Holly G was trying to find a way to reconcile her love of country music with one disconcerting fact: She rarely saw anyone who looked like her at a country concert. It was always a sea of white faces and the unshakeable feeling that she wasn’t welcome.
“I actually bought tickets to see country music concerts a few times. And I would look on social media and see the other people that were going; it just makes you feel unsafe,” Holly says. “The type of person that mainstream country music is marketed to is very clear — it’s for conservative white people. Those are the same type of people who wouldn’t want me there and could possibly be violent toward me or make me feel unsafe because of the color of my skin. Those are places I wanted to actively avoid.”
Frustrated by this seemingly solitary experience, the Virginia resident began scouring the internet and discovered scores of Black country performers like singer and radio host Rissi Palmer. She launched a website as way to profile the artists she found and to meet other country-music fans. She called it Black Opry.
“I wouldn’t even say I really had any goals [for the website],” Holly says. “It was more like an attempt to heal my own relationship with it more than anything.”
In less than a year, Black Opry has grown beyond its blog origins to be a force of change and a leader in the movement to bring racial equity to country music — an industry that was founded on exclusionary whiteness. More than just a rallying point for Black country artists or fans, it has turned into a touring revue that’s filling venues like Nashville’s Exit/In and Tennessee’s Dollywood, with additional shows booked through spring and even fall. For its one-year anniversary on April 18, Black Opry will host an artists showcase at Nashville’s City Winery, presented by the cable network CMT.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect for Black Opry to take hold: country music’s long overdue reckoning with racism has reached a boil in the last two years, between Mickey Guyton’s outspokenness about the discrimination she’s faced as a Black woman in the genre, and Morgan Wallen’s well-reported use of a racial slur. As issues entrenched in the industry have come to light, outside movements like Black Opry have begun to circumvent those systems.
“Black Opry is so powerful because it reflects not only this generation of artists, musicians, and songwriters, but also writers, critics, journalists, and fans who are interested in not just amplifying the work of Black country artists and other marginalized communities,” says Dr. Charles L. Hughes, historian and author of Country Soul, “but also in creating networks and building a sense of community to avoid dealing with racist institutions.”
One of Black Opry’s defining moments took place at Nashville’s AmericanaFest in fall 2021. During the annual showcase-heavy conference of the best and brightest talent in roots music, Holly and journalist Marcus K. Dowling rented an Airbnb as a place for Black artists and allies to hang out. The idea was that performers could meet one another, write songs, network — all the things that their white counterparts were freely doing during the week of AmericanaFest.
“They weren’t getting invited to the types of experiences that further somebody’s career,” Holly says, citing backstage parties and power brunches. Over the course of a few days at Black Opry’s Airbnb, guests included New York singer-songwriter Lizzie No, New Orleans artist Joy Clark, Jett Holden, Roberta Lea, Lilli Lewis, Leon Timbo, and Frankie Staton, a country singer who’d helped shepherd the Black Country Music Association in the Nineties.
The house was rich with symbolism, but also a place where real community building was happening.
“What a perfect metaphor: We will create literally a space where people can come in and out and share with each other and support each other,” says Hughes. “That becomes this powerful impetus to create all these other things.”
Holden found the time affirming and came away with new friends and a built-in support group.
“We have a text chain,” he says. “We talk all the time. Anytime one of us has something coming up or something that happened, we mention it in there, and everybody’s immediately congratulating or asking what they can do to help.”
For Clark, the Black Opry house fostered a sense of belonging — prior to AmericanaFest, she’d never been to Nashville. An ace guitarist whose organic recordings blend acoustic soul, folk, and rock, Clark felt like the description of country music didn’t include her. “It’s hard to imagine yourself in a space where you don’t see yourself,” she says. “When people asked me what kind of music I played, it’s always like, ‘Good music? Music that sounds good?’” As a result of the Black Opry house, she ended up getting a job playing guitar on Emily Scott Robinson’s tour.
“Seeing Jett with a guitar, seeing Roberta with a guitar,” Clark says, underscoring her point with a dramatic puff of breath. “It was an instant exhale of, ‘OK, I’m not the only one.’”
