by Jada. E. Watson
Fifty-one years ago, today, “Color Him Father” by Linda Martell peaked at #22 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. This was the first single from her then forthcoming 1970 album Color Me Country, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. “Color Him Father” is not just the highest peaking single for Martell, but the highest peaking single by a Black female country artist in the history of the genre. In the half-century that has passed since her debut in the industry, many Black women have pursued careers in country music, but none have broken the Top 20 of a country chart. This is certainly not for a lack of interest and talent, of course. Rather, it’s the result of an industry designed to keep Black, Indigenous, Women of colour from participating in the genre’s mainstream.
Little was known about Linda Martell’s career until recently, and that was probably by design. Martell’s experience in the industry was not a positive one, and (as Andrea Williams recently wrote) “just as quickly as her star seemed to rise, it faded into obscurity.” In this instalment of the Keeper of the Flame series, we piece together the story of a woman that Rolling Stone writer David Browne recently dubbed country music’s “lost pioneer”, and reflect on the legacy of her career.
In their encyclopedic tome Finding Her Voice, Mary Ann Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann marked the late 1960s and early 1970s as a critical period in which the first African American female artists were promoted in country music. The industry, they state, was likely looking for their female counterpart to Charley Pride, who by that point was rising to the top of the charts. They note Esther Phillips, Linda Martell, Virginia Kirby, Barbara Cooper and Ruby Falls as women that emerged in this period, but devote just a little over one page in total to the artists named.
These women were not, of course, the first Black women to create country music. Not by a long shot. But in a genre that was formed along what Karl Hagstrom Miller has termed a “musical color line”, Black musicians – especially Black women – have continually been denied access to the mainstream. Ccountry music’s historical narrative has been one of affirming and reaffirming its whiteness at the expense of the Black musicians that contributed to genre since the very beginning. When the recording industry formed in the 1920s, record labels segregated the music being recorded into categories based on race, geography and (to a lesser extent) musical style: white artists recorded “hillbilly” music and Black artists “race” records. The categories chosen may no longer be used today (replaced with “country” and “soul” or “R&B”), but they have been reinforced throughout the history of the broader music industry, as well as through the development of country radio in the 1930s, the Nashville-based recording industry (in the 1950s), Billboard‘s popularity charts throughout its history, and more recently through the algorithms that underpin streaming services. It has also been perpetuated through continual discussion about “authenticity” that serves to create barriers for Black, Indigenous, Musicians of Color who are routinely put in a position of defending their place in the genre.
Despite the popularity of harmonica genius DeFord Bailey in the 1930s/40s, by the 1960s, the industry had yet to even attempt to promote a Black musician. But that didn’t mean that Black musicians were not recording country music! In the early 1960s, Solomon Burke, Ray Charles and Esther Phillips each recorded country songs. Under the guidance of Berry Gordy, The Supremes recorded an album of pop and country standards. Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and Isaac Hayes recorded country songs, and as Charles Hughes has written about, Joe Tex and Arthur Alexander participated in the Nashville, Muscles shoals and Memphis recording scenes. In fact, Gordy even opened a Nashville label, Melodyland (later Hitsville), through which he produced several country artists. But other than Gordy’s Melodyland venture, most of these recordings didn’t result in success on the Hot Country Singles chart. Instead, these recordings, as Diane Pecknold noted, broke the artists out of the “confines of R&B radio and [served to] reach a pop audience in the early 1960s.” Records by Burke, Charles and Phillips in 1962 found success on the Hot 100 and R&B charts, but never found a home on Hot Country Singles. (Charles did eventually have Hot Country Singles success in the 1980s during his tenure on Columbia Records.)
Shortly after the emergence of these country recordings, Charley Pride began his career in Nashville. His first two singles failed to chart, but his third single (“Just Between You and Me”) peaked at #9 and was followed by string of Top 10 singles before he landing his first #1 records with “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” and “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again” in 1969. Amidst the rising star of Pride in the late 1960s, the industry began looking for a female complement to him. In her chapter on Linda Martell and Jeannie C. Riley in Country Boys and Redneck Women, Pecknold introduces the names of three young Black women that the industry attempted to bring into country from other genres, including Shirley B, Audrey Bryant, and Jo Ann Sweeney. But it was Linda Martell that was discovered and was convinced to record country music in 1969.
Born Thelma Bynem in 1941, the artist who would later record and perform under the name Linda Martell grew up in Leesville, South Carolina – a segregated town in the southern USA. One of five children, Martell grew up in a musical family singing gospel music in her Baptist church and listening to country music on Nashville’s WLAC radio. In her late teenage years, Martell recorded and performed R&B music before she married and started a family with drummer Clark Thompson. Martell and Thompson separated in 1966, and three short years later, as the story goes, aspiring music executive Duke Rayner discovered Martell after hearing from a friend that she sang “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” while performing at Charleston Air Force Base. Rayner tracked her down and convinced her to meet Shelby Singleton Jr., who later signed her to his country label, Plantation Records.
