Black Opry is heading to Vanderbilt University courtesy of Grammy nominated songwriter and CMA Songwriter of the Year award winning Odie Blackmon.
Over the course of his career, Blackmon has been responsible for hit singles such as “Nothing On But The Radio” and “I May Hate Myself In The Monrning.”
Currently Blackmon is a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. For an upcoming class, he plans to explore the ins and outs of country music in new and unconventional ways. As part of preparation for the class, he sat down to talk Black Opry’s founder Holly G for an interview that he plans to use as part of his curriculum.
Odie Blackmon: The main question that we’ll keep asking ourselves through this class is, ‘What is country music?’ So, the first question I’d like to ask you, through your lens, ‘What is country music?’
Holly G: This is something we’ve been talking about a lot recently, in a bunch of different conversations and I think that before you have a conversation about what country music is, you have to really look at why you’re asking that question, because, on the surface, it seems a very innocent question to ask, but really what it does a lot of the time (the question, ‘What is real country music?’) is that it’s used to gatekeep and keep certain people out. So, I think the context of that question is very important. There’re honestly times when I’m asked that and I kind of refuse to answer it because you can really tell by the tone of the conversation that it’s weaponized and it’s something that’s used a lot to keep Black people out. Amanda Martinez wrote a piece for the L. A. Times, I think recently, about the lack of representation Latinx artists in country music. There’s a lot of imagery and sounds that come from their culture, but they’re not represented in country music and somebody replied to her and was like, “Well Latinx people, you guys don’t make real country music because you guys don’t grow up on farms. You’re not part of the culture.” And she was like, “Well, no. We came here and brought our culture with us and that’s where a lot of the influences come from.” And he goes, “Oh, well you don’t know how to farm, so you can’t make real country music.” So, a lot of the time, it has nothing to do with the actual music. That’s something that really is just weaponized against people of color to keep us out of the industry and the system. For me personally though, I think country music is stories. At the very base of it when I look at the difference between the music that I connect with, some of it is country music, and some of it is country music and you don’t know it’s country music. It’s a way that people tell stories, to me, is what makes it country music. It doesn’t have to be stories about people on a farm. I think that whatever perspective that you have, you can make music that fits within that genre and have that feeling, that connects with people and it can be country music.
Odie: Cool. I think that asking the question, “What is country music?”, not, “What is real country music?”, but you could put the ‘real’ in there, I think back to when I was a younger man in my early twenties during the boom, the 1989 early 90’s boom of country music. At that time, I would’ve told you that the question of authenticity comes into play ‘cause we were seeing a lot of people move over from pop because there was money all of a sudden in country music. So, as a younger man, I would’ve considered myself more authentic because I was from a smaller area in a southern state and grew up around country music without the knowledge that there was a “popy-er side” and without the full knowledge of all the things that went into the question of authenticity, musically, maybe. Or, say from not a wealthy background, and this again is all from what I was taught. So, there’s a lot of ways, of course, to look at country music and I think it’s something I want my students to ask themselves as we look at different genres and styles, and I agree with you. I do think it has to do with the stories. Sometimes authenticity’s fabricated. I think you can come from another area and do country music, or “real country music.” That’s why I asked that. I want people to ask themselves as we go through the class and in an opening-mind kind of way.
*break in interview*
Odie: Where did you grow up? What kind of area is your background?
Holly G: I’m from Richmond, Virginia. I would say I grew up in an average suburb. There was no ranch, or farm, or any stereotypical country thing that drew me to country music. I had a normal upbringing. I was definitely a minority. It was a mostly white area. Even all the white kids that I knew were into like, Top 40. I can’t ever remember a time when I was anywhere where country music was an overwhelming majority of what people listened to. It was something that kind of like, spoke to me, and I latched on to it, and just dove further into it myself.
Odie: What age were you first exposed to country music, or did you first experience country music?
