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Who Is Linda Martell? Q Provides a Bit of Back Story for One of the Notable Guest Stars on Beyoncé's 'Cowboy Carter' Album

The unsung country music legend was the first Black female artist to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

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Source: Plantation / Sun Records

The cover art for Linda Martell's lone studio album, 1970's 'Color of Country.'

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If you’ve picked up a copy of Beyoncé’s new album, Cowboy Carter, or even just listened to it on your streaming service of choice, then there’s a name in the credits that may have caught your eye: Linda Martell.

In addition to appearing on two of the album’s 27 tracks, Martell’s name actually appears in the title of one of those tracks, “The Linda Martell Show.”

If you know who Martell is, then you’re probably applauding Beyoncé for asking her to appear on the album, but if you don’t know who she is... Well, you’re about to find out, at which point we’re reasonably presuming that you’ll join in the applause, as Martell has earned every bit of it.

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Source: LindaMartell.com

Linda Martell, photographed during the heyday of her country music career.

Born in Leesville, South Carolina on June 4, 1941 as Thelma Bynem, the future Linda Martell formed a trio with her sister and cousin called Linda Martell and the Anglos, with her new stage name having been suggested to her by local disc jockey Charles “Big Saul” Greene. They recorded a few singles, starting with their debut, 1962’s “A Little Tear (Was Falling from My Eyes),” and they were together for eight years, all told.

“We did a good business,” Martell told Ebony in 1970. “Our group sang behind the Drifters and recorded behind Jimmy Hughes. We really divided when my cousin got married. Then my sister and I split, and I went on my own. I was singing only rhythm and blues then.”

It was Martell’s discovery by furniture-salesman-turned-agent Duke Rayner, who told Ebony in the same 1970 article, “I figured that if I could find a colored girl that could sing country and western, I’d really have myself something.”

[Yes, that’s an exact quote. Please feel free to click on the above link to confirm as much. Sigh...]

Despite his questionable choice of phrase, Rayner’s premise was conceptually sound: after heading to Nashville, she recorded a country version of the song “Color Him Father,” and within 72 hours of arriving in the city, she was signed to a record deal and scheduled for a show at the Grand Ole Opry, making her the first Black female performer ever to sing at the iconic venue. Per an interview with Rolling Stone in 2020, she received two standing ovations during a total of a dozen appearances at the Opry.

Similarly, she also holds the honor of being the first Black female performer ever to appear on Hee-Haw, which – while perhaps not quite as prestigious an honor – is still a pretty big deal for those who grew up on the long-running country music-variety series.

That said, it wasn't an entirely positive experience for Martell. As she told Rolling Stone, a show executive approached her during rehearsals and instructed her on the correct way to pronounce the words in her song's lyrics. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m singing this song — I’m gonna sing it like I always sing it,’” she recalls. “And that’s what I did. He wasn’t too happy about it. But I did anyway.”

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Despite Martell’s debut album, 1970’s Color Me Country, hitting No. 40 on the Billboard Country chart and having three of its singles make the charts (“Color Me Father,” No. 22; “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” No. 33; and “Bad Case of the Blues,” No. 58), she never released a follow-up.

According to Martell in the previously-referenced Rolling Stone piece, she was disgruntled when the owner of her label, Shelby Singleton, Jr., told her outright that he was going to be putting more of his focus on her labelmate, Jeannie C. Riley, who was suddenly the next big thing in country with her single “Harper Valley P.T.A.” Making the decision to sign to a new label, Martell said that she was blackballed by Singleton, who reportedly threatened to sue her new label. “It ruined my reputation in country music,” she told Rolling Stone. “Shelby had a lot of power during that time.”

As a result, Martell effectively retired from music, and while she’s occasionally sung here and there, including a stint on a cruise ship, and even opened her own record store, she’s never made any active attempt at rebooting her country music career. Although she has yet to find her way into the Country Music Hall of Fame, her granddaughter, Marquia Thompson, has produced a documentary about Martell’s struggles in the country music business, the trailer for which you can see below.

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And now we come to Cowboy Carter, wherein Beyoncé shows she knows her history of Black women in country music by asking Martell to appear in a pair of interstitial moments between tracks. Could this serve as the opportunity for Martell - now 82 years old - to kickstart a country music comeback?

We can certainly dare to dream that such a thing might yet happen. In the meantime, though, Q has compiled a playlist which will give you the opportunity to hear Martell's music and listen to what she managed to accomplish.

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