How the Black Opry is helping elevate artists of color in country music

May 13, 2024 1:22 pm

[Source: CNN Entertainment]

Before there was conversation over whether Beyoncé is country enough for country music, there was the Black Opry, holding space for music lovers and artists of color in the genre.

The organization billed as the “home for Black artists, fans and industry professionals working in country, Americana, blues, and folk music” is getting more attention these days since Beyoncé dropped her country-inspired “Act II: Cowboy Carter.”

“The really cool thing that’s happened since the Beyoncé release is now we have this whole group of Black fans that have stepped forward and are starting to engage,” Holly G., who first launched the Black Opry in 2021 as a blog, told CNN. “I’m super, super excited about that because that’s the single piece that’s been really, really difficult for us to figure out. If and when we put Black artists on stage, whether it be at one of our shows or at any of the popular country music festivals, it’s still really difficult to Black people specifically to overlook the fact that the industry has told them that they don’t belong in these spaces and to want to come out and engage.”

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Not everyone has shared her excitement.

Both Beyoncé and her album have been criticized by some as not at all country. And while jumping with both feet into the genre may be new, the conversations about country music, race and the contributions by people of color predate the superstar singer.

Holly G. started the Black Opry in an attempt to find country fans of color, who like her, did not feel welcomed.

“I try to be careful to make the distinction when I talk about country music, between country music and the mainstream industry and country music the art form and genre,” she said. “Because Black people have always made this style of music. They’ve always been in the stylistic space, but the industry actually is very good at keeping Black people out of it.”

What she found was that Black country music artists were as hungry for community as those who listened to the music.

“I honestly didn’t really have much intention to interact with artists other than highlighting them on the blog,” Holly G. said. “But once I launched it and they saw the few artists that I featured initially, a bunch of different artists started reaching out to me and got connected.”

Aaron Vance is one of those artists.

The Nashville based singer and songwriter has been toiling for years, trying to break into an industry not known for embracing diversity, despite the success of artists like Mickey Guyton, Darius Rucker and Kane Brown.

Growing up on a farm in Mississippi, Vance has the life experiences that makes for a great country song – a love of the land, a work ethic that says you keep at it as everything has “a season,” and a talent for three chords and the truth.

Yet the industry to date hasn’t exactly welcomed him with open arms, which is why he was thrilled to learn about the Black Opry.

“I got my first tour with Sara Shook & the Disarmers and Joshua Ray Walker thanks to the Black Opry,” Vance told CNN. “I was one of the first people to show up at [the Black Opry meetings]. It’s been very beneficial.”

And inspiring.

Vance said it’s been “a whole lot easier for me to be in my skin” after connecting with others like him, those who may not look like the majority of country music artists or its fans, but who nevertheless share the same passion for the genre.

“I think it’s good attention even though some people are saying what it ain’t,” he said. “That’s good because when you say what something isn’t, it’s gonna cause people to go to it and listen and see for themselves.”

Which is why the singer said he’s happy that a superstar like Beyoncé has turned her spotlight toward the contributions of artists of color in country music, creating an opportunity for new audiences to discover artists like Vance and others whom Holly G. and her organization are advocating for.

The Black Opry puts on concerts to help raise the visibility of performers. Along the way, Holly G. has learned that it’s not just people of color who are grateful for the work she and the Black Opry are doing.

“There were people from all backgrounds that came forward and were saying that they were grateful to have a space where they could celebrate country music without the culture that made them feel uncomfortable,” she said. “There were a lot of white people that were like, ‘We feel guilty for enjoying country music because we know the culture is not welcoming.’ And so this was a space for them to do that and not feel guilty about it.”

That is music to her ears.