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African AmericanaFest: A Q&A Debrief With Marcus K. Dowling

Marcus K. Dowling
Marcus K. Dowling

The movement to fully incorporate (or more accurately re-incorporate) African American artistry and influence in the realms of country music and Americana accelerated palpably during the 2020 pandemic. While artists of color have become more integral to AmericanaFest since about 2015, conversations last year shifted to matters of equity in the business, including jobs at music companies and representation wherever decisions about the genres' trajectory are made. The Americana Music Association has tried to be proactive, diversifying its Lifetime Achievement Award winners, programming a wider array of music and launching a Diversity & Inclusion Committee as part of its board, among other developments.

Journalism, despite rumors of its demise, has also played an important role driving the dialogue and fighting complacency. So to take stock of black music at this year's AmericanaFest, I sought out one of the leading voices, freelancer Marcus K. Dowling of Washington DC. He's written for CMT.com, Rolling Stone and Billboard, and he won the Rolling Stone Chet Flippo Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism this year.

Dowling moderated a panel called Black Opry Presents: The Unbroken Black Circle, one of a half dozen official discussions of diversity, equity and inclusion during the conference. Black Opry is an online "home for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk, and Americana music" run by journalist and fan Holly G, and last week it became a real place, the Black Opry House, a rental in the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood where, over four days, musicians stayed, hung out, sang and wrote songs together. Nothing like it has happened during the Americana convention before. I spoke with Dowling on the Monday morning after it wrapped.

Thanks for taking some time Marcus. We've seen some remarkable black music at AmericanaFest in recent years. But this was the first year I felt like I saw a black musical community expressing itself and recognizing itself. Can you reflect on that?

Essentially it was. That was my hope, because AmericanaFest to me represented the first time that country, Americana, roots and related musical communities were able to meet in person since COVID. So basically, it's the reopening of Nashville. It's the resurrection of Nashville on some level. And in the midst of that, I wanted to make sure that people of color and queer communities who did a great job of organizing during COVID could do the same thing in person. Because nothing matters in a genre like country if it doesn't happen in person, in real time, in real life. In other musical spaces, people can do a lot online. Country, Americana, roots are completely different. Things still happen person to person. So that's what necessitated Black Opry House, which I did with Holly G. And that's what necessitated the panel, which Holly and I pitched.

Well, tell me more about the Black Opry House.

So the Black Opry House came from conversations that Karen Pittelman, from Karen and Sorrows, has been having for some time with a number of progressive minded artists. But it's essentially like country music against racism and working to posit for space for people of color and marginalized people within country. And the thing for me is, I work for CMT, and I work in numerous other spaces within country, and I always ask artists about the songs they write. And the story of the co-write for a white artist is usually like, Oh yeah, Tuesday afternoon came, and I sat down with three writers and we went to a bar, and we got drunk and a song came out. And I talked to a black artist, about writing a song, it's like, well, I had this hope and this dream and this aspiration. And I had to sit in the corner of my room and write the song and hope upon hopes that somebody in the world would hear my song and think that it was good. So it's a completely different experience that basically ostracizes black creativity into a dark recess of country as a genre. And the thing that happened during COVID that, for me, fundamentally changed country, initially, is that Kane Brown has a label and a publishing arm now. Jimmie Allen has experienced more cross-cultural success that he ever has. He's on Dancing with Stars. And of course, Mickey Guyton has become a country superstar. So I'm like, okay, well this means that some things are changing. But we need to trickle that down. They can't just be a top 1% of country aspiration. There are far more black and brown and queer songwriters who need opportunities.

So how does that lead to Nashville?

So, I'm like, let's create a house where these people are able to have these song circles and co-writes that white artists have literally every day. So we'll take four days. We'll create a house. On top of this, I had saved the money from the first five pieces I ever wrote about country music. I put them in a savings account somewhere off in a corner and said, one day, I'm going to need this money to do something. I'm a progressive minded person. I'm a political science major in college. Minored in public and community service. So my thing was like, if I ever get an opportunity to do something for the marginalized communities of which I am a member, you know, like, I am a black man who works in country music. So if there's any way that I can push for something to occur that will essentially change the industry, then I want to take country music's money to do that. We rented an Airbnb. We filled it up with a bunch of beer and food. And we invited everybody and told them show up. And they all did.

