Holly G was trying to find a way to reconcile her love of country music with a disconcerting fact: she rarely saw anyone who looked like her at a country concert. It was still a sea of white faces and the unwavering feeling that she was unwelcome.
“I actually bought tickets to see country music concerts a few times. And I would look on social media and see other people going there; it just makes you feel unsafe,” Holly says. “The type of person that traditional country music is marketed to is very clear – it’s for conservative white people. They are the same type of people who would not want me there and could possibly be violent towards me or make me feel unsafe because of the color of my skin. These are places I actively wanted to avoid.
Frustrated by the seemingly lonely experience, the Virginia resident began scouring the internet and discovered dozens of artists from black countries like singer and radio host Rissi Palmer. She started a website to showcase artists she found and meet other country music fans. She called it Black Opry.
“I wouldn’t even say that I really had goals [for the website]”, says Holly. “It was more like an attempt to heal my own relationship with him more than anything.”
In less than a year, Black Opry has gone beyond its blogging origins to become a force for change and a leader in the movement to bring racial equity to country music – an industry that was founded on exclusion whiteness. More than just a rallying point for artists or black country fans, it has evolved into a traveling revue that fills venues like Nashville’s Exit/In and Tennessee’s Dollywood, with additional spring-only shows and even in the fall. For its one-year anniversary on April 18, Black Opry will host an artist showcase at the City Winery in Nashville, presented by cable network CMT.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect for Black Opry to take hold: Country music’s long-awaited reckoning with racism has come to a head over the past two years, between the outspoken Mickey Guyton on the discrimination she faces as a black woman in gender, and Morgan Wallen’s well-reported use of a racial slur. As entrenched issues in the industry surfaced, outside movements like Black Opry began to circumvent these systems.
“Black Opry is so powerful because it not only reflects this generation of artists, musicians, and songwriters, but also writers, critics, journalists, and fans who don’t just want to amplify the work of black country artists and other marginalized communities,” says Dr. Charles L. Hughes, historian and author of soul of the country“but also by creating networks and building a sense of community to avoid dealing with racist institutions.”
One of Black Opry’s defining moments took place at AmericanaFest in Nashville in the fall of 2021. At the annual conference packed with showcases of the best and brightest talent in roots music, Holly and journalist Marcus K. Dowling rented an Airbnb as a meeting place for black artists and their allies. The idea was that performers could meet, write songs, network — all the things their white counterparts did freely during AmericanaFest week.
“They weren’t invited to the kinds of experiences that advance someone’s career,” says Holly, citing backstage parties and energizing brunches. Over the course of a few days at Black Opry’s Airbnb, guests included New York singer-songwriter Lizzie No, New Orleans artist Joy Clark, Jett Holden, Roberta Lea, Lilli Lewis, Leon Timbo and Frankie Staton, a country singer who had helped lead the Black Country Music Association in the 90s.
The house was rich in symbolism, but also a place where real community building took place.
“What a perfect metaphor: we will literally create a space where people can come in and out, share with each other and support each other,” says Hughes. “It becomes this powerful impetus to create all these other things.”
holden found affirmative time and left with new friends and a built in support group.
“We have a text string,” he says. “We talk all the time. Whenever one of us has something coming up or something that has happened, we mention it in there, and everyone immediately congratulates each other or asks what they can do to help.
For Clark, the Black Opry house fostered a sense of belonging—before AmericanaFest, she had never been to Nashville. Ace guitarist whose organic recordings blend acoustic soul, folk and rock, Clark felt the description of country music didn’t include him. “It’s hard to imagine yourself in a space where you can’t see yourself,” she says. “When people ask me what kind of music I play, it’s always like, ‘Good music? Music that sounds good?'” Following the Black Opry house, she ended up getting a job. playing the guitar on by Emily Scott Robinson to visit.
“Seeing Jett with a guitar, seeing Roberta with a guitar,” Clark says, emphasizing his point with a dramatic puff. “It was an instant exhale of ‘OK, I’m not the only one.'”
