“It’s about love for this music.”
That was the refrain, stated by both the artists gathered on stage and the host of the revue, as the venerable WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour devoted the entirety of its show to The Black Opry on Monday, March 21st.
The format of this particular show represented a departure from the more straightforward concerts of The Black Opry’s tour over the last year, in that WoodSongs is a radio show that’s broadcast and streamed live and recorded for later re-airing. As The Black Opry approaches its first anniversary as a grassroots organization devoted to the creation of an intentional community of black artists in country music– and the creation of new opportunities for that community to bring its music to a broader audience– the timing of this particular show was especially fortuitous. Allowing for more open discussion and dialogue than is afforded by a typical concert, this WoodSongs show highlighted the music of a stellar line-up of artists while also providing an opportunity for The Black Opry to state its mission on its own terms.
To that end, Holly G, the visionary who founded The Black Opry, engaged in a frequent repartee with WoodSongs’ host, folk singer Michael Johnathon, over the course of the show. Holly G deployed her candor and razor-sharp wit to state– and occasionally re-state and correct misconceptions about– The Black Opry’s mission. The conventional wisdom is that difficult conversations about race don’t happen because they’re difficult, and there were moments during this show that captured that dynamic. I felt myself cringe when Michael Johnathon asked performer Jett Holden why he’d chosen country music rather than hip-hop or blues, but the host immediately acknowledged the question itself as inherently cliché.
As host of a radio broadcast, part of his role is to ask questions on behalf of his audience– and WoodSongs, which typically features various forms of country, folk, and bluegrass, has an audience that skews older and is predominantly white. Certainly, artists like Holden shouldn’t have to answer questions like that, and Holly G noted that white country artists are never asked anything comparable because it’s simply assumed that country music is somehow theirs by default. It’s a nuanced matter: Asking that question is, potentially, a means of prompting members of the audience to consider their own biases in ways that, perhaps, they hadn’t before, which promotes the exact type of inclusion The Black Opry represents. But the cost of asking the question, in contrast, puts the emotional labor on black artists to educate a largely white audience on history and cultural context that has, by structural design, been erased.
It was an exercise in actual critical race theory– not the ridiculous bogeyman that’s been invented as a right-wing talking point– in practice, and it only reaffirmed why honest conversations need to be had and how real allyship requires sitting with some discomfort and working to do better. As host, Michael Johnathon conveyed a sincere appreciation for what Holly G and The Black Opry are hoping to accomplish. She reframed some of his prepared talking points– most notably, the common misconception that there simply were no black artists recording country music between DeFord Bailey and Charley Pride or between Charley Pride and Darius Rucker– by focusing on the systems that made so many artists invisible. What Michael Johnathon and Holly G kept the conversation centered around was the notion that country music is simply better when it reflects all types of diversity.
The line-up of artists who performed at the WoodSongs show reflected that. Local duo The Kentucky Gentlemen have a style that is up-to-the-moment pop-country, while Tae Lewis’ sound is more akin to the radio country of the early 2000s. Roberta Lea’s music is of a piece with the likes of Chris Stapleton or Ashley McBryde, in that it’s an elevated take on mainstream country music. Holden is squarely in the “Americana” realm, a folkie blessed with a wondrously weird-ass voice. Each of these four artists was given an opportunity to shine on a couple of songs for the proper broadcast and then an additional song during the post-recording encore.
To a one, they drew raves from the host and the audience. We covered The Kentucky Gentlemen’s single, “Whatever You’re Up For,” in a recent New Singles Roundup feature, and they gave a stripped-down rendition of that should-be hit, showcasing their intricate vocal harmonies. Holden’s songs impressed for their literary wordplays; “Taxidermy,” in particular, is a harrowing plea for compassion and empathy. Lewis is gifted with one of the purest and most effortlessly powerful voices I’ve heard in ages: In an era when so few men in country music can really and truly sing, his tone is a marvel. Lea’s a tremendous vocalist, as well, but it was the cleverness of her songs and their radio-ready arrangements that stood out. She previewed her new single, “Too Much of a Woman,” as part of the encore, and folks in the audience laughed and applauded when she first sang that song’s hook.
The Black Opry is about providing a platform to artists who might otherwise not have opportunities to reach the audience they deserve. Each WoodSongs show includes a performance by a “WoodSongs kid,” and this actually brought a new act into The Black Opry’s community. Phoebe White, a 12 year-old from London, KY, had previously performed as a “WoodSongs kid,” and she stole the show on this evening with her powerful singing and especially with her expert yodeling. On her previous show, she’d so impressed the night’s primary act, Riders In The Sky, that the legendary “and Western” band offered to record with White on her upcoming debut album. Preternaturally gifted, White won the hearts of the crowd and found herself sharing the stage with artists who were clearly thrilled to have met her.
White’s moment in the spotlight embodies the spirit of discovery that makes The Black Opry perhaps the most important force in country music today. The notion of inclusion doesn’t simply mean that someone is permitted to be present inside the gates: It means that they’re welcomed, listened to, valued, and encouraged. Some awkward questions notwithstanding, WoodSongs made a commendable effort toward true inclusion by devoting a full show to The Black Opry. Holly G and the artists of The Black Opry were eager to seize that moment and prove that black artists make brilliant country music, not because it’s a political statement in and of itself, but because it’s the music that they love.