This is the relaunch of our Community Beats series, where we bring you stories about fascinating people, pivotal perspectives and important work being done in and around music right where we live.
Host intro: Over the last several years, there’s been growing recognition of the ways that Black and queer people have been marginalized in country, folk and roots music. Journalists have written about it. Diversity committees and radio shows have been created to address it. WNXP’s Jewly Hight reports that musicians, fans and advocates who’ve been shut out from the scenes themselves are now forming grassroots coalitions to support each other. She brings us this snapshot of a telling moment in a broader movement.
Hight: From the outside, the brick bungalow could’ve been rented by people visiting Nashville for any touristy occasion. But its occupants aren’t here for the sights. They’ve moved furniture into a circle for a cross between a guitar pull… [sounds of banter and guitar noodling] and a support group… “I’m Jett Holden from Elizabethton TN and I’ve been writing music since I was 17, but I quit, like, two years ago.”
There are nods of understanding around the room from others who know what it’s like to be told that they have no claim on the music they want to make.
This is happening during the annual Americana Music Festival, but it’s not on the official event schedule. Nor is it sponsored by a music company. Journalist Marcus K. Dowling secured the place for the week.
Dowling: “I feel very good to say that white people paid me to write about country music, I then paid for black people to come down to Nashville and to write songs about country music.”
Hight: A lot of networking happens at industry hangs like this, and Dowling wanted to recreate that for those who’ve haven’t been included.
Dowling: “In that room right now is three generations of African-American country performers stretching back from 1990 to the present day. These are all people who, until 25 minutes ago didn’t all know each other.”
Hight: Until 2020, Dowling wrote about other kinds of music and had no outlet for his interest in covering country.
His co-host at the house, Holly G, had reached her breaking point as a country fan.
Holly G: “Last year when George Floyd got murdered, it made me take stock of everything that I was consuming in my life. And one of the biggest things that I consume is music. And the most important way that I do that is with country music. …It became a thing of either you let it go because there’s nothing there for you or you figure out a way to enjoy it better.”
Hight: She did that by starting The Black Opry website on her own. Her day job had nothing to do with music, but she was skilled at scouring social media for Black and brown performers. Soon they were reaching out to her.
Holly G: “Getting people here was totally not the problem. Spreading the word was literally as easy as talking to our friends like we become so connected to these people because we have this shared identity that we all thought was unique to ourselves.”
Hight: One of those new connections, Lilli Lewis, is an experienced artist and activist. Today she’s playing a set at the Rainbow Happy Hour, a lively showcase of LGBTQIA and BIPOC performers at a neighborhood bar. This is a crowd that’s about solidarity at the margins.
“I sing this one to celebrate the power of the misfits, and we’re gonna play it in D. How y’all feel about the key of D?” [cheers and applause]
Hight: Lewis has done accomplished work in folk-country, soul and jazz traditions, but that doesn’t mean that she’s always been received and respected as the roots artist that she is. At a picnic table outside the bar, next to a busy intersection, she reflects on how she’s seen things go for performers of color in the past.
Lewis: “So the industry might form around one or two artists who they say, you know, this is somebody you really need to know, ignoring the fact that there are thousands of others out there in the field. And in fact, I’ve even been told point blank by record label executives as serving as an executive myself, that Black people in particular don’t have the interest, the knowledge or the passion when it comes to Americana music.”
Hight: Lewis not only guides working musicians on an independent roots label in Louisiana. She’s also helped plan grassroots festivals and volunteered to put together a directory of underrepresented musicians.
Lewis: “You know, we’re in beta right now, so we’re inviting people to sign up and try to break it and so we can make it strong. But it’s ready to receive and ingest data.”
Hight: The goal is to make the true diversity of voices easier to find.
Take Jett Holden, from the writers’ round at the Black Opry House. He was only there because Black Opry founder Holly G tracked him down on Instagram in the spring. As a Black and gay man, he’d faced repeat rejections in his attempts to launch a career. So much so that he was skeptical of a stranger’s offer to help him get a microgrant to start recording.
“I’ll believe that my life matters to you when I’m more than taxidermy for a Facebook wall/They say the best songs are three chords and the truth, until the truth requires you to heed the call”
Holden: “It’s just opportunities that I was denied for so many years resources that were denied to me so many years. …And then now in the last six months, so much is happening that I didn’t think was even an option for me. I’m just taking it a day at a time at this point.”
Hight: Now that he’s meeting peers and allies face to face, Holden knows for certain that he’s not the only one putting in the work.
For WNXP, I’m Jewly Hight