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‘Black Country Music’ corrects white-washed narrative, invites Black country fans out of the ‘closet’

When DePaul University English Professor Francesca Royster made her way to the Windy City Smokeout country music and barbecue festival, she wasn’t sure how many other people she’d find that looked like her. When she did speak approach other Black guests to ask why they liked country music, many shrugged and said they were just there for the food.

Royster writes in her new book “Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions,” that, for many Black people, an affinity for country music was something to keep secret. It was more commonly associated with white artists and white fans. For some, the music evoked painful associations with minstrel tunes and shows.

But Royster had grown up around country music and, as she grew older, found herself learning to play the banjo, an instrument that, today, may be more associated with white folk artists, but was originally brought to America by enslaved people from Africa.

As she began to look into the history of Black artists and country music, she found a rich history. Tina Turner had recorded a country music album in the 1970s. Ray Charles recorded his own a decade prior, a seminal crossover album. Today, you can hear the sounds of country music work its way into songs by artists like Beyonce and, of course, Lil Nas X. And there’s a growing scene of Black country music artists as well. People like Darius Rucker, who may follow in the mold of Charley Pride, as well as artists like Rhiannon Giddens, who are pushing the envelope and demanding we take a closer look at the origins of American music.

“Black Country Music,” published by University of Texas Press, is the first book written by a Black writer to examine the impact of Black musicians on a genre that would come to be called “the white man’s blues.” Francesca Royster sat down with Reckon for a brief conversation about her own fandom and to correct the narrative about country music as a genre.

A version of this story appeared in The Conversation newsletter, a weekly email that explores America through ideas, perspectives and people that you’re not likely to find in other media. Subscribe here to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

This discussion has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Reckon: Your father was a played music with country artists in Nashville, as well as being an English teacher when you were growing up. Can you talk about that relationship with country music that you had as a child? How that informed your relationship with it as an adult and the writing of this book itself?

Francesca Royster: Yeah, so we came to Nashville from Chicago when I was about three. So this was in the 1970s. And my dad... we came originally because he was teaching at... And my dad decided to pursue drumming, which is something that he did in the city. And he did a little recording before that too. So he was doing the drumming alongside teaching.

And he found that there was this interest and demand by country and other artists, sometimes also folk [musicians], to include percussion and Afro and Latin rhythms and stuff on their recordings. And so some of the clubs that he was playing, like The Exit/In there was just like folks that were intermingling and connecting. And then also some of the African American clubs too. So he kind of got involved in this alternative country scene that way and had a chance to meet and work with some of the artists like Jimmy Buffet and Diane Davidson and Mac Gayden and some other people. So in the meantime, I was kind of just starting school. I was a little person, but I was aware of just the presence of country music as an industry, as a place where people were making records. And then just in the atmosphere in Nashville, it was everywhere. In commercials and other things.

So, country music was just kind of part of the culture, but also, I had a chance to listen and have my ear out for things. And I think, through my dad, I also had a pretty good sense of freedom, and that all music was music that you could participate in.

But I think as I got older, I felt more of the pressure to represent and to be more authentic. And that country music didn’t... wasn’t really presented to me that way, but that felt more, when we moved back to Chicago, it seems like those boundaries were kept more in the city.

Reckon: It’s interesting because you write about going to a country music festival in Chicago and seeing other Black people in the crowds. And they were claiming that they were there for the food. And this idea that for at least some Black fans of country music, it’s something that they keep hidden away. It’s something they keep secret. And I can understand that to an extent. I’m a white man who grew up in Alabama, and so for a long time I rejected country music because I associated it with the trappings of the Confederacy or something like that. And it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago actually, where I felt a little bit nostalgic for this music that I grew up around. So can you discuss that relationship between Black culture and country music as it exists today?

Royster: My experience at the Windy City Smokeout was definitely one where I was just kind of informally trying to find people. Since then, I’ve found more fans through friends and through friends of friends and there are certain venues, like the Old Town School of Music, that are places to connect with people who are interested in country and country-adjacent music. I’ve taken classes there.