People who see Nashville from afar see one big platform, and they might know about the bluebird cafe as one of those kind of stepping stones to the Big Show. But really, it's like a nesting doll of platforms. And each one both supports and in some ways protects the ones within it. There's more than one platform for gatekeeping. And that makes the challenge that you're facing harder.

It does, but it doesn't. Nashville's a top down city. Everything operates from the one percent to the 99. So for me, I'm more concerned with how to change the 99 (and get them) to then look at the one and ask them where the change is. Like I can't walk into the offices of RCA or Universal and say, change this now. It's not something I could do. But I could certainly impact the community that's outside of big Nashville and galvanize that community in a way where they understand that representational equity is not bad. It's not a bad word. It's not an evil thing. But it's just some of the best singers and some of the best songwriters in the world who are available and willing to do work and work very well in a professional manner and are just as country as anybody else.

This relates to a question that came up for me during your panel. An artist made remarks about country music that reminded me of the way Americana folks spoke about it 20 years ago, which is to say, it doesn't sound like country anymore. It's dumbed down. It is a format defined almost by its mediocrity. So what if we built our own? How does that story of the Americana format kind of reflect where you're at? It sounds like you really wish to claim the country music genre back from what radio has made of it.

I think there's a gap in country between what is possible and what is happening. And what is happening is the lowest common denominator effect, where the music that is the most popular is reductive forms of everything that has worked. So it's like, the trap wave at its base element. It's the familial dad bod country at its base element. It's everything at the bottom. And there's nothing wrong with that, because that appeals to the widest margin of people. But there's something about people who like country music, where they want something that on a musical level, even if they don't realize it, is a little more intellectually stimulating, involves a little bit more instrumentation, involves more graduated forms of lyricism. And there's something that is happening in the Person Of Color and Queer country space that addresses both of those things. And it's very neo-traditional. So if there's anything that comes out of this that fascinates me to no end, it's the idea that the very thing that could quote-unquote "save country music" is black neo-traditionalism.

Let me shift to the work that you and fellow journalist Andrea Williams and others have done. It's been extremely important to have your voices in the conversation in recent years. Tell me about the role you think that media is having, and where media has work to do in terms of reflecting the complete picture of Americana music?

Print media, for me, is still for country, the conversation starter of first importance. Because again, Nashville is a top down city. So, if it's not in the newspapers, if it's not in print, and it's not written for sit-down, stabilized reading and comprehension, then it didn't happen. And that goes for everything from Luke Bryan's baby vomiting to representational equity in country music! So the thing that I'm aggressively trying to change the conversation about is making sure that the people who are the journalists of first record in country are also people of color, are also people of diverse social, cultural, gender, economic, whatever background. Because that changes the way that the story is told. And it broadens the perspective. The problem that country has is that, again, it's top down. So, if you're not a white person who earns over $100,000 a year, who lives in a rambler home with 2.5 children and a two-car garage, the news does not apply to you. But if that's you, every bit of the news applies to you. If I tell the story, my perspective is going to be very different than somebody who is writing aspirational news that only applies to people who fit a very specific socio-economic demographic.

If I tried to summarize the journey we're on with these issues, I'd say we have seen a diversification of the ranks of artists that is both enriching and overdue. But next steps are about diversifying the gatekeepers in the businesses and the audience itself. Is that fair?

That's absolutely fair, and I can tell you that it's going to happen quickly. Because every step that's being made in this movement is being made with purpose and intent. There is not a word for instance that Andrea (Williams) writes that is not written with purpose and intent, either to call you out or to get you to show up, initially, and then to make you think. And that's going on down the line. And you start to see more people like Marissa Moss and Kelly McCartney and Rissi Palmer doing work, all done with purpose and intent. And if you look at the number of people that have gotten the grants from that side of things, the Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund and the Rainey Day Fund grants. They're coming quicker now. And with actual, demonstrable success, you know? Like I don't have to tell you that Holly G writes for the The Boot and for The Holler and co-ran a house at AmericanaFest and pitched a panel at AmericanaFest because she did it! With actual results. And you know Olivia Ladd just got a Rainey Day grant, and she ran the Country Queer Showcase - put it all together, booked the venue, and is writing now at multiple places including the Nashville Scene. You can see it. It's not pie in the sky, or like wouldn't it be nice if one day all the stuff happened? It's like, no, it's a different space fundamentally.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org