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Who Is Linda Martell? All About the Country Singer Featured on Beyoncé's Album “Cowboy Carter”

Beyoncé featured one of the first Black female country singers, Linda Martell, on her album ‘Cowboy Carter’

<p>Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ; Kevin Mazur/Getty</p> Linda Martell poses for a portrait circa 1969 in Nashville, Tennessee. ; Beyonce during the 66th GRAMMY Awards on February 04, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ; Kevin Mazur/Getty

Linda Martell poses for a portrait circa 1969 in Nashville, Tennessee. ; Beyonce during the 66th GRAMMY Awards on February 04, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.

Beyoncé is paying homage to those who have paved the path before her.

The “Texas Hold ‘Em” singer released her album, Cowboy Carter, on March 29 and featured a number of country legends in snippets between her songs. In addition to big names like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, Beyoncé included Linda Martell, the first commercially successful Black female country star.

Martell became the first Black female artist to play the Grand Ole Opry but faced discrimination throughout the course of her career.

“You’d be singing and they’d shout out names and you know the names they would call you,” she told Rolling Stone in a 2020 interview.

Though Beyoncé’s album was released decades after Martell’s experience in country music, a similar negative experience motivated her first foray into the genre. Cowboy Carter was "born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed,” she wrote on Instagram ahead of its release.

Related: When Is Beyoncé's New Album Coming? What We Know About Act II's 'Cowboy Carter' (So Far)

While she didn’t share what the experience was, many fans speculated that she was referring to her performance of “Daddy Lessons” at the 2016 CMA Awards with The Chicks. Following the show, users on social media were critical of her performance, and no portion of her segment was shown on CMA’s website or social media.

Now, Beyoncé is reclaiming her power as a Black woman in country and platforming Martell alongside her.

So who is Linda Martell? Here’s everything to know about the first Black female country singer and her collaboration with Beyoncé.

She was born and raised in South Carolina

<p>Sean Rayford/2021 CMT Awards/Getty</p> Linda Martell poses with an award for the 2021 CMT Music Awards.

Sean Rayford/2021 CMT Awards/Getty

Linda Martell poses with an award for the 2021 CMT Music Awards.

Martell, née Thelma Bynem, was born in 1941 in Leesville, South Carolina. Her small town was in the heart of the segregated South where there were separate churches for Black and white residents at the time.

Her father was a sharecropper and her mother worked in a chicken slaughterhouse, so Martell began cooking dinner for her and her four siblings when she was just 7 years old, she told Rolling Stone in a 2020 interview.

Martell told the outlet she’d been singing all her life, mainly gospel, and when she was a teenager, she formed a trio with her sister and one of her cousins. The three performed together and recorded some songs but with no commercial success.

Eventually, they broke up and Martell caught the eye of a furniture store owner, William “Duke” Rayner, who wanted to break into the music scene. He signed her and they partnered with Shelby Singleton Jr., who worked in A&R at Mercury Records in Nashville.

She only has one album

Martell began making country music at Singleton’s suggestion, which she enjoyed for the narrative it allowed her to tell.

“Country music tells a story,” she told Rolling Stone. “When you choose a song and you can feel it, that’s what made me feel great about what I was singing. I did a lot of country songs, and I loved every one of them. Because they just tell a story.”

Her work culminated in one album, 1970’s Color Me Country, after a few of her songs climbed the charts, with “Color Him Father” peaking at No. 22 on the country chart.

Decades later, Martell’s granddaughter, Marquia Thompson, made a documentary, Bad Case of the Country Blues, showcasing her grandmother’s struggles and successes in country music between 1969 and 1975.

“Minority, women and marginalized artists deserve to play on a level playing field in the country music industry,” Thompson told The Tennessean in June 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.”

She played the Grand Ole Opry

In 1969, Martell made her first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, and was proud to receive two standing ovations, she told Rolling Stone. She said she performed at the venue a dozen times — though the Grand Ole Opry couldn’t confirm the number of appearances, they confirmed she did perform there.

Her performance marked the first time a Black female country singer sang at the iconic hall in Nashville.

She got heckled and called names for her race

Despite her success on the charts, Martell faced an overwhelming amount of racism throughout her career. When one promoter for a show in Texas found out she was Black, they canceled the show. When she was taunted for the way she pronounced words, she sought counsel from her management group — who told her to develop a thicker skin.

During her performances, Martell would be heckled and called racist names, but Singleton told her to keep going and try to not address the audience.

“A lot of times, you feel like saying, ‘OK, look here, I don’t wanna hear that. Please quit calling me names like that,’ ” she said. “But you can’t say that. You can’t say anything. All you can do is do your singing and try your best to forget about it.”

After that, Singleton became more intentional about what venues Martell would play and in which cities. However, even with his help, it wasn’t enough to protect Martell from the criticism.

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

She became a bus driver after leaving music 

In the mid-'70s, Singleton moved his focus to a new up-and-coming White artist, Martell told Rolling Stone, and she decided to move on to a different label. However, Singleton threatened to sue them, collapsing the deal, she alleged.

“He blackballed me,” she said. “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.”

Martell ultimately left the music industry after that experience, moving around the country from California to New York City seeking a new career. She ended up back in her home state of South Carolina so she could be closer to her children.

To make a living, she became a bus driver for the Batesburg-Leesville school district and eventually taught children with special needs. Many in the town didn’t even know who she was or her history.

“A couple of people said, ‘Yeah, I remember Linda Martell,’ ” Batesburg-Leesville town manager Ted Luckadoo told Rolling Stone of the response he received when he told people of Martell’s history. “I said, ‘Did you know she worked for our school district driving a bus for many years?’ ‘Thelma, who drove the bus? ‘Yeah, that’s Linda Martell.’ “What?’ People don’t put two and two together sometimes.”

She collaborated with Beyoncé on Cowboy Carter

<p>Beyonce Instagram </p> Beyonce, 'Cowboy Carter'.

Beyonce Instagram

Beyonce, 'Cowboy Carter'.

In March 2024, Beyoncé brought Martell’s name back into the limelight as she featured her on her country album. Martell appeared on two tracks: "Spaghettii" and the aptly named "The Linda Martell Show."

In the latter song, which is just 28 seconds long, Martell speaks as if she is on a radio show introducing the next tune. "Haha, OK, 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 Friday, Martell posted to Instagram, writing, "I am proud that @beyonce is exploring her country music roots. What she is doing is beautiful, and I’m honored to be a part of it. It’s Beyoncé, after all!"

Martell isn't the only artist Beyoncé collaborated with for the album either. Cowboy Carter also features country legends like Nelson and Parton as well as Miley Cyrus and Post Malone.

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