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‘A Short-Lived Odyssey’: The Story of the Black Country Music Association

How a group of black country singers came together in Nashville to create a once-thriving community
Photographs used in illustration: Courtesy of Frankie Staton, 4; Paul Natkin/Getty Images

O n March 20th, 1995, country singer Cleve Francis convened a group of 14 artists, journalists, college administrators, branding experts, and music-industry workers for a special occasion — one of the first meetings of the Black Country Music Association. Francis began by stating the BCMA’s mission: to educate the public about the role black artists have played in country music’s history and provide a space for black artists currently working in the genre to join together in force.

The group was brimming with ideas. MaryAnne Howland, the proprietor of a branding agency, was working on a logo for the organization, which would incorporate an African print in its design. Nelson Wilson, a vice president at Nashville’s historic American Baptist College, had plans to formally classify the organization as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Gail Masondo, who ran her own music production company, was excited about an award she and Francis would soon be accepting on behalf of country pioneer DeFord Bailey at the International Association of African-American Music conference in Philadelphia. There was also talk of a proposal for a BET special, a networking event at the Nashville Zoo, and publishing a historical coffee-table book.

At the time of the BCMA meeting, Francis was three years into his own country-music bid. After being discovered by Nashville executive Jimmy Bowen at the age of 46, Francis abandoned his well-established practice as a cardiologist in Virginia to try his luck in Nashville. He did OK. His first modest success came before he ever even moved to Nashville, with his 1991 song “Love Light” and a self-financed music video, which led to three albums with Liberty Records. By the early to mid-Nineties, Francis had become one of the few black country artists to experience any mainstream success since Charley Pride first hit the charts in the mid-Sixties.

But Francis’ contribution to country music is much more significant and long-lasting than a few charting songs. In 1995, after struggling to break through in the white industry, a dejected Francis decided to return home to resume his medical practice. Before he left, he put in motion an idea that was as simple as it was radical — creating a country-music organization specifically for black artists.

Success in Nashville is based on “permission,” Francis, who is now 75, tells Rolling Stone. “They let you in. They let you into the restaurant, they let you be the first to do this or that. Well, I figured, we can stop this. We can give other blacks an avenue to come in, through this organization.”

Despite earning critical acclaim with his first few albums, Francis’ career never fully took off. At the time, he was often told it was because he didn’t have “the right material.” He believes he was discouraged from singing any straightforwardly romantic material, for fear that a black man performing songs that could be taken as sexually suggestive — to an audience largely made up of white women — would never fly in the South.

Instead, Francis says, he wound up with material like “Tourist in Paradise” and “Walkin” — safe, sexless songs that occasionally bordered on novelty. “Without even thinking about it, [the industry] kind of steered me into these kind of songs,” he says.

Years later, Francis is still dismayed by how often his country bona fides were questioned in the Nineties.

“People always asked me, ‘How did you get involved in country music as a black person?’ ” he says. “What’s ironic about it is a lot of the white guys who were singing country music [at the time] were from New Jersey or New York. They’d just come to town, put a cowboy hat on, and all of a sudden, you become country. It was a costume. Why couldn’t we do that?”

Howland, the branding professional helping the BCMA, had clear-eyed perspective on Francis’s plight, realizing as soon as she moved to Nashville that the country-music industry was shaped by an overwhelmingly white power structure.

“It was obvious that it was a very exclusive industry and black people were not a part of it, and that was intentional. So the fact that Cleve even got a record contract was amazing,” Howland says. “Cleve decided, admirably, that rather than just pick up his stories and go home, he’d become an activist. He had stymied his cardiology career to come do this, and he was going to make it mean something.”

While it was Francis who originally came up with idea for a Black Country Music Association, the organization would not get off the ground until a local songwriter and nightclub performer named Frankie Staton assumed its leadership in 1996, a year after Francis left town to resume his cardiology practice.

