By Andrew Gilbert, Datebook
Nashville can be a lonely place for a Black woman breaking into the country music scene. And Miko Marks knows this firsthand.
The Oakland singer, who recorded two well-regarded albums during a Tennessee sojourn in the mid-aughts, said she found a warm welcome just about everywhere she performed except for the home of country music itself.
“I was always open to wherever my path would lead, but things did not work out in Nashville,” Marks said, noting that she felt fitting in required tamping down her identity.
Music City may not have been ready for Marks, but she helped clear a country music trail for other Black women, and now she’s getting back on the horse with her first new album in 14 years. Working closely with the creative team at the recently launched East Palo Alto label Redtone Records, Marks recorded “Our Country,” a rollicking, gospel music-infused session that thrums to the justice-seeking frequency of Black Lives Matter.
“These songs were made out of the experience we’re going through right now,” said Marks, who celebrates the album’s Friday, March 26, release with an acoustic performance that will be live-streamed on her YouTube channel and Facebook page. “The music is there to speak to the times.”
The album grew out of a vivid dream Marks had, but not in the sense of fulfilling a long-held ambition. Rather, late in the summer of 2019, she literally dreamed about musicians she hadn’t worked with for more than a decade. A quick phone call put her back in touch with Justin Phipps and Steve Wyreman, the Redtone Records founders who perform together as the Resurrectors.
Phipps and Wyreman were excited to get back in touch with Marks and realized a song they’d recently written, “Goodnight America,” would be ideal for her rich contralto. An elegy for a country headed in the wrong direction, “it didn’t fit anyone we were currently working with,” Phipps said. “When Miko reached out, we sent it to her and she sat with it for a while. Ultimately, she felt it resonated with where she was and where she wanted to be going.”
When Marks released the song as a video last year, a few weeks before the pandemic lockdown, it was definitely a departure from where she’d been. Before “Goodnight America,” she’d always avoided taking a political stance in her music, preferring to focus on personal themes. With “Our Country,” she’s jumped into the fray.
“I definitely feel like there’s a conversation being had that’s long overdue,” Marks said. “I am hopeful. I feel that the times are different than when I started out.”
Marks grew up with gospel music, singing in church in Flint, Mich., “but I was always drawn to country music,” she said. “Loretta and Patsy, Kenny Rogers and ‘Hee Haw’ were huge in my household. It was a normal thing. It wasn’t until I was older that there was this line clearly drawn, but country music has its roots in Black music. Even the banjo is from Africa.”
She met her San Francisco-raised husband David Hawkins when they were students at Grambling State University in Louisiana, and by 1996 the couple settled in the Bay Area. Though she loved singing, Marks said she wouldn’t have pursued a career in music without Hawkins’ encouragement, and after recording a Jeffrey Wood-produced demo at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, she decided to give up her day job in San Francisco as a legal secretary and try her luck in Nashville.
Working with producer Ron Cornelius at Mirrome Records, she released her debut album, “Freeway Bound,” in 2005 and followed it up with 2007’s “It Feels Good.” Both albums featured first-call studio talent that caught the attention of mainstream country music audiences. And yet, while the sessions were well received, the indie label couldn’t break Marks into country radio and it became clear that Nashville didn’t really know what to do with her.
In 2006, the Bay Area welcomed her back. Marks became one of the region’s most visible country music singers, performing everywhere from the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo and San Francisco’s Pier 23 to the Saddle Rack in Fremont and Oakland’s Overland (the latter two permanently shuttered during the pandemic).
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