During the past 12 months, African Americans have enjoyed heightened visibility in the country-music world. Warner Bros. Records and the Country Music Foundation recently released From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music, a three-CD retrospective that chronicles the contributions that African Americans have been making to the idiom ever since Deford Bailey joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1926. February also saw the publication of Nashville author Pamela Foster’s My Country: The African Diaspora’s Country Music Heritage, an encyclopedic look at the legacy of blacks in country music. Finally, two African American acts—male vocalist Trini Triggs and the Alabama band Wheels—signed record deals with Curb and Asylum, respectively, in 1997. Curb will be releasing Triggs’ first single, ”One Mississippi, Two Mississippi,“ a duet with black country pioneer Charley Pride, in late spring or early summer.
At the center of this flurry of activity has been the work of the Black Country Music Association (BCMA), a Nashville-based nonprofit established to educate the public about the role of country music in African American life. A group committed to opening the forbidding doors of the country music industry to more black artists, the BCMA marks its one-year anniversary this month. The group is hosting a showcase of writers and performers Feb. 26 to celebrate. The event, which takes place at the Bluebird Cafe, will feature 18 African American country artists from all over the United States. In addition to such gifted regulars as David Wayne and Valierie Ellis, the showcase boasts a rare public appearance by former Capitol Records singer Nisha Jackson, whose debut single, ”Alive and Well,“ landed on the country charts in 1987. Although Jackson went on to pursue a career in social work after the Nashville label unceremoniously dropped her from its roster in January 1990, the onetime hitmaker is reportedly still in fine voice.
Two performers making their debut at the BCMA Showcase are also worth mentioning. The music of Dwight Quick, a singer-songwriter-guitarist from High Point, N.C., should appeal to fans of the Texas Outlaw contingent. The other newcomer of note is multitalented Phoenix, Ariz., singer Rhonda Towns, who, among other things, worked as Whitney Houston’s stand-in for the movie Waiting to Exhale. Although this is her first appearance at a BCMA-sponsored event, Towns is no stranger to Music City. Her packed showcase at Douglas Corner last May drew label execs and A&R reps from a handful of Nashville majors. That performance, along with the fiddle-and-steel honky-tonk of her newly recorded four-song CD, Plenty More Love, has industry insiders predicting that Towns won’t be without a record deal much longer.
More than just a repository of exciting young talent, though, Thursday’s event is a tribute to the leadership and tireless efforts of two veterans of the local country music scene, BCMA principals Frankie Staton and J.J. Jones. In the past year, the duo has almost single-handedly made movers and shakers on Music Row see that the story of black people in country music doesn’t begin and end with Charley Pride.
Staton is supportive of all the artists she works with, but she expresses particular enthusiasm for Jay Mason, who performs at Thursday’s Bluebird showcase. ”Jay is an incredible songwriter,“ she says. ”He has a great song that documents the untold story about black cowboys, and asks why don’t we see them on the silver screen. He’s a fantastic talent.“
She also cites as cause for excitement the resurgence of Jackson, who first came to attention in the ’80s after winning a talent contest on TNN. ”I’ve listened to her tape, and she’s a legitimate cross between Brenda Lee and Patsy Cline, yet she’s got her own sound and her own style. It’s a tragedy and a travesty that she’s not a country-music queen.“
Staton adds that the response to the upcoming showcase has been overwhelming. ”We would have had this somewhere [larger] if we’d known there would be so much interest. We’ve had major articles in the Milwaukee Journal, the Denver Post, and the Washington Times; we’ll be covered by the CBS affiliate from Houston, and we’ve gotten inquiries from black cowboy groups who say they’ll be at all the showcases from now on.“
With such an auspicious year behind them, Staton and the BCMA are exuberant and enthusiastic about the year to come. Future plans include a traveling showcase of black country singers, a booth at Fan Fair ’98, increased coverage in the national black media, and the establishment of international networks and contacts for African American country artists.
In the meantime, there are signs that Staton’s and Jones’ hard work really is beginning to pay off: As the label deals awarded to Wheels and to Triggs suggest, country execs are actually paying attention to the BCMA’s efforts. At a reception hosted by the organization at the Country Music Foundation last month, Country Music Association President Ed Benson publicly endorsed the work of the BCMA by officially joining the organization.
Staton says Thursday’s event is just the start of a push to increase the organization’s rolls and its profile. Membership applications will be available to those who wish to join. ”We think this is just the beginning,“ she says.
Ron Wynn contributed liner notes to the From Where I Stand box set.