For the next decade or so, Staton single-handedly accomplished many of the organization’s initial goals, and more. She folded Francis’ original idea into her own vision — prioritizing the development of black country-music talent — and in the late Nineties and early 2000s, the BCMA blossomed into a thriving community of black Nashville artistry. Its live-music concerts (known as “Black Country Music showcases”) attracted dozens of artists from around the country and served as the organization’s most visible physical manifestation of its mission.

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Cleve Francis, a Virginia cardiologist, sings country & western music at GW’s Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1990. Frank Johnston/The The Washington Post/Getty Images

But in an industry that rarely understood or appreciated Staton’s larger aims, making those goals happen was never easy.

“Look, I’m here to make money,” a skeptical Nashville club owner told Staton when she proposed to him the idea of a BCMA showcase at his venue.

“Well,” Staton recalls responding, “I’m here to make history.”

Under Staton’s leadership, the BCMA found a home at the Bluebird Cafe, the iconic Nashville proving ground for songwriters. Over its nearly 10-year tenure, the organization staged regular showcases at the Bluebird and at venues across town, including Douglas Corner Café, the Sutler, and Caffe Milano. The shows, which featured an all-white backing band of Nashville pros like Jim Prendergast, Mark Beckett, and Larry McCoy, became an increasingly sought-out event, with industry players from labels and publishing companies showing up to scout for talent.

The early, Cleve Francis iteration of the BCMA also helped initiate a major-label box set — 1998’s From Where I Stand, released on Warner Bros. — that chronicled the history of African-American contributions to country music, while Staton’s BCMA produced an EP of original songs and helped its artists land television specials and international gigs. Many of the artists involved in the BCMA were mentored by industry veterans who also worked as managers, producers, and songwriters for Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, George Jones, and Tammy Wynette.

With Staton at the helm, the BCMA shaped an entire generation of black country singers and songwriters. It was a refuge and a breeding ground, a safe space and a close community that allowed artists who’d been overlooked by the rest of the industry to perform, create, and gain exposure on their own terms. “When I felt like I had exhausted the means of showcasing my music, the [BCMA] gave me that visibility to keep my story going,” says Rhonda Towns, a country singer from Arizona.

“I didn’t know what an impact our short-lived odyssey had,” Staton tells Rolling Stone. “For a group of artists who had maybe not felt like they were stars, I wanted them to know that they were stars, that they were even better than stars. That’s the thing that I accomplished.”

Frankie Staton will never forget the moment she decided to make Cleve Francis’ dream of a Black Country Music Association a reality. In the fall of 1996, the singer was working as a waitress at the Opryland Resort when she received a letter from her aunt in North Carolina. Enclosed was a New York Times article titled “Has Country Music Become the Soundtrack for White Flight?”

“This,” Staton’s aunt told her, “is what you’re up against.”

Staton came across a quote in the story from Tony Brown, then-president of the MCA Nashville label, about the caliber of black talent in country music. Brown, described in the Times as “futilely searching for a black artist for years,” summed up his efforts like this: “It’d either be some black kid trying to sing like Charley Pride, only a really bad version of that. Or it’d be somebody who really sings like [Eighties R&B singer] James Ingram, who decided he couldn’t make it in pop music so he could make it in country.”

(“Looking back at this comment,” Brown says today, “I was really frustrated with where the industry was at regarding black representation in country music.… These words reflect how country music and particularly country radio closed off opportunities to embrace black artists and hinder the ability to connect with black country-music fans.”)

To Staton, the statement was as outrageous as it was hurtful. It was also, she soon realized, a call to action.

“It opened me up to so many stories that it was shocking,” says Staton. “If I told you how many times I just had to sit down and cry at the stories other people told me.… I just knew that there were black people running all over this city that were invisible.”

