On Tuesday evening (Feb. 7), singer, songwriter and trailblazer Frankie Staton celebrated a career highlight more than four decades in the making: her Grand Ole Opry debut performance.
“I never thought this moment would happen, but it did,” Staton told Billboard prior to her debut. Since moving to Nashville from her native North Carolina in 1981, Staton has been a champion for Black country artists and songwriters, in addition to forging her own career, and was instrumental in launching the Black Country Music Association alongside Cleve Francis in the 1990s.
As she has done for decades, Staton used her Opry moment to once again uplift those around her, welcoming longtime friends and artists Valierie Ellis Hawkins and Jonell Mosser, as their voices intertwined in superb harmonies during Staton’s brief set.
“To God be the glory,” Staton told the audience in the Opry House Tuesday evening, standing in the spotlight of country music’s most venerable stage.
As part of her Opry debut, singer-songwriter Staton performed her own music: “Your Dream” and “Forever Loretta,” the latter a tribute to the late Country Music Hall of Famer Loretta Lynn. For that song, she asked the audience to hold their cell phone lights high in the air. “We are going to light up the Opry House up for Loretta,” she told the audience, as the Opry House was quickly lit aglow.
Prior to her Opry debut, Staton told Billboard, “Loretta was one of my icons. I’m excited about singing my own music and about singing a song that is very personal to me about somebody that I cared a lot about.” Staton also recalled meeting Lynn — a story she later also shared with the Opry audience.
“I was waiting tables at the Cooker by Centennial Park,” Staton told Billboard. “Crystal Gayle and Loretta Lynn came in the day that they buried Owen Bradley, who had produced Patsy Cline and Loretta. I went up to her and said, ‘Loretta, I’ve thought about you a lot…I thought if I could have anything in the world for you, I’d have your daddy know what happened to you.’ In that instant, she started crying, and then Crystal started crying. I thought, ‘Oh no, I made Loretta cry!’ Then she said, ‘Look, honey, it’s a good cry, because we love our Daddy.'”
It was Lynn’s own hardscrabble story and unflinchingly honest music that inspired Staton to chase her music dreams to Nashville in 1981, after watching the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Speaking to Billboard, she recalled one of her earliest performances in Nashville: As Staton was on her way to a jam session in the Printer’s Alley area of Nashville, a police officer stopped her and questioned where she was headed. He then followed her to the venue, where Staton was one of the earliest singers to sign up to perform. Then, while other performers who signed up after she did were called onstage to sing, Staton had to wait until nearly 2:30 a.m. for her turn to perform.
“I knew when they wouldn’t let me up there, this would be a defining moment of my life,” Staton recalled. “You don’t run from this. There are times in your life where you have to stay and fight for what you want. Things that have come normally to other people, Black people have had to bend over backwards to get the opportunity. I knew if I left, they would never know the potential I had. I said, ‘I don’t care if I have to stay here all night long, I’m not leaving.’”
Her determination led to her being called back to perform the next evening, which resulted in an audition at another nearby restaurant and her first paying gig in Nashville. In 1997, after reading a newspaper story that included a record executive claiming they could not find Black country music talent, Staton was again determined to challenge the inequity she was seeing.
“I read the story over and over and thought, ‘That’s not true. There are some real talented Black country singers here.’”
In February 1997, she launched the first country music showcases for Black artists at Nashville’s Bluebird Café, the venue famous for helping to accelerate the careers of artists including Garth Brooks. “I was trying to open a door for more diversity in country music and bring to this American art form a whole new page of light that they know nothing about,” Staton told Billboard.
The group quickly swelled to over 60 artists, but Staton recalls that among those who attended that first showcase was Hawkins, who last night stood beside Staton on the Opry stage. “She had an incredible country voice and story,” Staton recalled of first meeting Hawkins. “She loved Don Williams and Vern Gosdin. She sang at Loretta Lynn’s ranch all the time, but I couldn’t get anyone on Music Row to listen.”
Ellis Hawkins had a potential artist development deal with a major label, but it soon fizzled out. “It made me sick to see that level of real country talent just be dissed and ignored,” Staton stated. “It made me sick because I knew she was the real deal. We dreamed together and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Staton forged ahead, writing songs, performing music and becoming a staple in Nashville’s live music scene. During her career, she has spent a decade as a performer on Ralph Emery’s morning television show and made appearances on Nashville Now. She’s spent years as a regular pianist and performer at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center. Behind the scenes, she has also spent considerable time as a champion, supporter and mentor for scores of Black artists, songwriters and other creatives within Nashville’s music community.
Her work in launching the Black Country Music Association laid the groundwork for organizations and individuals spearheading current diversity and inclusion efforts, as well as platforms highlighting Black country musicians, including the Black Opry, the Black Opry Revue, the Rosedale Collective, Rissi Palmer’s Color Me Country Radio program on Apple Music and Color Me Country artist grant fund, as well as the Country Music Association’s diversity and inclusion fellowship.
Meanwhile, a whole new generation is learning of Staton’s career journey, through Amazon Music’s documentary, For Love & Country (“Your Dream” is featured in the documentary’s playlist). Staton’s work alongside Francis with the Black Country Music Association is also featured as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum’s current exhibit, American Currents: The State of Music – Unbroken Circle, which will open March 8 and run through February 2024.
“My mantra has always been to be the change I wanted to see,” Staton said.