After moving to Nashville in the early 2000s, Miko Marks found breaking into country music an impossible struggle. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone she explained, ‘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.’ Her naive optimism would soon be crushed by the reality of an industry, and an audience, unwilling or unable to go beyond their own narrow idea of what a country singer could be.
After moving back to the west coast Miko kept performing but only recently returned to recording, inspired by recent efforts to change the conversation in the industry. Interesting, but not surprising, then that she has chosen to go beyond the genre with the scope of this great new album Our Country.
The music takes influences from country, gospel, blues, soul and so fits nicely into Americana – a genre which strives to be inclusive and offers a hand to those who have never really fitted in elsewhere. Roots music has a deep connection to the past and on opening song Ancestors, Miko takes this as her inspiration to call on their spirit. She needs their guidance, wisdom, hope. They answer her in the song, her voice reaching to the heavens.
Hard Times is a moment of appreciation for those who have endured struggle. A beautiful hymn to hope. Pour Another Glass is a fun blend of country and gospel. There are a few other songs with a religious theme on the record (perhaps not a surprise considering the name of her band), including soulful Mercy, all creating a powerful sense of her faith.
The tone takes a serious turn on Goodnight America, a stunning ballad about the state of a failed nation. A moving vocal performance is aided by some brilliant guitar work. We Are Here is also deeply political, exposing the harsh reality of living in poverty. We need to hear these stories, really hear them.
Hold it Together acknowledges the heavy emotional pain of living, reminds us all to try and find strength to endure. Her band are fantastic throughout the record, especially on uplifting songs like this one and the inspiring final song Not Be Moved. That is a statement of intent, suggesting this time she’s here to stay.
I deeply admire black country artists like Miko and others who have done so much great work to try and change the country genre that has systematically excluded them. The abhorrent legacy of racial segregation taints the country music industry to this day. You wonder how many artists we’ve lost before they’ve even sung a note because the barriers to success appear so insurmountable. It shouldn’t be this way.
Unfortunately this year has left me feeling pretty hopeless about the potential for meaningful change towards inclusivity in mainstream country music. The Nashville machine continues to offer a homogenised product, written and produced by a closed group, packaged and sold to a particular demographic who want catchy, pop country and soft southern rock which reflects their lives back to them in an unchallenging way.
That kind of music in itself is not the problem – hell I love a lot of it – but when that’s all the industry will promote or support then it just becomes so one dimensional. Anyone who won’t play the game, who looks or sounds different, who rocks the boat and who might have something original to say doesn’t stand a chance of crossing over.
Until that reality changes all we can do is keep on shining a light on those who have been overlooked. Miko Marks is an artist who deserves support and has had some fantastic press coverage for her music well beyond the limits of Nashville. Let’s hope the future of country and Americana music includes more voices like hers. Until then we will keep working and dreaming of a crowded table where everyone belongs.