From the beginning, Staton — a Nashville veteran who’d recorded a few one-off singles, including the gorgeous 1986 countrypolitan ballad “Leading Lady” — envisioned the Black Country Music Association as a way to organize all of the black country talent, in Nashville and across the country, that wasn’t going to achieve mainstream exposure. “Everybody [playing country music as a black person] felt like the Lone Ranger,” she says. “I wanted them together, onstage.”

By January 1997, the BCMA was up and running, and Staton placed an ad in the paper soliciting audition tapes for the organization’s first showcase, to be held that February.

“Coinciding with Black History month,” the advertisement in The Tennessean read, “the showcase will celebrate African-American country performers and introduce the Nashville music community to acts it may not have previously been aware of.”

She received more than 30 submissions.

Knowing she needed a symbolically important location — “If you want to do country music,” Staton says, “you got to go where country music is played” — she settled on the Bluebird Cafe. Admission would be free. Francis agreed to fly in to host the show, which would feature Vanessa Hill, who had helped Francis come up with the original idea of the BCMA, a veteran performer named J.J. Jones, and newcomers Larry Dawson and Terry Lee Jones. The Bluebird filled up so quickly that a crowd assembled on the sidewalk to watch the show through the venue’s windows.

“The whole place,” Staton later remarked with pride, “was full of black country singers.”

Under Staton’s leadership, the Black Country Music Association transformed from a lofty idea into a daring, if difficult, reality. Running the organization on a purely volunteer basis, Staton spent her free time negotiating with venues, trying to attract institutional funding, building relationships with songwriters for material for BCMA singers, and soliciting new members.

By the late Nineties, the BCMA was hosting regular showcases all over Nashville. Staton even took the organization to Fan Fair, the annual country-music festival (now known as CMA Fest) that attracts thousands of fans to Music City. She secured funding from Jack Daniel’s, which helped the organization travel to Chicago to march in the Bud Billiken Parade, the largest African-American parade in the nation, alongside an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama.

By 1999, Staton had grown the BCMA into a flourishing organization with more than 80 dues-paying members (dues ranged from $15 to $40 per year). She received press mentions from MTV and newspapers across the country for her work.

“With such an auspicious year behind them,” the Nashville Scene wrote in 1998 on the eve of the BCMA’s second showcase at the Bluebird, “Staton and the BCMA are exuberant and enthusiastic about the year to come.”

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John Manuel, Valierie Ellis Hawkins, Frankie Staton and Chris Dominic (from left) at the Black Country Music Association booth during Fan Fair in 2002. Courtesy of Frankie Staton

In highlighting black country artistry, Staton provided a stage for a type of black Southern identity that felt entirely invisible in mainstream culture. “What you’re looking at, when you look at this stage, this is country, pure country,” former Tennessee state legislator Rufus Jones once told a crowd at a BCMA showcase. “They’re no different from the average country story that you’ve heard over the years.… There are literally hundreds of African-Americans who’ve come to Nashville to seek fame. And through the BCMA, it’s going to become a reality.”

BCMA showcases became a repository for the living history of black country music, a space where the newly retired Francis, or Nisha Jackson, who had a charting country single in 1987, or the country-soul icon Candi Staton (no relation to Frankie) might appear from one night to the next. “It was a really fun night,” says Candi Staton, a singer who grew up listening to country music in rural Alabama but had never stepped into a room of black people performing country music until she performed at a BCMA event in 1997, at the age of 47. “I had never thought about making a career out of country music because I didn’t know how I would be received.”

From the beginning, Frankie Staton made sure to capture the showcases on tape for posterity.

“I knew that nobody would ever believe it,” she says, “so I filmed it.”

To peruse Staton’s stunning archive of BCMA showcase footage and audio is to glimpse an alternative history of Nineties Nashville, one where Wheels, a six-piece all-black country-pop group that signed to a major label but never released an album, might have sold as many records as Rascal Flatts. Where songs like “Will There Be a Walmart in Heaven” by Little Johnny Williams, “Back Pockets” by Andrew Summers, or “Tennessee,” written by Steve Miller Band keyboardist Joseph Wooten, could have become regional hits. Where devastating ballads like “The Half That Hurts” by John Manuel, or “Really Gone” by Valierie Ellis Hawkins, were destined to be as well-known as anything by Faith Hill and Alan Jackson.


