Linda Martell Broke Country Music’s Color Line—Her Granddaughter is Ensuring the Genre Always Remembers

Linda Martell, a pioneering figure in country music, made history as the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry during the Civil Rights Movement. Despite her groundbreaking achievements, her contributions to country music have often been overlooked.

However, with Beyoncé featuring her on Cowboy Carter, Martell’s legacy is gaining the recognition it deserves, bringing her back into the spotlight. This momentum has fueled the creation of a film about her life—Bad Case of The Country Blues: The Linda Martell Story—which has received $40 thousand in donations on GoFundMe.

EBONY spoke with documentary director and Martell’s granddaughter, Marquia (Quia) Thompson, to learn about the upcoming documentary, Martell’s career and how Beyoncé’s feature has launched her to stardom once more.

EBONY: How do you think this feature from Beyoncé and from the documentary will impact your grandmother’s legacy and the recognition of her contributions to country music?

Quia Thompson: Given my grandmother is a legacy artist at this point, I feel it’s been an incredibly positive and helpful impact. It’s helped my grandmother because she’ll see a reward from this. She went over 50 years before seeing anything from her contributions to country music. What Beyoncé did was an homage to her. Beyoncé is someone who can direct the culture in some ways. She’s got enough influence to get you to pay attention. It just helped solidify her place in history in a lot of ways. It’s crazy when you get online and you read comments like, “Oh, my God, I don’t understand how we never knew about you” or “I just listened to your album, and it is just such a gem.” They say those things and they mean it. [People were] very shocked. They feel like this thing had been kept from them for so long and it’s something that, had they been more aware of, they could have been celebrating and enjoying long before. Beyoncé including her on the project really brought more attention to what my grandmother has done in country music.

The forthcoming documentary Bad Case of The Country Blues: The Linda Martell Story is set to shed light on your grandmother’s incredible journey. What motivated you to share her story now?

My mother, with my great-grandmother, would sit down with a video camera and just talk to her. Her name was Willie Mae. We just sat there with Grandma Willie Mae, and she just asked her questions. How she came to be? Who she is now? It was more of a family legacy, trying to maintain tradition type thing. So, what started with me and my grandma, I did it just because my mom did that with my great grandmother. I’ve always been interested in (my grandmother). She’s not a braggadocious woman. We didn’t know about her singing country music when we were younger. It started because we’d be out and people would call her Linda, and we’d be like: “Grandma. Why did they call you Linda?” But I’ve just always been so fascinated with my grandmother. She’s such a smart woman. Once 2020 came, she was getting all this attention, all this press, and she did the Rolling Stone article. Around that same time, my grandmother was experiencing some health issues, and she became less and less interested in doing all that stuff. I figured this thing was going to get bigger. Somebody is going to ask to do a documentary or something and I decided that I’m going to do it. What once was a family tradition just morphed into this other thing because underneath all of that, she’s a superstar in her own right.

linda martell and granddaughter quia thompson
(l-r) Country music icon Linda Martell and granddaughter Quia Thompson. Image: Kelley King Sr.

Your grandmother made history as the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. How do you think her courage and resilience continue to inspire others today?

I think people who grew up in and lived through the civil rights era specifically don’t get enough consideration for what they had to go through and what they had to adapt to. First, they couldn’t go to school with White folk because they weren’t good enough. Then next thing you know, they had to go to school with them. Even after integration, they just got hit the hardest with what we still deal with today. I think people around my grandmother’s age don’t get enough grace. It’s so much to consider. It shaped who they are. My grandmother’s dream was to be a singer. Even if you’ve been through it and been beat up enough to want to just say, “Never mind it”—don’t. Because that’s what she wanted. She had experienced so much out there looking at, as she said, “a sea of White faces.” But she still did it. It all matters … if we don’t do this, who knows what might happen to truth?

Linda Martell’s success in country music is often overlooked compared to her white counterparts. Why do you think her story and achievements haven’t received the recognition they deserve until now?

To quote Amanda Marie Martinez, “Country music is not in the music business at all. It is in the business of selling Whiteness.” So much there was just kept away because it didn’t fit the agenda. They purposely put those White male faces and voices on the television and radio. You know, it’s done on purpose. I think Beyoncé is arguably the biggest superstar in the world and I think country music had to deal with that. I’m not going to say she was able to come in and change things because we’re talking about a system that’s been in place for a very long time. But she could very well be a catalyst for some more major change, at least, I hope.

In what ways do you hope the documentary will change the narrative surrounding your grandmother’s legacy in country music?

My grandmother has always maintained her professionalism. She was always a professional singer before Nashville, during and after. It’s like when you meet somebody and they say, “Hey, how are you today?” You’re like, “I’m fine,” when in fact you might not be fine, but it’s just not proper to dump that all on them. Every time a camera was in her face or she did an interview, she kept it cute, whereas she is able to share more of who she is and what she really felt [in this documentary]. I hope that people really get to see the human being and not just the legacy.

Updated: May 13, 2024 — 12:02 pm