On 'Our Country,' Miko Marks' Musical Lineage Comes Full Circle Marks' catalog — especially her latest album — deserves a close listen, revealing a history lesson not just about her own experiences and repertoire but the entire last century of Black roots music.
NPR logo On 'Our Country,' Miko Marks' Musical Lineage Comes Full Circle

On 'Our Country,' Miko Marks' Musical Lineage Comes Full Circle

Miko Marks' latest album is Our Country. Throughout her career, she's deepened her connection to her ancestors while elaborating on the possibilities of all the styles that speak to her. Beto Lopez/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Beto Lopez/Courtesy of the artist

Miko Marks' latest album is Our Country. Throughout her career, she's deepened her connection to her ancestors while elaborating on the possibilities of all the styles that speak to her.

Beto Lopez/Courtesy of the artist

In the 167 years since the Stephen Foster-penned sheet music for "Hard Times Come Again No More" went on the market, the parlor song has been done, and done, and done again, by performers of numerous generations and styles, long ago passing into the desensitizing familiarity of the American folk songbook. Still, the rendition that Miko Marks recorded for her third overall album, and first in more than a dozen years, Our Country, stands out, even from her own past studio performances.

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What she brings to the song is deep fluency in the downhome ornaments and idioms of country, blues and gospel, applied so shrewdly, over shaggy, acoustic accompaniment, as to heighten the sentiment. Her well-placed curlicues, slides and plaintive notes bent blue, the suppleness of her vibrato, the bursts of impatience and vigor in her brief vocal runs tell a story of moving through hardship: straining to bear it, but also withstanding it stoically, and ultimately insisting on seizing an existence beyond it.

That's but one demonstration of the capacities Marks has collected in her vocal repertoire over her lifetime, a repertoire that deserves close listening because she's been doing the thorough work of deepening her connection to her ancestors while elaborating on the expressive possibilities of any and all rooted sonic forms that speak to her.

Most of the attention she's received, though, has focused on the mid-2000s sliver of her career when she strove for mainstream country success, and received positive, if quizzical, press notices, but was ultimately brushed off for reasons of identity rather than ability. Such was the fate of a neotraditionalist country hopeful who is a Black woman, perpetually expected to explain her affiliation with a genre perceived, and preserved, as a domain of whiteness.

Sometimes, the interrogation of Marks' authenticity has begun with where she grew up, in the mid-sized, Midwestern city of Flint, Mich., as though the non-Southern, non-rural nature of her background warrants skepticism.

"People don't realize that Black people, we were watching Hee Haw too," says Marks. "We listened to the Grand Ole Opry. Even though we were in Flint, Mich., this was a part of our culture and our base that we brought with us."

Her elders were part of the Great Migration of Black Americans departing the Jim Crow South in pursuit of more prosperous, less terrorized lives. Her maternal grandmother came up from Mississippi. "From the age of maybe six to 10, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house," says Marks, "and she was just really staunch, still, in her country ideology and there was no changing that."

Marks' mother, who she calls "a musical genius," further broadened and bolstered her daughter's musical exposure. They were involved in the Church of God in Christ, a charismatic denomination that's nurtured a rich tradition of hot, demonstrative gospel music, where Marks, an only child, had a singing group with her cousins. She also joined the madrigal choir in high school, absorbing classical techniques of vocal control. Proof that she still relishes that poised and disciplined style of singing can be found in a 2017 Instagram clip that shows her gracefully floating from one elongated note of "Ave Maria" to the next. She hashtagged it #noboundaries, echoing a mentality she's had since her youth.

"I just had my finger on every piece of genre of music," she says. "I just never set limits. If it was something I liked, I learned about it."

She sang throughout college at Grambling State University, a historically Black school in North Louisiana, including in an R&B vocal group with her fellow student Erykah Badu. This was the mid-1990s, and Marks recalls fondly that they performed "in combat boots, head wraps and jeans" and worked up their own version of the En Vogue arrangement of the girl-group throwback "Giving Him Something He Can Feel." At the same time, she became an avid country radio listener, doing her own informal study of '90s country's big gestures and robust voices.

She says, "That's when I found out, 'Hey, I might want to do this kind of music, because it's speaking to my soul so much, the stories.' That was a time when country really started speaking to me, like, in a big way."

Following graduation, she settled into work as a legal secretary at a San Francisco firm and started a family. But when she won a radio singing competition in the early 2000s, she and her husband agreed it was time for her to leave the office, cut some demos and seriously pursue a country career. She took on the challenge of trying to breach the insularity of the Nashville music industry from the West Coast.

"I knew what I wanted to do, but I wasn't based in Nashville," she explains, "and you have to go to Nashville to do the thing. So we did it in the best way we could. We connected with a Nashville producer. We had a publicist from Nashville, and everything was based in Nashville except for me."

Marks' independently released, 2005 debut album Freeway Bound — whose aesthetic she describes as "more traditional country with a hint of the early '90s, the Lee Ann Womack-type thing" — was produced by recording veteran Ron Cornelius, who combined seven of her compositions with songs sourced from Music Row pros and booked A-list session players like guitarist Brent Mason and drummer Eddie Bayers, whose standing she was all too aware of.

"I was like, 'Ooh, I'd better come with it and better get it right because these guys are the real deal,'" she remembers. "So yeah, I had a little tightness in my voice back then. I was intimidated. Being who I was coming into country music, I think I was a little bit more timid in my singing."