One summer day in 1992, a native of Ashland City, Tennessee, named Hazel Ellis was cleaning the home of Juanita Winfrey, the president of Randy Travis’ official fan club, when she pressed play on a three-song cassette tape that her daughter, Valierie Ellis Hawkins, had recently recorded with Nashville producer Max T. Barnes.

Winfrey was home, heard the songs, and stopped short.

“Who is that?” she called out.

“That,” Hazel said, using her daughter’s nickname, “is Cookie.”

Intrigued, Winfrey passed the tape to Lib Hatcher, Travis’ then-wife and manager. Hatcher liked Hawkins’ voice so much that she invited Valierie to dinner with her, Travis, and Winfrey. Hatcher offered Hawkins a management contract on the spot.

By that fall, Hawkins had signed a management deal with Hatcher, and was taking meetings with record labels and songwriters. On June 22nd, 1993, she signed a preliminary contract to record four demos for Warner Bros. Nashville.

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Valierie Ellis Hawkins Courtesy of Frankie Staton

Hawkins believed that her moment had finally arrived. But like so many would-be stars, Hawkins’ best shot at mainstream country success faded as soon as it emerged. She was even given a specific, devastating reason for the dissolution of her relationship with Warner, a reason she’s been unable to forget 27 years later. At her final meeting with Jim Ed Norman, then the head of Warner Bros., Hawkins remembers him telling her, “ ‘I just don’t know how I would market you.’ I was like, ‘You would market me like you would anyone else.’ And he said, ‘The problem is that people sometimes hear what they see.’ ”

“That was a big blow to me,” Hawkins says. “Because I didn’t think about things that way. I heard music and I didn’t look at the color of anyone’s skin. If they were talented, I liked it. So that was the end.”

Black country singers were used to receiving some version of that message from the country-music industry. “I’d hear from execs, ‘You’re very talented, but there’s just no market for you,’ ” says John Manuel, a singer from North Carolina who joined the BCMA when he moved to Nashville in 1999. “The idea was that no one wanted to see a black country singer, and that there weren’t any black people who would support an African-American country singer. If anyone ever said, ‘Well, isn’t that racist?’ the response would be, ‘Well, no, we’re not racist. I mean, hell, we had Charley Pride.’ And my response would be, ‘Well, that was in 1965.’ ”

Norman, who does not recall that specific meeting with Hawkins, maintained a complicated relationship with the Black Country Music Association when the organization formed a few years later. In Nineties Nashville, Norman recognized, more than any other executive in the industry, the need for the country-music industry to do a better job of recognizing and fostering a greater range of voices.

“There was music that was available to us to shine a light on and artists that deserved to have the light shined on them, and there was not a proper mechanism in place to do that, whether it be cultural bias, or the sheer mechanics of business,” says the label head, who helped Francis connect with many of the earliest members of the BCMA.

But Norman, like other Nashville executives, didn’t know how to translate the increasing evidence that millions of black Americans were listening to country music into the industry’s business model. “This new information coming about black people listening to country music is exciting, but it is so new, not only in data, but even in consciousness, that it will take some time to address,” Norman told author Pamela Foster, who wrote 1998’s landmark My Country: The African Diaspora’s Country Music Heritage. “For so long, country was associated with a redneck consciousness that some of the marketing opportunities don’t occur to us as an industry because we have the Greek chorus out there telling us who we are.”

And so, despite supporting its formation and helping mentor and connect many of its earliest organizers, Norman preferred a more hands-off approach.

“I saw the need for the BCMA,” he says, “while recognizing that in the long run, what you really want is inclusivity with the CMA.”

