Artist to Watch: Black Opry Artist Roberta Lea Breaks Out of the 757
When you've got Brandi Carlile and Allison Russell in your corner, you know you've got something special.
Roberta Lea just crowdfunded her debut solo LP on Kickstarter, netting $22,000 – an extra $4000 beyond her original goal. Lea has been releasing music as she tours with the Black Opry Revue, usually alongside Jett Holden, Tylar Bryant, and Joy Clark. Lea made the "pandemic pivot," per her Kickstarter, from classroom teaching to music, feeling guilty and frustrated that she was attending to everyone's needs but her own. She jumped in head first with a trip to AmericanaFest in 2021 at the invitation of Holly G, who organized the Black Opry house.
"I met Holly G on Twitter, as we were both following Rissi Palmer and Color Me Country," Palmer explained to The Boot. "At the time, I was simply releasing songs that I had without any particular direction, marketing, or community. She heard my song 'King Size' and loved it. If I hadn't decided at that point that I was a country artist, Holly decided for me! Not long afterwards, she tells me about the AmericanaFest and invites me to join them. The rest is history!"
So far, it's been an exciting journey. Lea's video for "Ghetto Country Streets" premiered on CMT. NPR interviewed Lea and other members of the Black Opry on World Cafe. The Nashville Scene also celebrated the collective's success.
Lea got her start growing up in Norfolk, performing since she was a child. It took some time to take it full-time, though.
"Taking the leap towards full-time artistry was a big risk. Despite having been a songwriter for more than half my life, I realized there's more I needed to learn and develop about myself as an artist."
Lea recorded and self-produced her country EP, Just a Taste, in her home studio. She turned to Kickstarter to "level up."
"With no label/record deal, I had to set off a grassroots movement for support. If anything, crowdfunding lets me know that there are people ready for the music! It gives me a great insight as to how well I've connected with my community of fans!"
It's not just Lea's undeniable charisma or arresting singing voice that's won her fans. Her songs embrace a deep appreciation for life in all its stages. Lea compares her writing approach to teaching.
"Being a former teacher plays a huge role in my writing style. When you have a classroom full of up to 30 different learners, you have to be creative and versatile when it comes to delivering your message/lesson."
Much like a curriculum, Lea structures her sets to include both high- and low-energy songs.
"I love to have a fun, pop-leaning track to grab people's attention as well as a deep ballad that tells a substantial story. It often looks like the kindergarten teacher who has their students dance and get their wiggles out at the beginning of the class, only to lead them to their favorite rug for story time at the end of the day."
It helps that she's surrounded by the loving support of her husband, Nick, and their children.
"If you hear a song from me that's all love and happiness, it's definitely about them."
In just this past whirlwind year, Lea has embraced her community of artists and fans. She says she's energized by the challenge of connecting with listeners across the globe.
"First, social media has definitely removed a lot of barriers. It's so easy to make a fan in a different state or a different country now. Being able to meet them in person when they come to a show is such a special moment."
Lea understands the importance of her local community in Norfolk and seeks to cultivate it.
"I try to be intentional about staying connected to my local artist community as well. I love teaming up with my artist friends like Octavia the Great, Marv P, Jared Farrell and more to put on great shows in our area, the 757."
Given the success of her Kickstarter campaign, it's clear that Lea will be traveling well beyond her area code – and she's ready for the challenges in the upcoming year.
"I'm excited to break out and level up as an artist in my own right. Not every artist experiences their first year the way I experienced mine! The Black Opry Revue tours, the CMA Fest, the Kelly Clarkson Show, the list goes on! I'm grateful to have been given space to discover and develop myself."
The challenge is, of course, to keep a good thing going – and grow it for everyone else.
"I hope to return that positive energy through good music, live performances and helping my fellow artists along the way," Lea says. "I'm looking forward to expanding and increasing what's been sown this year. I'm excited for bigger, better and brighter things!"