But it was always just a very few and far between where I would connect to fellow African Americans. So I think that there’s still that sense of discomfort even with the explosion of country music. And usually the people that I find who share my interests are people that I stumble upon by accident, like the mom of a daughter who I ran into at a Black Opry concert. Or just things that are more random.

Although when I was starting to write the book, I really tried to connect to as many Black fans of country as I could. And I found some, but it wasn’t a big number. So I feel like what I haven’t seen yet is a true trickle down where the rising number of Black performers making country and getting contracts to make country music in the mainstream, I haven’t seen that completely shift fandom yet. At least in my informal look at it. I still feel like there’s a sense of tension around the subject. Although since I’ve come out with the book, I’ve been... it’s been a conversation starter for those kind of closeted country music fans. And there are a lot of people who I know who are actually really interested, or they might have a couple of favorite people, but it still of feels like a taboo and maybe that will change, but...

I wrote it in a way that isn’t trying to be a comprehensive history because it’s a huge history, but also to kind of talk about the experience in a kind of more intimate way as a fan or someone who was a reluctant fan and was kind of persuaded to be less reluctant. And so I wanted to put those stories in to kind of get at the feelings around the music and around those... really around racial tensions and histories as a way of just naming them and maybe hoping that fans or Black folks who might not be country fans might recognize some of their own feelings around the music and to offer it up as a sense of possibility and to maybe exorcize some of those tensions a little bit.

Reckon: You write about genre being a construct, and a lot of these sounds moving in and out of each other, and even if that fandom hasn’t trickled down yet, you still hear the sounds of country music in other forms. You write about Beyonce and Lil Nas X. I feel like you also hear it in some Outkast albums like “Idlewild” and “The Love Below” and some of that stuff. And so you hear that sound emerging, and part of that goes back tthe roots of American music and the construct of genre being very much a construct like race where it was very deliberately divided into “race records” and “hillbilly records.” Describe the emergence of country and blues and even rock and roll in the early 20th century.

Royster: Well, for sure, especially the presence of the South and Southern culture, you can hear a melding of lots of different sounds and traditions. And to me it’s a symptom of the ways that the segregation of music and into genres that are marked by race are part of this deliberate marketing strategy that was happening in the 1920s as record audiences were being sought out. So particular labels would market performers—despite who was playing—as one or the other. So the musicianship itself reflected more crossing over, I think, than the reality of how things were marketed. And white country artists who are sort of seen at the roots, the Carter Family or Jimmy Rogers, these are performers that were also sometimes performing with African American artists and learning techniques and listening widely. Johnny Cash, of course, was a really wide listener of the blues and country blues and all kinds of things.

So I segregation was definitely a deliberate strategy. But I think that was also reinforced by the ways that country music was sometimes used in political campaigns to hammer home an idea of an authentic white subject, the ways that radio stations were gatekeepers too, and really tried to control airplay of any Black country music performer. Like Ray Charles when he made his Modern Sounds of Country Music, at first, he really had trouble getting airplay for that album, even though he was already a successful rhythm and blues artist by ‘56 or so.

There’s this gate keeping happening on the part of radio stations and labels. And I think that, at the same time, it is part of this larger phenomenon of not necessarily crediting or compensating Black artists, Black sounds and innovations.

You can also hear it in rock and roll, for sure. In the history of rock and roll, thinking of course of people like Little Richard. But even Chuck Berry is so interesting because he, to me, sounds completely country. So the birth of rock and roll is definitely connected to blues, rhythm and blues, and country music, I would argue. And I think that these are like painting the story in kind of a wide swath. These are tensions that have played out in terms of the marketing of American music in general, as well as the writing of those histories, which often keep those stories—the story of Black music and country music— separate until very recently.

Reckon: I mean, I think about your father playing in Nashville or the majority white Swampers, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, backing up Aretha Franklin in Florence, Alabama. And I mean, I don’t want to look at this with rose colored glasses, segregation was still very much the law of the land in the South and across the country, but, you know, you had white and Black performers playing together. And then you had the industry gatekeepers and record producers putting those in very separate categories and then deliberately whitewashing Black contributions to country music from the narrative. And your book is kind of a corrective to that.