Holly G: So, the first country song that I remember ever hearing was when I was little. My grandmother used to sing, ‘Achy Breaky Heart’. That’s the very first one I remember singing. They didn’t really listen to country music, at the time, that one was crossing over into the pop era of just popularity anyway. So, everybody knew that song and I remember her singing that and remember it just getting stuck in my head. Then, I’d probably say after that, I remember, “You’re Still The One” came out. I remember being obsessed with that song because when we would go to the babysitter’s house, whenever the kids would get into the car, the babysitter would listen to country music, when we were in the car, she would listen to the Top 40 station. I remember begging her not to change the station when that song came on. I had to be around 9, at that time. It’s something that’s definitely always been a part of what I enjoy and who I am.
Odie: Was there a time later in life where it became a bigger part of your life, where you kind of dove deeper in country music?
Holly G: I would say probably as soon as I was able to control what it was I was listening to. Once technology got caught up with the way that we’re able to listen to music and open those doors up a little bit. I mean, the first cd that I bought for my first car was Sugarland’s “Enjoy The Ride”. That was the first country cd I ever bought; I was so excited to finally get the whole thing. But, I mean, before school every day, the first thing I did was watch the CMT music video countdown. It would come on right as I was getting dressed for school and a lot of mornings, I missed the bus because I wanted to see that one last video. So, I can’t pinpoint a time when it became a bigger thing because, as far as music was concerned, it was always the biggest thing. I’ve always been really connected to music. I was talking to somebody about this yesterday. I’m an atheist, so it’s really hard for me to understand the connection people have with religion, but when I listen to music, it’s like, I get it. I feel like if anybody feels what I feel when I hear music, if they feel that with anything, then I get why they’re attached to it. So, it kind of puts a lot of things into context for me.
Odie: You mentioned that your grandmother loved “Achy Breaky Heart” and we talked about being open and honest and I’d like to ask you some questions as a while male that wants to learn, or a white guy that wants to learn..
Holly G: Just so you know, I completely trust Will and he says you’re a good guy. So, if you need to ask something and you feel like it’s gonna be uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to ask. These are the conversations to me that are important. So, please ask whatever questions you have.
Odie: Well, why I wanted to because I think these are the kinds of conversations we need to have, and I’m just curious; you mentioned your grandmother listening to ‘Achy Breaky’. What was country music perceived like in the Black community that you grew up around? What was the perception? What was the percentage of fans of country music? What’s that like from your experience?
Holly G: I would say, it’s probably a little bit different generationally. I think, for my grandmother’s generation, it’s one of those things where it is like, “we like it, we enjoy it, but we would never say that in public; we know that it’s not for ‘us’”. Then, I think, coming down the line, from my mother’s perspective, she likes a lot of country music, too, but she would never consider herself a country music fan and she thinks it’s very strange that I’m a country music fan. Again, it’s because she has internalized that thought that it’s not for us. Even though she likes some of the music, I don’t think it ever clicked in her head that it makes sense for a Black person to be a Country Music fan. I think by the time that it’s gotten to my generation, I didn’t just accept it, I asked the “why” behind it and as I started exploring that question, it made sense because I went a little bit deeper into being a fan than they were, even though they didn’t realize they were. I was more vocal about it. I was wanting to talk to people about it and the reaction that I got back from it made their perspective make sense, because it’s strange. Sometimes, if I tell people, especially because I work with a lot of older white guys, I used to use it as a way to connect with people, because I knew it would be something that we had in common because I felt like it was kind of like a neutral territory. But, it kind of stabs me in the back because what ends up happening is, I’ll connect with like an older, white guy, over us liking country music, and then they think because I’m the type of person that likes country music, that I’m also the type of person that will accept certain behaviors or jokes, and they’ll start saying anti-Black jokes and going off on rants about, “I know you like Donald Trump.” So, it kind of like, makes you be seen as the acceptable Black person, and I think that’s what my mom and my grandmom understood, that I didn’t, and were trying to protect themselves from. Which, kind of, didn’t give them the freedom, or the space, to explore country music any further than hearing a song or two on the radio that they liked.
