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Trying to find a niche for country soul music

LOS ANGELES — Modern-day black cowboy Marvin Spruill is trying to put together a first-ever country soul music awards program and says it may happen this September in Atlanta.

“There’s a huge market for African Americans,” Spruill said. “[We’ve] been knocking on the door, but no one’s answered, but there is a market called black country soul music.”

Spruill’s statistical claims come from a 1990s report conducted by Simmons Study of Media and Markets which found between 17 and 24 percent of African-Americans 18 and over, who lived in major country markets and listened to the radio, listened to country radio. Overall, black country listeners make a modest dent with two percent of the total listening audience, according to country music analysts.

The North Carolina native said he listens to all genres of music, but country music runs in his blood. He is a member of the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music, the California Country Music Association and the Black Country Music Association.

After seeing so many country soul artists get left in the dust during awards season — like the Academy of Country Music Awards scheduled to air April 19 — Spruill believes it is time to show those artists some love. When he started telling people about the concept, he caught the ear of Rodney Allen Rippy at the traveling Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. The award show project has been in the works for the past four years.

“When we met, it was kind of unbelievable that he had such a passion for country music,” Rippy said. “What he had was so unique, so interesting. I wanted to be a part of it.”

According to organizers, the show will include standard categories for best male and female artists, best new artist and a lifetime achievement award. However, unlike traditional award shows where peers nominate and vote amongst each other, the organizers plan to select nominees and winners for the inaugural show. Eventually, the organizers hope to move the show around to other cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

Rippy, the former child actor best known for Jack in the Box commercials in the 1970s, is the co-executive producer for the awards show. He has been working on a presentation for broadcasters and sponsors detailing the relevancy of country soul music and the benefits of tapping into an untouched market with both established and potential black listeners, he said.

So far, they say they have only pitched to major networks. When asked why not approach BET, TV One or VH1 for initial exposure, the answer was simple: country soul music should go “mainstream” just as its parent genres did.

“We haven’t locked in a broadcaster,” Rippy said. “We’re looking for the best fit. We’re looking for a network to give us the most support, [who] wants to be a partner and see it be a success.”

According to concert-tracking service Pollstar, 11 of the highest-grossing concert tours of 2011 worldwide were country acts. International appeal has even spread to Kenya, where it has its own king of country music: Sir Elvis.

“The problem is not that country soul music isn’t there, but it’s overwhelmingly white,” Spruill said.

He said there is ignorance on the black side and resistance on the white side. “The challenge is to educate the people.”

In the 1960s, Charley Pride stepped into the country music scene with his debut single, “The Snakes Crawl at Night.” Back then, the single was released without publicity photos for fear of listeners rejecting a black country singer.

However, Pride later went on to win Grammy awards with his singles constantly cracking the Top Ten. Fast-forward to 2012, Lionel Richie embraced his country roots with the release of “Tuskegee,” a country album consisting of previously released songs by the Commodores front-man with guest singers providing a country twang.

In late March, former Hootie and the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker earned another number one hit on the country charts with “Homegrown Honey.”

Country soul singer Vicki Vann explains the subgenre’s appeal.

“Country music is all about storytelling. I wouldn’t say country soul is an emerging scene,” Vann said.

Vann, who is multiracial with ancestral roots in Native American, German and Creole, split her time growing up between a farm in Southern California and Hawaii. After listening to iconic singers such as Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton, she said her voice and music became a blend between gospel, soul and country.

Vann said she is more popular overseas since she receives airplay in countries like Brazil, Germany and Australia. As a result, she tends to tour frequently outside the U.S.

“At first, you would think there is no common ground, but you have a lot in common,” Vann said.

While country soul seems to reflect the old adage that music is a universal language, breaking down barriers can be difficult.


Keira Lyn Ford
Keeira Lyn Ford

showed an interest in singing as a child, her grandmother told her to learn Patsy Cline songs.

“Growing up, my mom took me to a bunch of competitions and, because I’m half black, people just assumed I was going to sing R&B or pop,” Ford said.

She said her singing career led her to compete on Country Music Television’s “Can You Duet,” perform at the renowned Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, which was the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry; and sing with Garth Brooks and Vince Gill.

In a world of blonde country singers like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, Vann and Ford believe their appearances work to their advantage.

“I feel that [my appearance] is unique, that it’s a gift from God,” Vann said. “I think that puts me in a spot that you’re not going to forget,” Vann said.

Ford thinks country music has definitely evolved, especially the sound.

“I definitely think there’s a spot for me,” she said.

And Spruill and Rippy are banking on the possibility of “there is a spot” because it will mean potential black listeners will identify with artists who look like them and sing about relatable every-day occurrences. A 2014 Nielsen report showed a majority of black listeners mainly prefer R&B followed by gospel, hip-hop, rap and smooth jazz.

“This whole show is about the young people of the day and appealing to the young [country soul] artists,” Spruill said.

Organizers are making sure everything is in place to meet the September show date, Rippy said.

“Marvin [Spruill] and I know we have one shot at this. If we don’t make a statement it’s going to be over,” Rippy said.