In Nineties Nashville, the time should have been ripe for an organization like the Black Country Music Association. “The industry is always looking for new markets, and that was the case in the Nineties to an extent that it had never been before,” says Amanda Marie Martinez, a scholar on race and the country music industry in the second half of the 20th century. “More people than ever were listening to country music, so from the perspectives of these black artists it was, ‘Hey, here is a whole other market!’ It just became so glaringly obvious that the industry was just not interested, because this was a time when they were trying to continue to grow.”

Ed Benson, the then-executive director of the CMA, describes the Country Music Association’s relationship with the BCMA as “complementary.”

“They were way ahead of their time in terms of trying to bring a bigger awareness of the quality of black country artists to the attention of the industry in Nashville,” says Benson, who at one point was a paying member of the Black Country Music Association. “Nobody had done that before the BCMA. I understood what they were trying to do and thought it was important and correlated with a lot of the work the CMA was doing in presenting a more accurate viewpoint of who makes up the country-music audience.”

But the particulars of the relationship between the CMA and the BCMA meant little to a singer like Valierie Hawkins, who had trouble getting her career off the ground after being rejected by Warner in 1993. Her manager Lib Hatcher dropped her, and she was unsure if she’d even record another demo.

“That was it,” Hawkins says, “until I met Frankie.”

For Hawkins and many others, discovering Staton’s BCMA after years of toiling alone was a revelation.

“When I walked in and saw all of these black singers, for me, it was like Christmas,” says Carl Ray, a Texas-bred country singer.

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Rhonda Towns at the 5th Annual Academy of Country Music Motorcycle Ride in Las Vegas, 2008 Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“It’s almost like we’re hidden — you don’t realize how many black people love and sing country music,” says Arizona country singer Rhonda Towns. “We became determined to make ourselves visible in Nashville.”

By the time Hawkins discovered the Black Country Music Association, she was ready to give up. “It was crushing,” she says. “For a minute, I thought, ‘What am I going to do next?’ But then I found Frankie, and I saw that it’s not just me. I thought maybe in numbers we can do something.”

That power-in-numbers profundity made the BCMA feel like a threat to reactionaries and racists. The first time WSM radio host Matthew Gillian welcomed Staton and several BCMA artists onto his radio show, “It was like an atom bomb went off,” he says.

“A lot of people called in and said, ‘What are you doing? Why are you kowtowing to black people?’ I said, ‘I’m not kowtowing to anybody.’ They need to be heard, just like everybody else. I didn’t understand what the problem was,” Gillian says.

“You have surrounded your organization with a bunch of incredibly talented people,” Gillian later said to Staton on-air on WSM. “They all deserve record deals in my book, and I hope that the folks down on Music Row, somebody down there will shift their brain into another gear and realize, ‘There’s some money sitting in this studio, waiting to be made!’ ”

During its heyday, the members of the BCMA were subject to racism both implicit and explicit. One year at Fan Fair, a fan came up to the BCMA booth and shouted a racial epithet at Hawkins.

Recounting the story today, Hawkins chokes up when she recalls what happened later that day: Merle Haggard, whose booth was stationed near the Black Country Music Association’s, approached Hawkins and said, “It’s good to have you here.”

By 2000, Staton was looking to expand and professionalize the organization. Three years earlier, she had registered an LLC for Cowboy Soul Entertainment, the for-profit entertainment company that would provide a variety of services to the most promising of BCMA artists.

“The formation of the Black Country Music Showcases is just beginning,” she wrote in a BCMA newsletter that summer, adding that the artists chosen to be on Cowboy Soul Entertainment “will be the first to record and be booked on television, radio, tours, and they will represent the Black Country Movement.”

Staton was full of ideas for the BCMA’s future. “I saw a brand in front of them, I saw it as plain as day,” she says. “I wanted to do what Berry Gordy did [with Motown]. Take the showcase across the country. Go national.” She had ideas for television specials with names like Sisters in Country Music and Hats From the Hood. “It was all for the same purpose, to expand the visibility of diversity in country music. And to purchase the things we needed.”

