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Black Opry founder Holly G. is fighting for Black country music to be recognized

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRY THAT IN A SMALL TOWN")

JASON ALDEAN: (Singing) Well, try that in a small town. See how far ya make it down the road.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The video for Jason Aldean's new single "Try That In A Small Town" was pulled this week from Country Music Television after critics attacked it as racist. The video intercut scenes from Black Lives Matter protests with Jason Aldean performing in front of an infamous Tennessee courthouse where a Black man was lynched about 100 years ago and where a race riot occurred later. Jason Aldean denies the song has anything to do with race and says it's about taking care of neighbors, quote, "regardless of differences in background or belief."

Despite some country music fans who have Confederate flags on their bumpers, Black musicians have always been a part of country music. We're joined now by Holly G., the founder of the Black Opry, an organization that promotes Black country artists. And we just use her last initial because she has gotten threats in the past. Holly G. joins us from Nashville. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOLLY G: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: You've seen the Jason Aldean video?

HOLLY G: I did. It actually made me sick to my stomach. I had - I read the lyrics first, which were bad enough. And when you pair it with that video and the images, it just - it's very, very clear what he was talking about.

SIMON: What about the argument he makes that it's just a song about people in a small town who take care of each other?

HOLLY G: You know, I think that is almost the genius of sending out a dog whistle, because it's obvious enough that everybody can see what you mean, but it's still vague enough to where there's plausible deniability. And I think that if we let these things go unaddressed, then it continues to allow the problems that we see in country music, which is that, you know, Black people are often pushed out of it. And they're pushed out of it with things like this.

SIMON: Talk to me a bit about that if you can. There - I mean, Darius Rucker, Brittney Spencer, DeFord Bailey, Rhiannon Giddens - there have been lots of great Black stars in country music in recent years.

HOLLY G: There have been lots of great Black stars that are making country music. The country music industry is not embracing them and giving them the same opportunities and accolades that their white peers are getting. If you look at country music radio, that is the biggest indicator of success in the country music genre, and it's the last genre that has such a focus on radio. But, you know, charting, nominations for awards, all of these things circle back to country radio. And Dr. Jada Watson did a study on country music radio, and I think it was 1% Black artists played on country radio over the past 20 years. So it's not a problem that we're imagining. It's not a feeling. It is a statistical fact that these artists are being shut out of the mainstream.

SIMON: Tell us about the work that you do at Black Opry.

HOLLY G: Yeah. We have actually identified over 200 Black country and Americana artists around the country, and we work to platform as many as we can. You know, everybody's been talking so much about division, hatred and everything that we do is so much the opposite of that. We provide opportunities to create connection and community, and it's really just about giving these artists a voice in the industry.

SIMON: I love country music. It's heart. It's soul. It's the stories of real people. Do you think there's a special music that Black country artists can bring to country music?

HOLLY G: Absolutely. It's not even just the music, but the perspective. You know, most country music lovers will tell you that they love the stories. As long as country music has existed in the mainstream, we've only had stories from very few perspectives. So if you're a true lover of the music and the stories, I don't understand the pushback of welcoming in people that don't look like you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE FIRST TIME")

DARIUS RUCKER: (Singing) When was the last time you did something for the first time? Let yourself go. Follow that feeling.

HOLLY G: Because that's, you know, the most important place that you can learn from is when you hear stories that don't sound like your own.

SIMON: Yeah. I mean, that's what the arts are all about.

HOLLY G: Yeah, exactly.

SIMON: What do you make of the fact that the Jason Aldean song is very popular at the moment? I think it's number one.

HOLLY G: I mean, we just watched this happen when Morgan Wallen said the N-word and shot to the top of the charts as well. That's the biggest obstacle we face when trying to diversify country music, is that their fans are so galvanized behind white supremacy that when they have an opportunity, they make sure that the artist doesn't suffer for speaking out in favor of that.

And so our goal is to show that there are other people out there that love this music, people like myself who - you know, things like that frighten us. I had somebody tweet me yesterday, don't worry, we'll take care of you in the streets. If you look, Shannon Watts, who is the founder of Moms Demand Action, has gotten multiple death threats over the past week. These people are not safe for us to be around. And that's, you know, the core of why I started this, is because I wanted to feel safe physically and emotionally while enjoying this music.

SIMON: Holly G., what do you like about country music? What makes you a fan?

HOLLY G: I wish I had a better answer for you (laughter). But the truth is that I just - like, it's one of those things that I latched on to as a kid, and it just kind of stuck with me.

SIMON: That's a great answer. That's...

HOLLY G: Yeah. I don't think that there's a rhyme or reason. But sometimes you just find your thing, and that kind of has always felt like my thing.

SIMON: Yeah. Is there another song you'd like us to go out on?

HOLLY G: I would say a good song would be "My Church" by Maren Morris, 'cause I feel like this is all of our church, and my hope is that more space will be created for us to feel safe in it.

SIMON: Holly G. is the founder of the Black Opry. Thank you so much for being with us.

HOLLY G: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CHURCH")

MAREN MORRIS: (Singing) Can I get a hallelujah? Can I get an amen? Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ryan Benk