Black Opry at 30A Songwriters Festival: “The Work is in the Action”

The Black Opry Revue is fulfilling an important purpose in country and Americana music, uplifting the voices of people of color who have long been working in the genres, yet not always given the opportunities they deserve. What makes it special are the many artists who are part of the Revue. They’re the kind of people who after an in-depth interview will pull out a guitar and treat you to an intimate acoustic concert, performing songs that capture their life stories in a compelling way. During the 2023 30A Songwriters Festival, American Songwriter sat down with Roberta Lea, Tae Lewis, Tylar Bryant, Nikki Morgan, Jett Holden, and Aaron Vance to discuss the art of songwriting, the impact of the Black Opry, and much more.

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American Songwriter: How does it feel to perform at a festival dedicated to songwriting?

Nikki Morgan: Something that’s really cool about this festival that I’ve enjoyed, is I had to switch gears [at a live show] because I started in my performance mode. Just paying attention, you realize that people actually enjoy…it’s a songwriter festival for a reason, people pay attention. They want to hear the stories, they want to hear the lyrics and that’s not something you get a lot. As we can all attest, with your writing, you’re not just putting in words for no reason. So it’s really nice to have an audience that cares about the lyrics and appreciates them.

Aaron Vance: This 30A Songwriters Festival … I grew up in church, singing in church, playing drums. We all grew up in church singing. This right here, reminds me of a revival for songwriters. Look at your phones, you may have one or two bars. That’s all you need because you’re here to revive yourself of what you are. Each artist is different but you have to find out what you are. So we have to know what we are and this right here, this festival is a chance for songwriters and musicians to come here to know what kind of beast you are. You’re right here at the ocean, the ocean is huge, just like music industry. You have to find out what you are and once you figure out what you are, you’re gonna just take off and this right here [it’s a] platform. Last night we played until three, four o’clock in the morning. This is what this is for. When we go back home we should not be tired, we should be rejuvenated.

AS: Tylar, I know you were an MMA fighter before being an artist. What inspired you to transition from fighting to songwriting?

Tylar Bryant: When I first started fighting, about halfway through is when I discovered this talent ability that I have with music. Before then, it wasn’t even a thought in my mind. I was just going through life. So I was fighting and then I caught this music bug … it was a hobby at that point, play here and there. Then I got this show for the [Texas Red’s Steak & Grape Festival] and people really received my original music and the stuff that I was doing and something felt different about that. There’s something to this. Then it came to where I was gonna make my pro-am debut and after the fight, they were like, ‘You’ll go pro’ and I realized that I don’t really have a passion to do that. Younger me thought maybe I’ll play sports or something. But I never desired to go to the NFL or the NBA. So I’m not really going to pursue that on the next level because I don’t plan on achieving greatness with it. But with music, I was like, ‘I want to go to the top of this.’ So that’s where I found my passion. So then I quit fighting and started doing music.

AS: When did you all realize you were songwriters?

Morgan: I do consider myself a writer and songs happened to be one of the ways that I expressed that. I’ve always written. That was something that my dad always encouraged because he is a songwriter and he always encouraged me to just write everything down. Growing up, I didn’t really have a lot of ways or people or any kind of expression of how to sort through or understand my feelings and emotions. But writing really helped me with that, so I kept that tool throughout my life. I didn’t really use it for a long time. But it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I started writing songs. So there was a lot of life and experience that I had to get out. Coming from the background that I did … it was a very sheltered understanding of life and the world that when I moved to Chicago, I started writing songs. I remember being in my basement apartment in Chicago and at that point had been writing pretty, nice kind of flowery. I was in the living room and I wrote this song, pretty much like a revenge story about a woman who shoots and gets revenge on her abusive lover. I remember being in the room and just being like, ‘Can I write this in a song?’ It felt so taboo to write a song about somebody with a gun or something like that. But that was a moment that really stands out to me because it was a moment where it was a turning point because I was able to express something inside of me that I didn’t have a way to express before. I will say very confidently that I think at that point songwriting really started to change and really saved my life.

Tae Lewis: My dad is a singer. He’s a pastor also, so he would write a lot of the songs that he would sing with the group that he was in. I would watch him write stuff, but I never thought about writing and stuff like that up until I got to a certain age, probably 16 or 17. I started indulging in a lot of the country music that was the storytelling of country music. That’s what drew me to say, ‘I want to write like that. I don’t know how I can do that.’ So I actually just started journaling crazy stuff in my journal. But then I just gradually got into it. I started writing for a lot of Southern Baptist churches, which they asked me … so I would write for the church I was at. Then it got to a point where they drew me into other rooms while I was writing for other churches … where they would say, ‘You should write your own music.’ I wrote my first song when I was homeless in my car, I lost my job and everything. My first song that I ever wrote was ‘Against the Grain.’ That was the first country song that I wrote in my car, and it went from there. I was at a point of ‘I think I can actually do this on the country side.’ But even being a songwriter in general, it brought me back to the point of, ‘I think I can really do this as a songwriter.’

AS: Jett, you wrote “When I’m Gone” about your friend’s suicide. Take me inside the writing process for that song, specifically the line, time’s something I’ll have plenty of when I’m gone?

Jett Holden: She committed suicide [on] February 7, 2019. Around the one-year anniversary, I was having flashbacks. So I started seeing a therapist in February. In March, they diagnosed me [with PTSD], and in April, everything shut down, so now I’m stuck in a trailer by myself in a pandemic and I was losing my mind. The only thing I knew to do was to write a song. So I wrote that in quarantine. I was just thinking a lot of people have different concepts of what the afterlife is. But the common thread is that it’s eternal. So there’s nothing but time on the other side. .. that song came together in 30 minutes. It’s the fastest song I’ve ever written. That just fell out of me.

