CRT On The Radio: The Black Opry at WoodSongs

Marquee at the Lyric Theater, which reads "Woodsongs: Black Opry Tonight"

 “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.

Host Michael Johnathon and Holly G engaged in conversation
Holly G, founder of The Black Opry, and WoodSongs host, Michael Johnathon, discuss the history of black artists in country music.

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 complete line-up of artists from The Black Opry show: Phoebe White, Holly G, The Kentucky Gentlemen, Jett Holden, Roberta Lea, and Tae Lewis.
The artists from The Black Opry revue at WoodSongs. L-R: Phoebe White, Holly G, The Kentucky Gentlemen, Jett Holden, Roberta Lea, and Tae Lewis.

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.

12 year-old Phoebe White takes center stage at WoodSongs
12 year-old Phoebe White takes center state at WoodSongs, wowing the audience with her yodeling prowess.

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.

14 Comments

    • I’ll update this post once the WoodSongs archive adds this episode! They really do have a deep well of major artists who’ve been featured over the years!

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  1. “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.”

    True, but early white rap artists like Vanilla Ice were asked similar questions

    Interesting article – I look forward to viewing the episode. I watch Woodsongs regularly. Woodsongs has about seven hundred of their shows archived and you can listen or view them (and can save them as an mp3) https://www.woodsongs.com/

    https://www.woodsongs.com/show-archives/

    • Early white rap artists were among the most virulent Vanilla Ice critics. “Pop Goes the Weasel” was a takedown of Ice (and MC Hammer) by the established white rap group 3rd Bass. Vanilla Ice being white was more commented on outside the rap world than within it. The issue at the time – which should sound familiar to some country purists – was that some rap artists were selling out and going pop. MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were the most high profile examples targeted for this.

    • I think it’s critical to note the differences in context: Black artists contributed to the origins of country music via instrumentation and conventions of song structure but were then actively siloed into “race records.” By contrast, there’s negligible evidence, if any at all, in the historical record that white acts had any comparable influence or contribution to the creation of hip-hop.

      There was cause for skepticism, then, as to whether or not Vanilla Ice was appropriating another cultural touchstone for profit; history has not looked kindly upon him in that regard. For a black artist in a country music, it’s more that space inside the genre’s gates was actively denied to them at a systemic level for decades, but they’re still asked to justify why they’re making the music they make like it’s some kind of a novelty and not part of an authentic and important lineage.

      That’s what white artists don’t get asked, either outright or by implication. The next time someone actually asks Thomas Rhett why he’s so desperate to sound like Bruno Mars while still calling himself a “country artist” will be the first.

      The WoodSongs archive is a tremendous and under-utilized resource for stellar country music in all of its forms; they do a great job of balancing progressive and traditional artists and treat them with equal respect. Will be very curious as to your take on this show once it’s up and running, Paul– especially young Phoebe White!

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      • Jonathan – I am not sure the motive for the question but I expect to enjoy the show, whenever I get the chance to see it. There probably will be artists I don’t like but that is true for all genres.

        I have been cognizant of black country artists since I was a teen. My record collection is full of artists such as Trini Triggs, Otis Williams & The Midnight Cowboys, Linda Martell, Big Al Downing, Cleve Francis and Tony Jackson, in addition to owning virtually every Charley Pride recording. I am not much of a rock fan, but I am a big jazz fan, and that genre is dominated by black artists.

        The local PBS stations do not carry Woodsongs, and while RFD does air the show, they edit the show for commercials and seem to be running about a year behind

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        • No motive other than a genuine curiosity: Knowing the types of country you typically prefer, I’d just be interested in your take on Phoebe’s performances, especially. I really was taken by the easy power of her voice and her legit yodeling skills at such a young age.

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      • I have a number of tracks from the late Jim Croce that were described at the time as “raps”. Croce died in a plane crash in September 1973

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        • They were described as raps, for sure, but Jim Croce’s work bore no relevance or influence on what developed into rap and hip-hop music. There are several white artists who did have that relevance and influence, but Croce wasn’t one of them.

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  2. I am definitely not a fan of Thomas Rhett (just like with Brett Young a few weeks ago, don’t tell my wife), but I’ll be honest, I’m a little confused by the Bruno Mars comparison. Maybe since Bruno’s one who’s been accused of appropriation for going into R&B?

    But musically, Rhett is more crappy 2000s AC than anything else other than the Chainsmokers-inspired abomination “Leave Right Now”.

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  3. Hah! I will take up the Gary Morris defense later!

    I came here to comment how uncanny the origin story of the The Black Opry is to so many of the barn dance radio programs back in heyday of radio. It’s stunning really how music can give voice to a people, whether it largely be white southerners then or black people, and other marginalized people, today.

    Country’s storied past seemed set in stone, but the emergence of Black Opry makes it clear the story is not done being written. The official historical story spoke only to – and for- some country fans and performers. The Black Opry proves country’s story continues to be told, with many new voices to be heard, which makes the genre feel wonderfully alive and so full of potential.

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  4. Mike Johnson, Country Music’s No.1 Black Yodeler, is one of many independent country artists who has been ignored, dismissed, and overlooked by mainstream Nashville and Media. Performing since the mid-1960s he did his 1st Nashville recording session in 1981 and went on to produce two 45rpms, 11 cassettes, and 63 CDs, by the two labels he started in 1987. Writer of over 1200, he has written over 150 yodeling songs, 114 of which were acquired by the Recorded Sound Reference Center at the Library of Congress. In 2002 he was inducted into America’s Old Time Country Music of Fame by the National Traditional Country Music Association and again honored by them in 2016 with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Johnson refused to allow Nashville and mainstream media to deter him from his music goal. AND, he did it all while working as a full-time long distance trucker!

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