Kamara Thomas is a singer-songwriter and performer whose new album Tularosa tells the story of the Tularosa region of New Mexico, a territory that has been the object of many disputes. Of the album, she said, “My obsession with the American West began as a kid, faithfully watching Clint Eastwood westerns and reruns of ‘The Lone Ranger’ and ‘The Cisco Kid,’ on a tiny black and white TV.” Thomas founded Country Soul Songbook, an artist-driven, media platform and production team dedicated to supporting marginalized artists in country and Americana.
By phone, she discussed the beginnings and aims of the Country Soul Songbook and some of the systemic issues facing the music industry.
Americana Highways: How did you get started with Country Soul Songbook?
Kamara Thomas: When I lived in New York, I did this thing called Honky Tonk Happy Hour. It was just me trying to learn country music. I knew how much I loved it. I called up a bunch of my friends and was like, “I really want to play this music. Let’s just all get together and learn to play it.” We would play at The Living Room on the Lower East Side every Sunday. It would be 20 of us onstage, just stumbling through country music and learning as much as we could. It became a kind of cult favorite on the New York scene. In the early oughts, there wasn’t much of a country scene in New York. That kind of petered out after a few years.
At that point, I had become more of a country-Americana songwriter. When I moved down here in 2013, it’s a much richer, better place to land for a country-Americana songwriter. It was great, but it just started to grate on me. I’d look at pictures of honky-tonks, and I was the only black person there. I’ve since spoken with people. I’m good friends with Risi Palmer and different folks. I remember once at the end of a Honky Tonk Happy Hour show, Valerie June was playing right after, and she was the only black person on her stage. We were kind of these ships passing each other in the night in country and Americana. It just started to grate on me here too. Why is it that when there’s a country-Americana stage, there’s just one black person or one queer person?
My original thought was “I want to integrate the stage. Let me start with that. I know the genres have their racial issues, but let’s just start with the stages. We need to start as artists, gathering together and playing this music together instead of all these separate places. I wanted to build some community in Durham. I invited a bunch of folks to play this show. The idea is that we’re just trying to integrate the stage. We’re trying to spotlight the voices of country and Americana that have been marginalized from the past, present, and future. We’re going to pick some artists that didn’t get their due. Who are the songwriters that haven’t gotten recognized? Who are the artists that didn’t really get the careers they deserve because of their status as a marginalized voice? That was the first thing, this show in 2019. it was awesome and we were like, “We’ll do more of these shows.”
Our next show was scheduled for March 13th or 15th of 2020. Little did we know that it was scheduled for the eve of the pandemic lockdown in our state. Once we realized all this was happening, we pivoted to virtual quickly for that show. From there, we re-envisioned it. When we went virtual, we were like, “We don’t have to do this as a local thing. We can build community all over the place and reach out. We can integrate this stage and broadcast it everywhere.” In 2020, we pivoted to this virtual model where it was just about building community. That’s when we came up with the idea for the summit, just gathering the community from everywhere to have the discussions that were necessary. With everything happening in 2020 around equity in all sorts of places, we decided we would do the equity work here in country and Americana. There were lots of different organizations who are also doing this work. Because we all had this time to reach out and find each other, this ecosystem of organizations all got connected. The summit was a place where we were able to have all these conversations and inspire each other and really get to see some of these artists perform. All virtually, but it was really inspiring.
We’re very artist-focused. We want to give artists more opportunities to be themselves without “Oh, you’re a black country singer.” It’s not so much about race as here’s a platform where there’s opportunity for artists who are marginalized, queer, BIPOC. It was also an opportunity to talk with some of the academics and scholars of this music, who have been culling the history and really starting to explain why the music industry is the way it is. Why some of these artists have been left behind. There’s been this big ecosystem that’s built up around it. Of course 2021 was kind of this banner year where a lot of fantastic black and queer talent got recognition and burst out into the public eye. It was great, but there’s always more work to do with that. A lot of the people who broke through were also a certain type of artist. Country Soul Songbook, we’re more focused more at the grass-roots level. We’re interested in how an artist develops from someone who wants to be a songwriter into whatever that person is who maybe breaks into the industry or maybe does their own thing and is independent. We see ourselves as more outside industry stuff because we want to focus on how artists become artists. Not necessarily how artists become famous or well-recognized. How do we bring the focus back to letting artists drive the conversation instead of being constantly whipped about in this reaction to this industry that is still very biased and unfair. You guys do what you’re doing over there in the industry. We’re going to focus on how we can support artists to be themselves.
AH: I imagine it’s a big deal for artists to have that community.
