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Musician Brittney Spencer says she has Baltimore to thank for her intro to country

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Country singer-songwriter Brittney Spencer says she has the city where she grew up to thank for her introduction to the genre.

BRITTNEY SPENCER: I found country music in Baltimore - you know? - from my friends who people would look at and probably think they don't listen to country music, but they do, you know? We were going to church downtown, and my friend Keisa (ph) said, you need to listen to - back then - the Dixie Chicks, and I did, and I fell in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LANDSLIDE")

THE CHICKS: (Singing) Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? Can I...

SUMMERS: Spencer grew up singing in church choirs and on praise teams, and she was immediately drawn to the harmonies of country music. That affinity led her to leave Baltimore for Nashville a decade ago with little plan and few connections. And she says hitting her stride in Nashville took time.

SPENCER: I don't know, just a lot of trial and error and a lot of, like - I don't know - following little pebbles in the forest. That's what it feels like. It's gruesome and wonderful just not knowing what the hell you're doing.

SUMMERS: In 2020, her cover of The Highwomen's song "Crowded Table" caught the attention of the country supergroup's Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. And now Brittney Spencer is out with her first album. It's called "My Stupid Life." The first single from that album, "Bigger Than The Song," pays tribute to some of the women who came before her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIGGER THAN THE SONG")

SPENCER: (Singing) Be fancy like Reba, a queen like Aretha, in love like Johnny and June. Get mad like Alanis, scream like Janet, do it all like Dolly would do.

SUMMERS: I love that chorus because you're name-checking some of the greats - Reba, Queen Latifah, Alanis Morissette, Dolly Parton. I mean, the list goes on. And it's this incredible trip down memory lane paying respect to these women that have given us all so much. Tell us about that song.

SPENCER: You know, it's funny. I actually - I didn't know until I started doing interviews that I name-checked almost all women. Like...

SUMMERS: Yeah.

SPENCER: ...It's only one guy I check in this song, Johnny, but I still pair him with June (laughter).

SUMMERS: And you didn't realize that?

SPENCER: No, I didn't realize it. That wasn't intentional at all. I just - I love women. I really do. Like, I think we're so cool. And I think, like, especially right now, at a time in music where - particularly in country music, where we're not always seeing women shine - I think, like, on the charts right now, I don't think there are any women on the Top 20 charts right now.

SUMMERS: Why do you think that is?

SPENCER: I actually - I don't know. And I also just don't care 'cause it's just stupid. I'm just waiting on the day that changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRITTNEY SPENCER SONG, "IF YOU SAY SO")

SUMMERS: Talk to us about the process of putting together this album. What was going on in your life when you were recording it, and how does that reflect itself in the music?

SPENCER: When we were recording, I was in the middle of touring. So I was kind of deliriously tired. And when I walked into the studio, like, Daniel, the producer, Daniel Tashian, he's, like, very, very good. He's very creative. He'll get in the studio. He's kind of like a studio rat (laughter). And then I had some of my friends come in and...

SUMMERS: Yeah, like who?

SPENCER: Ashley Monroe came in. Maren Morris, she came in. She sang on "Night In." That was so fun. She's one of my heroes, so that was really fun to get to watch. Grace Potter, she sent in her backgrounds on "Reaching Out." Like, I really made a record with people that I really admire, respect, enjoy, love. It was a fun process. Like, bringing this all together was definitely a dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHT IN (PHONE CALL)")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey, girl. What you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Absolutely nothing. What's up?

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about a song you've mentioned a couple of times. The song is called "Night In," and it's this fun anthem. It celebrates friendship and women coming together and the joy of not going out all the time. And I have to say, as a person who also loves to stay in, this was a very deeply relatable song. Can you tell us about it?

SPENCER: I mean, like, I'm an introvert with FOMO. I really want to, like, you know, stay in, but I also don't want to miss out. I feel like extroverts always get the fun turn-up songs. Dude, there's so much happiness in doing not a thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHT IN (PHONE CALL)")

SPENCER: (Singing) I just want a night in, getting high with friends, not a night on the town killing time again. No high heel stumbling down the city streets. No drunk boys mumbling, can I buy you a drink?

I actually wrote this song - it started with my friend Jessica Caine, a writer here in town. I went to her house. And she, like, made this bomb dinner. Like, it was, like, salmon and, like, something else. And it was fire. And then we watched "Cruella." And then we, like, I think - I don't even know if we paused the movie or if we ended up waiting till the end, but we started just writing a song about wanting to be in the house. I can hear where we were just stream of consciousness, like, writing and just talking, like, very conversational. And I think being sleep deprived definitely helped that song (laughter).

SUMMERS: You've mentioned some of the incredible people that you collaborated with on this album. And in "Reaching Out," that includes Grace Potter on vocals, Jason Isbell on guitar. I know you've performed alongside both of them. That song is just so powerful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REACHING OUT")

SPENCER: (Singing) I don't have a tank full of happy endings. That ship sailed a long time ago.

SUMMERS: Can you tell us where that's coming from?

SPENCER: It was my first - maybe not my first, but definitely one of my first attempts at kind of describing a deep sadness that I've felt most of my life and not really placing blame on any one thing or person, but just trying to describe the events of my life in a way that hopefully - I don't know - articulates this feeling that I've had. This - it's is really a song about longing. It's a song about wanting to be seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REACHING OUT")

SPENCER: (Singing) So I'm reaching out for something better than this. I don't know what it is.

I'm a Black girl from Baltimore City in country music. Of course belonging is a thing. It's - and it's even more of a thing for me right now, honestly. I don't know. It's about wanting to know if, like, my story and my existence matters. A lot of people feel like their stories don't matter because they're not reflected, they're not represented all the time. And I just - I come from that world of people where almost sometimes, like, your existence can feel inferior. That's - it's not something that weighs on my brain all the time, but it's definitely like if you poke around deep enough, you'll get to that part where you can hear in me where I still want to know where I belong or if I do.

SUMMERS: Yeah. I do have to ask. I mean, as you said, you're a Black woman in a genre that has not always made space for Black women, even in recent years. But today, there are more artists that look like you and me in country music. Do you think that, for the genre, we're at a turning point and that we'll see more Black women country artists like you who are stepping out and getting noticed for their talent?

SPENCER: I hope so. That's kind of - yeah, that's kind of just my only answer. I hope so. You know, more than that, I hope that there's somebody out there or there are people out there who, you know, might have a different story. You know, they might look different. They might have a different background, a different upbringing, something that makes them not always feel connected.

And I hope that, in seeing what's happening right now in country music, it encourages so many people to pursue the thing that, honestly, it took me years to decide to actually do. It took me years to, like, decide to leave Baltimore for this reason. My desire for this music, it became so overwhelming that it became, like, louder than the voices in my head. So I hope the industry changes, you know, because the world most certainly is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW TO THIS TOWN")

SPENCER: (Singing) I'm new to this town, so just hanging out.

SUMMERS: Brittney, thank you so much.

SPENCER: Thank you. I appreciate it. I hope you have a wonderful day. And thank you so much for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW TO THIS TOWN")

SPENCER: (Singing) All the people I know are... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fox
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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