The live review started in earnest last October when Lizzie No called Holly G after an artist dropped out of a gig. She wondered if they could recreate the atmosphere of the Black Opry house for a New York show at Rockwood Music Hall. Holly reached out to Holden, Clark, Lea and Tylar Bryant and made it happen.
“That was another case of people saying, ‘This is what we need,'” Holly says. “We announced the New York one, and by the time we announced it, I had four more locations in my DMs like, ‘Hey, why don’t you come over here and do it?'”
Shortly after the New York show, Black Opry booked another gig at Nashville’s Exit/In for December, where Allison Russell showed up and surprised the audience with a performance. Booking the Exit/In was an important step for Black Opry, given the venue’s history as a scene leader and pioneer of the Nashville music community. The excited crowd that night proved to the Black Opry – and the club, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year – that they were onto something.
“The response to Black Opry has been incredible,” says Tori Bishop, Marketing Director of Exit/In. “There was support from all over the country. The artists who took part in the show were active in the conversation in a way that shows how connected and passionate they are.
Offers for new bookings kept coming in, and the revue played in Memphis, Houston, Chicago and Atlanta with a rotating group of artists representing a wide range of styles. They include Clark’s soulful acoustic work, big-voiced Holden and his mix of searing originals and startling pop covers, Lea’s R&B spin on country-pop, neo-traditionalist throwback Aaron Vance and ballad singer No. Harp Suffers Kam Franklin will be in the lineup when the Black Opry take on Austin in March.
Holden, who has less live experience than some of his peers, says the reviews have made performing easier. “It’s like being in that house at AmericanaFest every time,” he says. “We sit down, we joke with each other, we tell our stories and what our song is about. [The songs are] strike us more deeply because they are actually about our lives.
For Clark, who has been on numerous songwriter tours over the years, the Black Opry is the rare occasion when she isn’t the only black person on the lineup.
“I can’t count how many times I’ve been the only one,” she says. “You play because you want to share your songs, you want to share your music. But there’s a special feeling when you’re with people who are also like you, who also share these songs – who have their own flavor, who have their own point of view – that rejuvenates.
After Holly G launched Black Opry, she began having conversations about structural racism in country music with members of the Nashville music industry. Some, like CMT, were receptive, while others were unsure what to make of the organization’s mission.
“They seemed to have this feeling at first that we were a bogeyman, that we were going to try to tear everything down,” Holly says. “And I have aspirations to tear down certain things, but it’s not in a hateful way. It’s very precisely because I do like country music that I want some of that stuff to go away and be rebuilt better.
A year after leading Black Opry, Holly has yet to see much in the way of real structural change in the industry — and she still doesn’t feel comfortable performing at country gigs.
“The real fight is going to be to convince these institutions that it’s not me they have to talk to, it’s their fans,” she adds. “They want to come to me and find an answer. I can’t do this for them, because I’m not the problem. It’s their fans who are the problem, it’s their fans who make things dangerous. And they don’t want to upset their fans because they don’t want the money to stop coming in.
Although Black Opry has been able to partner with CMT on a few projects, it remains entirely independent and not dependent on Nashville’s tight-knit music industry. Hughes likens it to efforts like the Black Rock Coalition and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians which specifically aimed to create greater opportunities for black artists, but with the added democratic power of social media.
“It builds on a tradition within music and other black cultural spaces of creating alternative worlds to support each other,” says Hughes. “It’s not that it’s new to country, just like it’s not new to have black people making and enjoying country music. But it also brings into the country, in a way that might be more important, this important tradition that has existed throughout black cultural and musical history.
For now, Holly G and Black Opry continue to move forward. At this rate, she just hopes she can keep up with her growth.
“If you’ve ever been around a two-year-old, he may move, but you still have to make sure he doesn’t die,” she says. “That’s kind of how I feel about it. Often I will ask people, “What do you want this to be? What do you want it to be? I let it be what others need it to be.