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In the belly of WXPN’s radio station at 30th and Walnut streets, members of the Black Opry Residency huddle inside a recording studio around trailblazing country artist Rissi Palmer, who recalls the challenges of her early career as a Black woman in country music.
“Picture it: Nashville, 2007,” she starts.
Though she opens as if to regale with a Sophia Petrillo-esque tale of days gone by, her story is one that’s quite contemporary and all too relevant to the world Black Americana artists operate in. Palmer recalls a music video shoot gone horribly wrong under the guidance of a manager who, to put it lightly, neither understood her nor what it meant to be a Black country artist. The message to the residents: Be your authentic selves and don’t settle for a bad manager with a big name.
It’s one of many lessons imparted upon five Black Americana musicians selected from among a pool of 100 applicants to participate in the Black Opry Residency, hosted by WXPN, funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and produced in collaboration with Black Opry, a platform and touring revue founded by Holly G to amplify the voices and music of Black country artists. The Black Opry residents spent the week of March 19 learning from mentors like Amos Lee and Palmer, collaborating with one another through song shares, and will perform in a showcase at World Cafe Live on March 24.
Among the residents: Tylar Bryant, a Texas native from Nashville who adds a rock and pop flair to traditional country; Denitia, another Texas native now based in Nashville whose sound is experimental but rooted in country; Grace Givertz, a Florida native and current Bostonian who leans toward folk with banjo as a constant; Brandon and Derek Campbell, aka The Kentucky Gentlemen, who blend country-pop with R&B; and Samantha Rise, a Philadelphia-based teacher, activist, and performer whose dreamlike music draws from indie folk.
“We have the full continuum of [Americana sound],” says Bruce Warren, assistant general manager for programming at WXPN. Warren, in addition to co-organizing the residency, was part of a six-person committee that selected the residents, including Holly G, WXPN General Manager Roger LaMay, WXPN Black Opry Residency Project Manager Nathan Tempro, country singer Miko Marks, and Palmer.
“There’s a range of Americana music [among the residents], including everything from a more singer-songwriter-oriented sound to country flavor, and folky to bluegrass. And as you make your way through that continuum there’s also the mainstream Black country artist who is mostly ignored by mainstream country radio,” says Warren.
Americana’s roots in Black history
Jasmine Henry, an assistant professor of music in the School of Arts & Sciences, explains that the structure of the modern U.S. music industry—which emerged only in the early 20th century—has largely buried the Black history of Americana. Recent scholarship, she says, has sought to reclaim this history.
“It’s a story of erasure,” says Henry. “There are scholars, artists, and journalists who have been working to really address this erasure and think about not just how to amplify the voices and uncover those silenced or hidden in history but think about what forces were at play that created these types of erasures and continue to limit opportunities for Black people in Americana.”
While Americana might commonly summon images of predominantly white, Appalachian music or culture, she says, the genre’s roots stem from an intertwining of European and African musical cultures as a result of plantation slavery. Influences that created Americana ranged from Irish jig music to African folk music—which, though many think of African music as drum-based, Henry says, also included strings. This history, combined with the banning of drums among people who were enslaved, is how popular Americana string instruments like the fiddle—a prevalent instrument in African folk music culture—and the banjo came to have such influence.
“That’s a lot of the grounding that gets overlooked and makes it harder to see the connection between Blackness and Americana that was right there at [the genre’s] foundation,” Henry says.
The recent uptick in attention to reclaiming Americana’s Black history, she notes, can be attributed to a confluence of events in the past decade, such as Black Lives Matter and the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd, the success of Lil Nas X with “Old Town Road,” and the success of Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” which sought to reclaim the Black roots of several different genres, including rock, electronic dance music, and country.
“There’s also a broader discussion about other genres, such as rock music and its Black roots, or electronic dance music, which is my area, and its Black roots,” she says. “And so there’s a broader discussion about how many of them have been whitewashed, and they’re Black and queer, and how these roots are hidden in history.”
Another key part of that dialogue, she adds, is about genre and its commercial origins to limit audiences, segmenting them by race, gender, class, and sexuality.
“I think it takes a lot for people to break through that,” she says.
A residency two decades in the making
For two decades, WXPN has cast a spotlight on emerging artists through its Artist to Watch series. Born from that foundation is the Black Opry Residency, which is a manifold expansion of that effort and targets the groundswell of activity in Americana to amplify the voices of Black Americana musicians.
“[Americana] is an important part of American music, and in particular with Black Opry, this is an effort to diversify and tear down some walls in country music, as well as Americana—which is a bigger tent than just country music,” says LaMay.
The structure of the week was developed by surveying the needs of Black artists through the Black Opry network. The residents, he explains, benefit during the residency from the mentor connections of the station, the collaborations with one another, the broadcast exposure of WXPN, and, moreover, the urban experience of being in Philadelphia. The residents were housed in a former frat home at 39th and Walnut streets.
“In the early [planning] stages we were told by people in the residency world that it’s unusual to do something in an urban setting,” LaMay says. “It’s usually out in the woods somewhere. So, we’re very excited to be working that into a residency that not only uses the facilities of the station but also gives these residents a chance to experience a bit of Philadelphia and its heritage.”
