Music

Why You Ought to Know About Linda Martell

Long before Beyoncé brought her back into the spotlight, the South Carolina country singer was breaking records and charting her own path

A portrait of two women on a porch

Photo: Kelley E. King Sr.

Linda Martell with her granddaughter, Marquia Thompson.

On the Houston, Texas–raised megastar Beyoncé’s new record, Cowboy Carter, you’ll hear the voices of such icons as Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. But one guest voice and name stands out—perhaps unfamiliar to modern fans, but nostalgic for others: Linda Martell.

That Martell’s name is unrecognized today would have seemed impossible in 1969, when her first album, Color Me Country, put three hits on the country charts. That same year, she became the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. 

But that pinnacle was also the beginning of the end for Martell’s time in the spotlight. Discouraged by crowd heckling and disagreements with her label, Martell left Nashville in 1974. Returning to the small town outside Columbia, South Carolina, where she’d been born Thelma Louise Bynum in 1941, she lived quietly, raising a family and working as a teacher, special education aide, and school bus driver. While she continued to perform locally, singing popular hits by singers like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight, she never returned to the national stage. 

Only in the last few years has Martell, now eighty-three, begun to receive the recognition she deserved all along. Some fans trace her recent resurgence to when an anonymous fan uploaded a YouTube clip from Martell’s stunning 1970 performance on Hee Haw, catching the ear of other musicians. Then in 2021 she received CMT’s new Equal Play Award, which acknowledges and pledges to combat the inequities faced by women and BIPOC musicians. In 2022, Record Store Day helped coordinate a re-release of Color Me Country, and musicians such as Brittney Spencer and Charlie Crocker have named the album as an influence. And then, of course, Beyoncé came calling. 

Martell’s granddaughter, Marquia Thompson, has spent the past few years working on a new documentary about her grandmother, Bad Case of the Country Blues. Thompson spoke to G&G about her grandmother’s legacy, and how she feels about the attention today. 

Participating in Beyoncé’s record has brought Linda back into the spotlight in a big way. How did that come about and what was that like for her?

Well, Beyoncé’s team reached out and said they were interested in collaborating, and they had a couple ideas of what that might look like. I asked my grandmother if it was something she’d be interested in doing, and she said yes. They set everything up and she went in and did her part. She’s always been a singer, even after she left Nashville, but this is the first thing she’s done in a very, very long time.

Does your grandmother talk about her years in Nashville and how she was treated during that time?

My grandmother was born in the forties and grew up under segregation and all that, so she knew what was out there. People her age grew up in a time when they had already been through so much and had to develop a thick skin, but that doesn’t take away the fact that you’re a human being and those things hurt. So although she may have worn some of those scars beautifully, they were open wounds at some point.

photo: courtesy of Marquia Thompson
Linda Martell.

How did you see your grandmother growing up? Did you listen to her records?

My grandma is a very humble, very modest woman, and she’s never going to brag, so I only learned of what she had accomplished when I was almost middle school–aged and I noticed that some people would come up to her and call her Linda. When I asked her about it, she just said, “Oh, that’s my stage name,” so I asked my uncle and my mom, and they said, “Yes, Mama sang and she made a country record.” Then I looked around my great grandmother’s house and there are these 45 RPM records and copies of Color Me Country. And you know how sometimes you can remember really well when you smiled very hard? Listening to her record for the first time is one of those times. I smiled the entire time it played.

What has it been like to make the documentary about her?

It was scary at first, and I had moments early on where the impostor syndrome seeped in and I doubted myself, but I always go back to why I’m doing it. And I’ve got some good friends who remind me, if anyone has a right to tell her story, it’s her family. And my grandmother and I are very close, so it feels very much like something I had to do. I appreciate what I’ve learned and the people I’ve met, and I feel confident in the final product. My hope is just that everyone else will enjoy it.

What kinds of footage and other resources have you found that will be in the film?

There will be archive footage, but I will tell you this, it hasn’t been easy to obtain it. You can just tell how at the time nobody cared to preserve records of this Black woman, regardless of how talented she was. She did a lot, she appeared on a number of syndicated shows, and there’s just so little left. We are still searching. In the family, we do have photos and some videos, and I’m looking forward to sharing those things.

What do you want people to know about your grandmother today? 

I want to emphasize that my grandmother is very, very appreciative of what’s happening now, and what’s been happening for the past three years or so, and very grateful. And this isn’t a complaint, because everything happens when it should, but I just want people to know how much different this would have looked if it had happened earlier, when she could have participated more. If we can get beyond some of the things that held her back, like race, maybe someone like her could have been celebrated at a time when she had more of her youth to experience that.


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