March is Women’s History Month, and NMAAM is celebrating Black women’s contributions to music, culture, and social justice. Make no mistake–the National Museum of African American Music does this year round, just as we do with all aspects of Black music and culture. But for the month of March, we’re paying special attention to the Black women who’ve shaped the musical genres we all know and love. And for this first week of Women’s History Month, we’re shining a spotlight on just a few of the Black women in country, folk, and bluegrass.
Heralded as one of country music’s earliest African American superstars, Linda Martell holds the distinction of being the first Black woman to perform at the famed Grand Ole Opry. The South Carolina native got her start with an R&B group called Linda Martell and the Anglos, recording the song “The Things I Do for You” and performing around Charleston and Columbia. The group was short-lived, and Martell set out as a solo artist.
While singing at the Charleston Air Force Base, she met resistance from the crowd who’d grown weary of her R&B numbers and began insisting she sing country songs instead. In that pivotal moment, Martell cemented her place in music history. On the heels of that performance, she made her way to Nashville to record her demo. Shortly thereafter, producer Shelby Singleton (known for his work with Brook Benton and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others) signed Martell to his label, Plantation Records. She recorded her hit record, “Color Him Father,” in 1969, and from there, Martell’s career took off. The song hit the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at #22 and remains the highest-charting country song by an African American woman. Her first and only country album, Color Me Country, was released in 1970. Following her Grand Ole Opry debut, she’d perform on the hallowed stage several times over the next few years.
Linda Martell, “Color Him Father”
Despite her chart success and trailblazing accomplishments as a Black woman in the genre, Martell could never fully avoid the racist taunts she encountered from country music audiences and even some within the Nashville country music community. She ultimately retired from country music in the mid-’70s, leaving Nashville for New York. Although she continued to perform as an R&B singer for many years, she would eventually step away from music altogether. Now in her 70s and living in her home state, we pay tribute to Linda Martell as one of country music’s pioneers and as an artist who paved the way for a new generation of Black women who would follow in her footsteps.
As a founding member of the groundbreaking group The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens helped re-introduce traditional folk music to contemporary audiences. Along with original bandmates Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, the trio’s 2010 GRAMMY Award-winning debut album, Genuine Negro Jig, brought instruments like the fiddle, banjo, and washboard to songs like Blu Cantrell’s R&B hit “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Ooops!).” As a solo artist with a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of African American folk music traditions originating from the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, Giddens continues to educate listeners not just about the music, but the history of the people who brought it to life. Her debut solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, released in 2015 and features Giddens’ interpretations of songs like “Waterboy,” popularized by folk singer Odetta, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head.”
Rhiannon Giddens, “Up Above My Head”
2017’s Freedom Highway found Giddens contextualizing the horrors of enslavement, as on the album’s opener, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” through the modern lens of racial violence, social justice, and the movement for Black lives. And with the quartet Our Native Daughters, Giddens plays alongside musicians Amethyst Kiah, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla to bring Black women’s songs and stories to the forefront through music.
GRAMMY nominee Mickey Guyton is one of country music’s brightest stars, unapologetically tackling through song the issues that are closest to her heart. With her stunning debut single, “Better Than You Left Me,” in 2015, Guyton put the industry and the world on notice as the song raced up the charts and earned her an Academy of Country Music Award nomination.
Mickey Guyton, “Black Like Me”
With her profile steadily rising and the momentum from performances at the White House and at the ACMs showing no signs of letting up, Guyton released the thought-provoking “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” in March 2020. Inspired by the uphill battles she and other women faced in the music industry and searching for the words to share with aspiring young artists hoping to make it in the business, Guyton penned a heartfelt tune challenging the industry’s sexism and hostility towards women.
Not long after, as social justice protests following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African Americans captivated the nation (and the world) in the summer of 2020, Guyton released the deeply personal “Black Like Me.” Once again calling upon her own life experiences while reflecting the realities of the world around her, the song established Mickey Guyton as an artist committed to using her platform to create art that speaks to the times in which we live. Most recently, the new mom shared her latest single, a cover of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” exclusively through Amazon Music.
Singer/songwriter Rissi Palmer’s 2007 eponymous debut release, featuring her cover of Jordin Sparks’ and Chris Brown’s chart-topper “No Air,” set the stage for an artist who not only embodied the gamut of Black musical expression, but who would also use her voice as an instrument of resistance. With a sound that blends country, pop, and R&B to create what she calls “Southern soul,” Palmer’s versatile sound has led her to some of the most coveted stages: the Grand Ole Opry, the White House, and Lincoln Center among them.
Rissi Palmer, “Seeds”
Her 2019 album, Revival, was buoyed by the searing Shannon Sanders-produced “Seeds,” which Palmer wrote following the verdict acquitting Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Her passion for social justice led her to launch her podcast, Color Me Country (whose name is inspired by Linda Martell’s album of the same title), where she takes on racism and sexism within country music, the music industry, and society at large. The podcast, which airs on Apple Music, serves as a critical educational space as well, as Palmer connects the dots between African American, Indigenous, and Latinx musical traditions and country music, to correct the historical inaccuracies long held as truths about the genre’s origins. As an extension of the podcast and her philanthropic work, Palmer created the Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund to help support emerging artists.
Yola, “Walk Through Fire”
Dubbed the “Queen of Country Soul,” Bristol, England-born Yola is about as unlikely a country music star as one could imagine. Growing up in the U.K. on a steady diet of American country music, the singer/songwriter knew from an early age that music was her calling. And while she faced some opposition from family members who believed she should pursue a career in something a bit more stable, thankfully, she persisted.
In the mid-’00s, Yola released a handful of albums with her band, Phantom Limb, and penned songs for pop star Katy Perry. She sang with internationally-renowned acts like Massive Attack and Iggy Azalea, and released her solo EP, Orphan Offering, in 2016 shortly after moving to Nashville. Following a series of successful showcases in Music City, she partnered with producer Dan Auerbach and recorded her debut full-length album, 2019’s Walk Through Fire. With four GRAMMY nominations and two Americana Music Honors and Awards nominations under her belt, Yola lent her dynamic vocals and undeniable presence to Brandi Carlisle’s The Highwomen project, collaborating with some of the most innovative and influential women in country music today.
Still, Yola hasn’t been spared some of the less pleasant aspects of life as a Black woman in a predominantly white genre. In an interview with WBUR, she recounted her experiences being approached to sing backup, which she said she and singer Tanya Blount Trotter of the duo The War and Treaty attributed to her dark skin. Nevertheless, Yola continues to blaze a way in Nashville and in country music, performing at the Grand Ole Opry and staking her rightful claim to the music she loves.
—Rhonda Nicole is a singer, songwriter, and music journalist, and NMAAM’s Director of Social Media.