Graded on a Curve:
Linda Martell,
Color Me Country

Linda Martell is noted as first Black female artist to play the Grand Ole Opry, doing so 12 times, an achievement spurred by the release of her full-length album Color Me Country. Originally issued by Shelby Singleton’s Plantation label in 1970, the LP is getting a deserved reissue by ORG Music on transparent orange vinyl in a limited edition of 2,000 copies for Record Store Day on June 18. While the album falls short of the masterful, that’s not due to any deficiencies on Martell’s part, as she’s in strong voice throughout. The bottom line is that any fan of old-school non-saccharine country music should consider this record a fine addition to their shelf.

Color Me Father’s limitations in terms of quality mainly rest on the shoulders of producer Shelby S. Singleton. Having taken a calculated risk in promoting Martell as a country artist (she just as easily could’ve sang R&B, a style in which she had experience), he then decided to play it a little safe. But what the album lacks in top tier brilliance is significantly counterbalanced by a no-nonsense approach that puts Linda Martell’s skills front and center, and with nary a hint of novelty once the needle hits the groove.

To expand on the subject of novelty a bit, the record’s title surely does reference Martell’s skin color, but it’s also directly related to her C&W chart hit cover version of The Winstons’ R&B/pop smash “Color Him Father,” her first single, so it’s not as bluntly underlining the singer’s unique stature as it might seem. And the title of the album is far less suspect than the name of Singleton’s label, with Plantation a problematic handle not just in retrospect, as Martell has stated she had misgivings over it at the time.

But the playing it safe mentioned above isn’t as injurious to Color Me Country as it might sound, since the musical objective was to solidify Martell as a legit C&W talent. Opener “Bad Case of the Blues” should convince doubters with a quickness, as she hits the right level of vocal sass amid the pedal steel and fiddles, and she even dishes some yodeling for good measure.

Yes, pedal steel and fiddles, and in “The Wedding Cake” and “Tender Leaves of Love,” mandolin, aspects of the C&W experience that Singleton (and others, to be fair) often minimized (or removed from the scheme completely) in hopes of crossover chart success. In Martell’s case, it registers that the opposite was the objective, but without completely nullifying gestures reaching beyond the country field.

To elaborate, there is “San Francisco Is a Lonely Town,” where Martell’s late-song emotional peak feels like it could’ve made at least a moderate dent in the pop charts, had it been released as a single. And the decidedly non-Countrypolitan faux sitar in “I Almost Called Your Name” reinforces Singleton’s involvement (similar elements are heard on Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” another Singleton production recently reissued), even as pedal steel remains prominent.

Helping to bring unity to the record are six songs co-written by Margaret Lewis and Myra Smith, including the overcoming hardship with love storytelling showcase “There Never Was a Time.” Deviating more than a bit from the album’s norm is “You’re Crying Boy, Crying,” which hangs around the neighborhood inhabited by Nancy Sinatra.

Much more in keeping with the album’s focus is “Old Letter Song,” where Martell hits another emotional crescendo (notably without strain). “Then I’ll Be Over You” lays the weepy pedal steel on pretty thick, but it’s really closer “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” (yes, the eventual hit for Freddy Fender) that showcases Martell’s C&W prowess most effectively (it was a minor hit for Martell in 1969, as well), bookending productively with opener “Bad Case of the Blues” (her other charting single, along with “Color Him Father”).

When it’s considered that Color Me Country is Linda Martell’s debut album, those play-it-safe shortcomings spoken of earlier get lessened even more. Had circumstances unfolded more productively, the LP would be viewed as a springboard for further success. As it stands, it’s so much more than a footnote.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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