Holly G, a writer and flight attendant from Virginia, has experienced a lot of 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.
“The whole reason I started doing this was because I did not see people in country music — and that includes the fans, the executives and the artists — that looked myself,” Holly said in a recent interview. “It was one of those moments where it just felt historic, and like something important was happening.”
Holly started Black Opry from her bedroom last April, as an attempt to heal her relationship with the genre. She grew up loving country music, but in recent years, she increasingly felt that a lot of people in the industry probably didn’t share the same values she did. She wondered whether some singers would even want her to attend their concerts. With a few exceptions, country music has long sidelined Black artists, with labels and songwriting rooms filled with mostly White singer-songwriters. Last year, a study by musicologist Jada Watson found that over the past two decades, a mere 1.5 percent of singers with songs on country radio were Black or Indigenous artists of color.
So Holly created a website where she could write about artists of color and help boost their profiles and perhaps connect with other country music enthusiasts. Within two weeks, she was inundated with messages from singers and fans who wanted to participate and support the group, and quickly became a sounding board for aspiring Black artists eager for a community. She got so many requests for concerts that she had to hire a booking agent, which is how she put together the Black Opry Revue, a tour that will stop in Washington on Feb. 17 at City Winery.
The lineup for the D.C. show, a writers round-style event where the artists share the stories behind the songs, includes Jett Holden, a “powerhouse” voice; Tylar Bryant, a Texas native whom Holly recruited after seeing him on YouTube; Autumn Nicholas, who has been hosting songwriter events in Nashville; Roberta Lea, who was initially hesitant to sing country music but Holly said has “blossomed”; and Frankie Staton, founder of the Black Country Music Association in the 1990s.
“Even though everyone connected online, to see it in person really strikes you in a different way, and it kind of makes all of it real,” Holly said. “Every time we go to a show, it leaves me speechless because I just didn’t ever think I would see people like me making the music that I like.”
Although the events and early success of the Black Opry made Holly feel like a kid joyously running around a toy store — she still can’t believe some of her favorite singers have become her friends — there have been challenges. Plenty of people don’t like being reminded that country music has a race problem. Holly doesn’t use her last name in media interviews because of death threats she’s received for pointing out the racism — and those who turn a blind eye to it — that is still prevalent in the country music industry, even after some Nashville organizations pledged to improve diversity during the nationwide response to George Floyd’s death in police custody in 2020.
The group formed text threads and Instagram group chats; members planned co-writing sessions and recorded songs together, in addition to performing shows across the country. Many bonded during AmericanaFest in Nashville last fall, where they got together in a rented house and joked that it felt as if they were on a sitcom, because every time someone knocked on the door, it was another singer wanting to join in the fun.
Holden, who had all but given up on a music career when the coronavirus pandemic hit, said that as a Black and gay man, he was often told by country music executives that 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 had it, and now I can’t imagine being without it,” he said. “It’s the most welcoming environment. We don’t care who you are or what you look like, what your sexuality or race is, it doesn’t matter. We’re there to all share music.”
So far he has been part of several Black Opry Revue lineups. “People try to pigeonhole Black artists in the 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 on artists who have seen mainstream success such as Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton, though mostly includes singers starting to make a breakthrough, including Breland, Brittney Spencer and Blanco Brown. The site also features Rissi Palmer, who released her debut country album in 2007 but left her label and Nashville when she found it soul-crushing to navigate the industry as a Black woman who was constantly under 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 focuses on the Black, Indigenous and Latino roots of country music. In addition, Palmer gave out grants to other artists of color, all the while working on her own music career.
“It feels unfair to me that the artists don’t get to just make their art. They have to do all of this extra work to be seen as a dignified human being before anybody even gets to their art,” Holly said. “I don’t have any, like, musical art to share, so I feel like it’s less of a burden for me to do it. And it takes some of the burden off of them if I’m helping create that space.”
In early January, the Grand Ole Opry posted a photo of Morgan Wallen making a surprise appearance alongside his friend, the singer-songwriter Ernest. The two sang their new duet, “Flower Shops” prompting criticism from artists and fans who were disappointed and angry to see the Nashville institution participating in Wallen’s redemption tour after he was caught on video last year saying the n-word.
Holly publicly posted a letter that she sent to the Grand Ole Opry (“A stage that was once a dream destination for many Black artists has now cemented itself as one of the many Nashville stages on which we know we are not respected.”), which circulated on social media and included in a wave of news coverage about the incident. Part of the reason the story got so much attention, she theorized, is that Black performers in Nashville felt comfortable speaking out, leading to a backlash that was hard to ignore.
“The industry has survived so long by keeping us separated. Some of the Black artists that have been doing this for a very long time will tell you that when they started, [executives] would pit the Black artists against each other,” she said. “By creating that division, there was never community. Well, now we have community. And when you have community, your voice is a lot stronger. And when your voice is stronger, people hear you.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of country music artist Tylar Bryant. This story has been corrected.
How the country music industry is responding to George Floyd’s death — and facing its own painful truths