Brittney Spencer makes ‘universal’ country music. Nashville’s listening.

In a genre that has historically sidelined Black singers, she broke through with a viral video and a debut album that blends country sensibilities with rock and R&B.

Country singer Brittney Spencer released her debut album, “My Stupid Life” this month. The Baltimore native will perform Jan. 27 at the Anthem in Washington, D.C. (Jimmy Fontaine)

Country singer Brittney Spencer was hanging out with Reba McEntire one night in early 2022 when a thought occurred to her: Wait, was it weird that she was hanging out with Reba McEntire?

It was near the end of Spencer’s third day as one of the opening acts on McEntire’s arena tour, and Spencer had spent far more time than she thought she would just chilling and chatting backstage with the country music icon.

“It got to the point where I had to ask Reba … ‘Hey, do you need space from me? Do you need a second?’” Spencer recalled in a recent interview. “And she was like, ‘No, you’re fine.’”

Spencer said she pressed the issue again: “Are you sure? Because if you need space from me, you can just say it, you don’t have to be so nice.” McEntire gave her a confused look and emphasized, “No! You’re fine.”

At that point, Spencer was still adjusting to the fact that this was her life, a year and a half after she posted a video to Twitter playing guitar and singing “Crowded Table,” a song by all-female country supergroup the Highwomen. Hours later, as Spencer indulged in a classic fall 2020 pandemic activity of smoking a joint and watching Showtime’s “Shameless,” her notifications started going crazy: Amanda Shires and Maren Morris, two of the four Highwomen, reposted the tweet and invited Spencer to sing with them.

The video went viral. Spencer, who was supporting herself through office and remote jobs as she wrote and released music independently, soon started getting all kinds of invitations, including an offer to open for Shires’s husband, Americana star Jason Isbell.

That’s how actor Rex Linn, a huge Isbell fan, learned about Spencer; he then told his girlfriend, Reba McEntire, about his discovery. Linn explained this backstage at one of McEntire’s shows, said Spencer, who was trying to wrap her mind around the idea that after nearly a decade of trying to break through as a country singer, that this was really happening. In a town that she wasn’t sure had a place for her, in a genre that has historically sidelined Black singers, she was that artist who people were recommending to other artists. Now, not only was she on the same early career path as some of her Nashville heroes, they were becoming her mentors.

“There’s so much I learned from Reba, and she didn’t say a word,” Spencer said. “There’s not a handbook that says, ‘Hey, here’s how you do artistry.’ There’s no orientation, there’s no employee training for this. And so even learning the etiquette of how to handle yourself or how to handle other people — it’s been artists like her that have been very instrumental, I think, in helping me learn a lot of stuff.”

Spencer, 35, has been a student of country music since she discovered the Chicks as a teenager growing up in Baltimore, sharpening her vocals and passion for singing at the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology. Something about the Texas trio’s seamless vocals, blended with classic country and bluegrass and storytelling, hit the right spot at a formative moment. Spencer threw herself into the genre, moving to Nashville in 2013.

Last week, she released her debut album, “My Stupid Life,” a 13-track collection about her journey in Music City and personally over the 10 years. On Jan. 27, she will perform in front of a hometown crowd when she opens for Grace Potter at the Anthem.

In her work, Spencer tries to get across an idea of what she calls “universal” country music. This came into focus listening to a mix of genres growing up (particularly Shania Twain’s pop-country) and especially in the last few years while touring with Nashville singers such as Brett Eldredge and Morris, as well sharing the bill at festivals headlined by Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Megan Thee Stallion and Lauryn Hill.

“It kind of helped me achieve this very universal country thing that I want to do. I really think that country is for everybody,” Spencer said. “I love country music so much, and I love pairing it sonically with other things.”

She wrote or co-wrote every song on the record as she melded rock into “Night In,” an upbeat track about the joys of forgoing high heels, crowds and drunk guys at the bar in favor of sweatpants, snacks and binge-watching TV with friends on the couch. “Bigger Than the Song” infuses R&B with a country tradition of name-checking other singers in the lyrics (“It makes you wanna be fancy like Reba, a queen like Aretha, and love like Johnny and June / Get mad like Alanis, scream like Janet, do it all like Dolly would do.”)