The residents saw Jill Scott perform at the Met in North Philadelphia, for example, and ate at local restaurants that range from Booker’s in West Philadelphia to South, a jazz restaurant on North Broad Street.
In truth, the Black Opry Residency is what he considers a pilot for what WXPN can accomplish in the future. To his knowledge, he says, WXPN is the only public radio station that has attempted an artist-development residency program, and this likely will not be the station’s last.
The Black Opry Residents
The Kentucky Gentlemen, twin brothers Derek and Brandon Campbell from Versailles, Kentucky, recall listening to Billy Currington on the school bus, as well as being hooked on country music that a person they playfully call “Radio Man”—a patient of their mother’s (a therapist)—would habitually play in her waiting room. They did not choose country music, they explain, “country music chose us.”
They applied for the residency after several friends reached out and recommended they apply, they explained. They couldn’t be happier that they did.
“We joked earlier that [this residency] is intensive—‘This is school!’” laughs Derek Campbell. “I think this is super important because all of us are taking up space in country and Americana in our own way, and to be able to put our best foot forward and take our moments and use them to their utmost ability, I think it’s pivotal for progress in the industry and that’s why this is history.”
As twins, they explain, they’re used to working together. Growing up, they both took ballet and piano lessons and later played high school football. They became a musical duo when, after returning home from their respective colleges after six months, they collectively decided they wanted to be creatives in their career; working together on music, it was obvious that what naturally came out of them was country.
They describe their current sound as fun, dramatic, pop- and R&B-adjacent country with “a gloss of glamour,” Brandon Campbell says. They’re inspired by artists like Brooks & Dunn, Kacey Musgraves, and Maren Morris. Derek Campbell says they relate to artists who are outspoken and can “stand 10 toes down and aren’t afraid to break rules.”
Grace Givertz, who grew up in Jupiter, Florida, had a different path to country music: Until Taylor Swift came on the scene, she barely listened to it at all.
“My first guitar, when I was 11 years old, was a sparkly Daisy Rock that looked just like Taylor’s,” she says. “It was essentially a toy, looking back on it, but I used it until I was 18 and wrote my first songs on that guitar. I just continued based on Taylor and listened to the radio more and the influence was like, ‘Wow, wait, this is a genre I really love.’
“But then, ‘Oh, wait, I’m a disabled Black girl and there’s no spot for me here.’”
So, she dug into the roots of Americana, folk, and bluegrass, and was inspired by the genres’ Black history.
“I realized, ‘I need to play banjo yesterday,’” she adds.
Now, banjo is a regular fixture in her indie-folk music and she’s proud to reclaim it. Through the residency, she says, she’s been inspired to see how others have not limited themselves through genre and are not afraid to break the mold.
“It’s also been really helpful because when you’re in a room with people who have information to give you, mentors, different industry folk, it’s hard to know the right questions to ask,” she says. “So, having so many people around you who can bounce other questions is really helpful because you’re not going to have the opportunity to ask all the questions if you don’t think of them.”
Through the residency, she explains, she hopes to not only build out her network but seek inspiration for an album she’s currently working on.
“I want to use it to catapult and make this record do what I think it deserves to do,” she says. “Which is to be heard by a lot of people, hopefully.”
Denitia, meanwhile, grew up in a variety of refinery towns outside of Houston, Texas, and was exposed to country music through her family. After a four-year stint in Nashville, attending Vanderbilt University, she spent a brief time in Austin and then moved to New York City for 10 years to experiment with her sound—particularly by picking up DIY production skills. While there, she put out music and toured as Denitia and Sene—an electronic, R&B, indie-pop group—before moving to Rockaway Beach in New York City, where she eventually tapped back into a country sound that culminated in her 2022 album “Highways.” She’s since returned to Nashville.
“It felt full circle,” she says of tapping into her country roots. “It felt like I had finally expressed the whole gamut of who I am as an artist … and now that I’ve put all these things out there, music that’s country to me, that is resonating with people and feels pure, earnest, and honest, I’m moving forward and really excited to take all those elements and roll them together to come into a different door in the country music world.”
She was interested in the residency because of its collective experience and the ability to communicate with other Black artists in the Americana space, she says. She’s also, frankly, a fan of WXPN.
“I’m a big fan of what this radio station does for music and for culture,” she says. “It’s an honor to be celebrated by them, and it just feels the reason I applied for this residency is I feel like I’m at an exciting point in my career and I wanted to be part of this community, but also because I respect the taste-making nature of this radio station.”
LaMay says one goal of the residency is to enable this group of musicians to elevate their artistic practice while giving them additional tools, contacts, and capacity to make a living doing it.
“And to know that they’re not alone in this effort,” he adds. “If even one of them lands a recording or publishing deal or takes a big step forward out of this, it would be a success for all involved.”
For now, WXPN hopes to jumpstart that process by featuring the residents on air and exposing them to Philadelphia live and radio audiences through a showcase performance on March 24 at World Cafe Live that will also be streamed on NPR Music Live Sessions. They will each perform a short set of original music.
The residency is also a step toward furthering audience development in a way that is explicitly inclusive, LaMay adds.
“Obviously XPN has played Black artists for a very long time,” he says, “but it’s important for us to make sure that some of our programs are geared toward telling Black audiences that there’s a home for you here.”