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Multi-colored stained glass windows on the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN
Nightime view of the colorful, church-like windows of Ryman Auditorium, the historic venue for bluegrass and country music in Nashville, the capital city of the U.S. mid-South city Tennessee, 2021. Carol Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

On Linda Martell and Country Music

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The following is a guest post by Morgan Davis, Music Reference Specialist.

As music lovers finally exhale after the highly anticipated release of Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter,” we are once again reminded of the music mogul’s ability to remind us of cultural histories long overlooked and buried. Like many American pastimes, country music found itself dominated by men. Women hoping to gain a footing in the industry needed to play along with the longstanding feminine gender stereotypes attached to the country western cultural heritage. To that end, cultural anthropologist Sherry Ortner observes that:

“Women represent middle class ideology, a fatalistic acceptance of capitalist work discipline, and religious piety. They embrace respectability against the heroically disreputable male values of the labor process, shop-floor culture, military experience, and the utopian working-class space of the tavern.” (Heidemann, 2016)

In short, country western gender expectations suggest that women must be a bit of everything: tough enough to survive the patriarchal conundrum previously outlined, but soft enough to be willing to subscribe to this worldview without question. Having boldly and successfully navigated the country music industry, music legends Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn provide examples of how to make it in the industry as women. Despite the gender-based discrimination that Parton and Lynn experienced, one factor that they did not have to account for was race. The same cannot be said for Black country music star and pioneer Linda Martell.

Born in 1941, Linda Martell (birthname Thelma Bynem) got her start singing in the Baptist church, but thanks to her father’s interest in country music, she was no stranger to the genre. At the age of 12, she formed a band and by the early 1960s was touring with girl group The Anglos. Martell lived as an unsigned, freelance singer until her paths crossed with aspiring music executive Duke Rayner. Upon Rayner’s encouragement, Martell recorded a demo of Richard Lewis Spencer’s (1942-2020) 1969 R&B hit “Color Him Father” for Shelby Singleton’s Plantation Records. She had just the sound that Singleton sought. Not only did Spencer win the Grammy Award for R&B Songwriter of the year for his composition, but the B-side, “Amen, Brother,” contains one of the most widely sampled drum breaks (“Amen Break”) in hip hop and drum & bass history.

Black and white photo of Linda Martell singing into a microphone, part of a news clipping from Ebony.
Linda Martell pictured in Ebony. vol. 25, no. 5, March 1970. Thumbnail, full version accessible via the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room.

“Color Him Father” tells the story of a child whose father was killed in Vietnam and the man who married his widowed mother and becomes a model father figure for the child and his six siblings. Martell’s version of the song is a distinct departure from the version recorded by the funk and soul group, The Winstons, who originally premiered the song. Martell’s version opens with a rambling guitar line and a bouncy snare marking time on the upbeat. “Color Him Father” was released during the Vietnam War which marked a time of paternal loss for many American families. While this song was not originally written as a country song, the opening lyrics paint a picture of the global worldview depicted earlier.

“There’s a man at my house, he’s so big and strong. He goes to work each day and stays all day long. He comes home each night lookin’ tired and beat. He sits down at the dinner table and has a bite to eat.”

The Music Division holds the copyright deposit of “Color Him Father” along with other copyright deposits from Martell’s album “Color Me Country.” When placed in the context of country music, the rich soul inflections of Martell’s voice added a depth to the message of this song. Alice Randall, author of forthcoming book, “My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music’s Black Past, Present, and Future” remarks that “Linda Martell effectively directs, not pleads, not suggests, directs us to understand that [the] stepfather’s fundamental identity is as father, not his skin color” (Randall, 2010).

Excerpt of “Color Him Father” by Richard Spencer, Copyright deposit, Music Division.

Rayner and Singleton were part of a community of music executives in the country music industry who were seeking Black musicians to perform country music. In an interview for Ebony magazine, Rayner shared that he, “figured if he could find a colored girl that could sing country and western, [he’d] really have [himself] something” (Ebony, 1970). While Martell was a pioneer in what she would come to represent for blackness and country music, she joined the ranks of other Black musicians who had covered country music, such as Aretha Franklin, Esther Phillips, and even The Supremes, to “establish the authenticity of their artistic personae and to reference not only their own southern roots, but also the larger, shared experience of the Great Migration and the cultural and social changes that attended it” (Pecknold, 2016). Whether conscious or not, this move to authenticate their careers was also a move of reclamation and establishment in a genre whose American indigeneity is rooted in the African American music that came from the enslaved Africans who carried their musical heritage with them through the Middle Passage.