Songs such as “If You Say So” and “First Car Feeling” are “cruising music,” she said, with melodies that make you want to play them with the car window roll down. Others, such as “The Last Time” and “Desperate,” tackle relationships and what it’s like to face misogyny, respectively. “I just wanted to feel like a lot of different parts of myself coming together,” Spencer said.

Producer Daniel Tashian — who has worked with Tim McGraw, Demi Lovato (among others) and co-produced Kacey Musgraves’s Grammy-winning 2018 album “Golden Hour” — was immediately intrigued by Spencer when he first heard her vocals on a demo CD, and he wound up producing her debut record.

“What makes a voice interesting is a person’s spirit and soul that they’re putting into it. I didn’t feel like I had ever heard country music that sounds like it does when Brittney does it,” said Tashian, who described Spencer as the type of person who is laser focused while working but can make him laugh just with a look across the room. “It can be this certain kind of tunnel vision going on in country music sometimes, so it’s nice when there are outliers — Zach Bryan, Brittney — that bring another perspective.”

There were years in Nashville when Spencer was genuinely not sure whether the pieces would ever align. After high school, she worked as a background vocalist in Baltimore. In Nashville, she worked odd jobs as she busked downtown, taught herself to play guitar and wrote songs, and enrolled in Middle Tennessee State University’s recording industry program.

You never know when your break will happen, but Spencer certainly didn’t expect it from Twitter (now X), where her performance of “Crowded Table” took off in October 2020. Shires refuses to take credit for helping launch Spencer’s career to the next level by retweeting the video and inviting Spencer to perform with the group, of which she is now an honorary member. “She was the one that was great in the first place,” Shires said.

Shires and Spencer became close friends and co-writers, even getting matching tattoos of daggers that symbolize staying true to their art. “Brittney says things that we all wish we could say in the moment to somebody. In her songs she’s got a way of saying things and facing hard truths that really translates,” she said. One of the most important aspects of the Highwomen (Shires, Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby), Shires and Spencer both agree, is the camaraderie onstage and off.

“They made me feel like this thing that I’ve been doing for years, when I never really expected it, would happen for me. They just made me feel like there was something about me that actually could be of use in this space, in this world of country music,” Spencer said. “They’re incredible women just shining a light on stories that don’t always get told from people that aren’t always given a chance to tell them.”

When Spencer meets fans, she said, they often tell her — some through tears — how much it means to them to see a Black woman succeeding in a genre where it can be difficult for anyone who is not a White man to become a breakout star. Only a few Black artists are signed to major Nashville record labels; in 2022, Spencer signed with New York-based Elektra Records, owned by Warner Music Group. She met with several Nashville labels, she said, but she felt Elektra matched with her vision for her career.

Fans also tell Spencer how much it means to see a plus-size singer take part in things like a Victoria’s Secret campaign, and that seeing her accept and embrace her body has inspired them to do the same. Spencer is moved by such messages from listeners (“It gives purpose and meaning to what I’m doing”), and at the same time, is looking for a balance so these reactions don’t define her career.

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“I don’t want my entire identity to be that I am struggling in some way, you know, by being who I am and looking at the way that I look in this genre that historically has kind of excluded people,” Spencer said, though added that it would be “disingenuous and insensitive” if she didn’t acknowledge that to a lot of fans, her presence as a rising country star means more than just the music. “I know I represent more than just myself, so I try to be responsible with that.”

Spencer worked on much of her debut album at the same time that she dedicated herself to therapy, and although some of her songs are vulnerable, she is gratified to see they are still relatable. As she sings on “Reaching Out,” the final track that delves into her anxieties, “I don’t have a tank full of happy endings, that ship sailed a long time ago / But I find myself a peace in the knowing this world is full of stories that look quite like my own.”

While she still has trouble sometimes believing the twists and turns her career has taken, she’s reached a new place of confidence.

“I’m an overthinker, and internally I’m like, ‘Is it possible?’ There were so many reasons why I didn’t think that I could do it,” she said. “But eventually I was just like, if I’ve gotta spend my life trying something, I would actually like to spend it trying this.”

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