June 2024 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Country Music as an Academic Probe

“Country music”, along with its variations, is not often a term you’d associate with academia, at least not until you have a good understanding of the vast field of musicology. As a historian of music, I often find myself at the crossroads trying to explain what I study and how I study it. My succinct answer is, a historian of music studies music, but not strictly musicologically, but rather uses music to scrutinize history. This, in my opinion, is disparate from music historians, or musicologists with an emphasis on history, for whom the product of music itself is the central subject. As for country music historians, country music as an art form comes first and foremost, but that doesn’t mean it’s just about the music. As a genre with humble roots, one can’t talk about country and folk music without referring to historical and sometimes political contexts.

Today, country music is a recognized, albeit small, academic discipline with international appeal. One of American folk music’s early advocates, Charles Seeger (1886-1979) helped spearhead the founding of the Society of Ethnomusicology (SEM). Seeger envisioned for music to be communicated and studied musically, instead of merely through linguistics as crutch. He advocated the role of the (ethno)musicologist to be a transmitter of music but also critic of culture. The field today has mostly evolved a long way from the days of Seeger. Musicology nevertheless still relies heavily on textual analyses of music, which, tellingly, did not necessarily become a point of concern for professionals. Currently, country music in academia is taught primarily as a form of performing arts, and less as a theory or history. The International Country Music Conference (ICMC), founded in 1983,  has been held annually at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee since 1998. This year it runs from May 30th to June 1st.

A white man holding a baby plays a piano outside a trailer while a standing woman plays fiddle and two children sit on a bench beside her.
Ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, Jr., with his wife, Constance, and their three sons, Charles III, John, and Pete. This photograph may be from a tour they made of the American South in a homemade trailer. Image is from the National Photo Company (1921) and is in the public domain.

For those who aspire to become professional musicians or work in the country music industry and adjacent, East Tennessee State University, Morehead State University, and Denison University offer degree programs in the genre. Other institutions in North America including the Berklee College of Music, USC Thornton School of Music, University of Miami, University of Saskatchewan MacEwan University offer, or have offered in the past, courses and an initiative on country music. The Country Music Foundation based in Nashville had published the Journal of Country Music from 1971 to 2007. The journals are archived and still accessible through many higher institutions, as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum digital archive.

If you are interested in reading academic writings on country music, a good place to start is with anything by historian Bill C. Malone, professor of history emeritus at Tulane University. Country Music U.S.A. (1968) is inarguably the first academic history book on country music. The turn of the twentieth century saw the political bifurcation within country music, shown through monographs such as Charles K. Wolfe’s Country Music goes to War (2005) and Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music (2007) by journalist Chris Willman. In recent years, academics have leaned more toward socio-political themes, displayed in work like Diane Pecknold’s Hidden in the Mix: the African American Presence in Country Music (2013), Nadine Hubbs’ Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (2014), Peter La Chapelle’s I’d Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music (2019), and anthology Whose Country Music? Genre, Identity, and Belonging in Twenty-First-Century Country Music Culture(2022).

Collaged image of the cover of four books. Country Music U.S.A, Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music, Hidden in the Mix: the African American Presence in Country Music, and Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music.

Just like the grassroots of country music itself, the academia of country music also reflects the debates that are present in the country music scene. The problem of “authenticity” has plagued various art forms and genres, but with a genre like country music, it is particularly prominent. Recently, philosophy professor Evan Malone published an excellent piece on the topic in the British Journal of Aesthetics in a 2023 issue. With references to a range of scholars with backgrounds from Anthropology to Aesthetics with an emphasis on country music, including Jack Bernhardt, John Dyck, Richard Shusterman, it demonstrates the versatile ways country music can be studied academically.

In my very own first year of PhD for a final’s assignment, I assembled a lecture in history on medieval Celtic and African musical traditions and their manifestations in Appalachian folk music—a connection that often surprises non-listeners. Outside of traditional academia, current events surrounding and within country music have been covered by journalists and critics, such as Emily Nussbaum’s 2023 piece for The New Yorker.

Alas, it is challenging to include a more thorough academic country music discography here. In an effort to keep this blog digestible, I am only able to give you taste of the available literature and must leave many scholars out of this post. I encourage you to start your own reading journey and dive into the academic world of country music with me. As country music enters a new phase both artistically and in popularity, we can certainly anticipate further exciting discussions in the near future!

