Black Opry Founder Holly G On Creating Space for Black Artists in Country Music 

Members of the Black Opry Revue have performed all across the country, taking the stage at renowned venues, including WXPN’s World Cafe, the Kennedy Center and on Good Morning America | Courtesy of Black Opry
Listen to First Coast Connect’s Anne Schindler’s conversation with Black Opry founder Holly G

Holly G is the founder of Black Opry, a platform for Black artists performing in country, Americana, folk and American-roots music. A self-described “music-industry disruptor,” Holly G started Black Opry as a website in 2021. It has quickly grown into a collective of sorts, encompassing the Black Opry Revue, a touring party of Black artists from all over the country. 

Over the last few years, as the Black Opry has expanded, Holly G has become an important voice in music, advocating for Black artists – long overlooked in the country-music space. Meanwhile, members of the Black Opry Revue have performed all across the country, taking the stage at Newport Folk and renowned venues, including WXPN’s World Cafe, the Kennedy Center and on Good Morning America. 

In advance of the Black Opry Revue’s performance on the WJCT Soundstage on Thursday, February 15, Holly G talked with First Coast Connect’s Anne Schindler about the history of Black Opry and her work creating space for Black artists in country music. Listen to the interview via the player above or via the YouTube clip below. You can also read a transcript of the conversation below.

The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Why did you decide to create the Black Opry the black Opry review? What need did you see?

Well, it came from just me being a huge fan of country music. And I’ve lived it all my life. And I’ve not seen people that look like me represented on the stage. And so I created it to connect with other people that were like me that love country music. And I was attempting to reach fans. But I was so pleasantly surprised when I felt so many artists that were making a bunch of music and needed a platform because nobody was paying attention to them. So we’ve been able to fill in that gap.

So you’re not a performer yourself. But you’re a music critic and a writer. What was your experience with country music as a fan or even as a professional?

Well, I did not start writing until I launched Black Opry. I was writing so that I could pay to keep the website up, basically. But yeah, before I started doing this work, my interaction with country music was very limited. Other than listening to it. It does not feel safe, as a Black queer woman to go into some of these spaces that country music has been created in. It’s just another reason why it’s so important that we exist. So we could try to help make those spaces safer so that people that don’t look like a typical country music fan, can go and enjoy these events as well. 

You know, it’s interesting, our producer here has a program that she puts together annually called Queer Country Disco for the same reason, which is, you know, creating a space that feels safe to people who maybe don’t feel safe when they go or perhaps welcomed when they go to see country music. What kind of personal experience did you have with that? I saw in one article about you that, for instance, you wanted to go to a Miranda Lambert concert.

Yeah, I had bought tickets this year, like five times, and then I wouldn’t ever go, because I couldn’t find anybody that would be willing to go with me. And when you look at the people that typically support that kind of music, and there’s Confederate flags, and all that kind of stuff, it just doesn’t feel like a safe place to go alone. And so unfortunately, I wasn’t able to participate in the music that I love so much. 

So it is a fan experience. But it’s also an experience of Black country artists, Black folk artists. It’s my understanding that in the last 20 years that only 1% of the music on country music radio stations is from Black artists.

Yeah, that was figured out by Dr. Jada E. Watson, who did a study called the Red Line report, where she studied representation in country music over a span of 20 years. And I think it was like 0.1%, actually. And so the numbers are just really low. But then if you look at Black women, it’s lower. If you look at queer Black people, it’s even lower. And so we try really hard to make sure that we are being intersectional in our approach, as well. And just try to get as many voices out there as we can. And, you know, as far as shows that we only play with Black artists, we do a lot of things with the community as well as we try to be a safe space for anybody who loves this music and does not feel welcome.

And the Black Opry has shown that there is obviously no shortage of Black country and Americana artists. How many do you work with? How many typically perform when you are doing tours?

So, we have a database of about 200. Probably a little over that. Now artists that we have to pull from we have shows and each show has between three and five different performers. And the cool thing about our shows is you can go and you’ll never see the same show twice because we change the lineup for every show. And so there’s always different artists, always telling different stories. And you know, it’s also breaking down the stereotype of what people think of when they do think of Black country music, which is typically only Darius Rucker. There’s so much diversity just within the community of different styles and sounds and stories. And it’s always a really good mix of different perspectives.