The live revue began in earnest last October when Lizzie No called Holly G after a performer dropped off a gig. She wondered if they could re-create the atmosphere of the Black Opry house for a New York show at Rockwood Music Hall. Holly reached out to Holden, Clark, Lea, and Tylar Bryant and made it happen.
“It was another instance of people saying, ‘This is what we need,’” Holly says. “We announced the New York one, and by the time we announced it, I had four other venues in my DMs like, ‘Hey, why don’t you come here and do it?’”
Soon after the New York show, Black Opry booked another gig at Nashville’s Exit/In for December, where Allison Russell showed up and surprised the audience with a performance. Booking the Exit/In was an important milestone for Black Opry, given the venue’s history of being a scene leader and trendsetter in Nashville’s music community. The excited crowd that night proved to the Black Opry — and to the club, which marked its 50th anniversary last year — that they were onto something.
“The response to Black Opry was incredible,” says Tori Bishop, Exit/In’s marketing director. “There was support coming from all over the country. The artists that participated in the show were active in the conversation in a way that speaks to how connected and passionate they are.”
The offers for new bookings have continued rolling in, and the revue has played Memphis, Houston, Chicago, and Atlanta with a revolving group of performers that represent a wide, diverse range of styles. They include Clark’s soulful acoustic work, big-voiced Holden and his mix of searing originals and surprising pop covers, Lea’s R&B-inflected spin on pop-country, the neotraditionalist throwback Aaron Vance, and harp-playing balladeer No. Suffers frontwoman Kam Franklin will be in the lineup when the Black Opry plays Austin in March.
Holden, who has less live experience than some of his peers, says the revues have made it easier to perform. “It’s like being at that house at AmericanaFest every time,” he says. “We sit down, we’re joking with each other, we’re telling our stories and what our song’s about. [The songs are] hitting us deeper because they’re actually about our lives.”
For Clark, who’s participated in many songwriter rounds over the years, the Black Opry is the rare occasion where she isn’t the sole Black person in the lineup.
“I can’t count how many times I’ve been the only one,” she says. “You perform because you want to share your songs, you want to share your music. But there’s a special feeling when you are with people who also look like you, who are also sharing those songs — that have their own flavor, that have their own point of view — that is rejuvenating.”
After Holly G launched Black Opry, she began to have conversations about the structural racism in country music with members of Nashville’s music industry. Some, like CMT, were receptive, while others weren’t sure what to make of the organization’s mission.
“They seemed to have this impression at first that we were some bogeyman, that we were going to try to tear everything down,” Holly says. “And I do have aspirations to tear some stuff down, but it’s not in a hateful way. It’s very specifically because I do like country music that I want some of this stuff to go away and be built back better.”
One year into steering Black Opry, Holly has yet to see much in the way of real structural change in the industry — and she still doesn’t feel comfortable at country concerts.
“The real struggle is gonna be to convince these institutions that it’s not me they need to talk to — it’s their fans,” she adds. “They want to come to me and find an answer. I can’t do that for them, because I’m not the problem. It’s their fans that are the problem, it’s their fans that are making things unsafe. And they don’t want to upset their fans because they don’t want the money to stop coming in.”
While Black Opry has been able to partner with CMT on a couple of projects, it remains entirely independent from and not reliant on Nashville’s tight-knit music industry. Hughes likens it to efforts like the Black Rock Coalition and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians that were specifically about creating greater opportunity for Black performers, but with the added democratic power of social media.
“It’s building on a tradition within the music and within other Black cultural spaces of creating alternate worlds to support each other,” Hughes says. “It’s not that this is new for country, just like it’s not new to have Black folks making and enjoying country music. But it’s also bringing into country, in a way that might be more prominent, this important tradition that has existed throughout Black cultural and musical history.”
For now, Holly G and Black Opry continue to forge ahead. At this rate, she’s just hoping she can keep up with its growth.
“If you’ve ever been around a two-year-old, they can get around, but you still have to make sure they don’t die,” she says. “That’s kind of how I feel about this. A lot of times I’ll ask people, ‘What do you want from this? What do you want it to be?’ I let it be what other people need it to be.”
From Rolling Stone US