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Belting It Out

African-American country music artists have no greater champion than Frankie Staton, the human whirlwind behind a new movement in Nashville.

By DAVE SCHEIBER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 24, 2000


This is the second of two stories on the African-American experience in country music. Part I appeared Sunday.

NASHVILLE -- The lunch-hour rush is on at Rachel's restaurant, a pleasant eatery inside this little city unto itself known as the Opryland Hotel.

Tourists flock daily to the sprawling mecca that defines Nashville's personality -- country music.

On any given day, visitors to Rachel's might enjoy a conversation with a gregarious and popular waitress named Frankie Staton.

At night, they might do a double-take and see Staton again -- this time, singing country classics and playing piano in the resort's Pickin' Parlor.

But what nobody at Opryland sees are those precious hours when she heads home -- and goes to work again. Her crusade unfolds in her dining room, cluttered with papers, publicity photos and demo tapes.

Here is the heart of her life, the home of the Black Country Music Association.

Staton, 45, is the human whirlwind behind the BCMA, which she founded three years ago to help African-American artists find a place in Nashville. As a black artist herself, she challenges a dominant perception that blacks aren't interested in country music.

"Let me say that I've lived in Nashville for 18 years -- I am a singer and a songwriter, and I absolutely love country music," says Staton. "I appeared for 10 years on the early-morning Ralph Emery show, before people like Lorrie Morgan, Randy Travis and the Judds were on. But there was always this misconception that, "You don't sing country because you're black.' Through the years, it was literally beaten into my head that country music is truly not about black people."

When Staton speaks, her dark eyes light up, her face becomes playful or dramatic, her hands gesture expressively. They hide whatever hurt she endured decades ago as a young artist. On one occasion, she was insulted by a Music Row publisher, who refused to believe she had written or sung the song she was pitching him. Staton went on to become one of the town's top piano bar performers.

"Frankie is an extraordinary talent, both as a performer and a songwriter," says Michael Kosser, a veteran country publisher, agent and hit songwriter for George Jones and Kitty Wells. "She's past the age now where she could go for a deal herself, so she wants to help other people instead."

Staton began her crusade in 1996, when she read a story in the New York Times about country music.

The piece quoted Cleve Francis, the doctor-turned-country star whose career had fizzled, saying country needed to include more blacks. It also quoted Nashville label chief Tony Brown saying: "Why would black people want to sing those straight notes? Why would a black person want to be in a format that gives any white singer who tries to do a little curlicue or deep groove so much grief?"

Staton was furious over Brown's remarks, but grateful to Francis for speaking out. She found his number in Virginia and called him at his office. He agreed to fly back to Nashville to host a 1997 black country showcase at the famed Bluebird Cafe.

Francis soon handed his notes and contact numbers to Staton, who then launched the BCMA. In no time, Staton was deluged by demo tapes and press packs from aspiring young black country singers -- from tiny post-office box stops in Georgia to big-city Los Angeles. Staton never imagined there were so many black people dreaming of singing country -- and she was stunned by the quality of the voices she heard.

Staton soon began organizing a series of BCMA showcases at premier Nashville clubs. Today, the roll includes more than 60 BCMA acts. Staton, the single mother of a 11-year-old boy, promotes their careers using the only piece of high-tech equipment she owns: a telephone.

"The Simmons survey from 1994 showed that 24 percent of black people listening to radio were listening to country -- that's a lot of black people!" she says. "There's a whole market out there waiting to be tapped and can help boost country record sales, which everybody knows are down. I keep telling them, if you want to increase your business among minorities, start signing some!"

Staton and her troops will get some attention this June at Fan Fair, where country stars meet and perform for thousands of devotees. The BCMA will have a booth, and many members will give concerts.

If she can't get backing from Music Row, Staton says she will pursue sponsorship to form a black country label. (She has drummed up support from the Jack Daniels company to fund a BCMA parade appearance and offset other expenses.) In the meantime, she continues to lobby for her cause. Last year, she attended a "Leadership Music" seminar, which included a panel of many country executives.

"They were telling me that the BCMA was not doing anything that hasn't been done before, because "After all, we have Charley Pride,' " she recounts. "So I said, "Well, there are some 32-million African-Americans in these vast United States. Thirty years have passed since you signed this brother. Do you truly, in your heart of hearts, think that this is the only black man in America who can sing country music? Because if you do, I can prove you wrong.' "

On a quiet Monday night several months ago, Staton's quest brought her to Caffe Milano and a showcase she had organized for the black country band Wheels. The group cut a record for Asylum Records in 1998, but then a new president took over and the band was dropped before the album was released. She feels heartsick about Wheels, whose powerful harmonies fill the upscale club. The sparse audience includes blacks and whites, and a smattering of label people discreetly check out the band.

Off to the side, a lanky black man with a cowboy hat watches intently. He is J.J. Jones, a veteran singer/bassist who once performed in '70s side bands backing George Jones, Mel Tillis and other country stars. He now serves as Staton's talent and music director. A Vietnam vet, Jones once cut an album that was never released. Now he is bent on helping new black talent.

He also feels frustrated by the system: "Their attitude has been, "You're too this, or you're too that, you're too traditional, or you're not traditional enough' -- it's always, "You just ain't country. You don't have a market,' even though it's a market that hasn't been put to the test."

At the bar, songwriter Bill LaBounty offers his own theory. "I think there's probably a huge black audience for the kind of music that acts like Wheels play," he says. LaBounty thinks labels may just not be picturing the possibilities that black acts could bring to country music: "As a songwriter, the only thing that color means to me is another beautiful element to come into the music. I think what exists is a prejudice of the imagination, not a social thing."

Many country observers point out that country is driven strictly by economics. "I don't think a policy decision was ever made on Music Row not to sign black artists," says Bruce Feilor, author of Dreaming Out Loud: The Changing Face of Nashville. He also writes about country for the New York Times.

"To Nashville, like every other corner of the entertainment business, the only other color more important than black and white is green. It definitely is an industry driven by commercialism. If anybody in Nashville were convinced that signing a black artist would be beneficial, they'd do it."

At least one label has done it recently. In 1997, with little fanfare, Trini Triggs became the first black country act with a major record deal since Cleve Francis signed with Liberty in 1991. Triggs, not affiliated with the BCMA, was recruited by label chief Mike Curb, whose roots are in L.A., where he produced groups from the Four Seasons to the Righteous Brothers. Triggs was shuffled to various divisions at the label for two years, but is making his run now, with a video (The Wreckin' Crew) and a soon-to-be-completed debut album.

"Trini is a great artist to me, period," says Curb. "But to me, I feel it's very important for there to be black artists in country music. I think it's extremely important as we try to grow country music and, I should say, repair some of the losses we've had in the last five years in terms of our market share. Hopefully, Trini will be opening the door and creating opportunities as a role model for other black artists."

Staton is pulling for Triggs, but remains cautious.

"I don't want to see Trini Triggs or anyone inherit a token throne, where the industry can say, "Well, we have Trini so we're fine,' or if he fails say, "Well we tried Trini and a black artist just didn't work again,' " she says. "They try white artists every day and when they fail, they turn right around and try another.

"There should have been generations of black country singers since Charley Pride. And there are many, many black country singers that the world should get a chance to know now."

-- Frankie Staton may be contacted through a friend's computer via e-mail: frankiestaton@hotmail.com.

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