Odie: Wow! Okay. That makes a lot of sense. I’m really glad to hear that perspective. I was coming at it from thinking when I was a teenager, an into college, say, around other white people, my friends that were into anything from rock, or hip hop, or punk, or different genres, country wasn’t hip. It wasn’t cool. That was for like, rednecks, kind of thing. So, I guess where I’m coming from, that perspective helps me and I was thinking that, maybe, in the Black community, wouldn’t it be kind of square, or uncool, to like country music, too?
Holly G: I mean, it would be to some people, but there’s people in my family that look at me that would say I was strange for like listening to country music. But then, I also have a cousin that is like obsessed with 70’s rock bands, who would think that I was weird for listening to Jay-Z. I think that people have a very monolithic view of what they think Black people are and what they think Black people like and when you dig beneath the surface of that, we’re so varied and have so many varied interests. But, because people do have that perception that only certain things are cool to the Black community, we don’t get the freedom to express the other sides and hobbies and so many other things that we are and we enjoy and when we do it kind of gets brushed off as like an anomaly. It’s even surprised me a little bit. If you look at the artists that I have on Black Opry, there are artists that are making every type of music that you hear on the country stations. So, there’s stuff that sounds like Luke Bryan. There’s stuff that sounds like Tyler Childers. There’s stuff that sounds like Tim McGraw and there’s everywhere in between. The only thing I knew of Black country music was the same thing I that people would tell me whenever I said I liked it, they go, “Oh well, you must like Darius Rucker?” So, you know, all this time I was thinking in my head well, as far as Black country music, that’s all we got is Darius Rucker. That’s all there is, but there’s so much more. There’s so much depth of what we are and what we create and that type of thing, and I’m hoping that people will get to see that and it’ll kind of breakdown some of the stereotypes that people have, not just for Black music, but just for Black people.
Odie: Yeah, I found it interesting to go through your website, the artists on your website and some I’m very aware of and some not so much and I found it interesting because I was asking myself sometimes, “Is this country?” and then saying to myself, “Well, this is more R&B.” But then I asked myself, “Well, there’s country artists that are more R&B?” So, am I asking myself this because they’re Black? Because there’s people like T. Graham Brown, or maybe I should say Delbert McClinton. There was a guy named James Otto, or even a song like “Girl Crush” has more of an old R&B vibe. So, it’s interesting to listen and think about those things. There was one artist on there that blew me away, as a commercial, pop country artist that I was not aware of named Tierra. She is awesome! She should be having hits right now.
Holly G: Yeah, Tierra’s really good.
Odie: How did you first arrive at the idea of creating Black Opry and a blog focusing on Black country music artists?
Holly G: So, the beginning of this process, I would say, started back right after everything went down with George Floyd and it was a time where all of the businesses were kind of like, putting themselves out there and showing what they were doing to promote diversity, what they were doing to make sure that their consumers knew that they were, you know, not racist or whatever, and just the whole like environment of that made me take stock of everything that I was consuming. We talk about ‘cancel culture’ now, and I think that’s a really stupid term, but what I do think is important is for you to only interact and consume with things that make you feel good and you feel good about. So, if you boycott a company, it might not mean anything to the company, but you feel better knowing that that’s not where you’re putting your dollars at. It was one of those times where I’m like, okay, I need to take stock of everything that I’m doing, everything that I’m interacting with, and making sure that there are things that I feel good about. You know, the entire time that I’ve been aware of, the culture behind country music, I’ve compartmentalized it. So, a thought that I would have very, very often was, I love this song even though I feel like this person probably would never want to be in the same room as me, and that’s something that I had been able to separate for a very, very long time. But, I kind of got to a point where I’m like, I can’t do that anymore. If I’m gonna be ethical, then the way that I consume everything else in my life that has to spill over into the music too. So, I said, well, let’s see what we can do and I think one of the easiest things to do is to find music that’s made from people that look like you. Well, the problem is, when you Google ‘Black country artists’ there’s only like three or four that ever come up and it’s the same lists of the same people, just on different websites. So, there were no resources to find them. I was lucky to find Rissi Palmer and when I found Rissi, she was doing so much work around Black country artists. I also found the Country Queer website which features a lot of queer country artists and I actually started working with Country Queer and just from talking with Dale Geist who runs that website, he was like, “That would be great if we had one of these for Black people too, and it was something I was kind of thinking about and I was like, “this is a great idea.” Then the whole situation with Morgan Wallen went down and I’m like, “okay, well, this needs to happen now.” I think within a month I had Black Opry up because I was just like, it needed to be done. It’s so rare that you think of an idea, in this day and age, that there’s not anything there for it. There’s competition for almost every idea that you can think of, but there’s nowhere on the internet, except for Black Opry, where you can find a collection of Black country music artists, and to me that’s ridiculous. If you go back to the history of country music where black people you know started it and had such an impact on the beginning of you know how all that came together. Now, to be completely erased from it, and not only erased, but not welcome in the spaces where it is celebrated, is a travesty to the people that that still enjoy it and to the people that created it.
