“Honey, you've got to look this up. Hank Williams was taught by a Black man named Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne,” Frankie Staton, 66, tells me over video chat. “When Bill Monroe created bluegrass, he played with a Black man named Arnold Shultz. When Bob Wills created Western swing, he was trying to emulate Bessie Smith.” A talented singer and songwriter in her own right, Staton is also a walking roots music encyclopedia best known for co-founding the Black Country Music Association, a group which, from 1996 to 2003, established the first and only showcase for aspiring country stars of color in Nashville.
Staton moved to Nashville from North Carolina in 1981 to hit it big in country but soon realized how difficult it was trying to make it as a Black woman in a business entirely controlled by white gatekeepers. According to Staton, she thought to herself, “there’s power in numbers.” So, with backing from the new BCMA, which she took over in 1996—after founder Cleve Francis left town to resume his cardiology practice—she put together a Black Country Music Showcase at Nashville’s famous Bluebird Café, and the event was a huge hit. Staton continued producing similar shows and distributing EPs by BCMA artists at venues and festivals all over town for the next seven years, attracting performers from all over America and audiences filled with industry insiders who never realized so many talented Black country musicians had been toiling in obscurity.
Staton stepped away from the BCMA to focus on her responsibilities as a single mom in 2003, and the organization disbanded soon after. But she still performs in Nashville every week. And recently, there has been renewed interest in the work she began, thanks to a huge BCMA feature in November’s Rolling Stone and a social media initiative inspired by Staton called #ChangeCountry that started challenging music biz professionals to “take the #ChangeCountry pledge to support BIPOC musicians” last year.
“Country music is off to a great beginning. But until the stories of Black Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans are told, you only have a fraction of country music’s potential,” Staton says. “We have much to sing about.”
By Lauren Williams
Top image: Black Country Music Association showcase at Cafe Milano circa 1999; courtesy of Frankie Stanton
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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