Black country music pioneer Linda Martell will be honored at the 2021 CMT Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. Martell will receive the prestigious "CMT Equal Play Award" at this year's ceremony. Mickey Guyton, the first solo Black woman nominated for a country GRAMMY Award, will present the award to Martell while Darius Rucker, Rissi Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens pay homage in a congratulatory video package. Rounding out the tribute, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Nettles, will also pay homage to the country music pioneer.
Coming of age during the Civil Rights Movement, Martell occupied a unique space in music. While she did earn not one, not two, but three Billboard top 60 country hits, she faced discrimination throughout the country music industry. Persevering through it all, Martell was able to release her one and only studio album in 1970. It landed at number 40 on the charts and earned her praise from music critics.
“A woman of color, if you go into country music — if the record stations don’t play you, you’re not going anywhere. Brace yourself. But don’t give up," Martell said during an interview featured in the 2005 documentary, Waiting In The Wings.
“A lot of the shows that I did was through a lot of pain. They loved to use the N-word (and say), ‘Go back where you belong. You don’t need to sing our kind of music.’ You’re trying to entertain and be called a name very, very loudly in a club or in an arena and try to get through the song without crying. You wonder how anybody can really be that cruel."
As time went on, Martell earned the recognition she rightfully deserved during her initial run in the 1960s. In 2014, her debut album was re-released on CD and not long thereafter, it made its way to streaming services. Fellow musicians like Guyton, Rissi Palmer and several others have also taken the time to give Martell her flowers while she's still here to smell them.
“I think about her and what it must have been like to be the first Black woman to ever play on the Grand Ole Opry. She mentions looking out into the audience and not seeing anyone who looked like her. I know that feeling. And I can’t imagine – and when it happened to me it was in 2007,” Palmer said.
“So I can’t imagine in 1968 with the climate the way that it was, with the rioting, and with all the things that were going on in this country, what it must have been like to be a Black woman, to walk out on that stage, not knowing how people were going to receive you or what they’re going to do.”
Martell will officially receive the "CMT Equal Pay Award" on June 9 in Nashville, Tennessee at the 2021 CMT Awards.