The Black Opry is celebrating its first birthday with a black tie affair

Listen to a conversation with Black Opry founder Holly G

You may remember a feature last fall that offered a window into the first-ever convening of Black Opry house, a casual but pivotal space for song-swapping and community-building among Black and queer roots and country music-makers. Since then, Black Opry founder Holly G has expanded her website-operating efforts into a multi-artist package tour, the Black Opry Revue, artist management and more. In just a year’s time, the blog that she began with modest expectations has expanded into a space of solidarity and opportunity.

Ahead of the Black Opry Anniversary Party that she’s co-hosting with Joshua Black at City Winery on April 18, Holly G spoke with WNXP about wading into this work without a music business background, gauging the impact it’s had on individual careers and industry systems so far and advertising that black tie dress code.

Jewly Hight: Take me back to when you started the Black Opry about a year ago. There were no professional ambitions attached to it. What were your personal reasons for starting it? Why did you want it to exist? What kind of space did you want it to be?

Holly G: As a Black woman, as a queer woman, there were spaces where I felt like I had people to talk to about country music that I could identify with. And I had just watched Rissi Palmer launch Color Me Country. It opened my eyes to how many, not only fans of country music that are so diverse, but the artists that were making this music, and nobody was recognizing them. I had heard her constantly say, “We need more platforms.” And so I created a platform, but it was really only supposed to be for me to find a couple other people to talk to about country music. And before I knew it, it turned from a couple of people to a whole bunch of people.

JH: What did you make of the response you began to receive? What was it like discovering that you were very much not alone being an avid and invested Black fan of country and roots music?

HG: It feels surreal to me every time that there are other people that have the same experience that I have, because it felt so singular. If you’re a Black girl and you like country music, you are usually the black girl in whatever setting you’re in that likes country music. And now there’s a whole huge group of us that are not just Black women, but Black men and queer people and just people from all these different marginalized identities that have felt left out of this really huge thing. And now we’re realizing that we can just come together outside of it and create our own path.

JH: Black Opry is far more than just a website at this point in time. Why and how did it turn into a venture where you’re working with artists to further their careers in other concrete ways?

HG: I’ve been very careful to listen to the artists and figure out what they need and how I can best support them. The smartest way to do it is to take care of the artists, and when we take care of the artists, we get these euphoric experiences. When they’re happy and making music in a safe environment, that translates to me as a fan, because I get a better experience from them as opposed to if they were forced into a space where they didn’t feel comfortable, they were the only person in the room and they felt like they had to be a little bit defensive. All their guards come down when they come into our community.

JH: Creating a safe environment while putting on shows, that’s what you’re that’s what you’re talking about. What did it take to really turn this into the touring enterprise that it is, a multi-artist package tour, the Black Opry Revue? And what has that looked like as it’s grown?

HG: After [the Black Opry house] met in person for the first time in American Festival, Lizzie No had a show that she was supposed to play in New York with one other artist and that artist had to back out at the last minute. So she called me and was like, “Do you think that the people that were at the house would want to come do what we did at the house on the stage?” And I called those artists and everybody was down for it. So we all headed up to New York, not knowing what to expect or how it was going to go. The first Black Opry review was at Rockwood Music Hall in New York, and they were so, so kind to us and the crowd came out and just really enjoyed it.

We we started doing them writers’ round-style, like you would see in Nashville, but it was a little bit different because number one, you don’t see people of color in writers rounds in Nashville. Number two, that’s a thing that feels pretty singular to Nashville. You don’t see [those rounds] around the country very much. And so it’s been really cool to see it grow. It started as a living room writers round and was taken to a stage.

I really had no ambition to do shows. Not that I didn’t want to, but I just hadn’t had time to think about it yet, because things have been growing so fast and I was trying to like maneuver the website portion of it. But we did that first show and when we announced it, people were messaging me like, “Hey, do you think you can bring this here?” And because I have no background in the music industry, it very quickly became overwhelming, because I didn’t want to screw it up. And so after we did the show in October in New York, I was lucky enough to be able to get a booking agent who’s been able toreally guide me through the process of booking shows.

So not only did I have to learn the process of a tour and a show and promotion and all these things, but I kind of had to forge a different path, because there’s not people out there doing what we’re doing in the way that we’re doing it. As far as bringing different artists together for every show, we booked the tour off the strength of the brand, then I go back and curate the lineup. And so it’s almost like a backwards process, but I love that about it, because it gives artists opportunities that deserve to be in those spaces, but have barriers and things that could get in the way. Because in the industry, you got to know people to know people to get where you want to go, but because we’re doing it this way, we’re able to bring people up into these opportunities that they typically would not get, or it would be a lot harder for them to get. And then they get there and they blow it out of the water.

JH: At any given Black Opry show, the artists on the bill are really widely varied, stylistically. What kind of network and coalition have you been working to build? Who have you wanted to welcome in, in terms of performers? And since you mentioned the importance of knowing people, who have you sought to build connections with in terms of people and institutions that have power and influence and resources?

