CMT Music Awards 2021: Linda Martell, Black Country Music Pioneer, to Be Honored

It was announced this week that this year's CMT Equal Play Award will be given to Linda Martell, a pioneer for Black artists in country music. The award will be presented to Martell by Mickey Guyton during the 2021 CMT Music Awards on Wednesday, June 9, and Martell will be honored with a video celebrating her career featuring appearances by Rissi Palmer, Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker, Jennifer Nettles and Rhiannon Giddens.

Martell is the first Black female solo country artist to perform on the Grand Ole Opry stage and the first commercially successful Black female country artist. She released three pop-country singles at the turn of the '70s including her cover of "Color Him Father," which was a Top 20 Billboard Hot Country Charts single. Martell faced racism while performing on stage and was shelved by her label, who prohibited her from finding a new contract somewhere else. She ultimately left the Nashville music industry in the mid-'70s and continued performing, later working in public education. In 2020, Palmer named her Apple Music podcast after Martell's 1970 debut album, Color Me Country.

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(Photo: Getty / Michael Ochs Archives)

"Linda Martell is a living legend who has influenced so many artists of color, giving them the courage and hope to pursue their dreams and a future reality of Equal Play in country music," Leslie Fram, Senior Vice President, Music & Talent, CMT, said in a statement. "Linda embodies the spirit of our ‘Equal Play’ initiative and we are proud to honor her with this prestigious award."

"Equal Play is imperative to the genre," Palmer added. "It's how we go forward and paint a broader, more complex picture of what country music is and who country music represents. Thank you, Linda, for being brave, fearless, talented and beautiful, and for putting yourself out there, even when it was difficult. I can't think of anyone more deserving of this award." Martell’s granddaughter Quia Thompson, an independent filmmaker, recently launched a fundraiser to support a documentary about her grandmother’s life.

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(Photo: Sean Rayford/2021 CMT Awards/Getty Images for CMT)
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Nettles was awarded the inaugural Equal Play Award in 2020 for her work in supporting and advocating for female artists in country music. CMT began its equal play initiative in 2019 as a response to the lack of female representation in country music, specifically radio and streaming services. As part of the initiative, CMT has instituted 50/50 play for female artists across CMT and CMT Music channels, CMT Radio Live has pledged equal play and CMT After MidNite debuted "CMT Next Women of Country: Artist of the Month." CMT is also continuing its Next Women of Country series, which began in 2013.

The 2021 CMT Music Awards will air Wednesday, June 9 at 8 p.m. ET on CMT, MTV, MTV2, Logo, Paramount Network, TV Land and CMT Australia.