To say that her launch into the country music industry was a whirlwind would be an understatement. As Martell recently recounted in an interview with Rolling Stone, she arrived in Nashville and signed her management contract on May 15, 1969, signed a one-year record deal with Singleton’s Plantation Records the next day, and within a week was in the studio recording a cover of The Winstons’ “Color Him Father” – a song of Singleton’s choice. “Color Him Father” was reportedly released three days later. The song debuted on the Hot Country Singles chart on August 2, 1969, peaking at #22 on September 20, spending a total of 10 weeks on the chart.
Shortly after the release of “Color Him Father”, Martell made her debut appearance on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in August 1969. The first Black woman to perform on the stage, Leonie Cooper reports that Martell performed on the Opry 12 times in her short career. She also performed on Hee Haw and The Bill Anderson Show in 1970, and was featured in a 5-page article in a March 1970 issue of Ebony (see below).
“Color Him Father” was followed by “Before The Next Teardrop Falls“, which debuted on the chart on December 13, 1969 (peaking at #33), and “Bad Case of the Blues” on March 28, 1970 (peaking at #58). These three singles were included on her debut country album, Color Me Country, which was spent two weeks on the Top Country Albums chart, peaking at #40 on October 10, 1970. Shortly after, Singleton terminated Martell’s contract; as Pecknold reports in her article, the singer’s husband wanted greater control over Martell’s career and the producer wasn’t interested. She left Nashville shortly after — but not before trying one more time to continue to build her career in country music… But before discussing this this second attempt, it’s important to understand the context in which Martell was building her career.
Racial tensions did not disappear in the late 1960s, and certainly not in Nashville. Even though important steps were made to end legalized discrimination in the USA, racism did not just stop with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and integration of schools in the south. Black musicians in Nashville continued to experience racism within the industry, but instead of being overt actions and statements, racism was heavily coded through covert practices that served to maintain the whiteness of the genre. One of those ways was in what Pecknold refers to as Singleton’s positioning of himself as a “protective patron” of Black artists — a stark reminder for Black musicians that his presence was required for their acceptance, success and safety in Nashville. Pecknold outlines several ways in which Singleton’s actions concealed a “relationship of dependency that he did not hesitate to make manifest.”
It was in this climate that Martell was building her career in Nashville and the social legacies of institutional racism were evident in the ways in which Martell’s music was promoted. While Singleton invested heavily in Martell’s promotion, many of the strategies served to capitalize on the commercial value of her Blackness against the backdrop of country’s whiteness. In the 1970 Ebony feature on Martell, for example, her manager Duke Rayner spoke about the singer as though she was a novelty within the industry, stating “I figured that if I could find a colored girl that could sing Country and Western, I’d really have myself something.”
Beyond Rayner’s statement, the use of “color” in her lead single and album title and release of Color Me Country on Plantation Records, functioned as part of Singleton’s strategies. In her 2004 interview for Waiting in the Wings: African Americans in Country Music, Martell speaks of her album’s placement on Plantation Records as gimmick that he consciously embraced. And in her 2020 interview with Rolling Stone she recalls challenging Singleton on the meaning of the label’s name. Singleton said there was no specific reason for the name Plantation, to which Martell responded: “What you are telling me is that black people belonged on the plantation!” As Browne reported in Rolling Stone, having to release music via Plantation records was the first of many negative experiences for the singer.
Martell’s experience left scars that she remembers well to this day. In Waiting in the Wings, Martell revealed that she travelled to Beaumont, Texas for a show and the club owner refused to let her play when he realized she was Black. Her producer (presumably Singleton) then called the owner, and told him “she didn’t have to play, but he was going to pay her.” The owner had to pay her $1,500, and pay the band as well. She also remembers an executive on Hee Haw attempting to correct her pronunciation, being taunted and called names by audiences, and the ultimate betrayal: having her career blackballed by Singleton. After she had fulfilled her contractual obligations and parted ways with Plantation records around late 1970, Singleton’s influence over her career remained. Martell began to cut tracks for a new label, and when Singleton found out he threatened to sue the label, which led the label to sever ties with Martell. The same thing happened to Jeannie C. Riley, a white woman on Plantation records, who left the label two years after Martell. Singleton was a powerful man, and no other label in town was willing to take the risk and record her music. As Pecknold states, “Martell was unable to create a space for herself in the industry without Singleton’s sponsorship.”
