Black Opry Revue showcases Black country and folk singers
Philly songwriter Sug Daniels was joined on stage by Jett Holden, Roberta Lea, Tylar Bryant and Autumn Nicholas at City Winery Philadelphia.
Country music has never been as white as it’s pretended to be.
The banjo has roots in West Africa. Black harmonica player DeFord Bailey helped launch the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920s. Hank Williams was tutored by Alabama blues musician Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne.
The late Charlie Pride and Darius Rucker are household names, but deserving Black artists from Stoney Edwards in the ‘70s to Rissi Palmer in the ‘00s have not been welcomed into the country establishment with open arms.
But many Black country and Americana acts are now making themselves impossible to ignore. Mickey Guyton’s star has been on the rise since her song “Black Like Me” became a hit following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. She sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at this month’s Super Bowl and will play the Roots Picnic in June.
Allison Russell’s Outside Child topped my Inquirer list of the best albums of 2021. Last week, it was announced that Milton, Del., country singer Jimmie Allen will join American Idol as a mentor.
And Jason Isbell’s landmark stand at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in October included opening sets by seven Black women, including powerhouse vocalist Brittney Spencer and blues woman Adia Victoria.
All of which brings us to the Black Opry Revue, the concert tour promoted by impresario and advocate Holly G., a country fan from Virginia who founded Black Opry to create “a home for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk, and Americana music” in 2021 because she didn’t feel comfortable going to country concerts as solitary Black woman surrounded by a sea of white faces. She started the Black Opry website, she told Rolling Stone, as “attempt to heal my relationship with [country music] more than anything.”
During AmericanaFest last September, Holly G. cohosted a Black Opry house in Nashville where Black artists she discovered online could play music together. That has blossomed into the Black Opry Revue, which played City Winery Philadelphia last Wednesday and will play Arden Gild Hall in Delaware on Saturday.
At the Winery — where the venue still required proof of vaccination though the city has dropped that mandate for restaurant dining — the Revue featured Sug Daniels, Jett Holden, Roberta Lea, Tylar Bryant, and Autumn Nicholas, who were together on stage throughout what was often an emotionally devastating 2-hour, 15-minute show.
Holly G. introduced the quintet, saying the Black Opry Revue’s goal “is to diversify country music and change the way it looks and sounds.”
She expands on that on the Black Opry website: “Country music has been made and loved by Black people since its conception. For just as long, we have been overlooked and disregarded in the genre by fans and executives. Black Opry wants to change that.”
Daniels, who lives in Philadelphia and first made her name with the Wilmington band Hoochi Coochi, played a ukulele, sitting to the left of her counterparts who have been touring together but whom she only met that afternoon. The camaraderie among the like-minded musicians was instant: “I feel like my cousins are coming to town,” she said.
The front porch “guitar pull” format of the show moved down the line for five rounds, each artist taking turns showcasing a song. (When the tour comes to the historic venue in Arden, where Lead Belly played in 1947, Daniels’ and Nicholas’ spots will be taken by Aaron Vance and Lizzie No.)
Of the five artists at City Winery, Bryant, who’s a native Texan, was the one whose style most closely aligned with contemporary commercial country, from his resonant voice to his trucker’s hat and a NASCAR reference in a song whose title was emblazoned on his jean jacket: “Stay Wild.”
Lea is a Nashville-based former schoolteacher and a robust singer whose music leans towards country-soul. “Ghetto Country Streets” was wistful and nostalgic. “Sweet Baby Ray” and “King Size” were the sexiest songs of the night. And a new song that turned on the line “If I’m too much of a woman for you, then you’re too little of a man” was a crowd-pleaser.
Daniels, who opens for John Oates & Guthrie Trapp at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville on March 16, focused on songs from her Franklin Street EP, that are open, inviting, and instantly hummable. She makes good use of the uke. A standout was “Heavy,” about taking the risk to suggest a relationship move out of the friend zone.
Heavy is also a word that applied to the thematic content of the evening, which turned up in intensity after Nicholas, whose tense, deeply personal songs bring Ani DiFranco to mind, sang “On a Sunday,” about coming to terms with her sexual identity while growing up in the church in North Carolina.
Holden followed with a song about coming out as queer to his Jehovah’s Witness family. The guitarist with a taste for gothic country and an arresting voice that’s raspy down low and haunting in its upper range was working at a call center in Tennessee and posting songs on YouTube when he was contacted by Holly G., whom he thanked for “doing a great job of traveling around and bringing Black artists together.”
Later Holden sang a stunner called “When I’m Gone,” about a friend’s suicide. In his turn, Bryant then sang “If You Need an Angel” about his brother’s suicide.
But the most impressive song of the night was Holden’s “Taxidermy,” which he recorded after receiving a $500 grant from Palmer, who is an advocate for Black country artists on her Color Me Country podcast.
The song calls out religious hypocrisy. “I’ll believe that my life matters to you, when the Bible’s not a tool you use to crucify,” the star of this night’s Black Opry Revue sang, while also critiquing social media virtue-signaling that, when not accompanied by antiracist action, can amount to reducing Black trauma to nothing more than “taxidermy on your Facebook wall.”