Singing out for the recognition of Black voices in country music

Julie Williams

A conversation with singer-songwriter Julie Williams

Indie artist Julie Williams is making waves: Williams was inducted into the Next Women of Country Class of 2023 last January by CMT (Country Music TV) and released her self-titled EP last summer. This spring, she will be embarking on a series of college campus conversations with non-profit Calling All Crows, on healthy relationships and consent, and her song on sexual violence, “The Prince.” We caught up with her to discuss how her music connects to social justice, how country music has historically silenced Black voices, and what the Beyoncé effect is doing for Black artists and fans.

Oxfam: How does activism inform your music?

Julie: I like to say that music is driven by stories and storytelling has such a large role in activism. It allows people to understand a life they haven’t lived. How do you inspire someone to the point of action about something that doesn’t relate to them? That’s by sharing a story. Activism plays a huge role in my music.

Oxfam: What issues are important to you?

Julie: There are a few things. A huge thing is underrepresented voices in country music. A lot of people don’t know the history, that Black folks created what we know as the genre of country music. Historically a lot of artists have been shut out of those conversations and haven’t been able to share their songs and stories. I work with the Black Opry, which is a collective of artists who do country and Americana music, and  I’ve been a part of Color Me Country, which highlights artists of color in that genre. It’s really important to me to make sure Nashville and country music is a welcoming and safe place for underrepresented artists. That has also driven me to think about what it means for Nashville and Tennessee to be safe. A huge issue affecting Tennessee is gun violence. Gun violence is the number one killer of children in the U.S., and there’s a lot of political inaction in the state of Tennessee. Any chance that I can have to be involved with the efforts of the Tennessee Three and folks who are on the ground trying to change the political landscape in Tennessee drives me. Something related there is LGBTQ issues. There was the [anti]drag bill last year and there are amazing queens who are leading political efforts there. I was lucky to be involved in the Love Rising event that was raising money and attention and awareness. And as someone who worked on refugee issues in college, seeing the stories from Gaza and how the violence is impacting children and women, it draws me back to the work I did in college. I’m very passionate about finding an end to what is probably going to be one of the most historic and long-lasting conflicts.

Oxfam: What has your experience been like touring with the Black Opry and how has the industry responded?

Julie: The Black Opry changed my life. It provided the opportunity to play shows around the country and a community of people who are all in it together and all supporting each other. The industry can feel competitive, like there’s only one spot. And that’s for a reason: there are labels that will say, ‘oh we signed a woman this year, we’re not going to sign another,’ or ‘we already signed a Black artist, so we’re covered.’ What I love about the Black Opry is it’s community oriented. It’s like, why build a fast race car to get one person there when we can build a bus? It might take longer, but we’re gonna bring a whole group of people with us. There’s been some amazing reception we see on the road, people who say ‘I never thought I was a fan of country music but I have the best time at your shows,’ or people who say ‘I never thought I’d feel comfortable at a country show, but seeing you all on the stage and hearing your stories, I really feel like I belong.’

Oxfam: Beyoncé just announced her country album and we're seeing radio stations that typically exclude Black women country artists from the airwaves compelled to play her music due to demand from listeners... Do you think that this might open some doors to get more visibility for other Black artists?

Julie: There are a lot of positives that will come from this time. The biggest part of it is connecting Black country music fans directly to artists. Country music is a genre that is still run by the radio and those are the gatekeepers that keep people from being heard. Radio is still a huge way that people consume country music. There’s an amazing researcher named Dr. Jada Watson who has research about radio play and who gets played on the radio that found that in 2022 songs by Black women received less than 1 percent of airplay on country stations. Those gatekeepers at the top are historically white men. There’s also an amazing book called Her Country that dives into this, but there are systematic standards set in place to keep women and people of color from being played on the radio. What Beyoncé is doing is allowing fans to bypass the radio. People are finding us in ways they hadn’t before and I think that is the Beyoncé effect as a driver of culture. It’s also connecting people who maybe thought they weren’t country fans because of what we think of when we think of country artists. Country music has continually expressed that are only certain people or certain stories that are welcome in this space and I am hopeful that with Beyoncé coming to this space that even if folks in the industry don’t agree, she’s creating a new industry for people.

Oxfam: Who are your unsung heroes in music who deserve some extra shine, are there any indie artists you find exciting?

Julie: In the past 50+ years, there have only been seven women that have made it on to the Billboard charts for country. History is not necessarily on our side in terms of what you see on the charts, but there were a lot of people trying, one is Frankie Staton, she started the Black Country Music Association, she was trying to do a lot of what the Black Opry is doing now. Rissi Palmer in the early 2000s, who is now the host of Color Me Country [radio show], is another one of those people that was really trying to make change at a time when there were still meetings going on at her label where they were saying, ‘what are we doing about her hair?’ As we look to the present, the future of Black country music is really bright. Some artists who inspire me are Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer, Denitia, O.N.E the Duo, Sacha, Roberta Lea, those are the Black women who really inspire me, also The Kentucky Gentleman, Kashus Culpepper, Tony Evans Jr., Jett Holden. The future is so bright and I really hope that as much as people listen to the new Beyoncé music that indie artists get some of those listens and radio plays too.

Check out "Five Songs That Inspire Me" curated by Julie, and two of her songs that inspire us

Julie Williams plans to release new music this summer. 

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