woman to reach the country charts in 20 years. She spoke powerfully about the stiff resistance she faced in trying to break into the Nashville business and the constant challenges to her “authenticity.”

“My parents were from Georgia — I grew up on Aretha Franklin and Patsy Cline, on Chaka Khan and Dolly Parton,” she said. She began writing songs and performing as a teenager and, encouraged by her early managers — two Black women — signed a publishing deal and moved to Nashville. She recorded demos that were shopped around Music Row and met encouraging responses every step of the way — until the would-be suitors realized she was Black.

“Then it became, ‘Oh, we need to hear more songs’ or ‘We’ll get back to you.’” It was seven years before she was able to secure a deal with the 1720 Entertainment independent label, and another year before “Country Girl” cracked the chart. Eventually she left Nashville to begin working outside of the system.

“There’s this idea that we didn’t exist in country music until Charley Pride,” she said, referring to the first Black artist to be accepted by the Nashville establishment. “I started ‘Color Me Country’ to show that we’ve always been here. It started in the 1800s, and [pioneering African-American blues-country guitarist] Lesley Riddle taught the Carter Family.” And although she acknowledged the progress of contemporary artists like Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton, Kane Brown, Brittney Spencer and Americana-leaning performers like Alison Russell, it remains an uphill battle.

Palmer’s work did not go unnoticed — especially by lifelong country music fan Holly G, whose Black Opry organization has expanded from a website to a small booking agency and, next, a label. “As a queer Black woman, there wasn’t space for me in country,” she said. “But I saw Rissi and said, ‘We can create our own shit,’ and when I started the website so many people reached out to me. Our scarcity mindset has been limiting.”

Carmen Dianne (Photo: Emmanuel Agbeble @APMWORLDMAG)
Carmen Dianne (Photo: Emmanuel Agbeble @APMWORLDMAG)

All of which is coming to a head with “Country Carter.” While the panelists support Beyonce’s creative decision — and her right — to make a country album, they’re less optimistic about the impact the country-radio airplay of its lead single, “Texas Hold ‘Em,” could have on other Black musicians.

“The radio success of Beyonce’s country singles has not created opportunities for other Black country artists,” said Holly G. “Radio is essential for success in country, and every Black woman is not Beyonce. Her being able to chart is a product of her being a global superstar, not because she worked through the [Nashville] system. Now, [gatekeepers] can say ‘There’s already a Black woman on the radio,’” as if the problem has been solved. “Beyonce has set everything back five years,” she concluded.

While in many ways it’s an ultimate outsider power move — Beyonce has said the album was “born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed…and it was very clear that I wasn’t,” likely referring to her performance of her earlier country song “Daddy Lessons” with Nashville outcasts the Chicks on the 2016 CMA Awards — it’s also a sign of the slow progress of change that confronts all female musicians. For example, on Grammy nights when Adele or Taylor Swift or Celine Dion took home armloads of awards, the media trumpeted “Ladies’ Night” headlines, even though it was for just one, thus creating a perception that advancement for one is advancement for all, which is rarely the case — and the momentum for change stalls.

In fact, the panelists emphasized that it hasn’t been much easier for white female artists in Nashville. “White women don’t do well either!,” Palmer exclaimed. “It’s not just us.”

How resistant to change are some country fans? Both Palmer and Holly G spoke of being “made to pass an authenticity test,” similar to the “name five songs” quiz that snobs give people wearing artist T-shirts, and hearing comments over the years like “You’re beautiful for a Black woman,” and “You’re Black, but you’re not Black Black.”

Holly even said that she has received death threats for her outspokenness — even though she did not speak out about Jason Aldean’s controversial video for “Try That in a Small Town,” which was filmed in front of a Tennessee courthouse where both a lynching and a race riot had taken place decades earlier (he said he wasn’t aware of the history, but didn’t really apologize for it either).

“Jason Aldean is one of the people who make us feel unsafe,” Holly said. “I was getting death threats from his fans for a video that I hadn’t said anything about.” She added that the presence of Black Opry artists on the Aldean-headlined Tortuga Festival later this year “has made us get a safety plan.”

Nevertheless, they persist. A “Color Me Country” artist grant fund sent 14 country performers of color on a European tour; Black Opry boasts 200 artist members and its first album release is scheduled for October; and BMAC CEO Willie “Prophet” Stiggers said the panel was intentionally staged in New York instead of Nashville so awareness would reach outside Music City.

“Now, we don’t have to ask for a seat at someone else’s table,” Palmer concluded. “We’re creating our own.”

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