Image of a young Chinese-American woman with long black hair and wearing a grey long sleeve shirt.
Emily Lu, PhD Candidate at Florida State University.

Guest Blogger Emily Lu is a PhD candidate in History at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.

Who is Linda Martell? The Story of the First Commercially Successful Black Woman in Country Music

This month is African American Music Appreciation Month, to celebrate, I want to shed some light on a particularly underappreciated artist. As time passes, some artists are forgotten for their achievements until someone rediscovers them. One of these artists is Linda Martell, the first commercially successful Black female artist. A self-titled website calls her the “unsung hero of the genre,” and a Rolling Stone article refers to her as “Country’s Lost Pioneer.” Recently, Martell has reentered the public radar after being mentioned in Beyonce’s album Cowboy Carter, specifically on two songs, “Spaghetti” and “The Linda Martell Show”. After the release of the album, magazines such as The Rolling Stone soon began publishing articles with titles of “Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Includes a Shout-Out to Linda Martell — Who Is She?” Let’s find out! 

Up close image of Black woman singing into a mic.
Linda Martell in Ebony Magazine, March 1970.

Linda Martell was born Thelma Bynem on June 4, 1941, in Leesville, South Carolina. She was one of five children to parents Willie Mae and Clarence Bynem. Her mother worked in chicken slaughterhouses, while her father was a sharecropper and preacher in a Baptist Church. Her church life influenced her love of music, and her gospel roots can be heard on later recordings. She recalled that growing up, her family would listen to the radio station WLAC which was based in Nashville and played country music. Her father’s favorite song was “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams, and he would sing it around the house often.  

In her teenage years, she formed an R&B trio with her sister and their cousin, creating “Linda Martell and the Anglos” (later spelled “Angelos”). By the early 1960s, she was touring with the group and performing at clubs. They caught the attention of a local DJ named Charles “Big Saul” Greene, who suggested Bynem use the name Linda Martell. He wrote her a note stating, “Your name is Linda Martell. You look like Linda. That fits you.” The group soon disbanded, but only after recording a few singles with reputable labels.  

Bynem, now going by Linda Martell, continued as a solo act performing in nightclubs. While singing on a Charleston Air Force base in 1969, the crowd begged her to perform a few country songs and heard by William “Duke” Rayner. He offered to buy a tape of her performing. Originally, Martell thought Rayner was a “kook” and ignored him, but eventually decided to hear him out. He then introduced her to Shelby Singleton Jr., who was involved in the Nashville music industry. 

During her first meeting with Singleton, he shocked her by asking her to sing country. She recounted later that she had performed mostly pop up to that point. At this point, Black country musicians, especially female ones, still had a lot of trouble getting signed onto labels and performing. Singleton signed on both black and white performers but considered Martell a risky move because she was a woman. All Black country artists who were successful up to this point were men. Nevertheless, Martell signed a management deal on May 15, 1969, and a record deal.  

The next day she recorded a cover of “Color Him Father” by the Winstons. It was originally in the funk and soul style, but Martell transformed it into a mix of country and R&B. But more importantly, she focused on the storytelling aspect of the song. At the height of the Vietnam War, this song resonated with people. It is a story from a boy’s perspective after his father died during the war. His widowed mother remarried, and the song tells the boy’s view of this new father figure in his life – a very harsh reality for many in the years surrounding the song’s release.  

Album cover. The words "Color Me Country" sit atop "Linda Martell" in large white font on a black background. The title is above a large box that takes up most of the image with four different shades of orange boxes getting progressively smaller inside it until the middle box, which is filled with an image of a black woman singing.

They finished the album in a single 12-hour recording session. The album, called Color Me Country, included eleven songs, but “Color Him Father” was released on the record and as a single. It reached #22 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, the highest a Black female country artist had reached until the release of Cowboy Carter by Beyonce earlier this year. Martell soon appeared on TV, in live shows, and even at the Grand Ole Opry. She was the first solo Black female country singer to appear on the Opry stage and received two standing ovations.  

She was also invited to perform on Hee Haw, a comedy and country music show. Despite her success, racism plagued her career. After hearing her during rehearsals, a show executive approached her and attempted to correct her pronunciation of her own lyrics. She did not listen and sang the words the way she always did. She later stated, “He wasn’t too happy about it. But I did anyway.”  Charley Pride, a well-known Black country artist who had been performing for almost two decades at that point, gave Martell advice during a party: “Develop a thick skin and get used to the name-calling.” She tried to ignore it but never truly got used to it and refused to learn to tolerate how she was being treated. 

