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The Biggest Country Star You’ve Never Heard Of

The Biggest Country Star You’ve Never Heard Of

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Long before Beyonce’s top-performing country album, other Black women country singers were strumming their guitars and singing country tunes. One such lady was Linda Martell. She is one of the most prominent Black female singers in country music history, but unlike Carrie Underwood and Dolly Parton, Martell is not a household name.

Fortunately, some know Martell’s influence and continue to ensure her name is well known. Here is how one woman’s charming voice and undeniable talent helped set the foundation for Black women in country music. 

From R&B to Country Music

Surprisingly, Linda Martell isn’t the country singer’s real name but a stage name. Born into a racially divided world as Thelma Bynem in 1941, her life would inevitably be affected by society’s relentless obsession with race.

Bynem grew up in Leesville, South Carolina, and music was embedded in her everyday life. She sang gospel at her Baptist church, and her father often had country tunes playing in the background at home. When Bynem became a teenager, she grew a strong connection to R&B and formed a group with her sister and their cousin. The group was known as The Anglos, and they sang at local clubs. Through a local gig, Bynem was discovered by DJ Charles “Big Soul,” who gave her the stage name Linda Martell because this new name was better suited for shows.

After some time, the group eventually went their separate ways, but Martell kept singing. One day, when Martell was singing at the Air Force base in South Carolina, she was spotted by William “Duke” Rayner, who ran a furniture store and helped kickstart Martell’s career. While performing on the base, the crowd asked her to sing country, to which she obliged. Rayner was so impressed by Martell that he offered to manage her and eventually introduced her to one of the country’s most well-known managers, Shelby Singleton Jr.

After meeting with Singleton, he persuaded her to shift to singing country music, and she signed a one-year contract with him in 1969. This was a bold move since Black country singers weren’t publicized as much as white country singers. Additionally, racism was alive and well. Yet, Martell wanted to sing, so she decided to venture down this new route.

In a later interview, Martell told Rolling Stone that she was drawn to country music because she believed that this style of music told a story. Through every country performance, she fell more in love with the genre.

A Star Not Permitted to Shine

Switching over to country music proved to be the right move. Martell became the first Black female solo country singer to play the Grand Ole Opry in 1969. Three of her singles landed on the country music charts, and her album ranked number 22. She also appeared in a widely popular country variety show, Hee Haw. Her song “Color Him Father” became the highest-peaking single on the Billboard Hot Country Singles during the 60s.

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Amongst her success, there were many incidents where she had to endure horrendous name-calling during her shows and racist remarks by people she worked with. During an interview with Rolling Stone, Martell recalled a painful memory imprinted in her mind. She remembers a performance where she stepped onto the stage and heard people shouting vulgar comments at her. Those hateful remarks must have felt like daggers. Fortunately, the promoter came to her guard and told the crowd to shut up or leave. Thankfully, most stayed.

While Singleton did give Martell her start, he did not fairly represent her. One of the biggest pitfalls with her former manager was the release of her album, which was released on Plantation Records instead of under Singleton’s SSS International label. Martell felt like this wasn’t fair. Additionally, while Singleton was representing Martell, he began to prioritize the representation of a white artist, Jeannie C. Riley. When Martell left Singleton in 1970, she later shared that she felt that Singleton had blackballed her and made it impossible for her to work with anyone else.

Although her career in country music was stunted, she continued to sing in bars and clubs and even on cruise ships. However, her music career didn’t relaunch, and she found work by opening a record store in the Bronx, driving a school bus, and working with kids with learning disabilities.

Her Story Isn’t Over

While Martell’s life took a different turn after her music career, she is slowly making a comeback. Count on Beyonce to revive a long-lost hero hidden in music’s past.

Martell appears on two album tracks in Beyonce’s iconic album Cowboy Carter. The first is a song called Spaghetti, which also features country artist Shaboozey. The song starts with Martell asking a question about music genres. From this leading question, the bass comes in, and Beyonce and Shaboozey continue the song. Martell’s second appearance is on the track The Linda Martell Show, a 28-second track that serves as an intro for the song Ya Ya.

Beyonce isn’t the only one bringing Martell back into the limelight. Her granddaughter, Marquia Thompson, directed the documentary Bad Case of The Country Blues: The Linda Martell Story. This film allows Martell to share what she went through and is set to release this fall.

In 2021, in addition to recognition from superstars and the support of her family, Martell received the Equal Play Award from Country Music Television because of her influence on the country music scene as a Black woman. 

Unfortunately, Martell’s story is common among many Black women in the music industry. Countless Black women have dominated their genre but were disregarded as one-hit wonders instead of the groundbreakers and innovators they are. While Martell is now in her 80s, something tells me she still has much more to show the world. 

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