African-American Country Music Backed By Lobby Group

Black Country Music Association supports aspiring black country artists.

St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times

NASHVILLE — The lunch-hour rush is on at Rachel's restaurant, a pleasant eatery inside this little city unto itself known as the Opryland Hotel. Tourists flock daily to the sprawling mecca that defines Nashville's personality — country music.

On any given day, visitors to Rachel's might enjoy a conversation with a gregarious and popular waitress named Frankie Staton. At night, they might do a double-take and see Staton again — this time, singing country classics and playing piano in the resort's Pickin' Parlor.

Staton, 45, is the human whirlwind behind the Black Country Music Association, which she founded three years ago to help African-American artists find a place in Nashville. As a black artist herself, she challenges a dominant perception that blacks aren't interested in country music.

"Let me say that I've lived in Nashville for 18 years — I am a singer and a songwriter, and I absolutely love country music," Staton said. "I appeared for 10 years on the early-morning Ralph Emery show, before people like Lorrie Morgan, Randy Travis and the Judds were on. But there was always this misconception that 'You don't sing country because you're black.' Through the years, it was literally beaten into my head that country music is truly not about black people."

Staton began her crusade in 1996, when she read a story in the New York Times about country music. The piece quoted Cleve Francis, the doctor-turned-country-star whose career had fizzled, saying country needed to include more blacks. It also quoted Nashville label chief Tony Brown saying: "Why would black people want to sing those straight notes? Why would a black person want to be in a format that gives any white singer who tries to do a little curlicue or deep groove so much grief?"

A Cause Is Born

Staton was furious over Brown's remarks but grateful to Francis for speaking out. She found his number in Virginia and called him at his office. He agreed to fly back to Nashville to host a 1997 black country showcase at the famed Bluebird Cafe. Francis soon handed his notes and contact numbers to Staton, who then launched the BCMA.

In no time, Staton was deluged by demo tapes and press packs from aspiring young black country singers — from tiny post-office-box stops in Georgia to big-city Los Angeles. Staton never imagined there were so many black people dreaming of singing country — and she was stunned by the quality of the voices she heard. Staton soon began organizing a series of BCMA showcases at premier Nashville clubs. Today, the roll includes more than 60 BCMA acts. Staton, the single mother of an 11-year-old boy, promotes their careers using the only piece of high-tech equipment she owns: a telephone.

"The Simmons survey from 1994 showed that 24 percent of black people listening to radio were listening to country — that's a lot of black people!" she said. "There's a whole market out there waiting to be tapped and can help boost country record sales, which everybody knows are down. I keep telling them, if you want to increase your business among minorities, start signing some!"

Staton and her troops will get some attention this June at Fan Fair, where country stars meet and perform for thousands of devotees. The BCMA will have a booth, and many members will give concerts. If she can't get backing from Music Row, Staton said she will pursue sponsorship to form a black country label. (She has drummed up support from the Jack Daniels company to fund a BCMA parade appearance and offset other expenses.)

More Than Just Charley Pride

In the meantime, she continues to lobby for her cause. Last year, she attended a "Leadership Music" seminar, which included a panel of many country executives. "They were telling me that the BCMA was not doing anything that hasn't been done before, because "After all, we have Charley Pride,' " she recounts. "So I said, 'Well, there are some 32 million African-Americans in these vast United States. Thirty years have passed since you signed this brother. Do you truly, in your heart of hearts, think that this is the only black man in America who can sing country music? Because if you do, I can prove you wrong.' "

Many country observers point out that country is driven strictly by economics. "I don't think a policy decision was ever made on Music Row not to sign black artists," said Bruce Feiler, author of "Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes and the Changing Face of Nashville." He also writes about country for the New York Times.

"To Nashville, like every other corner of the entertainment business, the only other color more important than black and white is green. It definitely is an industry driven by commercialism. If anybody in Nashville were convinced that signing a black artist would be beneficial, they'd do it."

At least one label has done it recently. In 1997, with little fanfare, Trini Triggs became the first black country act with a major record deal since Cleve Francis signed with Liberty in 1991. Triggs, not affiliated with the BCMA, was recruited by label chief Mike Curb, whose roots are in L.A., where he produced groups from the Four Seasons to the Righteous Brothers. Triggs was shuffled to various divisions at the label for two years, but is making his run now, with a video and a soon-to-be-completed debut album.

"Trini is a great artist to me, period," Curb said. "But to me, I feel it's very important for there to be black artists in country music. I think it's extremely important as we try to grow country music and, I should say, repair some of the losses we've had in the last five years in terms of our market share. Hopefully, Trini will be opening the door and creating opportunities as a role model for other black artists."

— Dave Scheiber

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