Backstage at Newport Folk with The Black Opry Revue
“[The Black Opry] moves mountains to make sure that we can do what we want to do and be who we are all in the same.”
September 6, 2023
Interview and Photos by Alyssa Goldberg
The Black Opry, founded by Holly G in April 2021, evolved from a website and Twitter account celebrating Black performers in country, Americana, folk, and related genres, to become a prominent force of change in the music industry. Currently featured in the Country Music Hall of Fame's exhibition American Currents: State of the Music 2022, the organization's national touring showcase has been on the road throughout the year. Sounds of Saving sat down with Black Opry artists Ally Free and Jett Holden ahead of their performance at Newport Folk Festival in late July to talk mental health and the importance of a community that uplifts Black artists in country music.
SOS: I wanted to start by hearing a little bit about the both of you. What were your journeys of finding the Black Opry and joining the community? What drew you to it?
HOLDEN: So Holly found me on Instagram in early 2021. We were coming out of the pandemic, I was still working from home with a call center. I wasn't doing music professionally. And she was like, ‘I really like your sound. Would you like to be part of this blog?’ Then that blew up into this whole thing that was far beyond anything I could have expected and it just created community for me. I was very skeptical about coming back into the music industry, but she made it very safe for me. I couldn't be happier with where I am now.
FREE: I hate to call it the kidnapping story, but this is kind of what it is. But it's a great kidnapping story. I was doing some karaoke at Lipstick Lounge in Nashville. And you know, I got up there and I sang Creep by Radiohead. But before I got on stage, I got stopped by Holly, who asked me what I was singing. And then when I get on stage and finish singing, Roberta Lea gets me off stage by the hand and says, "You're coming with me." So I went over to the table and met all the Black Opry and they said, basically, “Okay, you're part of us now.” So since then, it's just been a wild ride but a great ride. They've done so much for me in the very short amount of time that I've been with them and it's been amazing.
SOS: Yeah, I know the Black Opry was in part born out of this need within folk and americana, which hasn't always been the most diverse genre, so it is really important to have this community that's elevating Black artists in country music. How has it helped support you as an artist – not necessarily in the sense of like, 'Oh, more people have listened to my music now,' but in terms of navigating this genre of music? How has this community helped you with the stressors that come with working in the music industry?
HOLDEN: I started doing music right out of college and went west to Long Beach, California and I was doing well up there. This guy from a major label took an interest in me and had me come down and talk to him about a development deal. We were into the ‘get to know you’ parts of things and I happened to let it slip that I was gay, and he was like, "You could be gay or black in country, but I don't think we could market someone who's both." And like, all interest in me disappeared after that. And so I quit music, but then Holly found me. I made sure she knew I was gay beforehand so there wouldn't be any surprises, and she was so excited because she was a Black queer woman who was just trying to enjoy country music safely. And so she was like, 'That's perfect. Please come as you are.' I've never had to answer about myself to anyone. It's just like, you are who you are and we love you for it.
FREE: Exactly. Actually to piggyback off of you, Jett. From the town that I'm from in Huntsville, Alabama, being a black trans man... I came out, you know, just being gay and then came out again as being trans. I didn't have that kind of community support. Since I've been a part of the Black Opry, that was one of the things that Holly and Tanner were excited about. They were like, 'Yes, yes. Be you, be who you are. You can feel safe and have this community and you can have this family.' And you know, we're able to express ourselves and be who we are, as well as do what we love to do, because a lot of these doors don't open up for us the same once they find out that part. They're like, 'Well, you know, we can't really market something like that.' But [the Black Opry] moves mountains to make sure that we can do what we want to do and be who we are all in the same. So, it's been amazing.
I've never had to answer about myself to anyone. It's just like, you are who you are and we love you for it.
We write these songs to express ourselves because we can't always do that. It's not always heard, but once people hear us on stage and hear our music, they see us differently, and they treat us differently. And I think that's why music is, you know, a universal language. It's powerful. So I'm glad that we're on that platform to be able to do that.
