Frankie Staton had always loved country music, and she had always believed country music would love her back.
So when she left High Point for Nashville more than 40 years ago, it didn’t matter that she was a young Black woman daring to make a name for herself in a genre where the top female artists — where pretty much all of the female artists — were white.
It didn’t matter that, with her brown skin and her high, bushy Afro, she looked nothing like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. She was Frankie Staton, and that was the name people were going to see on record albums, concert tickets, billboards and theater marquees.
It didn’t even matter that she came from High Point, a city that championed home furnishings over country musicians, Black or otherwise.
All that mattered was her music — her sweet, melodic voice, her divine piano playing, her inspired songwriting, and her unbridled love for the genre. She figured it was just a matter of time until she’d find herself performing at the Grand Ole Opry.
“Yeah,” Staton says now, cackling sarcastically at the memory. “I was that ignorant.”
It’s been more than 40 years since Staton packed up her belongings and her dreams and headed for Nashville, believing in herself, her music and her future — a future that, in hindsight, never panned out as she had planned.
Next month, though, the 68-year-old High Point native will finally see her dream fulfilled — she’s been invited to perform on the hallowed stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
“I didn’t think I would ever make it,” she says during a telephone interview from her home in Nashville. “I had just kind of accepted it. But here I am.”
Staton will perform Feb. 7, in conjunction with an exhibit about Blacks in country music that will opening in March at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
The performance culminates quite a journey for Staton, who traces her musical heritage to her childhood in High Point.
“When I was a little girl, I heard music running through my head all the time — I thought everybody did,” she says.
She learned to play the piano and enjoyed singing along to an eclectic mix of popular artists that ranged from The Beatles and Stevie Wonder to Simon & Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand and even The Wagonmasters, the country-and-western band on “The Porter Wagoner Show.”
Public performances were largely limited to her church and the marching band at High Point Central High School (Class of 1972). She studied music at N.C. A&T State University for a couple of years, but it wasn’t for her because the emphasis was on teaching music rather than making it.
“I’m not a teacher,” she says. “I’m a songwriter and performer.”
Staton realized her performing potential in her mid-20s, following an improbable encounter at the High Point Market, where she had picked up a late-night job washing dishes. On a whim one night, she sat down at a grand piano outside a showroom and began playing “The Sound of Music.” Next thing she knew, a furniture bigwig was offering her a gig playing in his showroom.
“I was like Cinderella,” Staton says. “I went from washing dishes to playing in one of the biggest showrooms at the market.”
When an impressed listener placed a $100 tip on the piano, she realized her talent might take her places.
Then in 1980, she saw “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the story of Loretta Lynn’s rise to country music stardom, and it inspired her to move to Nashville and write her own story. She left in 1981 and never looked back.
Staton learned fairly quickly how naive she had been about a young Black woman’s chances of making it big in country music. She remembers going to numerous clubs that hosted “jamfests” — opportunities for entertainers to sign up and perform for the club’s patrons — where she could show off her skills. Over and over, though, she would be among the first performers to sign up but among the last to actually be called to the stage to perform.
The reason? Her skin color. She’s sure of it.
But one night, she was so excited about a particular jamfest, she got all gussied up and determined this was going to be her night.
“So I’m walking down the street looking like a brown Dolly Parton with my evening gown on, and this cop stops me,” she says.
He suspected she was a prostitute, so he asked where she was headed. She told him.
“I know he thought I was crazy,” she says, cackling again. “Here’s this sister with an Afro on her way to a midnight jam session to sing ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’ It was crazy.”
Staton was the first entertainer to sign up that night, but after two hours of performances, she was still waiting to be called to the stage.
“I just decided I’m not leaving, because if you run every time you don’t get what you want, you’ll never get anywhere,” she says. “So I just sat there till they finally called me up at 2:30 a.m.”
They mispronounced her name … and then she brought the house down. That led to an encore, which led to an invitation to come back the next night, which led to an audition at the restaurant across the street, which resulted in her first paying gig in Nashville.
There would be many more gigs, including performing at the Bluebird Cafe and other iconic venues, and at some of the finest piano bars in town. She landed a residency at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel & Convention Center. For 10 years, she was a regular performer on “The Ralph Emery Early Morning Show,” while also performing several times on the popular “Nashville Now” talk show.
In 1997, following a New York Times article that claimed there was no diversity within country music, Staton organized the first “Black Country Music Showcase,” a presentation of Black country singers held at the Bluebird Cafe.
She was instrumental in co-founding the Black Country Music Association, an organization dedicated to celebrating and advocating for Black country artists. She was featured prominently in a Rolling Stone article and the documentary “For Love & Country,” both of which examined the issue of diversity in the genre.
For Staton, though, her big break never came.
Despite undeniable talent, she never landed the major recording deal, encountering repeated resistance from an industry that has consistently refused to embrace Black artists. She even remembers one label executive who accused her of not actually writing music she was peddling as her own.
Staton’s not bitter about her fate in Nashville, just disappointed and full of “what ifs.”
On Feb. 7, though, when she performs at the Grand Ole Opry, she’ll finally get the spotlight she deserves — and everyone will see what color her skin is.
“This is major for me,” she says. “It means I’m stepping into the footprints of legends, of people that are beloved and treasured all the way around the world. It’s wonderful.”
Staton pauses a moment and then quietly adds, “I just wish it had been when I was younger.”
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