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Art Notes: Group adds fresh voices to the country western genre

  • Performers with the Black Opry Revue, which has a rotating group of musicians, performs in Nashville in April 2022. The Revue will be playing at the Lebanon Opera House on Saturday, October 1, 2022, at 7:30 p.m. (Emily Carver photograph) Emily Carver photograph

  • Alex Hanson. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/28/2022 8:13:06 PM
Modified: 9/28/2022 8:13:07 PM

When I think of country music, the classic line from The Blues Brothers comes to mind: “We’ve got both kinds of music: country and western.”

That quip is perfect in the way it captures the blinkered nature of an artform that seems incapable of escaping its stifling, small-town point of view, or unwilling to make such an escape. As a genre, it’s been easy to ignore.

But there’s something interesting going on in country and roots music. Artists of color, who have been excluded by the narrow “both kinds of music” outlook, are making music that’s unapologetically confronting the industry’s bland homogeneity.

The most notable exemplar of this movement, Black Opry Revue, rolls into Lebanon Opera House this weekend for a free, all-ages show Saturday night at 7:30. (There’s a suggested donation of $12 per person, and advance registration is required.)

The revue is one of the great outsider projects of recent days. Founder Holly G started it as a blog to foster conversation among Black country music fans who had grown accustomed to seeing few, if any, faces that looked like theirs at country or roots music concerts. Holly G, who responded to questions via email, isn’t even in the music business; she’s a flight attendant who answered questions between flights.

Her site, blackopry.com, became something more a year ago at the 2021 installment of the Americana Music Festival and Conference, in Nashville, Tenn., when many of the website’s users and followers met for the first time.

“Seeing the community together in person made it clear that what we were experiencing was a movement and, banded together, we are a force,” Holly said.

After the festival last September, musician Lizzie No invited some of the Black Opry musicians to perform in place of acts that had canceled, and that led to a flurry of interest from other venues. Black Opry had to bring on a booking agent, and affiliated musicians have booked around 100 shows since then.

While Black Opry is an effort to get more country and roots artists of color in front of audiences, it isn’t aimed at breaking into the establishment. Those genres, despite their colorless origins in 19th century America, have been white since the creation of the Billboard charts in the 1920s, Holly said.

For years, Black musicians like Charlie Pride were the exception to the country music rule. More recently, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have brought new attention to the Black roots of Americana music.

Longtime Lebanon Opera House Executive Director Joe Clifford said he has been trying to broaden his venue’s country and roots music offerings.

“My history with booking country artists has intentionally leaned into representing voices that often go unheard on stages across the country and on the radio waves,” Clifford said. “The country music industry is a heavily male-dominated one — both on- and off-stage — so I’ve been most interested in celebrating women in country music. From Sara Evans to Farewell Angelina to Lorrie Morgan.” Black Opry Revue is a continuation of that.

The five musicians appearing Saturday come from a wide range of traditions and experiences. Denitia is a self-taught musician from New York’s Hudson Valley, while Tae Lewis hails from North Carolina and got his start singing gospel music before turning to country, his true love. Riki Stevens is a classically trained violinist, while Roberta Lea, with whom she recently shared a stage at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a famed folk venue, leans toward the pop end of country. And Nashville native Julie Williams writes songs about growing up as a mixed race woman in the American South.

Holly said she doesn’t hold out much hope that country and roots music will ever welcome artists of color. There’s too much inertia, and money, in the status quo. In the meantime, Black Opry Revue is on the road and finding new listeners.

“Success,” Holly said, “is building structures outside of the mainstream industry that will sustain the careers of these artists that the industry refuses to let in.”

While tickets to the Black Opry Revue are free, registration is required. Go to lebanonoperahouse.org or call 603-448-0400. You can add a $12 donation to your ticket reservation.

Theater’s fall awakening

Northern Stage opens a production of the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening this week, with preview shows in advance of Friday’s opening night. Through Oct. 23. For tickets, $34-$69, go to northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

Opening Thursday night is The Play that Goes Wrong, a classic farce, at Parish Players. Director R.J. Crowley said he just wants to make people laugh. The show is up in Thetford Hill’s Eclipse Grange Theater through Oct. 9. For tickets, parishplayers.org.

Music’s fall awakening

The pace of music performances has picked up noticeably in the past few weeks.

Two shows of note include an appearance Thursday night in New London by the redoubtable Jon Pousette-Dart. He’s been around for four decades, from his early days of heady national radio success to his steady recording and touring of the past two decades. At New London’s Flying Goose Brewpub and Grille, he’ll be at the head of the latest incarnation of the Pousette-Dart Band. Tickets are $30; flyinggoose.com.

And Seven Stars Arts Center, in Sharon, hosts Four Guitars, a performance by Upper Valley guitarists Spencer Lewis, Doug Perkins, William Ghezzi and Draa Hobbs at 7 p.m. Saturday. A fifth guitarist, Peter Neri, emcees. Seven Stars is asking attendees to mask up and will be checking vaccination status. Tickets are $20 and available in advance or at the door; sevenstarsarts.org.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.


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