During that 12-hour recording session, Singleton threw songs to Martell and a team of musicians to perform and, in return, she produced a boundary-breaking piece of art that wouldn’t be duplicated for years to come. But despite her meteoric rise and well-received album, by Martell’s estimation, her momentum at Plantation Records came to a halt when white female singer Jeannie C. Riley of “Harper Valley P.T.A.” fame became the label’s primary focus. When Martell tried to find work elsewhere in Nashville, Singleton thwarted her by threatening to sue prospective new record companies. Her career was left incomplete—a series of dispiriting what ifs? In the decades that followed, Martell bounced around the U.S. doing the music-industry equivalent of odd jobs—singing on a cruise ship off the coast of California, opening a disco and R&B record store in the Bronx, fronting an R&B cover band in Florida—before returning to her South Carolina hometown as a teacher and school bus driver. Even after failed attempts to rehabilitate her career as a recording artist, Martell’s life still orbited around a profound love for music.
In the decades since Martell’s country career fizzled, Black women country singers like Ruby Falls, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, and others have experienced some semblance of success, though none have charted higher than Martell did over 50 years ago. In 2023, mainstream country music thrives in spite of the demographic and cultural changes taking place in America: The country stars who have enjoyed the most success this year are ones that have, in one way or another, declared opposition to those changes. Country music veteran Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” which has been criticized as a coded call to action encouraging rural white Americans to pick up their guns in the event of perceived unruly behavior, became a No. 1 hit. “Last Night,” a country song decorated with trap-style percussion, sat at the top of the charts for 16 weeks when singer Morgan Wallen re-emerged after saying the n-word on camera in 2021. Perhaps the year’s most surprising country chart-topper is “Rich Men North of Richmond,” from out-of-nowhere Farmville, Virginia singer Oliver Anthony. The song tugs at the frustration of poor and working-class whites who feel stifled by “new” social norms and envious of migrants and welfare recipients; Anthony’s wails add palpable dramatic effect.
“There is no other massive cultural industry where we would accept that it is OK for it to be this straight, this white, and this masculine,” University of North Carolina professor Tressie McMillan Cottom said on a recent episode of Vulture’s Into It podcast focused on country music’s present-day racial dynamics. When Black audiences embrace non-Black artists in genres like hip-hop and soul, McMillan Cottom says, “We don’t just give them an audience, we give them legitimacy. This is what country music denies Black artists. In country music, even when the music is produced by Black artists… it has to be separated from Black people to be considered legitimately country. That’s the difference.”
Those words ring excruciatingly true over the incomplete career of Linda Martell. Money-hungry men from Nashville never considered the singer in her fullness. She was an avatar fixed for white imagination, never granted the opportunity to tell a story that transgressed beyond songs with safe, established themes about women occupied with love (or the lack of it) from men in their lives. Her story inspires its justified share of rage and heartache, but in that same breath, it’s no less remarkable; a Black woman’s voice storming through an industry she wasn’t supposed to be part of, breaking records by sheer existence and leaving hard evidence of the kind of impactful work that outlasts even the hottest commodities of the moment.
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