SOS: I'm curious to hear about how the act of creating music, writing, and performing helps you with your mental health and with processing a lot of the difficulties that you face?
HOLDEN: Writing has always been my therapy, more so than performing. Writing is how I get everything out because I'm not usually the greatest talker. I'm not great at expressing myself outwardly that way. And so I started writing these things into songs, and in doing so, would learn about myself. I don't tell myself a lot of things so when I write something I may not necessarily know where it's coming from, but the more I sing it the more it hits home and I realize what part of me was hurting.
FREE: Why are we always like kismet, man? That's exactly how I feel. Even the song that I'm doing today, "Demons Of My Past," is one of the songs that is very personal to me. I wrote that song when I was younger during a very dark time and it's about suicide and addiction and all of these things that I've dealt with personally, and also people that I've lost. I wrote that about everything. [With] losses and relationships, you know, you can still grieve people that are here or people that are gone. I feel like music really saved me in a way and at the same time I would like to be able to give a voice to the people that aren't being heard, too. So I feel like with music, we are able to do that and I think it's a beautiful thing.
SOS: You both mentioned mental health struggles and channeling that into music. Was therapy an option for y'all or something that you had considered doing? Or had you turned to other ways of coping with your mental health?
FREE: I mean, I did have the avenues for it for sure. But at the same time, I mean, I even had one particular therapist that started preaching to me about my sexuality and telling me things that I felt like a therapist shouldn't have exerted their opinion about, and it just took away from the actual health part. So I ended up just turning to music a lot of the time and it helped me a whole lot, [as well as] my family and my friends. Music really did save my life. So that's what I turn to and write through that. Just like Jett was saying, you know, we write these songs to express ourselves because we can't always do that. It's not always heard, but once people hear us on stage and hear our music, they see us differently, and they treat us differently. And I think that's why music is, you know, a universal language. It's powerful. So I'm glad that we're on that platform to be able to do that.
HOLDEN: I agree. I grew up Jehovah's Witness and therapy wasn't something you did as a Witness. You would speak to your elders at the congregation if you had any issues. And so for a long time, I didn't seek mental health [support]. It wasn't until 2020... [in] 2019, I lost my roommate to suicide and I was the one that found her. I won't go into the details, but it was a gruesome scene that I walked in on and after about eight months, I started having flashbacks and I couldn't get rid of them. It was the first time music and writing alone wasn't helping. And so I sought therapy at the beginning of 2020 right before quarantine started, and then two months later quarantine hit and I had to fall back on music again. But therapy is something that I recommend using in conjunction with music if that's an outlet for you because sometimes it's not enough and you do need a professional to help you through something.
SOS: [To Jett] I'm sorry for your loss, and I know it takes a lot of strength to still be creating. [To Free] You said you're from Alabama, right, is that where you first sought therapy?
SOS: I talked to the artist Noah Kahan back in January, who is from a rural area in Vermont. One of the issues with rural therapy for him was that his therapists were people who knew his parents or had kids who Noah went to school with. He found it difficult to open up because there was always a fear of it getting around to the community or that the therapist would already have a preconceived notion of what he was like. I know there are some bigger cities in Alabama so I'm not exactly sure if this applies here, but I'm curious if that was something that you also faced?
FREE: Everybody knows everybody in Huntsville, but at the same time, it's not that anybody would say anything or know your family and stuff like that, as far as the therapy goes. But it was that a lot of the people would have opinions that I feel like, again, therapists shouldn't have like that. And it would happen quite a bit, so that's the part where I didn't feel like I was getting much out of it. Unfortunately.
SOS: Thank you for sharing. Just bringing it back to where we are today. How are y'all feeling playing at a festival like this? What are the emotions going through you today?