KT: I think that’s the part that inspires us the most. It’s about artists knowing about each other. It’s that idea that if you have a community that is supporting what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter if you got that big break. There’s this mythology artists are brought up with that you become an artist, you start writing your songs, then some person with power is gonna come and find you. They’re going to give you this important opportunity, and then you’re going to be OK. Then you have made it and succeeded. That’s really antithetical to how community works and how people find satisfaction. Artists are taught to think that if we don’t make it, then we’re not an artist. We’re only judged as artists based on how exploitable we are, how accessible our art is, how much money it can make, how many likes it got. That messes with artists’ heads. It makes us water down what we’re doing. It slowly but surely makes its way into your head. Before you know it, you’re just trying to make the same thing as so and so who has their million followers. We’re committed to helping artists find who they really are. It does boil down to community in those early- to mid-career stages where it’s like, “What you’re doing is great as it is. You don’t have to change it or mold it or shape it and put it into this industry box in order to be considered valuable here.” There’s also the idea, with the show that were about to do this week, our stars are Queen Esther and Charlie Lowery, who have been doing this for a long time. They’ve been honing their craft. They’ve been working, on the road. They’ve been doing this for a long time. The show is kind of that moment to say, “Look. This is the caliber of talent that is here and has been here and has been doing this the whole time. Why isn’t it getting noticed? We’re not going to answer the question for you, but I think it will be plain to see that there is something amiss in the way we conceive of art, the way we conceive of Americana, what’s profitable, or what’s valuable or what’s worth supporting financially. There is a lot of value for artists in simply being connected.
AH: It’s a noble goal to try and change that narrative. If you can make a living as a musician, that should count as making it.
KT: Even not making a living at it. That’s what we’re talking about: the systemic disparities and inequities in how the music industry works. For all intents and purposes, artist development is dead in the industry. The industry is not in any way supportive of how an artist becomes an artist. They’re only interested in when that artist becomes exploitable. The industry then comes in to exploit what the artist has become and has created and try to sell as much as possible. And then encourage the next crop of artists to create more of that, or to only change it just a little bit so it still remains profitable. This thing sold before. Can you make this with just a few tweaks so it keeps selling, because we know it will sell. It’s completely detrimental to what it is to be an artist. Even the idea of making a living as an artist is subject to that system. We’re about to do this tribute to Arnold Schultz, who is a guitar player who influenced Bill Monroe and who is possibly the reason bluegrass exists that you’ve never heard of. Black guitarist. These things make a huge difference. He died penniless in Ohio County, Kentucky, has everything to do with the fact that he was black. The fact that Linda Martell, who we’re going to be paying tribute to in this show coming up, was only able to make one country album and then simply, her career petered out is because she was black. The fact that Tina Turner, who we’re also paying tribute to, could only make one country album. Then she had to do other things. She’s an amazing artist that could do all sorts of things. Lucky for her, she could pivot out of country. She could only make one album. We’re missing out on a lot of art that people could have been making because they couldn’t make a living at it. Linda Martell couldn’t make that second album because there was no support for that. If you read Charles Hughes’s book Country Soul, he lays it out that the difference between making a living and not making a living had tons to do with race in country. The way that the industry was racialized. The whole genre-making of the music industry was based on race. These are the things, when we talk about the systemic stuff, one little decision 30, 40, 50 years ago, is having a huge impact on whether artists can make a living in country and Americana.
AH: When I said making a living, I didn’t necessarily mean making lots of money. I meant that it’s your focus.
KT: But that’s what I mean too. Even that basic making a living at it is determined by these systems that are in place.
AH: You’re returning to live shows?
KT: The aim is to come up with one live show situation per year where we pick artists to pay tribute to. Everyone who’s there will have an original song or two in the show. We really want to highlight them as songwriters as well. The idea is to have a show that we can plop different artists into, based on their schedules. We have another show coming up on May 21 in Raleigh where we’ll be headlining the Artsposure Festival. Instead of Queen Esther and Charlie Lowery, it will be Emily Mussolino and Jed Holden. Jed Holden is an upcoming, gay, black country singer who’s still at the beginnings of his career. Emily Mussolino is a local artist who is an amazing guitarist, and singer-songwriter. But her guitar playing is out of this world. We want to have a live show that’s ready to go wherever we might be called. The other focus is to get our archive of virtual material up and running this year, and to do this tribute to Arnold Schultz. Hopefully, we’ll have bandwidth to do another summit.
AH: What’s the best way for an artist to get involved with Country Soul Songbook?
KT: We have a place where artists can contact us on our website and fill in their information and let us know about themselves. We’re really easy to contact. firstname.lastname@example.org. It might take us a little while to get back to people. The other way is just to show up. In our Who We Are on the website, we list the other people in our ecosystem. A lot of it just has to do with showing up. Show up to the Black Opry show or the Country Soul Songbook show. Show up to the virtual event and introduce yoruself. Eventually, we’ll find something for you to do. We want to generate opportunities, even if it’s not one that we’re generating specifically. We’re trying to connect people to the places where there are people who are generating opportunities. Someone is working on a directory where people can look up BIPOC and queer artists for festivals and different venues who want to do that equity work but don’t know where to look. Get on our email list and we’ll keep you informed of as much as we can find.
Find more about Country Soul Songbook here: https://www.countrysoulsongbook.com
And find more about Kamara Thomas, here: http://kamarathomas.com/tularosastorywork