Odie: You know, I have to admit that coming in, going over your website and your article and Country Queer, I would say that my view of this topic, in the past, would have been, “Well, there may not be that many Black people interested in a country music career.” I can only speak from people that I know, and their taste. But, what I’ve thought about as I knew we were going to do this interview, and this has been something that’s been on my mind as all the events that have unfolded in the last year and a half to two years. It’s almost to me like labels are leaving money on the table. I’m sitting here going like, “Wow, this is a battle maybe a lot of people haven’t really understood what’s there.”
Holly G: I could tell you a very specific example of that. I’ve been dying to go to a country music festival or concert even for as long as I can remember. I bought tickets to see Miranda Lambert five times and I’ve never gone because there were a couple times where I had emergencies, but a couple of the times, too, I looked at where the concert was at and I looked at the people around there and I thought about who would be there, and I was too afraid to go. That’s kind of been my relationship with getting into these spaces. It’s like too fearful for me to go because I’m scared of what will happen if something does happen to me. I know there’s nobody there who’s gonna defend me. I feel like I would be too alone and finally, last year, I was like I don’t care like I’m tired of not being able to enjoy the things I like. So, I bought tickets to CMA Fest. Finally and I bought two tickets because I don’t have any friends that like country music, So, I was like I’m gonna buy two tickets and I’m gonna convince somebody to go with me because it’s free tickets to a concert and maybe I’ll be able to get somebody to go. Well, pandemic. went down and I was still excited. I was like, we gotta wait ‘til 2022. That’s fine, don’t care. I’ll go whenever it happens and then when it came to the CMA Awards, instead of acknowledging what was going on and saying any small amount of kindness towards Black people, they said, “We don’t want drama.” I asked for refund for my tickets.
Odie: When you say they said they said they didn’t want drama, did they issue a statement to ticket holders or what did they do?
Holly G: Well, when the CMA Awards were coming up and it was right in the middle of everybody else acknowledging what was going on, their response to how the CMA Awards were going to be held was, “Don’t bring drama, just have a good time.” Or a slogan, something like that, and they specifically banned reporters from asking any type of, what they refer to as, ‘political questions.’
Odie: Yeah, it’s interesting to me that, for the most part, although country music is supposed to come from a place of authenticity, and in a lot of cases, it does, when you look at how country publicist labels, the whole machine, handles the media, most articles, most interviews are all very puff piece. You know, country music is not the genre, that’s very honest when it comes to those.
Holly G: Yeah, it’s very well-packaged.
