Linda Martell’s entire solo discography comprises less than 30 minutes of music recorded in a single session, but it allowed her to make history. Her first and only album, 1970’s Color Me Country, made her the first Black woman to find success in country music.
Martell spent a chunk of the ‘60s singing R&B in a family band, but in 1969, a manager emboldened by the rise of Charley Pride approached her about following in the footsteps of country’s first African American singing star. Signing to bigshot Nashville producer Shelby Singleton’s label, Martell and a roomful of Music City sharpshooters cut Color Me Country in just one day. Its rather on-the-nose title notwithstanding, the album introduces Martell as a straight-ahead country singer rather than trying to milk any kind of gimmicky country-soul hybrid approach. Even though the almost-title track, “Color Him Father,” had recently been a pop hit for R&B band The Winstons, Martell completely transformed (and arguably improved) the tune, turning it into a gently galloping country heart-tugger and snagging one of the album’s two Top 40 Country hits in the process. The other was “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” which would make Freddy Fender’s career after he recorded it in ‘74, but had originally been given a clunky, overdone reading by Duane Dee. Martell rescued the song from that torpid terrain with her penetrating, laser-focused delivery.
Both songs hit the charts as singles in ‘69, before the album’s release, and Martell quickly became the first Black woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. A series of similarly groundbreaking national TV appearances followed. Upon the LP’s arrival, the other nine songs that make up Martell’s maddeningly slim solo catalog underscored the extent of her gift. The majority of the tracks were penned by a female songwriting team, Margaret Lewis and Myra Smith, which was still unusual in testosterone-dominated Nashville. The pair gave Martell a couple of old-school honky-tonkers, complete with Ray Price-style shuffle. She let loose a full-bodied yodel on one, album-opener “Bad Case of the Blues,” signaling from the start that she meant business. Her bell-like tone on the other, “I Almost Called Your Name,” was offset by some electric sitar licks just so nobody forgot what year it was.
Most of the other Lewis/Smith tunes are more in keeping with the rock/pop-informed rhythms country was beginning to adapt at the time, like the almost CCR-ish “Old Letter Song” and the folk-rock-inflected ballad “Tender Leaves of Love.” Even in her R&B past, Martell was never one to slather a tune with melisma, and here she keeps her phrasing country, plain and simple. But the power of her soulful chops still comes through, lending her pipes an extra jolt of electricity. The album hosts a fair number of weepers, but Martell gets to strut some attitude on the kiss-off cut “You’re Crying Boy, Crying,” a sort of Nashville equivalent to “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” with a locomotive pace and reverb guitar.
Martell seems to have been perfectly positioned for a long, successful run. But it’s tragically unsurprising that a Black female country singer in 1970 would bump up against some major obstacles from both the business and audience sides. A combo platter of patriarchy and racism (it’s not insignificant that Singleton’s label was called Plantation Records) painted Martell into a corner, and by 1974 her life as a full-time singer was done. She never stopped singing, but she never released another record, and over time the name Linda Martell receded into obscurity.