Brittney Spencer has yet to release her debut album but the Baltimore-born singer has already established herself as a rising country music star.
“I’m really new,” Spencer says, calling during a break from rehearsal in Nashville. “Like, I’m so new the tag is still on me.”
Spencer’s In a Perfect World tour — her first as a headliner — was set to kick off Thursday in New York, and she has two Philadelphia shows Friday.
First she’ll play the WXPN-FM (88.5) Free at Noon at World Cafe Live. Then at night, she’ll top the bill at MilkBoy Philly, where her openers are Sam Williams — son of Hank Jr. and grandson of Hank Sr. — and Camille Parker.
When Spencer speaks about her newness, she’s referring to the speed of her arrival in the spotlight. Although she moved to Nashville in 2013, she didn’t release her first original song, “Compassion,” until July 2020.
And she got her first measure of fame in October of that year, when her cover of The Highwomen’s “Crowded Table” was amplified online by the group’s Amanda Shires, and Maren Morris gave Spencer a shout out at the Country Music Association Awards later that month.
But Spencer, who USA Today cited as one of “12 Black artists shaping country music’s future” and who Nashville’s Music Row magazine this week named as a 2022 Next Big Thing, also means that she’s a new arrival compared to many fellow Black country and Americana artists who are getting deserved attention at the forefront of a genre that Black artists have often been shut out of.
“My feeling is that we’ve always been here,” Spencer says. Along with contemporary country stars like Jimmie Allen, the Milton, Del., native who is a best new artist Grammy nominee, and Kane Brown, the mainstream star who headlines the Wells Fargo Center on Jan. 13, she credits veteran Black women who are finally gaining a measure of music industry acceptance.
Such as: Allison Russell, who earned three Grammy nominations last week, and her good friend Mickey Guyton, who last year became the first Black woman ever nominated for solo country performance for “Black Like Me.” And also Rissi Palmer, the country singer from Sewickley, Pa., who centers “the Black, Indigenous, and Latinx histories of country music” on her Apple Music radio show Color Me Country.
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“There are so many artists who have been out here and doing this for a while,” Spencer says. Country has been a genre dominated by white artists, but Black performers have played key roles going back to original Grand Ole Opry member DeFord Bailey on to Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in the early 1960s and the long career of Charley Pride and recent success of Darius Rucker.
But a new examination of country’s past and future started taking place last year as part of the racial reckoning taking place in all aspects of American society.
“I think race became the number one talking point during the pandemic … and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery were at the forefront,” Spencer says. “It just became so prevalent in music and specifically country music. And then Mickey put out “Black Like Me” and that shattered a ceiling.”
Growing up in Baltimore, Spencer sang in church and studied opera. “I struggled with anxiety most of my life,” she says. “Music was my saving grace, my little refuge. As a teenager I was listening to Maria Callas and Ray Charles and the Dixie Chicks and Britney Spears and John Mayer and Beyoncé and Diana Ross.”
“I wanted to learn as much as I could. I would just dive into everything, and I found a home in country music because I started writing songs and writing poetry, and I loved it.”
Two key artists opened a door to country, Spencer says. Taylor Swift “was so poetic and from Pennsylvania and didn’t have a twang. Something about that piqued my curiosity.” Alt-R&B singer India.Arie “was the closest thing I had of someone who was remotely country or folkish who looked like me. When you don’t have representation, you find bits and pieces in a million different places.”
Spencer quit her job working at a Baltimore health-care company and moved to Nashville, after watching documentaries about Swift and Reba McEntire.
The long road to overnight success followed. She worked in customer service and coffee shops, and concentrated on guitar playing and songwriting. She sang back-ups on tour with R&B singer Carl Thomas and Carrie Underwood at awards shows.
She came into her own during the pandemic. “I’m a quarantine artist,” she says. “Being an artist at this time is just so unconventional for everybody. But I’m like, ‘Dude this is all I know.’ It’s the norm for me.”
Her Compassion EP includes a rumination on gun violence called “Thoughts and Prayers,” and she’s generated buzz with “Sober & Skinny,” which inspired the title of her tour. “In a perfect world, you get sober and I get skinny,” she sings.
And she also shone in numerous recent star turns. The powerhouse vocalist has show-stopping performances on Georgia Blue, Jason Isbell’s new album of songs by Georgia artists that he vowed to record for charity if Joe Biden carried that state in last year’s presidential election.
Last month, she brought the house down at the Country Music Hall of Fame in a tribute to songwriter Dean Dillon with a soaring performance of “Tennessee Whiskey.” Country legend Brenda Lee shouted out from the audience: “Let’s all go home. I give up. I quit!”
She’ll sign a record deal soon, and with a stockpile of songs, plans to put out new music in 2022.
She’s got dates early next year opening for McEntire, including a show at the Borgata Event Center in Atlantic City on Feb. 18. “Now my heroes have my phone number,” she says, with pinch-me enthusiasm.
Spencer’s upcoming shows have a lot to live up to, to top the CMA Awards last month. She joined Guyton and Madeline Edwards for Guyton’s “Love My Hair,” in a prime-time performance. The trio were introduced by Faith Fennidy, the Louisiana girl who inspired Guyton to write the song after being sent home from school for her braided hair extensions.
“We’ve all experienced things that have invalidated our presence, our existence in this space,” Spencer says. “This is our story. It was a beautiful moment. I’ll never forget the significance. Being on the CMA awards, considering the history of country music.
“We’re part of the future. I’m new, and it’s an honor to be able to establish my presence on a song that says, Hey, I’m a Black woman, and I love that about me, and I love country music.”