Around 2002, Staton took a few artists to the studio to record a three-song EP. The project, which would be sold at showcases and handed out at Fan Fair, included the BCMA’s unofficial theme song, a peppy midtempo anthem called “Southern Sun,” sung by Hawkins; “I Love This Place,” a Tim McGraw-inspired piano ballad by John Manuel; and “Outlaw,” a rough-edged country rocker by North Carolina baritone Dwight Quick.

But the BCMA had become subject to infighting. According to Staton, the artists who paid their yearly dues to the BCMA felt entitled to performance slots at the showcases. Some grew frustrated when nothing came of their careers, disputing with Staton when talks of money and contracts inevitably came up.

“Frankie didn’t really have a true vision of how to connect these artists [with larger fanbases],” says singer and BCMA member Carl Ray, who stresses that overall he had a positive experience with Staton and the organization. “The artists became disenchanted.”

“I was a member for about a year,” says Mike Johnson, a black country yodeler who saw Staton as a Nashville insider who excluded his style of old-time music from the association. “I quit when I noticed a clique between their president and a few select members.”

Staton says she was focused on what was being played on country radio and who was earning record deals. “I wanted the artists in the association to understand: It’s not just hard for us, it’s hard for everybody,” she says. “I wanted them to be able to stand up to any singer on Music Row.”

“I didn’t want a circus,” she continues. “I wanted a country show.”

As membership to the BCMA grew during the turn of the century, it became harder for Staton to manage the group’s demands as a volunteer. She found she was more interested in trying to work with artists’ song selection and performance style than she was in the thankless work of maintaining an underfunded grassroots organization that, in its earliest days, would raise money by hosting bake sales outside Nashville grocery stores.

“At that point, I knew what I wanted to do was not association-oriented, it was creative,” Staton says. “I wanted to produce shows and take it to a whole other level. I just didn’t want to deal with ‘If I paid my money, why can’t I get onstage?’ I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to break that up.’ ”

By 2003 or so, the BCMA had been reduced to Staton and a few of her remaining favorites, like Hawkins and Manuel. “It was a very slow dissolve,” says Manuel, who left Nashville for good in 2006.

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Frankie Staton performing at a BCMA Showcase Courtesy of Frankie Staton

By that point, Staton had realized it was time for her to pause her dream of a nationally known Black Country Music Association.

“I loved them enough to want the best for them,” she says of the artists she had tried to turn into country stars. “I didn’t even get to do a fraction of what I wanted.”

Thirteen-thousand miles from Nashville, Gail Masondo is sitting in her home in Cape Town, South Africa, reading over the minutes from one of Cleve Francis’ earliest Black Country Music Association meetings that she attended 25 years ago. Masondo has long since left the music industry, and she was only tangentially involved with the early attempts to form the BCMA under Francis. But her face lights up when she arrives at one sentence in the meeting’s minutes:

“Mission Statement Ideas: To educate on the past”

“There’s still an opportunity to educate,” Masondo says, pausing on that line. “That was one of the reasons for the BCMA to come together: to bring awareness, educate on the past, to set a tone for the future.”

The earliest organizers and later members of the Black Country Music Association have gone on to find success in a wide range of jobs: mayor, educator, songwriter, judicial assistant, author, psychologist, bio-tech executive, minister, entrepreneur, branding expert, and prominent cardiologist.

None of them, however, ever became a country-music star.

But 25 years after the first attempts to found the association, many of its original members, organizers, supporters, and associated artists have never forgotten the association’s impact.

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Cleve Francis’ original Mission Statement for the Black Country Music Association as stated while registering it as a non-profit in February 1995. Courtesy of Frankie Staton

There remains an entire generation of black artists who arrived in Nashville in the late Eighties, Nineties, and early 2000s and largely feel as though they never were given a chance at country-music stardom — apart from their involvement with the Black Country Music Association. While none of them ever became household names, nearly all of them still perform music, for themselves or on a local scale, to this day.

