Country singer Maren Morris won the Country Music Award for female vocalist of the year on Wednesday but took time out of her speech to give praises to a number of Black female artists who she said inspired her work.
In her speech, she shouted out legendary Black country singers like Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer and Rhiannon Giddens.
"There are some names in my mind that I want to give recognition to because I'm just a fan of their music and they are as country as it gets, and I just want them all to know how much we love them back," she told the audience.
"There are so many amazing Black women that pioneered and continue to pioneer this genre and I know they're going to come after me, they came before me, but you've made this genre so, so beautiful. I hope you know that we see you. Thank you for making me so inspired as a singer in this genre," she added.
A number of fans were astonished that Morris made the effort to highlight the work of Black women in country music, which often goes unrecognized because of the industry's pervasive, deep-seeded racism.
Viewers, however, were particularly happy she shouted out Martell, a legendary Black country singer who like many others was effectively forced out of the industry due to racism.
1. I'm so glad @MarenMorris mentioned Linda Martell in her speech
She is the country music pioneer you've never heard of
She made history as the first Black woman to perform at Grand Ole Opry…she received a standing ovation
— Yashar Ali ???? (@yashar) November 12, 2020
Rolling Stone did a feature story on Martell in September and highlighted the struggles she faced after becoming the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.
Martell made it to the Top 25 on the country music charts with her hit song Color Him Father in 1969 but told Rolling Stone that she immediately faced racism in a variety of forms. She was signed into a contract with Plantation Records and country music producer Shelby Singleton.
“I didn’t like it but that’s the name he wanted. There was very little that Shelby touched that didn’t turn to gold, and he knew it,” she said.
She told Rolling Stone that after her hit song, she began to tour and faced an avalanche of racist abuse from fans and concert promoters, who criticized her pronunciation and demanded she accepted the slurs that people shouted at her.
One concert promoter even canceled her show once he found out she was Black.
“A lot of times, you feel like saying, ‘OK, look here, I don’t wanna hear that. Please quit calling me names like that.’ But you can’t say that. You can’t say anything. All you can do is do your singing and try your best to forget about it,” she said.
When she tried to leave Plantation Records, Singleton blackballed her and threatened to sue any label that attempted to sign her.
"It ruined my reputation in country music. Shelby had a lot of power during that time,” she said, adding that she eventually left country music altogether and spent years working as a school bus driver.
She retired in 2004 after battling breast cancer, but a Swedish TV show called Jill's Veranda found her and spoke to her about her experiences.
The recent fracas over Lil Nas X has proven that country music's problems with Black people have yet to cease.
His hit song Old Town Road skyrocketed him into international stardom after its release in 2018. After going viral in 2019, the song debuted on the Hot Country Songs chart at No. 19.
But Billboard faced backlash when they removed the hit song from the country charts, claiming it was not a country song. Many said this had implicit tones of racism, which Billboard denied in a statement to Rolling Stone at the time.
"When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is a musical composition. While 'Old Town Road' incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version," Billboard said in a statement.
Another spokesperson later told Genius that their "decision to take the song off of the country chart had absolutely nothing to do with the race of the artist."
Dozens of music critics called the move racist considering its popularity and country melody. The conversation around the song reignited the long history behind the erasure of Black country artists and the Black people who lived in the south and west during the 1800s.
Dr. Dina Bennett, the senior curator at the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, told The Washington Post that much of country music originates from slaves who were forced to perform for their masters using instruments brought over from Africa. She highlighted the akonting, which comes from West Africa and is a predecessor to the American banjo.
"The erasure of African-American presence from country music is compounded by the erasure of African-Americans from the history of the American west," wrote Jake Iverson Ruckus for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
"Though country music was largely born in the south, it’s usually focused on the western ideal, obsessed with open plains and big skies. Because our cultural conception of the west is dominated by white points of view, that has trickled down into the music written about it," he added.