After country singer/songwriter Miko Marks released her 2007 album, It Feels Good, she hit an impasse. As a Black female artist trying to break through in the overwhelmingly white male industry, she felt so defeated by the lack of support that she left the genre altogether.
But 13 years later, Marks is returning on her own terms. She released Our Country, her first album since It Feels Good, Friday (March 26) on Redtone Records/Brooklyn Basement Records. “It feels like a watershed moment,” Marks tells Billboard. “Maybe I was holding something in by not doing another album in so many years.”
This time, she’s traded the country-pop hooks found on the two albums she released in the mid-2000s (2005’s Freeway Bound preceded It Feels Good) in favor of socio-political statements anchored in a roots-oriented, gospel-soaked sound. The new album’s 10 tracks address racial injustice, division, violence and police brutality.
“Now I’m 48, but I was young when I did those albums. I had handlers telling me what I should do, and I was writing from a different space,” Marks says. “I had a lot of lightheartedness back then, but I’ve experienced so much that I can’t afford to be lighthearted anymore. I have to be truthful and honest all the way in my music.”
Our Country’s origin story begins in late 2019, after Marks dreamed she had reunited with The Resurrectors — musicians Justin Phipps and Steve Wyreman, former bandmates she hadn’t seen in more than a decade. On a whim, Marks reached out to Phipps.
“Luckily we had the same phone numbers, so he knew it was me,” Marks says. “But I wasn’t thinking of an album, I thought, ‘We need to play.’”
Her timing was impeccable; Phipps had written a song, “Goodnight America,” and felt Marks’ powerful voice could do justice to the song’s lyrics calling for America to reckon with its history of greed and racial injustice. They began working on the song in late 2019, and released “Goodnight America” in January 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic forced lockdowns.
“I had never done anything like that,” she explains. “But with everything going on in the world — the elections, Black Lives Matter — everything that was in disarray made me want to record this song.”
After the trio recorded four songs, they realized they should make a full album, forming their own COVID-safe bubble in an Oakland, California studio to record and produce the bulk of the project. Marks also resurrected “We Are Here,” a song she started in 2018, inspired by her hometown of Flint, Mich., and the city’s water crisis and lingering repercussions from years of economic disparity.
“I got my family’s perspective on what was going on,” she says. “To know they are still buying bottled water, and it’s still being provided by Center For Hope — one of the organizations that help with food, shelter and clean water. They’re fixing it, but it’s this tragedy that is taking so long.”
The album’s central tenet is reflected on “Mercy.” “We’re all suffering on some level in some way or another — maybe not necessarily the same, but we need mercy, compassion and to take care of our children, comfort them,” she says.
Our Country concludes with an adaptation of “Not Be Moved,” a song with close ties to the Civil Rights Movement. “It was perfect because I’m standing in my true self. I feel like I’m meeting the moment with my music,” she says.
Marks’ “true self” harks back to growing up in Michigan, listening to Loretta Lynn and Kenny Rogers. “I loved country music for the stories,” she says. “I loved the fiddle, the banjo, the instrumentation.” Her husband encouraged her to quit her day job as a legal secretary and move to Nashville to pursue her musical dreams. Marks recorded her first two albums in Nashville, and performed in several showcases. Following the release of those albums, People even dubbed Marks “Nashville’s hottest new country star.”
But as her audience grew, so did the career roadblocks. Marks performed for three years at CMA Fest, until the rules shifted. “I was gaining momentum,” Marks recalls. “The fourth year, they changed the criteria. You had to have all these charting songs or sales to perform. So it kind of threw me out of the box, and I could no longer participate.”
She met with a couple of the major labels in Nashville following her two indie releases, but received a mixed reception. “They were thrilled with the music, but they separated me from the music. They thought I wasn’t marketable or I wouldn’t sell,” she says. “I couldn’t reconcile those two things. I gave it a really good go, and that was disheartening. I think it made me a bit reluctant to do another album.”
The constant rejection led Marks to return to California, where she built a local following. Years after her own journey in Nashville, Marks has watched as a handful of artists of color, including Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown and Mickey Guyton, have found chart success and increased opportunities within the genre.
“On a deep level, spiritually, it brings me so much joy because there’s a shift happening that I’m getting to witness,” she says. “I didn’t think I would be able to see what we’re seeing now. I had doubts. This genre has the opportunity to enrich itself like never before. I hope the industry takes heed and sees it could be something to build upon.”
Though Marks and her label team are considering promoting her music to country radio, streaming is their focus. “There may be plans for country radio, but I don’t know, because country radio has not shown itself to be receptive,” Marks says. “With streaming and social media, all these things we didn’t have when I first started out, it’s so helpful to an independent artist.”
Asked whether she would give Nashville another shot, Marks says, “If Nashville opened up that door and said, ‘Miko, come back,’ I will come back. I’m not closing any doors.”