Holly G was trying to find a way to reconcile her love of country music with one disconcerting fact: She rarely saw anyone who looked like her at a country concert. It was always a sea of white faces and the unshakeable feeling that she wasn’t welcome.
“I actually bought tickets to see country music concerts a few times. And I would look on social media and see the other people that were going; it just makes you feel unsafe,” Holly says. “The type of person that mainstream country music is marketed to is very clear — it’s for conservative white people. Those are the same type of people who wouldn’t want me there and could possibly be violent toward me or make me feel unsafe because of the color of my skin. Those are places I wanted to actively avoid.”
Frustrated by this seemingly solitary experience, the Virginia resident began scouring the internet and discovered scores of Black country performers like singer and radio host Rissi Palmer. She launched a website as way to profile the artists she found and to meet other country-music fans. She called it Black Opry.
“I wouldn’t even say I really had any goals [for the website],” Holly says. “It was more like an attempt to heal my own relationship with it more than anything.”
In less than a year, Black Opry has grown beyond its blog origins to be a force of change and a leader in the movement to bring racial equity to country music — an industry that was founded on exclusionary whiteness. More than just a rallying point for Black country artists or fans, it has turned into a touring revue that’s filling venues like Nashville’s Exit/In and Tennessee’s Dollywood, with additional shows booked through spring and even fall. For its one-year anniversary on April 18, Black Opry will host an artists showcase at Nashville’s City Winery, presented by the cable network CMT.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect for Black Opry to take hold: country music’s long overdue reckoning with racism has reached a boil in the last two years, between Mickey Guyton’s outspokenness about the discrimination she’s faced as a Black woman in the genre, and Morgan Wallen’s well-reported use of a racial slur. As issues entrenched in the industry have come to light, outside movements like Black Opry have begun to circumvent those systems.
“Black Opry is so powerful because it reflects not only this generation of artists, musicians, and songwriters, but also writers, critics, journalists, and fans who are interested in not just amplifying the work of Black country artists and other marginalized communities,” says Dr. Charles L. Hughes, historian and author of Country Soul, “but also in creating networks and building a sense of community to avoid dealing with racist institutions.”
One of Black Opry’s defining moments took place at Nashville’s AmericanaFest in fall 2021. During the annual showcase-heavy conference of the best and brightest talent in roots music, Holly and journalist Marcus K. Dowling rented an Airbnb as a place for Black artists and allies to hang out. The idea was that performers could meet one another, write songs, network — all the things that their white counterparts were freely doing during the week of AmericanaFest.
“They weren’t getting invited to the types of experiences that further somebody’s career,” Holly says, citing backstage parties and power 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’d helped shepherd the Black Country Music Association in the Nineties.
The house was rich with symbolism, but also a place where real community building was happening.
“What a perfect metaphor: We will create literally a space where people can come in and out and share with each other and support each other,” says Hughes. “That becomes this powerful impetus to create all these other things.”
Holden found the time affirming and came away with new friends and a built-in support group.
“We have a text chain,” he says. “We talk all the time. Anytime one of us has something coming up or something that happened, we mention it in there, and everybody’s immediately congratulating or asking what they can do to help.”