Music

Linda Martell: More Than Just a Grand Ole Opry Trailblazer

Linda Martell made history in August 1969 when she became the first African American woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. That long overdue change by the Mother Church is just one of many discussion points about an artist who, like so many others to grace the Ryman or Opry House stage, relished the opportunity to add her own voice to a genre she loved as a child.

The Leesville, South Carolina native's Opry debut coincided with her first two singles, "Color Him Father" and "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." Although they cracked the country chart's Top 40 for Martell, both songs performed even better when cut by other artists. "Color Him Father" songwriter Richard Lewis Spencer won a Grammy for his band The Winston's 1969 recording. In 1975, one of the greatest talents to ever waltz across Texas, Freddy Fender, made "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" into a county staple.

Others' successes aside, a lifetime of experience prepared Martell (born Thelma Bynem) to make the most of her short stay in the Nashville spotlight. Before she became a groundbreaking country music singer, Martell performed with three of her brothers in a gospel quartet. She also cut a couple of pop records in the early 1960s with the Anglos (sometimes spelled "Angelos").

Per the National Museum of African American Music, during a performance at Charleston Air Force Base, officers encouraged Martell to mix some country songs into her set. The crowd reaction that night led Martell to devote her career to a musical style she used to hear her father sing around the house.

"I guess that's all we knew," she told Hollis L. Engley of Gannett News Service in 1998. "'Your Cheatin' Heart' and "I'm Walking the Floor Over You.' Until we got into our teens, we knew country music. That was it."

Martell's big break came when she inked a deal with Shelby Singleton's Plantation Records, the label behind Jeannie C. Riley's crossover hit "Harper Valley PTA." Plantation issued Martell's lone country album, 1970's Color Me Country, plus two additional singles, "Bad Case of the Blues" and "You're Crying Boy, Crying." The album and its singles strike a balance between the classic country of Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams ("I Almost Called Your Name") and the folk-grounded story-songs then prominent outside of Nashville ("Tender Leaves of Love," "San Francisco is a Lonely Town").

Between 1969 and the mid-'70s, Martell appeared on the Opry stage 11 more times. For comparison, Carly Pearce recently (and deservedly) notched her 75th appearance in a similar span (March 2015- June 2020). That's not a complaint about Pearce or an attempt to pit one woman's career highs against another's (and data on more than two artists' appearances in a five-year span would be necessary to know if 12 appearances is a little or 75 appearances is a lot, comparatively). Still, it's a reminder that even with today's women facing disadvantages within country music, some current artists' opportunities seem bountiful compared to those of a groundbreaking African American artist.

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At least one journalist saw Martell's Opry opportunities and record label affiliation as stepping stones toward a lengthy career.

"Charley Pride has hit the big time as a country and Western singer, and Linda Martell has all the talent to make it just as big on the distaff side," wrote the St. Petersburg Times' Chick Ober in 1971.

Ober projecting Martell as a long-term star in 1971 makes sense. Aside from her already mentioned professional highs, she was fresh off 1970 appearances on The Bill Anderson Show and Hee Haw. But for whatever reason, she never cut another big-label single, much less scored another minor chart hit.

Per Engles' 1998 article, Martell persevered as an entertainer for around 20 years, with her father's 1990 death bringing her back to South Carolina to take care of her mother and drive buses for children and the elderly.

"Everywhere I went I was accepted with all of the entertainers and the producers," Martell told Engles about her years as a country artist. "They were great. Now, with audiences you always got that few out there that's going to call names. But you just can't let it get you down."

Martell has resurfaced at least once in the 21st century. On a Jan. 22, 2014 episode of Swedish TV series Jills Veranda-- Nashville, its hosts traveled to South Carolina to discover that Martell could still sing the old, sad songs with the best of them.

Over 50 years later, Martell should be remembered as two things: the first black woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry and a gifted vocalist with a small yet rewarding discography that deserves attention aside from necessary discussions about race issues and gender identities within country music.

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Linda Martell: More Than Just a Grand Ole Opry Trailblazer