I’m curious, just because it’s kind of news that was happening this week, with Tracy Chapman, who, you know, I think has been described as a variety of different kinds of artist. But I think of her certainly as having that kind of folk element. And, you know, the fact that her song was, some would say, you know, “covered” and others might say “appropriated.” The recognition for that song went to a male, white artist, as opposed to her at the CMAs. They, of course, performed together this week at the Grammys. But what are your feelings on that? The evolution of that song and her role in it.

So, the whole thing, really, to me, is more so about what it illustrates, as opposed to the actual song itself, or anything that we’ve done. That is the first time that a Black songwriter has been at the top of the country radio charts. And it only happened because there was a white man singing her song. You can argue whether or not she even wanted to be considered country. I don’t think that matters very much. If you do listen to the cover, Luke Combs didn’t really change the arrangement very much. So if that can be considered a country song when he sings it, it should have been able to be considered a country song when she sang it. And also, there are so many Black queer women that are making music and not getting coverage. So it would just be really nice to see people be able to see their own music and be successful within that industry.

What kind of challenges or pushback Have you received on this project? And how have you addressed them?

You know, I feel like we do get a lot of pushback. But for me, it’s not worth the effort to acknowledge or pay very much attention to it because we’ve also gotten so much support. I don’t think that I’ve ever had an experience where so many people rallied around something so passionately, and so quickly. I mean, we just launched this project in 2021. And it was only intended to be a website, but it ended up growing into this huge tour, because there was just a need for it. And so for every one person that has an issue with what we’re doing, I get asked all the time, well, “What if they made white opry,” right? And I’m like, “Well, they have one, that’s why we had to make the Black Opry.” Because they’re not letting us into that. And so I just kind of ignore those people. I’m focused on the fact that we have been able to put these artists in a position where their lives are being changed. And that’s really important to me. 

Who are some of the artists that have performed with the black Opry review? What are some favorite moments of the tour?

I will say I think one of my favorite standout moments was: we were headed to play Pilgrimage Fest here in Franklin, Tennessee. And we were on the golf cart. And my phone rang and it’s Alicia Keys’ manager. She wants you to sing with her tonight. And I was like there’s no way this is real. But it did end up being real. The artists got to play with her and sing with her on stage. And it was just such a cool moment seeing you know, Black artists that I grew up listening to and respect so much embrace the project and support it in such a memorable way.

That’s an exciting moment. I mean, so this is something that it’s not just that you’re reaching out to Black artists and performers about this project. They’re also just reaching out to be a part of it.

Yeah, she said she got my phone number from Brandy Carlisle, which is also insane. That’s one of the things that I talked about a lot is it only works because there have been so many people that have been, you know, gracious and kind enough to speak positively about us in rooms where there were powerful people. The first festival we played was Newport Folk, which is, I mean, insane for that to be our festival debut. But we were able to do that because Allison Russell stood up for us and advocated for us to be there. And so that’s something that I try to do anytime I get an opportunity is advocate for other people, because that’s how it’s been able to work for us to have so much success with this project.

Can we talk just briefly about the lineup that we are going to be hosting here at the WJCT soundstage on February 15? What can we expect from that performance?

Well, again, like the cool thing is, it’ll be a show that nobody’s ever seen before. I think we’ve got some of the performers that have been with us since the very beginning on that show, as well as some newer ones. And one of the most special things about a Black Opry show is not only are you getting to enjoy the music and the stories behind the music. You’re able to see this camaraderie that these artists build. And sometimes they’re building that in the moment on stage. And it’s just really special to see what community can bring to music.

Are there plans for the black Opry in terms of a future educational component, or any expansion of the current setup and mission?

Yeah, for sure. We’re trying to figure out, that’s one of the big things because I now have like all this access to all these people in the industry. I think it’s so important to figure out how to translate that access and the knowledge that I’m able to gain from all these people, to as many folks as possible. It’s really difficult being an independent artist. There’s no guidebook or anything like that. And so we did it. We started with a residency program last year that was put together with WXPN in Philadelphia, and we were able to put five artists through a six week program. We were able to pay them for their time, provide them with mentors. And then it all culminated with a performance at World Cafe which is really, really great. And we’re always looking for different ways to kind of put things together to create resources for artists. A lot of it is just very informal. Artists have reached out to me for whatever they need and you know, we try to provide as much as we can. 

The Black Opry Revue performs on the WJCT Soundstage on Thursday, February 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale now here.

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