Royster: I hope so, yeah. Those are my hopes for it for sure. I’ve really learned so much from Charles Hughes’s work and his book “Country Soul,” where he’s talking about those recording studios and Muscle Shoals and Staxx, and he calls it the Country Soul Triangle and the ways that in those recordings in the sixties and seventies, there was this often kind of collaboration or exchange of musicians. But he also makes the point that being visible as a collaborator or crossing the lines was more possible for white artists.

Even in the case of the country music outlaws who were really vocal about their interest in Black music traditions and admiration of Black artists, they still didn’t perform with Black artists or there were no Black country music outlaws. And even though there were people who were trying to break into the industry during that same time, people like Bobby Womack or Millie Jackson, she’s really a country music outlaw or an outlaw just generally. So it’d be really fun maybe in the future to think about her career because she was a very sort sex positive musician who was also crossing genres. I think she would be a very interesting, unexpected connection to Wayland Jennings and these other folks.

Reckon: In the book you talk about one outlaw, I guess, Willie Nelson performing with Charley Pride. What was that relationship like and how was Charley Pride able to break into mainstream success when some of these other artists that you just mentioned were not?

Royster: For a long time, scholars like Zoe Malone and even just reviewers of Charley Pride’s work kind of talked about the “whiteness” of Charley Pride. There’s a way that he’s been figured, because of his interest in country music, but also strange assumptions about his voice itself, his diction, his timbre, where some writers kind of talk about this as an example of why he was able to break in when other people weren’t. I don’t really buy that, but I think it’s more that he was someone who was really good at the music that he was interested in. He was very persistent in terms of making these connections on Music Row [in Nashville]. He did collaborate with other country music artists. Sometimes there were tensions, like the story that I tell with Willie Nelson, although I think that they were friends. Or recording, one of his biggest... first big hits was a song written by Mel Tillis. And I think Tillis was kind of uncomfortable with the idea of that.

But in reading Pride’s memoir, he talks about the early sixties as a time when the studios and music world were kind of trying on the idea of Black artists, but it was just really hard for them to get traction. And those star makers at the label were very just very careful about who would be the “right artist.” And in his telling, it had to be someone who would fit the respectability [politics] of being this non-threatening kind of image, someone who wasn’t really interested in politicizing his place there.

And it seems like Pride was able to do that. Also as a veteran, he had the right credentials. And I think he was originally from the West though also lived in Texas. So he had kind of the right pedigree and he was incredibly talented and he was very diplomatic. It didn’t mean that he didn’t run into racial conflicts and constraints. And he writes about that and he writes about the psychic cost of that as well. But I think he was someone who was able to use collaborative friendships and kind of fitting a profile that RCA was willing to invest in and then with his success to continue investing in.

Reckon: And then over that same period, it feels like there’s kind of two paths, I guess, that emerge, or two of many paths maybe. You’ve got Black performers who had already found success in another form of music—You mentioned Ray Charles. You write extensively about Tina Turner, Beyonce, of course, “Daddy Lessons,” I think is one of the great country songs of the 21st Century—people who grew up in the South, and who find ways to record and express country music as part of their overall performance. And then you have performers like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters who are very much involved with looking into the scholarship and kind of deconstruction of country and bluegrass as a genre. Can you describe how those two paths work in tandem with each other and how they conflict with each other?

Royster: I kind of think of people like the Carolina Chocolate Drops as people who are working outside of the mainstream and are able to say things more explicitly and directly. To name historical inequities, to tell stories that are more critical about ideas about the United States and history and racism. And just to claim that music through their archival research because they don’t have the same kinds of commercial demands as an artist who’s working in the mainstream.

But I feel like those artists are also really important for pushing the sound, pushing and educating audiences to create different kinds of expectations and they’re important for setting the record straight so that when someone who is interested in being more in the mainstream like Mickey Guyton, or Jimmie Allen, or other folks, Darius Rucker for that matter, it changes the social fabric ultimately.

And I think some of these artists are really interested in creating more public conversations about the role of music in terms of racism, but also in terms of resilience. And so someone like Rhiannon Giddens, and she might not be a superstar in the Beyonce way, but I think she is a conversation starter and someone who has made a big impact in terms of just deepening our sense of the history of the music in a way that I think has a pretty wide reach. And so I really see her as a really important figure.