AS: Is there a song you felt most vulnerable writing?

Holden: “When I’m Gone” and “Scarecrow.” “Scarecrow” is my coming out story, essentially. I wrote it when I was 25 when I was feeling the most rejected by my family. I wrote it from the perspective of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz because I wasn’t very good at saying things directly, so I wrapped it in a million metaphors and talks about not feeling wanted by the people you love and not knowing if they’re gonna like you…I felt like this place of limbo where I didn’t know where I stood with anyone that I loved. At that age, I moved away from Virginia and everyone I knew and went to Johnson City, Tennessee, where I knew no one because I’d have no excuse but to find myself.

Roberta Lea: “Moonlight” is a song that I wrote after our season at the church when we finally decided to step away from it all. I feel like that’s probably my most vulnerable song because it was a conversation that I was having with myself and with God, that everything was gonna be okay, to trust the process and everything’s gonna be fine. It was interesting because I never really thought that would be something I would do, honestly. So when we made that move, it was exciting to me and I felt a lot of peace and a lot of excitement for what the future had in store. With “Moonlight” I was being honest with the struggle with closing one chapter and moving on to another.

Vance: I will say “Set the Tone.” It’s not every day that you get a phone call from somebody to say, ‘we have this thing called the Acoustic Guitar Project where we loan you a guitar and you write a song on this guitar [and] you autograph this guitar and then you play the song that you wrote on this guitar at the Country Music Hall of Fame …’ I’m used to writing by myself, so I took everything in my life in three acts: kid, a teenager, and then as I am now. I started out [thinking] ‘if I’m gonna get this guitar, what am I going to do to set the tone?’ So I wrote ‘Set the Tone’ down and got the hook that day, got the guitar in my office, and thought about when I had my first pair of boots and went from there. Whatever you do in life that you put on, your first impression is your last impression, that’s what my dad always told me, set the tone. So when it comes to dating, set the tone … as a musician when you write, set the tone, because you have to realize that you’re talking not to only you, but you’re reaching out, and when somebody takes your music they’re gonna take it to somebody else. So when I wrote that and played at the Country Music being that was two years ago and I’m with the Black Opry three years later and we all sing it together [laughs].

AS: How has The Black Opry impacted all of you?

Lea: I was a teacher. I taught Spanish in high school, I taught for a total of seven years. When the pandemic happened, I always wanted to do music. It was one of those moments where it’s like, ‘life is short. So I’m either going to do it now, or my 80-year-old self is going to be extremely mad at me for not trying….’ Being an independent artist, one of the things that was really nerve-wracking about pursuing music was doing it alone. You already don’t have a clue what you’re doing. It is not your etched out, 9 to 5…it’s taking on your creative life. Anything could go, so having a community of people to start this journey with has made transitioning from one stage in life to another that much easier. I was learning how to tour, I had never been on a tour before. So when we do shows together, the whole show is not on one artist’s shoulders to fill in that whole hour. We got to share the weight and have fun with each other on stage and really connect with the audience…it was a great safe space space to make mistakes and just be me without this pressure of being some sort of superstar. It’s growth. So that made a big difference for me.

Holden: I quit music a year prior as the pandemic rolled in. So when [Holly G] hit me up, I was just working from home call center job with AT&T and living in my trailer by myself and she pulled me back into the fold. I was very skeptical because for a decade I’d been trying to do it and to no avail, hadn’t gotten any traction. I was doing it alone so it felt really daunting. But community was the big [thing]. The monster of the music industry wasn’t something I had to take on alone anymore … I was in a pandemic quarantined inside my trailer and the only thing I knew to not go insane was to write music. So I kept doing it even though I’d given up on pursuing it as a career. Eventually, I started posting videos on Instagram here and there and that’s how Holly found me. As soon as the opportunity fell in my lap, and I was like, ‘oh, this is real, I dropped everything. I quit my job at the call center and I was like, ‘I’m going on tour.’

Morgan: Black Opry has given all of us access to rooms and people and stages that we hadn’t had access to before. It doesn’t change the system. I thought something really cool that Holly G did at the one-year anniversary show in Nashville—at the end she was like ‘every one of you guys in here has the power to change these people’s lives. So don’t wait.’ But the thing is, you can say it and people can get excited about you as much as they want. But really, the work is in the action. There’s a lot of opportunity for people to say, ‘yes, we want to support you,’ but then they fall flat when it comes to work and when it really comes time to get down to it. So I think that’s one of the difficult things is that we have access, but there’s still a lot of work because we have to do the work. Even though Black Opry has presented us on this platform and it’s beautiful, we still have to do a lot of work on our end to engage with these people. There’s still a little bit of proving ourselves in a way that we probably shouldn’t have to but still do.

Lea: There’s just this freedom. ‘I don’t care what you sound like, you just sound amazing, and therefore you’re in,’ and that makes a big difference after you’ve gone through the monster of music where there could be a lot of gatekeeping going on and no appreciation for self-expression and art and anything outside of the machine box of ‘this is what’s making us money right now and if you don’t fit in this, we don’t want anything to do with you.’ So Black Opry’s like, ‘you’re Black, you’re country music. Sounds great. You’re signed up.’

Photo by Rah Ford/Courtesy of Black Opry

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