In the mid-2000s, Miko Marks was trying to make a serious run at mainstream country stardom. She put out a pair of albums, 2005’s Freeway Bound and 2007’s It Feels Good, posing in a cowboy hat for both cover images, and showed herself to be a skillful singer who was cutting the kind of palatable country-pop that worked at country radio.
In hindsight, she realizes she was naïve about how Music Row might receive a black woman singing country music.
“I was young and I was bright-eyed and I was thinking, ‘You have this skill set, there’s no way you can’t make it in this town,’” the Oakland, California, singer-songwriter says. “But there were ‘powers that be’ that burst my dream. I realized that it took a lot more than talent.”
It’s a story that feels all too familiar, like Linda Martell’s in the 1970s, like Mickey Guyton’s in the present, and like Marks’ contemporary Rissi Palmer — hyper-talented black women who haven’t been afforded the same space in country as their white contemporaries. Marks has her share of triumphs and defeats from that time; she performed at CMA Fest on a handful of occasions until changes to the eligibility criteria ruled her out. She also met with a label in town and received a curious rejection.
“They’re like, ‘We love your music. We love your sound. You’re such a sweet person, [but] we don’t think there’s a place for you,’” she recalls. “’But you may want to try this label down the street. They’re doing some innovative things down there.’”
Marks believes that was a coded way of talking about her race, considering that her singles, like the biographical “Mama” (with a video that featured Marks’ college pal Erykah Badu), would have been the norm for then-standard bearers like Trisha Yearwood and Sara Evans. Marks eventually returned to California and performed for a loyal fanbase, but ceased recording.
“I don’t know what the ‘innovative’ piece was,” Marks says. “It kind of crushed me a little bit.”
Thirteen years later, Marks has a new album on the way. Titled Our Country, it arrives March 26th in the midst of a reckoning around race that’s happening all over, including in Nashville and country music. The album frequently acknowledges those issues, focusing on social consciousness and perseverance through trying circumstances.
“It speaks to the times. I just feel like I’m honestly making music for the present moment,” Marks says.
The project came about organically when she reached out to her old collaborator Justin Phipps after having a dream about performing. He played her a song called “Goodnight America” that had a pointed message about injustice and the myth of American exceptionalism. With Phipps and his Redtone Records partner Steve Wyreman, they recorded it. “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, they won’t hide your lies/America, your dream has died,” Marks sings, accompanied by Dobro and fingerstyle guitar.
“I had never done anything like ‘Good Night America,’” she says. “It’s really speaking truth to power. It’s very blunt. I’ve never been one to put politics in my music. But when I heard the song I was like, ‘I gotta sing this.’”
They continued recording, branching out both stylistically and thematically. There are deeply soulful cuts like the prayerful “Ancestors,” “Hold It Together,” and “We Are Here,” a Stax-style tune about the injustices wrought on Flint, Michigan, where Marks was raised. There’s also a country-soul update of the oft-covered chestnut “Hard Times” as well as a funky rendition of the spiritual “Not Be Moved,” threading the album’s up-to-date commentary together with an undercurrent of hope and spirituality.
“If you’re a singer, you’re limitless on a certain level, because I just enjoy all genres of music. It doesn’t matter,” Marks says. “I took the limits off myself with this album. When I did my first two, I wanted to stick straight to my country, traditional way of doing things. But this time I wanted to make it more of a melting pot of what I think we as a country are.”
Country music has changed a fair amount in the last decade and a half since Marks was making the rounds in Nashville. It’s more progressive in sound and outlook, but some of the same structural problems exist. There are more black performers working in the mainstream than ever before, but they still struggle to be played on radio. Meanwhile, the biggest country artist in the nation right now has been banned from radio after he used a racial slur. Marks says that the Morgan Wallen incident is “just a symptom of a larger problem. Until we can get to the real root of the problem there will be no progress, there will be no movement.”
There are the occasional hopeful signs as well. Marks got to be an early guest on Rissi Palmer’s Color Me Country show for Apple Music Country, which spotlights black and indigenous artists. And more than ever, mainstream stars like Maren Morris and Cam are using their voices to move the discussion forward. “I feel hopeful that there are conversations being had right now,” Marks says. “That’s actually a step in the right direction.”
Things have changed for Marks as well. Now she feels less pressure to conform to what radio wants and more incentive to make music in whatever way she finds pleasing. It’s enough for her to just be back at it with a new album and a fresh sound.
“In the end, I’m very happy with what I’ve done and my contributions,” Marks says. “I’m happy with my little legacy. I’ve touched some people along the way, so my life is good. I have no complaints. I’m older now and a little wiser. I’m not hanging my hat on whether this goes or it doesn’t. I’m really happy to be in the game again.”