Collective of Black country artists tour to share diversity that exists within stereotypically white genre.
It’s tough to imagine, but in early May, it was cool and rainy for the first, First Friday event of the year at the Haynie’s Corner neighborhood in Downtown Evansville.
A cadre of Black Opry Revue artists are sound checking and already drawing a crowd, despite the weather. Nashville outlaw country artist Aaron Vance drawls into the microphone — “testing testing testing one two … yeah … all right!” He’s wearing his cowboy hat, while strumming his acoustic guitar.
Said Vance, “I'm a preacher's son. I was bullied. We grew up on a farm. I picked everything you can think of … we grew corn, we grew soybeans.”
Vance is the most “country” of this selection of artists. The Black Opry Revue is a collective of about 20 Black artists on the country music spectrum. Various combinations of these musicians tour together to show audiences that country music is for everyone.
Travis Stimeling is Professor of musicology and director of bluegrass and old time bands at West Virginia University.
He said that while it doesn’t seem like it today, Black artists were present and influential at the beginning of country music’s popularity.
“Unfortunately, the country music industry, which formed very quickly in the 1920s, segregated the music industry into white, Black ethnic music. They had very, very strict categories based on race,” Stimeling said. “And Black musicians were largely kind of pushed to the margins in country music as early as the late 1920s. And so our collective vision of what country music is, has been overwhelmingly white for a better part of 100 years.”
He says even the banjo — an instrument synonymous with country and bluegrass — came from West Africa.
Currently only three of the nearly 150 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame are Black. They are DeFord Bailey, Ray Charles and Charley Pride. (The Hall of Fame wasn’t able to make a comment for the story.)
But now the Black Opry Revue is trying to change perceptions, one performance at a time.
On this show in addition to Aaron Vance are Tylar Bryant, Nikki Morgan and Julie Williams. Williams said each Black Orpy Revue artist will bring a different take on the genre, and their own stories.
“I'm in country music, country Americana,” Williams said. “But I always like to say that my music is mixed, like me. So it has lots of different influences. Country, pop, jazz, blues folk. All of that comes together.”
She said she thinks the Black Opry Revue is needed for a few reasons.
“One, so that people can find and discover artists that look like them that sound like them, have the stories that they wished that they had heard," Williams said. "Growing up, I remember, I loved listening to country music. But I couldn't always relate to everything that was being told. And I wanted to hear my own stories. So it's really important to have that space to share that.
"I think it just brings stories, new stories, old stories. I really believe in the power of storytelling," Williams said.
She said it’s also important for Black artists to find each other and collaborate to build a sense of community. At venues like these, they also support each other. While this group isn’t a “band,” they filled in on backing vocals for each other out of sheer enthusiasm.
Aside from original songs, the musicians also played one rousing cover song each. Nikki Morgan performed her rendition of “Jolene” by Dolly Parton. Her version, with more empowered lyrics:
“… and I had to have this talk with you … because I don’t want to hurt you, boo!”
The Black Opry Revue was hired by the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana (ARTSWIN). Community Director Zach Evans said they were a good fit because local selection of country music also lacks diversity.
“Evansville as a top country market, desperately needed diverse voices and at the Arts Council, that's part of our mission is diversity in the arts. And one great way of achieving diversity in the arts is through music,” he said. “If you appreciate country music, you should want to hear all the stories that can be offered to you.”
Sometimes audience members question why they're doing what they’re doing, but overall responses have been positive like they’ve been today.
“Black Opry Revue is important, because it is making a deliberate effort to show that black artists are involved in country music, in all of its the wide spectrum of styles that comprise country music,” Stimeling said.
He said doesn’t have a lot of hope for closing the gap in representation in country music.
“I don't think there will be parity in the country music industry for people of color, or for women, or for people in the LGBT community until there's a radical reform at the level of radio programming. And that doesn't look to be happening anytime soon.”
He says the only way to make a difference is to call radio stations and request these country artists. And if you can, buy their merchandise at shows and online.