By James Barker, Senior Writer
This is the first installment of a planned series where we profile activists working to make country music a more inclusive space.
We recently caught up with Holly G, the creator of Black Opry, a new website that in less than six months has become a home for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk and Americana music. If you haven’t visited the website yet, you should check it out to discover some great country artists. Black Opry is also working to link Black artists and industry professionals with practical support and resources.
I talked with Holly (who is also, conveniently, on the staff of Country Queer) to find out more about Black Opry, the importance of building an intersectional community in country music, and which country artists Holly is listening to right now.
JB: How did Black Opry come about?
HG: Black Opry was the culmination of my frustration as a fan of country music. It likely would not have been a completed process till around the end of the year (2021), but when Morgan Wallen got caught on video saying the n word it lit a fire inside of me that pushed me to get it going much sooner and that fire hasn’t gone out yet.
So, it’s been easy to just keep doing the work, knowing that people like him are still here, still getting opportunities. I have to be here to balance that out. We deserve better than any of the people or organizations that are still pushing him.
JB: What are the main things you hope Black Opry will achieve and what have people’s responses been so far?
HG: The ultimate goal of Black Opry is to create community. I feel very strongly that Black Opry is not mine, it belongs to this community forming around it. I’m so lucky to have been the one to get to raise the flag so people knew where to show up, but this is all of ours.
I want Black artists to have a place where both their work and identities are celebrated. I want Black fans to have a place where they can show up and enjoy this beautiful artistry we are celebrating without wondering if the space is safe for them. I want Black people with the goal of working in the industry in any capacity to see that there is a path for them, even if we have to create the path ourselves. I want them to see there is an army rallying behind them.
The response has honestly blown me away. It seems to be the thing that a lot of people were waiting for, even if they didn’t know they were. I have been told “thank you for seeing me” quite a lot and it feels like a privilege to be able to give that to people, to allow them to feel seen in a world where so many people are doing everything to make sure that they are not. It’s been a breath of fresh air for so many people and I have such deep gratitude that it’s been welcomed with open hearts and arms.
Which country songs and artists did you listen to growing up, and who do you really like now?
Growing up the list was so long. I was tuned in to CMT every morning for the music videos so a lot of the popular stuff was the soundtrack to my childhood. I was very much into Sugarland. One of my favorites recently is an artist I found on Instagram and have featured on Black Opry, Jett Holden.
I also listen to a whole lot of Luke Combs and Tyler Childers. I’m a pretty big Charley Crockett fan, Valerie June, too. I’m in love with what Brittney Spencer is doing. And last one (though I could go on for days), Allison Russell. There is like a cloud of magic around Allison Russell right now. Her album feels so alive to me like it’s its own thing and it’s powerful as hell.
JB: Where would you say the country music industry is now, having just come out of Pride Month and Black Music Month?
HG: I’d say it’s right where it was before. Months of celebration have morphed from a time for the people within those groups to come together and reflect and love on each other and now It feels more of a time to be pandered to and exploited.
I think we are lucky that some really great art came out of it this year. There were so many great projects and performances for Pride and Juneteenth and Black Music Month, but there’s been no larger overall impact on the industry. They are just learning how to leave people out better: “You still can’t come in but we’ll post this playlist so maybe while you’re being shut out you’ll do it a little more quietly,” that kind of thing.
How strong is the community building around publications like Black Opry and Country Queer; how far do you think we’re seeing country music as an aesthetic genre becoming separate from the country music industry?
HG: I built Black Opry as a home, and this community walked in and built an army. I can honestly say this is the most loving community I’ve ever had the pleasure to be a part of but it’s a FORCE, too. I’ve never seen people work harder for each other.
You look at people like Lilli Lewis. Lilli sees such value in this community that she brought to the table the opportunity to throw Black Opry Fest. She knows that’s what the community needs. That’s where the strength is, here. Everyone sees what needs to be done and offers what they have to get it done.
I think we’ve all realized that the country music industry has done a great job of creating an iron clad box that they don’t want everybody in, so we are finding ways to sustain the artistry without them. We’re paving our own roads. There may be instances in which we need to build a few bridges here and there but by and large I think the goal that everybody seems to want is to do it regardless of what they decide to “allow.” We don’t need their permission and we won’t ask for it. We’re doing it our own way.
Often, we can romanticize the idea of a community, particularly the notion of an LGBTQ+ community, which too often has predominantly represented cis white men. How intersectional would you say the queer country community is?
HG: You know, I think there will always be some hesitation from people of color in regards to queer spaces, because of the cis white men default that you mention. I think the intersectionality that exists is huge. I couldn’t say this a year ago but I’m absolutely sure now that there are so many Black queer country artists out there.
I think the task that we face now is the same as any other predominantly white space. We need to make sure that the queer country community is safe for people of color, and make sure that people of color know that they are welcome. As the missions of both Country Queer and Black Opry push forward I’m looking forward to seeing them come forward to participate.
What would you say to Country Queer, LGBTQ+ publications, or indeed any member of the queer community in terms of what they should be doing to ensure that these communities are genuinely intersectional and inclusive?
HG: I’d say be ready to do the work and be ready to pass the mic. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Doing the work means listening and acknowledging where your blind spots are. When you bring people with intersectional identities into the space make sure they know you are ready to listen. And as often as possible, pass the mic to the most marginalized person in the room. This is what will make sure that intersectional communities thrive. When we make it better for the most marginalized, we make it better for everyone.
How have you found the past 6 months, with meeting other journalists like Marcus K. Dowling, writing for The Boot and Country Anyway, were these things you were doing before or have these been new experiences for you?
The past six months have been an absolute whirlwind. Every single day there is some new fun thing that pops up that I get to be a part of and it just feels like this world has opened itself up to me in a way that I never thought it would. I’ve been able to meet some of the most amazing journalists: Marcus Dowling, Marissa Moss, Ang Zimmern, Olivia Ladd, Lorie Liebig, Jewly Hight, all of these people have just swept me up into their world with open arms. These guys all have such great stories and when you meet them you immediately know why they are journalists because everything they say sounds like a story you want to hear.
This is one spot, journalism, that I’d really like to make sure we focus on expanding diversity. We need a hundred more Andrea Williams’s out there writing about country music. This is all new to me in a formal sense, but when I think about it, I’ve always been a storyteller. I think that’s why this has been so easy for me to dive into. Anybody who follows me on Twitter can tell you I really enjoy turning moments into stories, whether it’s an endearing interaction with a stranger or the tale of how my toenail fell off, I love connecting with people in that way.
What are your priorities both for yourself and Black Opry for the next six months?
My priority for myself is to continue to learn and to continue to listen. I want to make sure I really understand what it is the community needs going forward and then educate myself on how to get it. The top priority right now for Black Opry is the upcoming Black Opry Fest. We began working on this with a really short timeframe, but this moment really can’t wait for it, so we wanted to do it as quickly as possible. The time is now to bring everyone together and the festival is the best way to do that.
Check out Black Opry’s content, including artist profiles, exclusive interviews and more.
Black Opry Fest will be October 27th to 31st in New Orleans with artists including Rissi Palmer and Ganstagrass.