So often, country music is a story defined by three chords and the truth. However, for 86-year old Linda Martell, it was as a veteran vocalist in her mid-30s releasing three pop-country singles at the turn of the 1970s that changed the arc of country music history forever. The career of the artist to be honored with CMT's 2021 Equal Play Award at the 2021 CMT Music Awards provides an eternally compelling case for why the music industry must always support marginalized artists.
A chance encounter as a veteran, local R & B artist singing country music at an Air Force Base began her on a bittersweet journey into the genre. Her success was defined by her natural ability to blend soul chops with traditional country yodels and other vocal effects. Those talents led to the South Carolina native being signed by music manager William “Duke” Rayner. Soon thereafter, in 1969, music producer Shelby Singleton signed her to his Nashville-based Plantation Records label.
Martell released the first of her three mainstream country singles -- her country cover of The Winstons’ hit R & B track “Color Him Father” -- later that year. The song achieved unprecedented levels of success for an African-American female country vocalist by reaching the top 20 of the Billboard Hot Country singles chart. In the Summer of 1969 Martell also became the first African-American female performer to grace the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. Her debut album (entitled Color Me Country) followed in 1970.
In regards to encapsulating the tenor of the times and the incredible nature of Martell's journey, Rissi Palmer -- the groundbreaking African-American country vocalist and broadcaster who calls the "Color Him Father" singer an inspiration -- adds the following:
"The years 1968, 1969, and 1970 were big turning points in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1968, you had the assassination of Martin Luther King. You had the assassination of Robert Kennedy. You had the Civil Rights Act and all these different things that were going on and the rise of Charley Pride at the same time. And so it was just as important then as it is now for representation and seeing yourself and the artist in the music that you love."
Palmer continues by drawing a corollary between Martell, herself, and their career arcs in country music.
"I think about her and what it must have been like to be the first Black woman to ever play on the Grand Ole Opry. She mentions looking out into the audience and not seeing anyone who looked like her. I know that feeling. And I can't imagine - and when it happened to me it was in 2007," says the Apple Music Color Me Country podcast host and CMT Hot 20 Countdown correspondent. "So I can't imagine in 1968 with the climate the way that it was, with the rioting, and with all the things that were going on in this country, what it must have been like to be a Black woman, to walk out on that stage, not knowing how people were going to receive you or what they're going to do."
However, at various times during the initial push of her singles and album, she faced faced both name-calling and racism while on stage. Unlike the previously mentioned Pride, who went on to have a revered career, Martell was essentially blacklisted as a mainstream country performer. Following the lack of success for her last debut album single, 1970’s “Bad Case of the Blues,” she was shelved by her label and precluded from finding a new label willing to release new material she had recorded for a second mainstream country album.
For two decades after this unfortunate occurrence, Martell’s career was a tale told in two halves. On one end, she traveled nationwide performing live and appeared a dozen times on the Grand Ole Opry stage. On the other, she may be one of the most heartbreaking cautionary tales of the debilitating impact of racism and sexism in not just mainstream country music but the music industry in general.
Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in Martell’s career. Alongside modern era performers Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Rhiannon Giddens, and Brittney Spencer -- she was referred to as a pioneering Black female country artist by Maren Morris when the "The Bones" singer won Female Vocalist of the Year at the 2020 ACM Awards.
Martell’s granddaughter Quia Thompson, an independent filmmaker, is completing a documentary about her iconic grandmother’s life and times.
"After Maren [Morris] made the shout-out at the ACMs, her team sent my grandmother flowers," says Martell's aforementioned granddaughter Quia. The statement "give them their flowers" is a popular modern cultural phrase that's had a recent surge in country music, too, via Tanya Tucker's 2019-released -- and Grammy-winning hit single "Bring My Flowers Now." If modern era flower-giving can finally yield award-winning pop-crossover success for a vaunted icon like the singer of "Delta Dawn," then for Linda Martell, respect and equality via the Equal Play Award feel vital, too. Ultimately, it proves that civility and decency in country music are essential to the genre, establishing a broader, deeper, more respectful -- and yet still, unbroken circle -- in its future.