In the South, she was advertised as the “First Female Negro Country Artist.” Her first gig after signing with Singleton was in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. She later recounted that night, “You’d be singing, and they’d shout out names, and you know the names they would call you.” There was another instance when a promoter in Beaumont, Texas, canceled her show after discovering that she was black. He claimed that her “Fans would tell her she didn’t sound black.”  

Singleton recorded her record with a separate label from his regular SSI International label. This sister label was called “Plantation Records”. When she confronted Singleton about the racism behind that name, he denied it and said he chose it with no particular meaning. She stated in later interviews that she told him, “What you are telling me is that black people belonged on the plantation!” She recorded only one album with Singleton and Plantation Records.  

A black woman in a rhinestone studded outfit sits on a fence playing a guitar and smiling.
Linda Martell in Ebony Magazine, March 1970.

In May 1970, Rayner sued Martell because he believed that he deserved a higher commission from her. Singleton managed to make the issue go away, but Martell had other concerns. Singleton was focusing his attention more on another artist named Jeannie C. Riley. This was not simply a suspicion but something Singleton himself told Martell he was doing intentionally. After her year-long contract expired, Martell left Plantation Records. However, when she attempted to record with a new label, Singleton threatened to sue them, causing her deal with them to collapse. This trend continued and she was effectively blackballed, her reputation ruined, and she was forced into an early retirement in 1970. 

Despite her incredible achievements, her short career caused her to be largely forgotten in country music history. After her country music career ended, Martell spent the next two decades living a nomadic lifestyle, singing in bars and clubs, and on a cruise in California. At one point, she ran a record store in Bronx, New York, and at another, she was in Florida, where she joined an R&B cover band with her brother. Eventually, she returned to South Carolina to be with her family.  

After her father’s death in 1991, she became a school bus driver and later worked in a classroom helping children with learning disabilities. She became a local hero to some, but others still had no idea who she was. When magazines reached out for interviews, many remembered her as a “kindly older lady who worked for the school system.” After being diagnosed with cancer in 2004, she retired from her job. Up until 2011, she performed with a band called Eazzy, which covered R&B songs. For years, she lived alone in a mobile home until her health decreased. After that, she moved in with her daughter Tikethia Thompson.  

Collage of images with bright colors and varying textures surrounding a black woman in an orange shirt with teh words "Color Me Country Radio with Reece Palmer"

From time to time, she has come up in the media. She was mentioned in the 2013 film A Country Christmas Story starring Dolly Parton. It follows the story of a biracial girl who aspires to be a country singer. Parton tells her the story of black musicians in the genre, including Martell, showing her the LP cover of her only record, Color Me Country. A more recently successful black country artist, Rissi Palmer, named her podcast started in 2020 after Martell’s album and plays her music on the show. In 2021, Martell was nominated for and won the CMT Music Awards Equal Play Award. That same year, her filmmaker granddaughter Marquia Thompson started a GoFundMe in honor of creating a documentary about her grandmother’s story titled “Bad Case of the Country Blues.” And, of course, most recently, she was mentioned in two tracks off of Beyonce’s album Cowboy Carter


Guest Blogger Donna Walker is a student at King University and a Birthplace of Country Music Museum Intern. 

Confessions of a Conferenceaholic: BCMM Goes to ICMC!

As a curator at a small-ish museum, I wear many hats. And one of those hats puts me in front of the public in a variety of ways, from media interviews to public programs to outreach activities. Another way is attending conferences – both professional and academic – to share the story of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum (BCMM) and related cultural and music history.

Over the years, the curatorial team has attended conferences for the American Alliance of Museums, Virginia Association of Museums, Tennessee Association of Museums, Appalachian Studies Association, Radio Preservation Task Force, Southeastern Museums Conference, and Smithsonian Affiliations. These opportunities are a great way to rejuvenate energy and inspiration around our work, develop professionally, make new contacts and partnerships, and learn A LOT.

