The Ann Arbor Folk Festival celebrates well-loved favorites in the field of roots music, this year Glen Hansard and Emmylou Harris. But it has the secondary function of introducing new artists to the programming of the festival’s presenter, the Ark. A good deal of thought goes into choosing these, for if an artist clicks, that means hundreds of tickets sold for subsequent appearances. This time, one of these new artists is Brittney Spencer, who’s part of a growing group of African American country artists in Nashville. This movement is increasingly vigorous, with several artists touring and an influential podcast, Color Me Country, named for an album by a 1970s pioneer, Linda Martell. But it’s not headline news yet, and Spencer’s presence on the bill suggests something of the ways the Ark identifies emerging trends and builds new audiences.
It’s been said that America is never more segregated than on Sunday morning, but country radio must be a close second. There are plenty of us who love the music but wish it were more diverse, and Spencer seems a good candidate to crack the barrier. She writes a lot of her own material, something that’s rarer than it used to be, and she seems to have a variety of ideas about how the task might be accomplished.
There’s a strain of idealistic anthems in country music that hasn’t been heard much lately but is due for a comeback, and Spencer tapped it in her biggest song to date, “Compassion.” In concert she sometimes sings Martina McBride’s 1994 anti-abuse manifesto “Independence Day,” which has lost none of its punch after a quarter century. She has country radio–ready stuff like “Damn Right, You’re Wrong,” and Christian-tinged material including “God Is Not Abusive.” She cultivates an Everywoman persona (“I’m a plus-size Black woman, and sometimes that narrative gets lost in the shinier ones. Being comfortable with who I am changed so much for me,” she told People on being named One to Watch for 2021), and her latest single, off to a strong start, is “Sober & Skinny,” a sharp portrait of a codependent relationship that’s a breath of fresh air among country radio’s parade of suburban idylls. A friend to whom I sent the song wrote back, “‘When you get sober I’ll get skinny’ is a very prevalent sentiment in pop culture right now I think.”
Spencer has toured with Jason Isbell, adding gospel shouts to “Gimme Shelter,” and opened for Reba McEntire. It seems entirely possible that one of her ideas is going to stick, and soon she’ll be, as an old country song has it, lookin’ right at you. She’s a new force in country music, and you can get a look on the Saturday night bill at the Folk Festival, January 29.