Still, her country competence was evident. It came through in the way she projected self-determination with lusty, honky-tonk phrasing; her frisky, defiant curling of notes and roadhouse growls, adeptly asserting the intersection of rocking country and blues; her grasp of the high, domestic drama of grown-up, country-pop balladry; the sentimental weight in her delivery of the word "mama" in a song of the same name, which she wrote after losing her own, calling back to the long lineage of country, gospel and folk songs revering, pining for and seeking moral guidance from mother.

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Even the way she sought to get inside her material and inhabit roles heartily and believably lived up to the expectation in country music that a performance ring true. "My initial [approach to] every song is to just feel it and internalize the lyrics and to emote and get into what that looks like for me, what that character looks like," says Marks. "It's more about telling the story with an emotional attachment."

Two years later, she followed with It Feels Good, an album with a brighter, brisker attack. "It got to be a little more contemporary," she says of her sound, "because the music was changing, but at the same time, I was still more of a traditional-type deliverer of country."

Along with the sensibilities captured on those two projects, there's ample visual documentation — cover art, press photos, montages of video clips from the period — that show how Marks presented herself. Most notably, she sported the most loaded of all western wear signifiers: a cowboy hat.

"I had a team of people that were like, 'You need to wear this hat, this hair, these boots and you'll fit right in,'" she reports, a little ruefully. "And I was starry-eyed, bright-eyed. I was like, 'I'm listening to professionals. Tell me what to do, and let's do it.' I was making myself perform to what others thought would be better than being myself."

Eventually, Marks made clear that she would no longer submit herself to the racist duality of being simultaneously molded and marginalized by shaving her head. "I was disheartened," she says, "because I thought, 'You have the skills.' I didn't know how deep or how high the walls would be."

The barriers had seemed so formidable, had so completely closed off any possibility of real success in a country music industry then-dominated by major labels and corporate radio, that Marks mostly put recording out of her mind for over a decade. But it wasn't like her to let rejection by Nashville stop her from performing altogether: "I didn't walk away from music-making." She maintained a residency at a country line dance bar called Saddle Racks, and sang at clubs, churches, professional sporting events and festivals ranging from the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering to Black History Month and Juneteenth celebrations. As she revisited songs from her catalog, along with a mixture of country hits, standards and classic rock tunes, she also reworked and reinterpreted the material, relaxing her phrasing, evolving into a significantly more supple, responsive and downhome singer.

"I started to get a little more loose with the interpretation of the songs," she says. "I was like, 'Oh, this song can do this and go here. It doesn't have to be like the album.' I just started to play around with my delivery, and I like the direction. And then I was like, 'Hmm, here we are: roots Americana country.'"

"I'm not dedicated to the timing of a certain song," she goes on, bringing her reflections into present tense. "I'm a little more playing with, 'How do I want to slide into this note?' It doesn't have to be on the beat. If I want to slide off, I'm sliding."

Marks gave little thought to capturing that exploration in the studio until she reconnected with two former members of her live band, Justin Phipps and Steve Wyreman, in 2019 and learned of their extensive recording experience, their work with a tiny, East Palo Alto-based nonprofit roots imprint called Redtone Records and a newly composed folk-blues song of social lament they thought she could really do something with, titled "Goodnight America."

That laidback session led to another, and another, and another, until Wyreman and Phipps, billed as the Resurrectors, and a freed-up Marks, applying old forms to new songs of her own, accumulated the 10 tracks that became her Redtone debut Our Country. "It shows my growth," she says.

The way that she injects sunny, gospel pizzazz into juke joint boogieing during the sacred blues tune "Pour Another Glass," taps the well of righteous, Civil Rights-era gospel during "Mercy" with her prayerful pleading and simmering vibrato and puts a sly, amiably spin on blues diva theatricality during "Water to Wine," not to mention her feel for connecting bustling, citified soul, gospel, country and blues sensibilities with rural lineages, offers a history lesson. Specifically, a lesson in how the last century of Black American musical innovation and virtuosity, despite being artificially locked into and locked out of particular formats along racial lines (see: the history of "race" vs. "hillbilly" records laid out in Segregating Sound), has been skewed, misinterpreted and appropriated by white people with the power to write, or at least profit from, the official narrative, but it has never been hermetically sealed. With her new album, Marks has begun drawing her own map of how these musical tributaries flow together, in a hybrid history of sound and even in her own background, formative experiences and repertoire.

"I did think about that," she says. "I wanted to bring everything full circle, because what is it if it's not connected to the roots? I wanted to really show the beauty of all those pieces working together."

The new artistic identity Marks has fleshed out encompasses the role of archivist. In the new book Liner Notes For the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound, critic and scholar Daphne Brooks describes the agency of the foundational Black blueswomen of the 1920s in a way that's distantly echoed by Marks' latest work: "Collectors of sounds, translators and mediators of culture, these women gathered up the Southern rural experiences and feelings of a people and yoked them together with the migratory conditions of Blackness."

It's hardly insignificant, then, that Marks elected to open her album with a sinewy Southern soul track calling on her ancestors.

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"I need some spiritual guidance to help order my steps in this life," she explains. "I don't know any other place to get that but from the people that have gone on, you know, the signs and signals that come through life. So I'm calling on them in a way that is uplifting, because I know that the answers are going to come, and I can trust those answers."