Who is Linda Martell? Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Includes a Shout-Out to Linda

By: MRT Desk

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Linda Martell

Martell’s name may only be immediately recognized by country-music scholars, but the singer’s contributions to the genre are historic. When Beyoncé unveiled a poster homage to country jamborees to announce the track list to Cowboy Carter, the project’s country tie-ins became even more clear. The artwork included references to Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton — and Linda Martell, a name that may have only resonated with country scholars.

The Trailblazing Career of Linda Martell

Although she isn’t a star on the magnitude of the other names Beyoncé included, Martell, now 82, left a sizable mark on country music. Released in 1970, her sole album, Color Me Country, was the first major release by a Black female artist in country. A mix of honky-tonk spunk and heartbreak balladry, all infused with her roots in gospel and R&B, the album spawned three country hits and led to Martell becoming the first solo Black woman country artist to play the Grand Ole Opry. During that time, she also appeared on the hugely popular syndicated country variety show Hee Haw and shared stages with country artists like Hank Snow and Waylon Jennings.

Those may not seem like huge victories in the context of 2024, but back then, Martell’s mere presence was historic. Although Nashville had previously welcomed a small number of Black artists, including Charley Pride, Martell was one of the first women of color to enter the field. But, as she told Rolling Stone in an exclusive interview in 2020, she also paid the price on many levels.

Challenges Faced by Linda Martell

Offended when Singleton and his company shifted their focus to the white country pop singer Jeannie C. Riley, Martell parted ways with Plantation. She tried to record for another label but claimed she had been “blackballed” as a result of parting ways with Singleton. Her career never recovered from that setback. Over the next two decades, Martell moved back to South Carolina and played clubs and bars, sang on a cruise ship in California, and even ran a record store in the Bronx in New York. By the Nineties, she’d returned once more to South Carolina, where, to support herself, she drove a bus for the Batesburg-Leesville school district.

Rediscovering Linda Martell

Several years ago, Linda Martell wasn’t easy to find. When Rolling Stone went in search of Martell in 2019, all roads did not immediately lead to her. She had no remaining music industry contracts. The record company that had recently reissued Color Me Country on CD had licensed the music from a larger conglomerate and didn’t have a direct contact for her; they didn’t even know if she was still alive. RS only learned Martell had been a South Carolina bus driver thanks to a newspaper interview she’d given in the Nineties to help promote a compilation of Black country music.

Linda Martell’s Resurgence

In the last few years, Martell has finally started receiving her due. Now 82, Martell still lives in South Carolina with her family, who were equally taken aback by the Cowboy Carter track reveal. For the last few years, Thompson has been working on a documentary about Martell, Bad Case of the Country Blues, raising money for it by way of a GoFundMe campaign. Maren Morris, who gave Martell a shout-out at the CMAs in 2020, donated $5,000, and CMT gave $10,000. Morris isn’t the only name who’s given Martell props lately. Country artist Rissi Palmer’s podcast, Color Me Country, was named in honor of Martell’s album. At the CMT Awards in 2021, Martell was given an Equal Play Award for artists who “use their platform to advocate for change in the music industry.”

Beyoncé’s Tribute to Linda Martell in Cowboy Carter

On “The Linda Martell Show,” an interlude on Beyoncé’s freshly released Cowboy Carter, a round of applause greets Linda Martell before she introduces the album’s next song, “Ya Ya.” Before that, she pops up on the record’s 12th track, “Spaghettii,” in which she nods to the controversy over Cowboy Carter being called a country album. “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” she ponders. “In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand… But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” Not Bey.

Linda Martell’s Impact on Country Music

A genuine trailblazer, she was the first commercially successful Black female singer in country music — her 1969 single “Color Him Father” peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard Hot Country Charts. In February, 55 years later, Beyoncé forged another path in the genre, becoming the first Black woman to score a No. 1 country song, for her hit “Texas Hold ‘Em.” Martell released only one album, 1970’s Color Me Country, but a combination of racism and shady business practices drove her out of the music industry. Before that, however, she became the first Black solo female singer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

Rediscovering Linda Martell’s Legacy

Despite facing discrimination and challenges in the industry, Linda Martell’s resilience and talent paved the way for future generations of Black artists in country music. With Beyoncé’s homage to Martell in Cowboy Carter, a new spotlight shines on the trailblazing career of this remarkable artist. As of 2024, Linda Martell’s contributions to country music continue to be celebrated and recognized, ensuring her legacy endures for years to come.

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