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This ain't Texas: Meet PA's Black country artists

Plus, bonfire of the vanity plates.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Tanisha Thomas

February 23, 2024
Inside this edition: Roots Picnic, Goodwill hunting, bonfire of the vanity plates, taking refuge, art call, and country music calling. Thanks for checking in.
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A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

What percentage of all mushrooms in the United States are produced in Kennett Square, Chester County? 

A. 10%
B. 40%
C. 60%
D. 80%

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)
Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One ticket worth snagging: Philly native Jill Scott will perform at this year's Roots Picnic, along with Lil Wayne and André 3000. The Philly festival happens June 1 and 2. Ticket pre-sales are underway.

» One find worth celebrating: A Goodwill warehouse in Clearfield County struck gold (literally) after finding a 14-karat gold LEGO piece that is believed to be only one of 30 in existence. It sold for $18,000.

» One list worth scanning: PennDot has denied 2,872 vanity plates in its history. The Inquirer (paywall) sifted through the rejects — like "Sinep" — and said they're a window into Pennsylvanians’ minds.

» One person worth knowing: The "Lady Gaga of Vietnam" has taken refuge in Pittsburgh. City Paper reports Mai Khôi left Vietnam to avoid arrest for anti-censorship activism. She has a new show about it.

» One showcase worth entering: The State Museum of Pennsylvania is calling all artists and craftspeople to submit their work for the Art of the State awards in September. The entry deadline is May 3.

🤔 PA NEWS QUIZ: Think you know what's happening in Pennsylvania? Prove it with the latest Great PA News Quiz: Penn State pushback, election exodus, and Shapiro's 'sin tax'
The top stories published by Spotlight PA this week.
» Exodus of election officials could spell trouble

» Will Shapiro's legal weed push actually work?

» Inside Dems' plan to flip the PA Senate this year

» Will critics sink celebrated harm reduction bill?

» Penn State trustees drop 'Paterno Field' proposal

» Troubled PA mortgage relief program reopens
Musician Samantha Rise at a microphone with hands stretched over their head in celebration.
Philly-based singer and activist Samantha Rise. (Photo submitted)

As Beyoncé’s rootsy new country singles “16 Carriages” and “Texas Hold 'Em” usher in a new era for the superstar, other Black artists in the genre are seeing new interest in their music and discussing familiar patterns of exclusion.

Sug Daniels, a Philadelphia-based songwriter who infuses folk, rock, and soul into her music, says she feels deeply recognized by the two songs.

“I was feeling emotional and seen and represented in this music,” Daniels told PA Local. “‘16 Carriages’ felt very much like my story, from being a young girl growing up in the country, having to grow up quickly, and having to leave home quickly.”

“At 15, the innocence was gone astray,” Beyoncé laments on the doleful but defiant track.

Guitarist and singer Antar Goodwin, of Philadelphia's Mt. Airy neighborhood, is also excited by Beyoncé’s new direction, noting that she’s brought more Black listeners to the genre.

“The fact that Black folks love it, that is what matters to me,” he said.

Daniels and Goodwin are among the commonwealth’s few Black country artists. They have both performed with the Black Opry, a national organization that supports Black folk, country, Americana, and roots musicians.

Daniels, who grew up in Delaware, doesn’t typically feel visible in the genre, which remains deeply segregated by race despite its Black roots. She notes that one of country’s signature instruments has African origins.

“This music has always belonged to Black people. The banjo was created by slaves during slavery to recreate an instrument that came from their homeland,” she said.

Pennsylvania’s country scene is not as storied as neighboring West Virginia’s or those down South, but the music can be heard at local venues across the state. Daniels and Goodwin note many of these establishments strive to make the genre more inclusive.

Musician Sug Daniels holding a guitar and making eye contact with the camera.
Philly-based songwriter Sug Daniels. (Photo by Robert Pfieffer)
Daniels says World Cafe Live of Philadelphia is especially supportive. She fondly recalled opening for Dom Flemons of string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the venue. (Rhiannon Giddens, who plays banjo on “Texas Hold 'Em,” is a founding member of the Chocolate Drops.)

Goodwin highlighted Jamey’s House of Music in Lansdowne, Sellersville Theater, and The Twisted Tail in Philly as spaces where he’s felt welcomed.

“They have been a real haven,” he said.