Odie: Yes. Which is very weird because it’s supposed to come from this place of authenticity. You could look back at the at the whole Dixie Chicks thing from years ago and how they were. You know, that’s all pretty amazing. Let me ask you this, speaking of Country Queer, I read your article you wrote an article for that blog about the Morgan Wallen incident, and I want to unpack that with you and talk about it. This is another thing, me, as a white guy, I just want to ask questions. So, let me just unpack it, and then you tell me what you think. So, the more the Morgan Wallen thing happens and he’s got a history kind of not, being the sharpest tool in the shed, is what I would say back home, but then other artists come out. First, I see that Kelsea Ballerini comes out and goes, “This is not who we are.” Then, Martin Morris comes out and this is on Twitter. Martin Morris comes out and says, “No, this is exactly who we are.” Or, “This is exactly what the industry is.” But then Jimmy Allen, a Black artist country artist, comes out and defends Morgan and says, “He said the n-word, but with an -a not an -er and he was talking to his buddy. He wasn’t speaking in hate.” Then, even more recently, this is the weirdest one to me. I see a video of Morgan Wallen sitting around singing with Eric Church and Hardy, and right next to him is Darius Rucker. Have you seen that video?
Holly G: Oh, no, I haven’t seen that one yet.
Odie: Well, what’s interesting is, is that, Eric and Hardy are singing along with Morgan, and Darius is just sitting there, not really doing anything. It was almost like he didn’t know they were gonna put a camera on him. I don’t know, maybe he did, but he didn’t really join in and how people have handled this is just dumb, without a doubt, what he did, and on camera, and of course this wasn’t his first time saying that. I don’t know what to say about him, but I’m fascinated with how this has kind of divided some people, how people feel like they gotta get on the internet and speak their truth. I don’t agree with it at all, and I know you’re a blog. You were a fan. I wasn’t. He wasn’t even on my radar and I know he’s a big, you know, big star, but… I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this, Holly. I’m just kind of…
Holly G: Well, I think that you’re picking up on something, but you’re not really sure what it is and what it is that you’re seeing is, a lot of times when somebody does something offensive towards Black people, in order to make it okay, white people will find the one Black person who thinks it’s okay and use that as their excuse to forgive themselves. I don’t know if he has people specifically that are working on his PR angle, but what I’ve seen that’s been done with him is, they are using other Black people as signals that he’s ‘okay’. Like, “Oh, see, he’s sitting here with Darius Rucker. He’s with the Black man. It’s fine.” Or, “Jimmy said he’s OK, so it’s fine.” So, what they’re actually doing is they’re taking them, people who are the most harmed by his actions, and then again, using them to recoup his reputation, which is so ridiculous to me, because he’s done no work. Me personally, if I were friends with a white person and they said that, that would have been the end of our relationship. You can forgive whatever, but I also can control who is in and out of my life, so I just don’t need people like that, but I get the need, the desire, to want to forgive him for some people. But, in order to achieve forgiveness with any meaning, there has to be some reconciliation work done. Instead of doing that work, he ghosts to the NAACP instead of doing anything meaningful to show that he had any genuine remorse, what he did was let all the Black people around him stick their necks out on the line, in his honor. You know, I don’t want to say everybody that likes him is racist, but at this point it’s hard to argue otherwise. But the people that want to forgive him will forgive him if they get any inkling of it being okay. The problem is, it’s not their place to do that, it’s the place of the people who were harmed. So instead of repairing the damage he’s placating the people, whose place it isn’t even theirs to offer their forgiveness, because it’s easier.
Odie: They’re not really in a place to forgive him, and what they’re actually doing is excusing him.
Holly G: Exactly, exactly.
Odie: Let me ask you this, as a Black country music fan, what is it like for you to see that his album sales went through the roof after the incident?
