Ericka Dunlap moved to Nashville from her native Florida about a year ago, hoping to become a country star. She had a lovely voice, a beautiful face and, as Miss America 2004, an attention-getting résumé that few aspiring artists can boast. “Everybody told me, ‘Oh, you’re gonna be a big hit. You’re gonna be a star by December,’ ” she recalls. “I didn’t know any better. I thought it was really that easy. And it didn’t happen.” A major-label showcase at 12th & Porter in December came to naught, and a planned reality TV show fell apart.
There are two big reasons Dunlap hasn’t made it yet. One is that country music is simply a brutal business. Untold numbers of aspiring artists make the same trek to Nashville she did every day, an infinitesimal number of those get signed by major labels and a fraction of that fraction actually become stars. The other reason is Dunlap’s skin: a rich dark-chocolate tone that has graced not one new major country artist in 40 years. In order to become famous singing the music she loves, Dunlap—and every other black performer—must not only beat the astounding odds facing every newcomer in Nashville, but upend a culture that allowed the great Charley Pride to become a superstar in the late 1960s, then shut the door firmly behind him.
Since then, a few black artists have managed to pry the door open a little: Stoney Edwards and O.B. McClinton in the early 1970s, Big Al Downing in the late ’70s, Dobie Gray in the mid-1980s, Cleve Francis in the early ’90s and Trini Triggs later that decade. All had some chart success, but none ever saw the inside of Billboard’s Top 15 country singles. Cowboy Troy’s debut, Loco Motive, reached No. 2 on the country albums chart last year on the strength of video play and the Texas rapper’s association with Big & Rich. Still, no black singer has truly broken through since Pride.
In the face of such entrenched disinterest, more and more African American artists are releasing their albums independently. The last year or so has seen indie releases from a long roster of black country singers: Arizona’s Rhonda Towns (I Wanna Be Loved by You), Oakland’s Miko Marks (Freeway Bound), L.A.’s Vicki Vann (Dream Catcher), Arkansas’ Petrella (Dreams of the Heartland), St. Lucia’s L.M. Stone (Looking Through the Mirror of My Life) and black-and-white duos GeorgeBlack (Live It Now) and Chutegate #9 (Tales From the Chute), among others.
Towns, who sang the national anthem at the Greased Lightning Riverfront Park Stages at the recent CMA Music Festival/Fan Fair, secured her own distribution deal for I Wanna Be Loved by You and called radio stations herself to stir up airplay. “I’m still struggling, trying to get the project out there,” she says. “But eventually it is going to happen. It’s been hard, it’s been tough, but I’m a go-getter and I just refuse to say that this cannot be done.”
Granted, most of these artists hope to parlay interest in their independent releases into a major-label deal. “They say you’re not gonna be successful until you’re turned away by every label in the industry,” says David Black, a former M.C. Hammer sideman who started GeorgeBlack eight years ago with his lighter-skinned friend Tony George. “We haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. Maybe that’s what we need to do before we grab any success. But I definitely think we’re destined for greatness. Garth didn’t start out great.”
Others, like Corey Lea of Chutegate #9, reject the major-label system entirely. “After I looked at the industry and how it has traditionally dealt with minorities, I don’t want anything to do with Music Row,” says Lea, who also performs as a solo artist. “I will never play the Grand Ole Opry. I don’t want anything to do with any of that stuff. I’m in Nashville to find good players, to hone my skills and I’ll take off and do what I feel is right. You need not put your hopes and dreams in Music Row’s hands.”
Lea lambastes Nashville for not tapping into the buying power of potential African American country fans by offering them artists to whom they can relate. “African Americans spend $700 billion in this country every year in goods and services,” he says. “We have to figure out what our worth is in this country.”
On this point, there is agreement. “If there’s representation, there’ll be a bigger fan base,” figures Dunlap. “If there were no black basketball players, there probably wouldn’t be a lot of black attendance at the games. If you open up and allow someone to represent a particular demographic that isn’t buying or attending the concerts, the floodgates are gonna open. If you look at it purely from a business standpoint, it’s kinda genius.”
Few believe the reason for the resistance is overt racism. “I’ve been very well accepted,” says Dunlap. “If there’s something lurking in the shadows that I don’t know about, it’s been very well hidden. Everyone’s been really nice to me.” The culprit is more likely Music Row’s deeply entrenched aversion to risk-taking of any sort.
“People say they’re looking for the next big thing,” says Black. “But when the next big thing is available to them, they wait on somebody else to make the move first.”
Despite all historical evidence to the contrary, the feeling persists among these artists that eventually another black voice will join Pride in the country pantheon. With Opry pioneer DeFord Bailey’s belated induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year and the renewed focus on Ray Charles’ groundbreaking country recordings (spotlighted at the Hall’s ongoing Charles exhibit, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”), the connections between country’s African American roots—beginning with the banjo, an instrument of African origin—and its future are in the air, waiting to be tied together by the right artist.
Dunlap is one of many looking toward the day when there will be enough African American representation in country music that her race will no longer be an issue, a day when she can be judged on her talent alone.
“That really will be exciting,” she says. “People won’t know me as ‘that black girl country singer.’ I’ll be Ericka.”