“16 Carriages” and “Texas Hold ‘Em” herald Act II, Beyoncé’s next album. The Texas-born singer’s records usually incite anticipation and intrigue, but among some country listeners and gatekeepers, the songs have been controversial. 

In response to a listener's request to hear “Texas Hold ’Em,” one Oklahoma radio station wrote, “Hi — we do not play Beyoncé on KYKC as we are a country music station." The station eventually aired the track after a backlash, but its initial reply showed how racial identity often functions in the genre.

Daniels said she has not personally experienced that kind of discrimination.

“I have been very blessed that when I got into folk and Americana, I have been received with welcome arms,” she said.

But she adds that Black country artists often are called inauthentic, despite country being a global genre. She notes that superstars Shania Twain and Keith Urban are Canadian and Australian, respectively.

That spirit of inclusivity should apply to Black artists too, she says. “Country music is the everyday man and woman story. It is really simple feelings put together by beautiful instruments,” Daniels said.

Singer and activist Samantha Rise, based in Philadelphia, was drawn to country after living in Wyoming. 

“As I delved into the music as a place of refuge and belonging, I uncovered the rich roots and history inside that music,” Rise said.

They describe their sound as “trans-genre” because it is heavily influenced by jazz, soul, and blues, in addition to country.

Like Goodwin and Daniels, Rise has also worked with the Black Opry, and said live performances have helped them feel recognized, citing events like Baby’s First Rodeo in Philly. 

“I feel grateful for the places that make a deliberate effort to highlight artists of color and LGBTQ artists,” Rise said.

Shawn David Young, a music director and professor at York College of Pennsylvania, said Beyoncé’s new turn follows a long history of country artists mixing genres. 

Goodwin proudly acknowledges the many elements of his music, citing funk, jazz, soul, reggae, and alternative as influences. 

“I was very uncomfortable being a singer that sang music like roots, blues, country-influenced, old gospel. I felt very uncomfortable growing up because it didn’t appear to be a realm where Black people were openly accepted,” he said.

Rissi Palmer, a Pittsburgh-area native who lived in Nashville for many years, had to fight for her spot in the genre. When her proud, upbeat song “Country Girl” debuted in 2007, radio stations gave her the cold shoulder because of her race, she recalled.

“I had radio promoters tell my people flat out ‘Don't bring her. I don't intend on playing a Black woman,’” she said.

She says Beyoncé’s ability to bypass that kind of gatekeeping signals some things have changed.

“The fact she is debuting at #1 is almost impossible because that's not how things work in this town,” she said, referring to the powerful Nashville radio programmers who help shape the success of artists. To reach the heights of the charts, country artists typically have to grind through on-air promotions in the city and across the country, a step Beyoncé dramatically skipped.

“Prior to the triumph for 'Texas Hold ‘Em,’” Billboard reports, “no Black woman, or female known to be biracial, had previously topped Hot Country Songs.” 

Palmer, who now lives in North Carolina, started her radio show “Color Me Country” to help give Black artists a leg up in this environment.

Palmer credits her parents, who were from Georgia, for shaping her musical taste. She remembers listening to Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Kenny Rogers, Phoebe Snow, and Chaka Khan. Her music honors all of these artists, she says. 

Palmer hopes listeners newly interested in Black country music branch out beyond Beyoncé.

“I hope that when she does go on to release Act III, that some of the fans stay,” she said.

Rise echoed that sentiment, reminding newcomers that Black country music isn’t a novelty: “We have always been here. … It’s not new."

Tanisha Thomas, newsletter writer / reporter

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A quote from a Pennsylvanian that we found interesting this week.

"Connection to the outdoors is such a beautiful experience that it sometimes requires people sticking out a hand and saying, ‘Come outside with me,’ or people providing a space for you to explore."

Marcus Shoffner, who started a Pittsburgh nonprofit to create more outdoor recreation opportunities for people of color

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
Crocuses at Longwood Gardens in Chester County, via Don N. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on IG, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.
a bed of flowers surrounded by a bit of slightly melted white snow and brown dead leaves
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The correct answer is C. 60%.

Known as the Mushroom Capital of the World, Kennett Square produces 60% of all mushrooms grown in the United States, Yahoo reports.

They even made a play about it.

Thanks for reading. We'll see you back here next week.

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