A project like Miko Marks’ thunderous EP Race Records would have been the high-water mark of most any artist’s year. But for Marks, it’s just one tile in a mosaic of recent greatness that includes a single with fellow Californian Fantastic Negrito (and its gorgeous music video); a return to Nashville as a headlining act at AmericanaFest after years of being ignored by the mainstream country music industry in the early 2000s; and an opening spot with the Tedeschi Trucks Band this winter.
Marks chose the name of the EP to highlight the racism that lies at the core of American roots music. Genres that are inextricably intertwined, like blues, gospel, country, and bluegrass, were packaged and marketed to segregated audiences. Labeled “race records” by and for BIPOC people, and “hillbilly/country music” for white people, these albums often featured the same songs and, sometimes, the same backing musicians — the real difference was whose name and picture was on the jacket. In the liner notes for Race Records, which is a collection of early country music covers, Marks writes that she wanted to “honor and shine a light on a few of the pioneers in country music.” However, the album also serves as a reminder of the essential role Black artists have played in a genre whose commercial arm continues to pretend they do not exist — a genre that is rooted in white supremacy.
Political weight aside, Race Records is imbued with an exuberance that truly breathes a sense of discovery to songs like the Monroe Brothers’ 1936 ballad “Long Journey Home” and the Carter Family’s “Foggy Mountain Top.” As with her original music, Marks conveys a sense of confidence and purpose that sweeps listeners along. Even with songs as melancholy as these, Marks and her firecracker band add a certain “funktry” swagger to remind us that there’s often something better around the corner.
So when the band parties, like on “Whiskey River,” made famous by Willie Nelson, or their reinterpretation of CCR’s “Long as I Can See the Light,” you’ll find yourself leaving this six-song EP on repeat. On slower (and that’s a relative term here) songs, Marks’ voice has a warm, weathered rasp. On the jumpier numbers, that rasp turns into a harbinger of good times to come.
Race Records asserts that we can’t be tied down by strict definitions of, well, anything. A “sad” song can just as easily be transformed into a joyous occasion; a joyful number hints at pain around the corner — a rollicking binge will probably hurt tomorrow. A song that is “strictly” bluegrass can (and should) transcend into a gorgeous country gospel blend. Maybe, just maybe, we can carry that approach with us beyond music. With Race Records, Marks shows us the way to a vibrant world that encompasses the totality of our lived experiences.