Martell became the first female Black solo country music artist to appear at the Grand Ole Opry in 1969. Her country cover of Spencer’s “Color Him Father” reached no. 22 on the Billboard country singles chart, making her the highest-charting Black female artist in country music until 2023 when Tracy Chapman topped the charts as songwriter for Luke Combs’ cover of her hit single “Fast Car.” Chapman’s “Fast Car” was also named song of the year in 2023 by the Country Music Awards, making her the first Black artist to earn this award.

Black, red, orange, and yellow vinyl album cover art with Linda Martell pictured in center.
Linda Martell “Color Me Country” vinyl album cover [thumbnail].
Despite achieving relative success after releasing what would be her only album, “Color Me Country,” Martell stepped away from her career as a country music artist—officially, to raise a family. According to subsequent interviews with Martell, however, the label redirected their financial resources to white female artist Jeannie C. Riley. Martell similarly grew tired of the racist reception she often received at performances (think Beyoncé’s 2016 performance at the 50th Country Music Awards), as well as having to hide her blackness to appeal to a fan base that had historically rejected Black singers interpreting “white” music on a purely skin-deep basis (Royster, 2022). Despite having the burden of being the singular representation for Black feminine identity in country music for decades, Martell’s artistry set a precedent for those who have come after her.

Additional Resources

Ebony. (1970, March). “Country Music Gets Soul.” Ebony, p. 68.

Heidemann, K. (2016). Remarkable Women and Ordinary Gals: Performance of Identity in Songs by Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. In D. Pecknold, & K. M. McCusker, “Country Boys and Redneck Women: New Essays in Gender and Country Music” (p. 169). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Pecknold, D. (2016). Negotiating Gender, Race, and Class in Post-Civil Rights Country Music: How Linda Martell and Jeannie C. Riley Stormed the Plantation. In D. Pecknold, & K. McCusker, “Country Boys and Redneck Women: New Essays in Gender and Country Music” (pp. 147-149). Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.

Randall, A. (2010, April 4). Linda Martell’s “Color Him Father.” Oxford American.

Royster, F. T. (2022). “Black Country Music” (pp. 21-22). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Comments (8)

  1. What a thoughtful and relevant post! I’ve also been listening to “Cowboy Carter” and I know this will inform my listening. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks so much for your comment, glad you found the post interesting! Happy listening.

  2. Thanks for posting this informative and insightful piece! Learned quite a bit.

    • Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed!

  3. “At the age of 12, she formed a band and by the early 1960s was touring with girl group The Anglos.”

    Thanks for including Linda Martell’s sister and cousin who also comprised the group “The Anglos” in your blog. The identity marker “Anglo” is very significant because it informs the entire world that the USA banjo, country music and Black American cowboy (emphasis on “boy”) culture was created by the Anglophone (English-speaking) descendants of enslaved people from the colony of Virginia and the colonies that sprung from Virginia i.e. North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

    First and foremost it is the Anglophone descendants of people enslaved in the English colonies that became the USA who were brought to Texas by Anglo-American settlers who created Black American Cowboy Culture. Understanding this nuance is very important to understanding why the cover of Jolene currently being discussed in the media misses the mark.

    Unlike Linda Martell, the singer who did this cover is not an Anglophone descendant of people enslaved in the USA. So she was never going to get Jolene correct. Dolly meant well by letting it be known publicly that she wished that this singer would cover Jolene with hopes that she would turn it into a powerhouse song like Whitney did “I will always love you.” That was never going to happen because this singer does not have “the voice” like Whitney. On top of that, she and her team are not self-aware that it is not appropriate to center and elevate Creole (a term first used by French colonists to distinguish themselves from Anglo-American settlers) and/or Louisiana heritage in an Afro-Anglophone space.

    For the record, I am a Black American who is descended from people enslaved in one of the original 13 colonies south of the Mason-Dixon line. I share this insight in good faith and truly out of love because it pains me to see how this singer is being talked about in the media because of her revision of Jolene. She has a cultural blind spot and misstepped.

    Also, I hope this shared insight reaches the singer whose Jolene cover is currently being discussed in the media right now. This singer just needs to center and elevate her Texas roots only and Linda Martell at this point to course correct. The world already knows that her paternal roots are Alabama and maternal roots are Louisiana, which are irrelevant in a USA Afro-Anglo space and art form that was created in specific English colonies before the country was even founded. I don’t mean any disrespect to her or anyone else but it ain’t about Creole Louisiana heritage all the time. It’s not the time and place to elevate this heritage. Just pay homage to the USA Afro-Anglophone heritage that created the USA banjo, country music, and Black American Cowboy culture and keep it moving. We are enough (smile).

    • Thanks so much for sharing your perspective on these topics!

  4. Thank you for spotlighting Linda Martell. She has always been an inspiration to me.

    • Our pleasure!

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