Holly G: It confirms everything that people tell me country music is not. So, to me, that Kelsea Ballerini statement that, “this isn’t country music”, that was country music telling her that this is exactly what it is. I think it’s bigger than a country music problem, it’s an American problem, but it is very concentrated in the country music industry because it’s like one of the last places where, there’s not a lot of industries anymore where you can get away with the blatant disregard for minorities and people of color that you can in the country music industry, and it’s justified, because then they circle back. So, “Well you aren’t authentic country music anyway, so we can treat you like that because you don’t belong here. The executives go back and they say, “Oh, well, it’s not us, it’s the fans. Sorry, we don’t control the fans. So, everybody has an excuse and they’ve allowed it to fester. Nobody with the power to do anything is doing anything. Even when they started giving Morgan Wallen consequences, it was funny because everybody was like, “Well, aren’t you excited they’re doing this and that?” and I was like, I’ll be inside excited in six months if any of these consequences stick, or if something changes and it’s been less than six months, I think, and most of the consequences have been lifted. So, they weren’t consequences. Country music will do a lot to shut people up. So that was to shut people up. The same way when, last year, I go back to the CMA’s, they put Darius Rucker on as a host, to shut people up. They wanna give you just enough to keep you quiet because they know it’s a problem but they’re not really interested in fixing because it doesn’t cost them anything. In their mind, country music is always going to make a lot of money whether Black people are there or not. So, including us at this point, you know, there is a lot of money in it, but in the interim, while you’re adjusting the fan base to what you’re doing, they’re going to lose some money, and they’re not interested in turning away their conservative, racist, white fan base.
Odie: Interesting. Speaking of the CMA’s, that was going to be my next question and I have to admit to you that I don’t watch award shows. It’s not my thing. Award shows are kind of big advertisements and it’s just not something that I consider fun. But, what I what I heard from some people was, “Yeah, the CMA’s made sure to have some token Black people show up as guests.” So, I don’t know who they had on there, because I didn’t watch it, and any awards show doesn’t sound like a good time to me, but, as a young country fan, who’s also Black, I’m thinking you probably did watch and you’re in tune with this. I’m thinking you probably did watch the CMA’s. What was that like for you and what were they doing to try to look better?
Holly G: So, let me double-check real quick because I know we had the ACM. First off, this is the first year that I’ve ever watched any awards, because like I said, even though I love the music, I understand that I’m not welcome in the culture, so I would always listen to the music, but I’d never interacted or engaged with anything any deeper than that because I just felt like there was no point. So, so far this year, they’ve had the ACM Awards and they had the CMT Awards. So, I really want to be very careful to distinguish the CMA awards from the CMT Awards, because see CMT is doing a lot of things right? They still have a very, very, very long way to go, but they seem to be working in earnest. CMA awards have shown me nothing. The CMA Awards are the ones who, last year, put out the “no drama” message and then they had Darius Rucker and Reba McEntire host it kind of like, “Oh OK, they’re here. So, just be quiet.” You know what I mean?
Odie: Yeah. Maybe it was the ACM’s and they are out of Los Angeles. So, it may be a different tone.
Holly G: Well, I think you’re probably thinking about the CMT, the ones that just passed.
Odie: OK, well I had heard that maybe a Black gospel singer had been invited on to sing with somebody.
Holly G: Yeah, OK, yeah. So, you’re talking about the CMT Awards. I did watch the CMT Awards. So, I was studying like data a couple months ago. Like right before the ACM’s, about how Black people have been included in Country Music Awards shows across the board historically and one thing that I found very interesting was you have the same people. So, there’s been Darius Rucker has been included, Jimmy Allen, Kane Brown, and Mickey Guyton. More recently, those people have all been included, but they rarely win awards. Darius Rucker has performed so many times and he’s won barely anything, if he was even nominated. So, the inclusion of Black people in Country Music Awards spaces is typically that they invite people in that are not part of the country music industry. So, they’ll invite Nelly, who’s a rapper, or Eve, who is a rapper, or CeCe Winans, who is a gospel singer, and the message that that sends to me is that, Black people can come, but they cannot stay. There’re so many Black people working so hard in country music to try to get through the door and get an opportunity, and the award shows are often a time where they highlight people. You’ll see they have the smaller stages that they play before they cut to a commercial and that’s where, usually, people will get recognized for the first time or get kind of a start and Black people are not included in that. They’re only included from outside. They will not acknowledge people, like Black people, within the industry. So, one thing that was really interesting and important to me this year at the CMT’s is that they took a step forward and included people that were working within these musical spaces. They invited War and Treaty who is an amazing…They have like a roots-y, Americana, blues-y kind of sound, but if you listen to it, it’s country. There’re all these stories and…
Odie: Yeah, I’ve seen them play live, they’re great.