HG: If you listen to country radio, there’s a wide array of artists’ stylistic diversity. However, when Black artists try to step their foot into the door of country music, Americana music, roots music, whatever it is, they’re often told that they have to fit into this box, and their music has to sound like whatever the traditional music of that genre is.

There’s an interview that Mickey Guyton did back when she first got on the scene, where she was talking about how she was told if she was going to do country music, she couldn’t have R&B influences. She really needed to sound very country, so that she could be taken seriously. Meanwhile, the exact same time this is happening, she’s singing background vocals on Sam Hunt’s debut mixtape, which has all kinds of R&B and hip hop influences in it, and so there’s a very clear double standard of who is allowed to diversify their sound and who’s not.

I’m very, very careful and clear about making sure that I welcome people with all kinds of influences. We have people like Leon Timbo, who plays who’s going to play some shows with us coming up, and he has this rich gospel background and we’ve got Roberta Lea, who’s got a really good country sound, but she’s also got some cool R&B influences in there. And Jett Holden, who’s got that, like, punk rock sound to his style of roots music. I think it’s important that we encourage Black people to show up to this music with whatever they bring with them, and we welcome and encourage that. And it just makes for so much of a richer show.

JH: You’re talking about long-held patterns. And I wonder, what have you learned from looking at efforts that have come before yours, like those of the Black Country Music Association?

HG: The biggest lesson from looking at the history of the people that have done this work before me is that there is a history. You don’t hear about the Black Country Music Association. You don’t hear about the legacy of Black people within country music. I think the lesson that it’s taught me is that I need to be very careful about not feeling like I’m not doing anything new. I’m not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. I have different tools available to me to do the same work that people have been doing for a very long time. But it also tells me that this is a wave that’s going to crash eventually. Right now there is a lot of attention on it, and there’s a spotlight on Black artists in country music or working within roots. But there is going to be an end to that. Eventually, people are going to get tired of talking about it. It’s not going to be trendy anymore.

So to me, the way to work around that or maybe try to fix or combat that a little bit is to build our own systems and structures outside of the places that are excited about us right now, so that when their excitement fades away, we have something else to fall back on. I know I’m not the first person to think that or to realize that. And so in a way, it’s almost kind of discouraging, because we’ve seen it happen so many times and not go anywhere, but it’s not discouraging enough for me not to try. Especially when we have people like Frankie [Staton] and Cleve Francis and Rissi Palmer and Miko Marks, who’ve been doing this for so long, it would feel like a dishonor to their work to give up. So we just keep trying it until it sticks.

JH: What, to you, are some of the most significant signs of the growth and impact the Black Opry has already had, either inside the industry or beyond those systems, just over the last year?

HG: Black artists are still not getting played on radio. Yeah, we have a tour. I think we’ve got over 100 artists that we’re either working with, have worked with, are going to work with, all these artists that we’re putting on these stages and it’s not moving the needle in the industry. I can say that some of the artists that we’ve worked with have gone from working full-time jobs outside of music to now music being their full-time job. So I see those types of changes, and on an individual level, it’s been really rewarding and on a community level, it’s been really rewarding. But I do not want to conflate that with the industry changing, because one or two artists that are able to cobble together a career outside of the system doesn’t create a systematic change.

I can tell you that I do not get to take meetings with Black people that work in country music that have positions of influence or power or control resources. They are not there, and that’s the only way that the actual systems are going to change. It kind of leaves me in a precarious position, because it’s almost like, “Is it worth trying to change these places or do I just continue to focus on being able to change individual people’s lives and maybe do things on a micro level?” And honestly, I think the answer to that is to try to do a little bit of both.

I don’t ever feel like it’s my place to tell an artist what their path should be. So if artists approach me or want to work with what we’re doing and their goal is to get into some of the big-name industry places and work within that system, great. I’ll support that however I can. But I think the more sustainable way to do it is to do it outside of the system. But again, that’s not my place, so I try to make sure that we are creating some type of path either way, so people have options.

JH: Why did you decide that you wanted to hold the one year anniversary of the Black Opry in Nashville?

HG: I think that it all started in Nashville, because you don’t talk about country music without conflating it with Nashville. Everybody knows that that’s where the industry is centered. A lot of the work that we started doing was in Nashville. So it’s just a natural place for us to gather. I like the idea of creating a presence and a place where we typically have not been given space.

JH: How serious are you about the black tie dress code at the celebration?

HG: I’m going to give you the exclusive on the black tie dress: I didn’t even know what that meant when I typed it. I just was making the flier, so I put “black tie: on there, which I’ve never been to a black tie event in my life. Who knows? I feel like everybody should show up in whatever they’re comfortable in. I will have on a whole lot of sequins and a whole lot of fringe. But, you know, we don’t get opportunities to dress up and celebrate things. All of the awards ceremonies are so white; they have tokenized Black people sprinkled throughout them. And so I wanted people to have the opportunity to get dressed up as much as they want to and just really feel like they’re at something important, because it feels really important to us.