Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ spotlights Linda Martell, Black country music pioneer

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Beyoncé’s new album“Cowboy Carter,” has shined a light on a country music pioneer that many people may not know.

One of the album’s tracks is called “The Linda Martell Show,” which is an intro to the song “Ya Ya.” Martell appears on that track, as well as the song “Spaghetti.” Though Linda Martell, 82, has a long history in country music, many who are unfamiliar with her name and her vocals, are asking the question: Who is Linda Martell?

Read on to learn more about the country music pioneer.

Who is Linda Martell?

In 1970, Martell released “Color Me Country” which featured the hit “Color Him Father,” a cover of a song by The Winstons. The album also included such popular songs as “Bad Case of the Blues,” “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and “You’re Crying Boy, Crying.”

Rolling Stone said that her album, which was described as “a mix of honky-tonk spunk and heartbreak balladry, all infused with her roots in gospel and R&B,” led Martell to become the first solo Black woman country artist to play the Grand Ole Opry.

“During that time,” Rolling Stone reports, “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.”

Lindamartell.com also touts her as “a pioneering force hailed as the unsung hero of the genre” who “had the highest peaking single on the Billboard Hot Country Singles (now Songs) chart at #22, ‘Color Him Father,’ by a Black female country artist in the history of the genre in 1969, until Beyonce’s “Texas Hold ’Em” debuted at #1 on February 21, 2024.” 

What is Linda Martell’s history with country music?

Born Thelma Bynem in South Carolina, Martell debuted at the Opry in 1969 and told Rolling Stone in 2020 that she would make a dozen appearances on the famed stage. The Opry said she did perform, but could not confirm how many times.

Martell released only that one album after signing with Shelby Singleton Jr., who died in 2009. She was turned off when discovering it would be released not by his SSI International label, but a sister company called Plantation Records, a moniker replete with racial undertones, even though Singleton told her he didn’t have a specific reasons for using that name.

“I said, ‘Yes, there was,’” she told Rolling Stone. “He said, ‘Of course not.’ I said, ‘Yes. What you are telling me is that black people belonged on the plantation!’” 

Martell also endured racist taunts while on the road.

“It was very hard,” she told Rolling Stone. “When you’re playing to an all-white audience — because Lord Jesus, they are prejudiced — you learn to not say too much. You can carry it a little too far if you’re correcting somebody. So you learn how not to do that.”

She said things would improve, but never to the point where heckling would disappear altogether.

“You still heard some names,” she said. “Maybe not loud names, but you’d hear them.… You wonder why people do it. Why not just sit there and enjoy the music?”

What happened to Linda Martell after she released her first album?

Martell would eventually leave Plantation Records and failed in her efforts to record another album. She also found herself on the outside looking in when she says Singleton told her he wanted to focus on the career of Jeannie C. Riley — who was white — after she scored a hit with “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

Linda Martell
Linda Martell poses for a portrait, circa 1969 in Nashville.Michael Ochs Archives

“When Jeannie came on the scene, it seemed like he forgot all about me,” she told Rolling Stone. “I was totally ignored at that time.”

“I thought he was still gonna promote me,” she added. “But he just kept promoting Jeannie, and I told him I’m not gonna play second fiddle to Jeannie C. Riley. That’s when we separated.”

Martell claims Singleton “blackballed” her when she tried to make another album with a different company.

“He blackballed me,” she told Rolling Stone. “You heard the term? Well, he did that. So no one else would record me. It ruined my reputation in country music. Shelby had a lot of power during that time.”

What did Linda Martell do after country music?

Martell’s life would go in different directions after she left country music. She returned to South Carolina, sang in clubs and bars, as well as on a cruise in California. She ran a record store in the Bronx, drove a school bus when returning again to South Carolina and worked with kids with learning disabilities.

In 2021, she received the Equal Play Award at the CMT Music Awards “for her groundbreaking work as a woman of color in country music.”

Martell’s granddaughter, Marquia Thompson, is working on a documentary about the singer and her country music experience, “Bad Case of the Country Blues.”

“Minority, women and marginalized artists deserve to play on a level playing field in the country music industry,” she told The Tennessean in 2023. “My grandmother was (a) courageous artist who challenged an industry by following her passions. People who want to mirror my grandmother’s desires undeniably need to know her history.”

What to know about Linda Martell’s collaboration with Beyoncé’ on ‘Cowboy Carter’

In March 2024, Beyoncé enlisted Martell on her new album, “Cowboy Carter,” which is the second act of her “Renaissance” trilogy.

Martell is featured on two of the album’s tracks: an intro titled “The Linda Martell Show” and a song called “Spaghetti,” which also features rising country music artist Shaboozey. 

“The Linda Martell Show,” which is just 28 seconds long, serves as an intro to the song “Ya Ya.” On the track, Martell introducing the next record after a round of applause.

“Haha, okay, thank you so very much,” she says. “Ladies and gentlemen, this particular tune stretches across a range of genres and that’s what makes it a unique listening experience. Yes, indeed. It’s called ‘YA YA.’”

On “Spaghetti,” Martell starts off the song with a question about music genres, likely a nod to Beyonce’s past struggles with country music in which she said she did not feel welcomed by some in the community.

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?,” Martell asks, before Shaboozey responds, “Yes, they are.”

“In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined,” she adds.

From there, on a bass-heavy beat, Beyoncé and Shaboozey continue the song with a rap, before transitioning back to more melodic singing.

“Spaghetti” serves as the only rap song featured on the 27-track album. 

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