HOLDEN: This is definitely the biggest show I've ever played, like yesterday when I was watching Jason Isbell from the side of the stage, that was the first time I looked out on the audience and saw how full it was and then from beyond the audience, the boats and like everybody watching from there, and I was like, this is wild. I'm just gonna soak in every moment. I'm ready to get up there and just kill it.
FREE: Again, exactly. I'm gonna remember it eventually once I get off stage, but I'm gonna blackout when I get onstage. Because the first time I looked over there, across the water and at the boats, and then the whole crowd, I wanted to throw up, but I always get like that. I always get stage fright. But once we get up there and there's that electric vibe throughout, and especially being up there with the rest of the amazing artists and musicians in the Black Opry, I just know we're gonna get up there and kill it. So I'm just excited to be here.
SOS: I feel the same way if I ever have to speak anywhere. I blackout immediately once I leave the stage. I'm like, okay, hope that was okay! I mean, it's daytime so you'll be able to see the audience, but if you're on stage and there’s a light in your face, it's like it’s not even real. There's nobody there.
HOLDEN: Yeah, I put on my shades and I stare over the audience.
SOS: I think you have to look down at one point though to take it in and see people engaging with the music.
HOLDEN: I try not to psych myself out. I'll definitely look at them while I'm on the side of the stage, but I can't look at them directly while I'm performing.
SOS: Understood. Something that we ask at Sounds of Saving is for the "song that found you at the right time." Do you guys have any piece of music that you feel like helped you when you needed it the most or an early memory of feeling that love of music?
HOLDEN: For me, there's two. Before I moved to Tennessee, I had written this song called "Scarecrow." And I didn't know what it was about. Like, I came up with a chorus in a dream and I woke up [in the night] and wrote it down. When I woke up in the morning, I wrote the rest of the song. The more I sang it, the more I realized that it was about my family and not feeling like I was at home with them and feeling like I could lose them at any moment. And then, that allowed me to walk away because, like with what you were saying about small towns, I felt like everybody knew my grandparents because Jehovah's Witnesses go out and service door to door – Field Services what they call it. Like, people fear you coming to knock on their doors. But they converted a lot of people in Virginia and West Virginia, and so whenever anybody would come to town, it was like, no matter where I went, somebody knew me. And it wasn't till I went to Tennessee –– northeast Tennessee, it's not the biggest area –– that I got to be myself for the first time. And then while I was out there I posted a song called "Taxidermy" and that's when Holly found me. And that was the first song I got to release because she sent it to Color Me Country and they gave me a grant for $500 to record it. So that was like, immediately out of the pandemic. These two songs were the things that got me here.
FREE: This is gonna be a little heavy. "Breathe In Breathe Out" is one of the songs I would say, other than "Demons Of My Past." We're talking about mental health so to be completely bare here without getting into too much detail, I was completely in a bad place when I was 16/17 and I did a lot of stupid things. And, you know, I started writing the song at a friend of mine's house in Huntsville when I was coming down. I was detoxing and I was by myself and I was coming out of that after 16 hours of just being in a room by myself in their house. They didn't know what was going on. I had just lost a brother of mine that took his life in front of me. And was dealing with heartbreak from a breakup, so the loss on both ends, and a lot of different other mental things from the body dysmorphia of what was going on with me personally. And this song... I was sitting there trying to breathe and just breathe and just breathe, and then the song "Breathe In Breathe Out" came and I just went word vomit and wrote that song. And honestly, after writing that song and taking a good long look at myself in the mirror, I realized this is what I need to do. I need to just keep breathing in and keep breathing out and everything's gonna be okay. And I realized that I could do a lot more with myself than what I was doing and that really changed me a lot. I'm glad.
SOS: Thank you so much for sharing. Just after hearing your stories I'm that much more excited to see you play later today. I'm happy that y'all are here.
RIGHT TO LEFT: Julie Williams, Whitney Mongé, Ally Free, Jett Holden