The legacy of Singleton’s sponsorship seemingly held fast for the producer. As Pecknold describes in a footnote of her essay: “Though it was Singleton who terminated the contract with Linda Martell, he seems to have felt a similar proprietary right over her.” In a 2000 panel for the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Night Train to Nashville exhibit, Jo Ann Sweeney mentioned Linda Martell being active in Nashville before her. To which “Singleton tersely interjected, ‘That was my act’.”
In the 50 years that have passed since Martell pursued a career in country music, only a few Black female artists have had opportunities to record within the Nashville-based industry and none have had the same level of chart success. Sharing clippings of advertisements of Black female country artists from the 1970s via Twitter, country scholar Amanda Martinez’s research has begun to piece together the story of these women that have been lost in the history of a genre built on a foundation of systemic racism. Virginia Kirby, Barbara Cooper and Ruby Falls all followed Linda Martell in the 1970s. Dona Mason’s “Green Eyes (Cryin’ Those Blue Tears)” peaked at #62 and Nisha Jackson’s “Alive and Well” peaked at #81 in 1987. They were the last Black women to have charting songs for 20 years before Rissi Palmer’s “Country Girl” peaked at #54 in 2007. Around the same time that Palmer was embarking on her career in Nashville, Miko Marks was starting hers as well, as was Rhonda Townes, Latina singer Star de Azlan and Ojibwe singer Crystal Shawanda. Mickey Guyton, who recently released her second EP Bridges was signed in 2011, and is currently the only Black woman signed to a major Nashville label. In the last few years, increasingly more Black women have been moving to Nashville to pursue careers in country music — making some of the best music the industry has ever heard.
But this doesn’t mean the path has been easy even for the artists that have emerged since 2000. Despite the origins of the genre, the increasing availability of information about country music’s roots, and new means to music dissemination, Black, Indigenous, Women of colour continue to face barriers to exposure and resources within the industry. Many have left Nashville to pursue their careers elsewhere. Despite the 50-year distance from Martell’s time in Nashville, the industry still shows signs of the legacies of segregation. The “economic barriers that produced an all-white industry power structure, the expectation of racial dominance and deference in social interactions, the strategies of music marketing and cultural resistance to racism that produced racially defined genre categories” that Pecknold notes in her work on the post-civil rights country industry, continue to hover over efforts to bring Black women into the Nashville-based industry today. This is perhaps most evident in the industry’s inability (or lack of interest) in supporting a woman of colour. As Williams recently wrote, “Martell’s failure to break big has been treated as a pessimistic prophecy. In an industry that fails to do right even by white women, the prospect of a Black woman ascending to stardom needs the support of a success story. There must be an artist who the skeptical suits could look to before pulling out their checkbooks — like they pointed to Pride before Darius Rucker, and Rucker before contemporary chart-toppers Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown. But Martell couldn’t provide that.”
And yet, while she didn’t provide that success story, Martell has inspired the generations of Black women that followed her. Miko Marks, Rissi Palmer and Mickey Guyton are just a few of the women who today look to Martell for inspiration. Her influence is so profound that Palmer named her podcast, Color Me Country, after Martell’s debut album. The Color Me Country podcast debuted in August 30, 2020 – 50 years after the debut of Martell’s album, and Palmer is using this platform to do the critical work of telling the stories of the Black, Indigenous and Latinx artists that have contributed to the development of country music. “It didn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful Linda was,” Guyton relayed to Browne. “Just the fact that she was there was groundbreaking…. Her story is pretty sad. But she gave me the courage to be here.”
Learn more about Linda Martell:
- Browne, David. 2020. “Country’s Lost Pioneer,” Rolling Stone, 2 September.
- Cooper, Leonie. 2020. “50 Years of Linda Martell: Country Music’s Unsung Hero,” The Forty-Five, 23 July.
- NMAAM, “Profile: Linda Martel (Demo),” National Museum of African American Music, 10 July.
- Palmer, Rissi. 2020. Introductory Episode of Color Me Country, Rissi talks about Linda Martell and how Color Me Country came to be, 30 August.
- Pecknold, Diane. 2016. “Negotiating Gender, Race, and Class in Post-Civil Rights Country Music: How Linda Martell and Jeannie C. Riley Stormed the Plantation.” In Country Boys and Redneck Women: New Essays in Gender and Country Music, edited by Diane Pecknold and Kristine M. McCusker, pp. 146-65. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press).
- Shaunaupp. 2019. “Her Story: Linda Martell,” She Made History, 16 March.
- Williams, Andrea. 2020. “Why Haven’t We Had a Black Woman Country Star?” Nashville Scene, 6 August.
- Williams, Andrea. 2020. “Country Music Is Nothing Without Black Artists. Fifty years after Linda Martell’s ‘Color Me Country,’ Current Singers Discuss Her Legacy,” Zora, 9 April.
- Unknown. 1970. “Country Music Gets Soul. Linda Martell is first black female to sing at Grand Ole Opry,” Ebony.