Collective of black country artists touring to share the diversity that exists within the stereotypically white genre.
It’s hard to imagine, but early May was cool and rainy for the first Friday of the year event in downtown Evansville’s Haynie’s Corner neighborhood.
A cadre of Black Opry revue artists are doing soundchecks and already drawing a crowd despite the weather. Nashville outlaw country artist Aaron Vance drawls into the mic – “testing testing testing one two…yeah…alright!” He’s wearing his cowboy hat while strumming his acoustic guitar.
Vance said, “I’m a preacher’s son. I was bullied. We grew up on a farm. I’ve picked everything you can think of…we’ve grown corn, we’ve grown soybeans.”
Vance is the “land” of this selection of artists. The Black Opy Revue is a collective of about 20 black artists across the country music spectrum. Various combinations of these musicians tour together to show audiences that country music is for everyone.
Travis Stimeling is a professor of musicology and leader of bluegrass and old-time bands at West Virginia University.
He said that although it doesn’t look like it today, black artists were present and influential in the early days of country music’s popularity.
“Unfortunately, the country music industry, which was developing very rapidly in the 1920s, separated the music industry into white, black ethnic music. They had very, very strict categories based on race,” Stimeling said. “And black musicians were largely marginalized in country music as early as the late 1920s. And so our collective vision of what country music is has been overwhelmingly white for almost 100 years.”
He says even the banjo – an instrument synonymous with country and bluegrass – originated in West Africa.
Currently, only three of the nearly 150 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame are black. They are DeFord Bailey, Ray Charles and Charley Pride. (The Hall of Fame could not comment on the story.)
But now the Black Opry revue is trying to change perceptions, one performance at a time.
This show stars Tylar Bryant, Nikki Morgan and Julie Williams alongside Aaron Vance. Williams said each Black Orpy revue artist will bring a different take on the genre and their own stories.
“I’m into country music, country Americana,” Williams said. “But I always like to say that my music is mixed, like me. So it has many different influences. Country, pop, jazz, blues folk. It all comes together.”
She said she believes the Black Opry revue is needed for a number of reasons. “First, so people can find and discover artists who look like them, who sound like them, who have stories they wish they had heard. I remember growing up loving listening to country music. But I couldn’t always understand everything that was said. And I wanted to hear my own stories. So having that space to share that is really important.”
“I think it just brings stories, new stories, old stories. I really believe in the power of storytelling,” Williams said.
She said it’s also important for black artists to find each other and work together to build a sense of community. In places like these, they also support each other. Although this group isn’t a “band,” they filled each other with backing vocals out of pure enthusiasm.
In addition to original songs, the musicians also played a rousing cover song. Nikki Morgan performed her rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Her version with more powerful lyrics:
“…and I had to have this conversation with you… because I don’t want to hurt you, boo!”
The Black Opry Revue was hired by the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana (ARTSWIN). Community Director Zach Evans said they were a good match as the local country music selection also lacks diversity.
“Evansville, as a top country market, was in dire need of diverse voices, and at the Arts Council, that’s part of our mission, diversity in the arts. And a great way to achieve diversity in the arts is through music,” he said. “If you appreciate country music, you should want to hear all the stories that can be offered to you.”
Sometimes viewers ask why they do what they do, but like today, the overall response has been positive.
“Black Opry Revue is important because it makes a conscious effort to show that Black artists are involved in country music, in all of its broad spectrum of styles that make up country music,” Stimeling said.
He said he doesn’t have much hope of bridging the representation gap in country music.
“I don’t think there will be equality in the country music industry for people of color, or for women, or for people in the LGBT community, until there is radical reform at the radio programming level. And that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.”
He says the only way to make a difference is to call radio stations and request these country artists. And if you can, buy their wares at shows and online.