Some of the artists, like Carl Ray and Andrew Summers, met through the BCMA and became close friends. Others, like Vanessa Hill and Rhonda Towns, have dreams of second chances in Nashville. Joseph Wooten and Cleve Francis, who still performs in Northern Virginia and released a live album in 2007, feel newly inspired by this summer’s nationwide racial reckoning to revisit their time in country music. And still others, like Valierie Ellis Hawkins, are left with bittersweet, difficult memories.

“There’s a lot that the world missed out on,” Hawkins says. “My mom always told me, ‘Valierie, your voice is meant to be heard.… God has given you a gift for the world.’ She passed on, and she wasn’t there to see it. I hate that. It gets me choked up, because it shouldn’t have been that way.”

“Frankie opened a lot of doors, they just weren’t open all the way,” she continues. “After a while, you can only sing at so many cafes, so many fairs, and it’s still not happening.”

Eventually, she decided to give up on the country music industry altogether. “The dream starts to fade,” Hawkins says.

The BCMA has been largely forgotten in the 15 years since it dissolved, aside from a few stray references: in a 2017 country music novel by Sarah Creech and a recent story on Staton in the Nashville Scene. Even artists like Darius Rucker and Mickey Guyton have told Rolling Stone they hadn’t heard of the organization. “This needs to be established [again],” Guyton says.

Staton, for her part, still performs in piano bars, tourist joints, and airport lounges around Nashville. She possesses most all of the archival audio and footage from her many Black Country Music Association showcases and is interested in the possibility of one day releasing those performances. After decades of working as a waitress to support her son as a single mother through school, she has never fully given up on her grand aspirations, for herself or the BCMA.

“My reality was as a server; all the rest was a dream,” she says. “Now, I will do my best to flip my life around to the musical life I have always dreamed of.”

One day in the fall of 2019, John Manuel, on a corporate work trip to Nashville, surprised Staton at one of her shows at the Opryland Hotel, where she performs covers (everything from country and R&B oldies to Great American Songbook standards to Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift) for hotel guests.

Manuel caught up with Staton in between sets, and the singer seemed worn down. “Frankie has been pushing for so many years to be heard, to be accepted,” Manuel says. “Part of my desire to be successful in country was just so that I could have given her the acknowledgement she deserved, for all the work she put in, for all her effort. She dedicated a lot of her life to trying to help everyone else succeed in this industry that, really, I would say, didn’t do much to try to help African-Americans or singers of color get to the place where their talent could take care of itself.”

As for Hawkins, when she’s not working as a judicial assistant, she still sings in her local church in Ashland City. She and Staton remain close and, with Staton’s help, are in the early stages of trying to reintroduce Hawkins as a singer to the rest of the world; last month, Hawkins released “Colorblind,” the first song she’s put out publicly in nearly 20 years.

Hawkins rarely talks about her decade trying to make it in country music. But every now and then, when she’s passing through Nashville with her family, they’ll drive past somewhere like the Bluebird, and she’ll share an anecdote about her musical past with her teenage daughters. “You sang there?” they’ll ask their mom.

In the summer of 2019, Hawkins and a friend were driving around the countryside when they stopped at a yard sale in Coopertown, Tennessee. Looking through the CDs, Hawkins came across something unexpected: one of the BCMA three-song EPs from 2002. Finding the CD at a yard sale “brought such a smile to my face,” she says. “I was like, ‘This person liked this CD enough that she bought it and held onto it for a while. We were playing in someone’s home that liked us.’ ”

Without telling her friend, Hawkins purchased the CD and put it on in the car as they drove off. “What is that?” her friend asked. “I don’t know who that is.”

Hawkins laughed. “That’s me.”