Or someone like Rissi Palmer who has been both in the mainstream and also working independently, and also raising up artists through her radio show, Color Me Country. I think she’s really important too. And so there are these different ways that sometimes we see these alternative musicians as creating paths that are also connecting to the mainstream.

And definitely I think Rissi Palmer’s raising up of younger artists at the end of every year on her show, you can see a direct connection because I can think of at least three of those artists that were featured in her year’s list of top new artists have gone on to get contracts from major labels. So even if the music that she’s making is sometimes moving in these more alternative, more funky spaces, I think there’s also a way that the work that she’s doing to rectify the structures and get people’s names out there is having a bigger impact.

Reckon: Are you seeing any reckoning with this history from the traditional, largely white gatekeepers, like the Grand Ole Opry? The Ken Burns Docuseries that came out a few years ago, did point to DeFord Bailey being one of the earliest performers at the Opry. And people increasingly recognize that banjo is an instrument that originated in Africa. But are we seeing that from the industry itself, do you think?

Royster: I guess that’s yet to be seen. I’ve seen some gestures, the inclusion of awards shows including Black artists to perform or to co-host like Darius Rucker co-hosting, or Mickey Guyton’s performances on CMAs.

And I do think that also white ally performers like Brandi Carlise or Chris Stapleton or Jason Isbell, like they’re also doing important work with Black artists to get people in spaces and to get people talking and thinking. I think it’s those kinds of collaborations that are ultimately going to have the most momentum. And also Black artists collaborating with each other to help just create safety in numbers and to inspire each other creatively and all that stuff too.

But yeah, I was watching when Charley Pride died, the way that his death was treated. And for some people in the press, it was kind of a chance to talk about his career and include him even more in the history. To have him on the tip of our tongues. And there was also a little bit of room for critical takes on why he was always the exception to the rule. But I read that more in more lefty press sources and not as much in the mainstream.

But at least thinking about the Opry’s Salute to Pride or the CMTs Salute to Pride or the recent Salute to Ray Charles and kind of acknowledging his influence, some of those big spectacular shows that the Opry Channel put on. I think that those might have some impact, but ultimately I think that those interventions, those changes can’t just be around a single person’s passing away. It has to be something much deeper and kind of a recognition of just the constraints of the ways that the genre has been created in such static ways.

Reckon: For readers who want to learn more about Black contributions to country music, or for readers who haven’t been exposed to a lot of country music because they’ve avoided it, are there a few songs or albums or artists that you would recommend that they start with?

Royster: One of my favorites is the music of Valerie June, because I really see in her a kind of interesting quirky nostalgia that is completely reflective of the fact that she does archival work in her writing, you can hear that listening to her style. So I think she’s a really interesting person and kind of a gateway drug, let’s say, for country music and Black country because she’s looking backwards. But she also is very futuristic and she’s kind of a hipster in a way as well. She also has a really great do-it-yourself kind of alternative spirit. So I recommend her music.

I really love her first album, Pushing Against a Stone. I love, actually, people like Rissi Palmer and Kamara Thomas, both have really great social media presences and are often organizing things.

And the Country Soul Summit, which happens every year, often has these concerts, is a really great way to learn about new artists and also especially independent artists. So just getting into a scene that includes Black people and centers around Black creativity, those people would be great people to look at.

And then I also really recommend, I already mentioned Rissi Palmer’s show, Color Me Country. I love the documentary that Joshua Kissi made earlier this year “For Love & Country” that profiles Black artists and include some artists who are more visible like Guyton, or Allison Russel, or BRELAND. But it also includes some lesser-known artists as well. And really stylistically the range of musicians and styles that documentary covers is really interesting. And that documentary also really credits The Chocolate Drops for opening up a lot of people’s eyes creatively.

John Hammontree

John Hammontree | jhammontree@reckonmedia.com

John Hammontree is a co-founder of Reckon. He currently serves as Executive Producer of Reckon Radio, host of the Reckon Interview podcast, and author of The Conversation, a weekly newsletter that digs into ideas, perspectives and people that you're not likely to find in other media.

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