Holly G: Yeah, they’re amazing and to me, if I hear them, there’s no question to me that that’s what country music is about, to me. So, they invited War and Treaty, which was amazing and that seems small, but to me it meant a lot because you know it’s somebody who could benefit from being there, and that’s a piece that they have been… which they’ve been leaving out a lot because even with the people that they’ve included from other genres, there hasn’t been very many Black people included at all. But it was nice to see, for the first time, that they gave an opportunity to somebody who could use it within that space.
Odie: That brings up a question that I didn’t have on my list, but I consider War and Treaty, or have considered them, Americana, which could be a sub-genre of country, or somehow connected. I have a hard time with Americana, ’cause I’m not really sure why, well, I do know why it’s there. It’s basically anything that’s not commercial country or commercial, doesn’t fit into a label. But I have heard people say Americana and I’m asking you this, ’cause I saw Americana on your website too. You know, some people refer to the Americana genre as white dad rock. Old, old, old, old white dad rock, or something like that? What do you think about the Americana genre association scene and their work on diversity, or has here been? Again, I don’t pay a lot of attention to it, ’cause I’m not somebody that’s into associations or award shows, so I haven’t really watched what they’ve done. I just kind of dig music. How do you feel about, since you follow that scene, what’s that like compared to country?
Holly G: Well, I will tell you, just for the sake of clarity, I am new to the way that all this music has been divvied up myself. To me, it’s always been in one big pot and a lot of the stuff that people are declaring specifically Americana or Blues or whatever, I’ve always considered country. So, this scene is kind of new to me as well, but I can tell you from the artists that I’ve talked to, the problem that we’re seeing across the board, but very specifically within the Americana scene, is that a lot of the representation, or allyship, that they’re proclaiming is very surface level, and it’s not meaningful to the artists. So, they’ll put them on a playlist or something, but there’s no effort being made to include them in shows, or the behind the scenes work is not happening and something that too, I think is very important. It’s not just about the artists like we need more diverse work groups behind the scenes because when you know a group of all white men, in the room making the decisions, no matter how well intentioned they might be, they’re going to have blind spots, and they’re lacking perspective.
Holly G: So, their thing might be, “OK. Well, how do we include them? Let’s make a playlist. This is a great opportunity for other people to hear their music.” But the problem is that’s number one, not making the artist any money. Number two, OK, let’s get some fans. Well, there’s still not any opportunity for them to capitalize on extra fans if they don’t have the opportunity to play shows. So, there’s a lot more that goes into it that’s not being done because we don’t have the right representation behind the scenes. Then, even I think the most well-meaning people are just not able to do it because they need to listen to Black, and other marginalized people, and they need to listen to the artists because that’s feedback that I’m getting directly from the artists that are working within these spaces, or like, yeah it’s great that people like us and want to do better, but they’re not doing better.
Odie: And it sounds like to me from the things you’ve told me say, talking about your mom and your grandmother and yourself, that maybe some work needs to be done at the fan level, or at the source of our whole industry, to let people know they are welcome into this industry.
Holly G: Well, see that’s the thing, that would be great to say if it were true.
Holly G: But it’s not true.
Holly G: The only difference between me being afraid to go to a country concert five years ago, and me being willing to go to one now, is that I’m tired of being afraid. Nothing has changed within the fanbase. If you look at the way that a lot of the artists, Mickey Guyton specifically, if you look at the feedback that she gets online anytime she does anything – she performed at the CMT Awards and people got online and called her baby ugly called her the n-word and told her to go back to the ghetto.
Holly G: Yeah, and this is not an isolated event.
Odie: So, you’re saying an industry initiative to make people feel welcome is still not gonna help out there in Middle America when they go to a concert or something?
Holly G: Right, so if you tell me I’m welcome in this space, great. But if I get there and people treat me like ****, I’m no longer gonna trust your message. So, the very first thing you need to do before you tell me I’m welcome is to tell the people that you already have there that they need to behave themselves. So, the messaging doesn’t need to be to Black people, because Black people already like the music.
