Before 2020, Miko Marks' career arc looked like those of many of the Black women who had tried to make it in Nashville before her own mid-2000s arrival: supremely talented vocalist-songwriter makes valiant push toward mainstream country music but ultimately gets rebuffed by the industry's resistance to broaden beyond white and mostly male artists.
Then came the pandemic and a national reckoning with racial inequity, during which Marks put out her first new music in 13 years — and she finally felt heard. In March, she released Our Country, which won broad critical acclaim. Asked whether she could have ever anticipated such recognition, Marks responds emphatically: "Absolutely not."
To get to that point, Marks had to leave Nashville. But her triumph is inspiring a new generation of Black female country artists in and around Music City — led by Brittney Spencer, Ashlie Amber, Sacha, Reyna Roberts, Tiera and trio Chapel Hart — who are now poised to make the most of every opportunity that comes their way. And given the shifting conversations in country music around inclusion and diversity, those chances to be heard seem more plentiful than ever.
The first time Spencer performed music from her EP Compassion was in March, with, remarkably, The Roots as her backing band. When she sang "Sorrys Don't Work No More," it felt like both a once-in-a-lifetime thrill and a perfect emblem for her skyrocketing career. "It has been a whirlwind, a wonderful one that I honestly never saw coming," she says. Spencer has been welcomed into writing rooms with a who's who of Nashville's creative community, including Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, Jimmie Allen, Brandy Clark and Jason Isbell, and in May, she made her Grand Ole Opry debut.
She is also among CMT's 2021 Next Women of Country, which for the first time honors multiple artists of color. Her co-honorees include Roberts, who will join Dierks Bentley for his Seven Peaks Festival and whose single, "Stompin' Grounds," was featured on ESPN's Monday Night Football; Canadian singer Sacha, who was recently named iHeartRadio's Future Star and whose single "Standards" reached No. 43 on Billboard's Canada Country chart; and family trio Chapel Hart, whose members are filming a reality TV pilot focused on their budding career, even as they embark on their first national tour. "It's exciting, and it's fast," says the band's Danica Hart. "Those are the two words that best describe this past year."
For all of these women, "successful" could define it as well — though perhaps depending on who's doing the defining. They've all enjoyed support from the media and have been added to digital service providers' playlists. But the traditional indicators of mainstream success — signing a record and/or publishing deal — have mostly remained elusive for them. (Tiera, a 2020 NWOC graduate who signed a publishing deal through a partnership between hit songwriter Nicolle Galyon's Songs & Daughters/Big Loud and Warner Chappell Nashville, is the exception.)
Though a few of these artists and their managers do recount meetings they've landed with labels and publishers, they also recall their disappointment when those meetings did not lead to offers. "We can never be on the same platform as Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris if they don't sign us," says Amber, who has amassed nearly 40,000 Instagram followers, almost 30,000 monthly Spotify listeners and a feature on The Bobby Bones Show. "Things are changing; they're featuring us in articles and doing things like that. But the true change has to happen with the gatekeepers."
But driven by their undeniable talent and ambition, these women also aren't waiting around for doors to open. Instead, they're focusing on what they can do. "It'll stress me out if I think about the issues within the industry," says Spencer. "Of course we know they're there, but I still have to be an artist. I still have to be me in the meantime. And for me, that is what power looks like right now: being in control of who I am and what I'm able to do."
Initially, says Hart, her band "wanted to jump on a label and have them say, 'OK, this is what we see for you guys.' But a few showcases later, we're doing so much on our own that gets to be authentically us. And I'm realizing the importance of our independence."
Amber takes a similar view. "I claim power for myself because I have not a single person telling me what I can and cannot do," she says. "I don't have somebody telling me that I should cover up my cleavage or straighten my hair because it's more commercial. I take pride in the fact I'm rocking my cornrows, and you will not tell me otherwise."
Given the history of Black women in country music, this perspective makes sense. In the mid-1970s — just a few years after Linda Martell became the highest-charting Black woman in the genre's history when her "Color Him Father" rose to No. 22 on Hot Country Songs — another group of Black women seemed poised for stardom in country. Lenora Ross was signed to RCA (Charley Pride's label), while independent artists Ruby Falls, Barbara Cooper and Virginia Kirby were booking shows and media interviews on their own. By the dawn of the '80s, however, they had all but disappeared from the scene.
More recently, Mickey Guyton's 2011 signing to Capitol Nashville and her historic 2020 Grammy nomination have been seen as some progress. But even Guyton has still faced a steep climb. Despite finally separating her voice from industry expectations, she struggles for acceptance from country radio and endures a regular onslaught of racist slurs. Guyton continues to encourage the artists following in her footsteps, but for these reasons, she's also nervous for them.
"When I was onstage at the CMT Awards listening to Linda Martell's story, I almost broke down in tears because so many of her stories are my stories," she says. "And I'm terrified that there will be other Black women in country who will also share my stories."
There are reasons to believe the buzz surrounding these young women will manifest in real investments, though, as well as meaningful support — including from staff and executives who look like them — that can further propel their careers. "I feel like I'm at a point where, with labels and publishers, we can do something really special," says Sacha. "Somebody needs to recognize the opportunity [in signing us]."
Veteran Marks puts it plainly: "We're at a point now where folks are taking notice, whereas before, they weren't," she says. "It was like, 'Give it some time and she'll be gone.' But right now, there's enough momentum going forward for women of color in country music that it can't be stalled out. It's too powerful."