Most recently, Collections Specialist Julia Underkoffler and I attended the International Country Music Conference (ICMC) at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Begun in 1983, ICMC “provides scholars an opportunity to share their work in all aspects of country music. It broadly defines country music to include variants which share common historical and cultural roots ranging from Americana, alt-country, bluegrass, Cajun, country rock, crossover, and honky tonk to the Nashville Sound, New Traditionalist, old-time country, and Western swing.” Speakers come from all over the United States and several countries, and they present on a wide variety of topics. The 2024 conference had papers on Marty Robbins’ El Paso trilogy of songs; Confederate memory in classic country and bluegrass; country music and nostalgia; Black female musicians and Dolly Parton covers; the partnership between Johnny Cash and Chips Moman; the career and legacy of Howdy Glenn; and Daniel O’Donnell and Irish country – so something for everyone!


(Left image) A table with a black University of Illinois Press logo table cloth and several books on display. (Right image) The corner of a building with RCA Victor Recording Company on one side and the Nipper logo on the other.
The University of Illinois Press brings books galore, a never-ending temptation for history nerds, and being in Nashville provides plenty of reminders of the music industry of today with the early commercial country music we celebrate in the museum – it’s Nipper!


We attended ICMC for the first time in 2022, thanks to a professional development grant from the Institute for Museum & Library Services. And we are so glad we did – this conference has turned into one of our absolute favorites! It is an incredibly friendly event, and we were immediately welcomed into the fold and asked to participate in different ways, which really helped us to meet and get to know the other attendees. ICMC also provides some of the best conference food I’ve ever had!

(Top image) Feet wearing a pair of black boots with colorful designs. (Left image) A young woman with brown curly hair wearing an oragne dress and jean jacket is posing in a garten. (Right image) Three women standing together and smiling. The woman on the left is a white woman with brown hair. She is wearing a blue shirt and has sunglasses on her head. The woman in the middle is a white woman with white hair to her shoulders and is wearing a black suit jacket with a scarf. The woman on the right is a Black woman with blond hair and is wearing a black bedazzled shirt.
ICMC also offers beautiful walks around the conference’s host Belmont University; seeing old friends like bootmaker Lisa Sorrell (and her beautiful boots!); and making connections with other conference attendees, including LaDawn Fuhr and Sherry Glover, daughter of King Records producer Henry Glover!

Once again, the 2024 conference was a great experience, giving us the chance to share our work with a wider audience. And it was also Julia’s first experience at a professional conference! We participated in the conference in two tangible ways this year. First, Julia and I presented on the preservation of the museum’s Farm and Fun Time transcription disc – you can read the cool story of this artifact’s discovery and conservation HERE and HERE.

Second, I was invited to be part of the Charles K. Wolfe Memorial Panel: “Honoring Legacy Through (Re)building Museum Practice.” This panel was organized by Dr. Jada Watson and moderated by Dr. Kris McCusker. Along with Angela Stefano Zimmer of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (CMHoFM) and Dr. Bryan Pierce of the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM), we discussed the ongoing work museums are doing to highlight the legacy of Black music and musicians in the country music industry – through exhibits, educational outreach activities, and public programming. I found the conversation and learning about what the CMHoFM and NMAAM are doing so inspiring – and a great way to think about other work we can do at BCMM in the future.

(left image) Two white women, one in a blue shirt with straight brown hair and one in a jean jacket with curly brown hair, stand at a podium in front of a power point presentation. (right image) three people sit at a long table under a power point slide with one person at a podium off to the side.
Sharing the story of the Farm and Fun Time transcription disc (left) and participating in the Charles K. Wolfe Memorial Panel (right).

Besides the conference sessions and academic panels, the ICMC organizers always provide wonderfully engaging evening programs – for instance, last year we had a talk and performance by the Black Opry. This year’s Friday night program gave us the opportunity to gather together at Historic Columbia A Recording Studio to learn about how Latino culture has long influenced country music from the music to the wardrobe to the myths. Moderated by Dr. Greg Reish, we heard from artist manager and consultant Rick Rodriguez and country artist Orlando Mendez as they explored that influence, touching on pivotal moments in the industry development, the contributions of Latino artists, and the role of language and different regional styles to the evolving sound of the music, and sharing contemporary initiatives to spotlight this rich history. Even better we got a selection of songs by Orlando and a rousing performance by several of the participants to close out the program!

(left image) a man playing a guitar. (right image) four musicians stand in a row playing instruments.
Friday night music at Historic Columbia A Recording Studio!

As you can see, ICMC is a jam-packed but incredibly engaging experience. Julia and I came back from Nashville full of ideas, new friends and contacts, and a deep appreciation for all of the wonderful work that is being done in the world of country music history – and for its future. That inspiration is rejuvenating and will benefit our own museum and community! Thank you, ICMC!