Odie: You can’t tell people they’re welcome until you educate people.
Holly G: You have to create a safe space.
Odie: Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.
Holly G: And right now, this space is not safe. So, we don’t need messaging to like the music; we already like the music, but we know that there’s going to be racists there.
Odie: Well, I just meant to say, hey, you’re included now, I was thinking this genre. Now, I’m sitting here thinking about a concert not just I was thinking like hey, this can be for everybody but, you could do that on a certain level, but when you bring it back to a concert and in Middle America, that’s not the case, so this is really a great conversation for me, Holly.
Holly G: I mean, even if you bring it from an artist level, right? Let’s say you find a really, really good Americana artist that you want to introduce to a crowd. So, you find a show for them to play, you hire them to play this show. They get there to play the show, walk backstage, and they’re the only Black person there. So, you’ve provided makeup and hair and all this stuff to make them feel comfortable, but their makeup artist isn’t used to working with their skin tone. The person that does their hair doesn’t know how to work with their hair. So, now they don’t look the way that they feel comfortable looking thing. They’re uncomfortable, and they’re the only person behind the scenes that looks like them and they know the way that they’ve been treated outside of their people that look that way, and the fact that they’re the only person there, sends them the signal that these people are going to treat them that way, too. So, the internal work has to be done behind the scenes to get more diverse workgroups and to get the fans, right? Like there’s two parts that I think you get the fans under control and you get the workgroups more diversified, before you focus on telling Black people that they can come because we know, we would like to come, but what is our experience going to be like when we show up? And that’s from the artist level, all the way down to the fans.
Odie: Well, I certainly don’t know that anybody has all the answers, but I think that conversations like this, and having the ‘want to’, to make change.
Holly G: That’s how it starts.
Odie: And Speaking of that, I know you work with the folks over at changecountrymusic.com. What kind of resources do they provide for marginalized country artists or what’s that about? What are they doing at changecountrymusic.com?
Holly G: Change Country is all about something that I really enjoy doing, which is what I call “building bridges.” So, you’ve got a lot of good people out there, like yourself for example, where you’re like, “OK, I see this as a problem, but I’m not really quite sure what to do or how to fix it or where I fit into that.” Then, you’ve got on the other side these people that are like begging to be let in. So, we have this pledge. Well, they, I’m very new to the organization, so they’ve created this pledge where people can come and show up with whatever they have. So, if you are an author and you can offer to write five free bios for artists, or if you are you own a studio and you can donate, you know five hours of studio time for people of color to come recording your studio. Whatever it is that you do, you come and you offer whatever resources that you have, that the people that are marginalized within the community, that are trying to break into this space are able to use those resources to work together to give them more opportunities.
Odie: Very cool. OK! My last question, you’ve been kind to give me your time, but the last question I want to ask you is, you have a new e-magazine coming out in December called “Country Any Way”. What’s that gonna be like?
Holly G: So, “Country Any Way” is basically about people doing country music any way they want it. You know, rings back to what I was telling you before about how I think it’s silly to try to qualify what country music is? I think if somebody is making music and they say it’s country music, then that’s country music. Everybody knows what it sounds like and what it’s supposed to be, and if somebody wants to be welcome within that space, then I think they deserve that and it’s also for people that, maybe, are not a part of a marginalized community, but they want to be a part of country music in a way that they know is not being harmful to marginalized communities. So, it’s like a safe space for country music. So we’ve got a whole bunch of stuff lined up within the magazine. I just recently interviewed Mariah Stokes, who is a Canadian country music artist, who’s super awesome and we talked about all the different ways that she’s been doing country music differently and some other stuff I can’t really say publicly yet. We’ve got some really awesome Latinx artists, Black artists. I think we’re setting up an interview with Gabe Lee, who’s an Asian, country music artist. So, yeah, I’m really excited about that.
Odie: That sounds exciting and I really appreciate your time and thank you for doing this, I’m really grateful for the open and honest conversation.