Holly G, a writer and flight attendant from Virginia, has been through many surreal situations in the 10 months since she launched Black Opry, an organization and online community for black country music artists and fans. But one particular moment stands out.
In December, the Black Opry held a show at Exit/In, a renowned club in Nashville. At the end of the evening, singer-songwriter Allison Russell — who had just received three Grammy nominations in the Americana and American Roots categories — invited all the singers present in the room to join her, whether they had performed or not. Suddenly, there were about 20 performers of color on stage, a party scene that Holly never thought she’d witness in a predominantly white genre that often glosses over its lack of diversity.
“The whole reason I started doing this was because I couldn’t see people in country music — and that includes fans, executives and artists — who looked like me,” Holly said. in a recent interview. “It was one of those moments where it just felt historic, and like something big was happening.”
Holly started Black Opry from her bedroom last April, aiming to heal her relationship with the genre. She grew up loving country music, but in recent years she’s increasingly felt that a lot of people in the industry probably don’t share the same values as her. She wondered if some singers would even want her to attend their concerts. With few exceptions, country music has long sidelined black artists, with labels and writing rooms filled with mostly white singer-songwriters. Last year, a study by musicologist Jada Watson found that over the past two decades, just 1.5% of singers with songs on country radio were black or Indigenous artists of color.
So Holly started a website where she could write about artists of color and help boost their profiles and maybe connect with other country music enthusiasts. Within two weeks, it was inundated with messages from singers and fans wanting to participate and support the band, and quickly became a sounding board for aspiring black artists eager for community. She received so many requests for concerts that she had to hire a booking agent, which is how she set up the Black Opry Revue, a tour that will stop in Washington on February 17.
The lineup for the DC show, a writers’ tour-style event where artists share the stories behind the songs, includes Jett Holden, a “powerful” voice; Tyler Bryant, a Texas native whom Holly recruited after seeing him on YouTube; Autumn Nicholas, who hosted songwriter events in Nashville; Roberta Lea, who was initially hesitant to sing country music, but Holly said she ‘flourished’; and Frankie Staton, founder of the Black Country Music Association in the 1990s.
“Even though everyone is connected online, seeing it in person really hits you in a different way, and it makes it all feel real,” Holly said. “Every time we go to a show it leaves me speechless because I just didn’t think I would see people like me making the music I love.”
Although the events and early successes of the Black Opry made Holly feel like a kid running happily through a toy store – she still can’t believe some of her favorite singers have become her friends – there were challenges. A lot of people don’t like being reminded that country music has a racial problem. Holly does not use her last name in media interviews due to death threats she has received for speaking out against the racism – and those who turn a blind eye – that still plagues the country music industry. , even after some Nashville organizations pledged to improve diversity during the national response to the 2020 death of George Floyd in police custody.
The group formed text threads and Instagram group chats; the members planned co-writing sessions and recorded songs together, in addition to performing shows across the country. Many bonded at AmericanaFest in Nashville last fall, where they got together in a rented house and joked that they felt like they were in a sitcom because every time someone there was a knock on the door, it was another singer who wanted to join the party.
Holden, who had all but given up on a music career when the coronavirus pandemic hit, said as a black, gay man country music executives often told him he wasn’t ‘marketable’ . Then Holly found him on Instagram and urged him not to quit, bringing him into the Black Opry fold.
“I didn’t know I needed it until I got it, and now I can’t imagine going without it,” he said. “It’s the most welcoming environment. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, what your sexuality or your race is. We are here to share music.
He has been part of several Black Opry Revue lineups so far. “People try to categorize black artists into genre to try to make it seem like we’re all the same, but we all have our own niches,” he said. “It’s a very diverse show.”
The website features profiles of artists who have achieved mainstream success such as Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton, but mainly includes singers who are starting to break through, including Breland, Brittney Spencer and Blanco Brown. The site also features Rissi Palmer, who released her first country album in 2007 but left her record label and Nashville when she found it overwhelming to navigate the industry as a black woman under constant scrutiny.
Holly was first inspired to create the Black Opry when she discovered Palmer’s work as the radio host of Apple Music’s “Color Me Country,” which launched in fall 2020 and will focuses on the Black, Indigenous, and Latino roots of country music. Additionally, Palmer gave grants to other artists of color, while working on her own music career.
“It seems unfair to me that artists don’t just create their art. They have to do all that extra work to be considered worthy human beings before anyone even gets to their art,” Holly said. “I don’t have any musical art to share, so I feel like it’s less of a burden for me to do that. And it takes some of the burden off them if I help create that space.
In early January, the Grand Ole Opry posted a photo of Morgan Wallen making a surprise appearance alongside his friend, singer-songwriter Ernest. The two sang their new duet, ‘Flower Shops’, drawing criticism from artists and fans disappointed and angry to see the Nashville institution take part in Wallen’s redemption tour after being filmed last year in saying the n-word.
Holly has publicly released a letter she sent to the Grand Ole Opry (“A stage that was once a dream destination for many black performers has now established itself as one of many Nashville stages we know we are not respected.”) which circulated on social media and included in a flurry of media coverage of the incident. Part of the reason the story got so much attention, she theorized, is because black artists in Nashville felt comfortable speaking out, which led to a difficult reaction to ignore.
“The industry has survived so long by tearing us apart. Some of the black artists who have been doing this for a very long time will tell you that when they first started, [executives] would pit black artists against each other,” she said. “By creating this division, there was never a community. Well, now we have a community. And when you have a community, your voice is much louder. And when your voice is louder, people hear you.