New book goes back to the roots to understand current revolution in Black country music

The genre’s history boasts many artists – from Charley Pride to Our Native Daughters – who expanded the conversation about what it means to be Black in an overwhelmingly white space.

By Kristen CabreraOctober 24, 2022 4:00 pm, , ,

Texas has long had a love affair with country music. But the genre is changing, and in ways many might not fully appreciate.

Of the 149 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, only three inductees are Black – none of them Black women. But after years of whitewashing, there may be a big reason the country music industry is finally having a reckoning as a new generation of Black country artists and fans are bringing in a fresh dimension of sound and social consciousness.

Author Francesca Royster, a professor of English at DePaul University, talked with the Texas Standard about this change and its importance in her new book “Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions.” One main point: The definition of country music is vast, ever-expanding and rooted in Blackness.

She included a list of a few of her favorite songs in this special playlist on Spotify:

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I take it that you are something of a new fan of country music. Did your daughter turn you on to this?

Francesca Royster: A little bit. You know, I have dabbled in country music. I grew up partly in Nashville, and I remember listening to country music, you know, even early shows like Dolly’s shows and Mac Davis and folks like that. Just people who were around watching “Hee Haw.” But as a fan, I think I was still kind of looking for stories and sounds that felt more familiar. And so it was really, yeah, my daughter’s interest in Lil Nas X that kind of inspired me to dig deeper and to also find out earlier artists, as well as things that are happening right now.

Well, I think something that you talk about in your book, and I think it’s an important thread here, is a Black person claiming country music as their own may feel a bit like a queer person coming out. And I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more about that.  

Sure. Yeah, I do. I’m sort of thinking about just the kind of fears that sometimes I felt in my gut when I’m in spaces that feel like it’s being kind of watched or patrolled or that there’s, you know, like a kind of projected idea of the ideal white fan in this case or just, you know, where I feel like I’m being watched or measured. And so in that way, it feels like coming out. But one thing that’s really changed my relationship, along with the new artists that I’ve been listening to, is learning the banjo and learning it from a teacher who focuses on African traditions of banjo. And there’s something about the embodied process of learning the instrument together with learning about the history and the songs that just makes me feel more present when I’m in these country music spaces, and it’s changed the way I hear country, in a way.

Could you say a little bit more about the relationship between Black Americans and country music and its origins in particular? You mentioned the banjo, and clearly a lot of country music’s appeal is that people often refer to it as a kind of “roots music.” But I would go so far as to say, after having checked out your book here, that I don’t think most country music listeners know the half of it when it comes to what “roots” means here.

Yeah, well, I actually didn’t know a lot about that either. I knew that there were early artists, country blues artists, people like Taj Mahal or, you know, people kind of performing in the late ’60s and early ’70s who were exploring through folk music – the roots of country music – but I didn’t realize how far back it went. And really the instrumentation of country music was based – or some of it is based – on the banjo, which is an instrument with African roots. It was the music that enslaved people played to entertain themselves and to entertain their masters. And some of the songs, you know, the folk songs that have traveled to us now in the present and been kind of transformed – the tunes are really based on some of those older tunes. So that was something that I didn’t know before. And then, you know, thinking about minstrel shows as well as forms of entertainment that have always been adjacent to country music, especially as it’s become more of a commercial genre.

Maybe this is a good place to bring in the names of Charley Pride and Darius Rucker. I think that a lot of country fans say, “no, we don’t have any animus toward Black Americans in country music. I mean, just take a look at Charley Pride.” Could you say a little bit more about their role and how that compares with … Well, I’ve heard some people say that Black country music is experiencing a moment right now. 

I do feel like the moment of interest in – and kind of visibility of – Black artists right now can totally be connected to the careers of Charley Pride and Darius Rucker. You know, in terms of the strategies that they had to make it in the mainstream country music industry, I think that they had really laid the groundwork for newer artists, so they were very important. Charley Pride was making country music and really got his contract with RCA and was touring the country as a country music artist, you know, during a time of great cultural and political upheaval during the civil rights movement. And one of the things that I write about is, what were some of his strategies for building an audience? And I really saw him as very much aware of the tensions of being a Black artist in spaces that are mostly white and that are often protected and feel like they’re protected in terms of white audiences.

And Darius Rucker, too, when he chose to embrace country music after his success in Hootie the Blowfish, I think he was also looking to Charley Pride and the kind of diplomacy and negotiation that Charley Pride sometimes did with his audiences. And so for Rucker, too, he’s had to sometimes turn the other cheek when racial slurs have come out, you know, from his fans or when people question his presence in country music. One of the things that Rucker is really good at is also like presenting images of positivity and collaborating with artists who can be supportive as well in his career. So he’s someone who’s managed to make a place in country music and in the industry but, in some ways, in ways that are difficult and tense.

Having to accommodate to the status quo, I think, is one of the issues that comes out here. You mentioned, for instance, “Old Town Road,” right? I mean, Lil Nas X. Some people, obviously, in country music want to own that. Others sort of see it as more of a crossover hit. I’m wondering, when you dig into the sound of country music today, can we talk a little bit about some of the Black artists who are making an impact right now?

Sure. Yeah, so I would definitely look to the career of Mickey Guyton as a sign of the future of country music. She’s someone who has actually been working very hard for over a decade.

Raised in Texas, y’all. 

Yes, that’s right. She’s a Texas native and, you know, inspired by the music of LeAnn Rimes. She’s someone who I think has her own musical style, where she’s bringing together country balladry and sound, but she also is drawing from gospel and R&B. But she’s used the space of country music to also tell stories that are speaking to Black lives, that are kind of talking about sexism in her song “What Will You Tell Her.” In “Black Like Me,” of course, she’s really trying to put out there and address the tensions around Black stories and Black identity in country music and claiming a space for it. And so, in a way, I see her music as a kind of gentle reminder of the always-present presence of Black people and Black lives, and that country music can be a space for telling those stories. So I see her as very important.

And another person who, to me, is really shaping the future is Rissi Palmer, who has had her successful career as a country music soloist, but is also someone who’s making space for other country music artists of the next generation through her song “Color Me Country,” and really also working on distribution and funding – creating conversations about the history of country music as well as its present in the industry. And so she’s just got people talking and made a space for artists to really identify what are some of the boundaries in the industry for them and to try to rectify it, especially financially.

You mentioned the boundaries – just how open is the industry? I mean, you once lived in Nashville, so I’m sure you have a real good sense of this. How open is the industry to these new sounds and these new artists?

Well, I think there’s a thin line. You know, like I think that we see with the careers, the earlier history of Darius Rucker or of Charley Pride, that sometimes there’s sort of this tension about having too many artists who are not following the code of the usual authentic country music artists, which is sometimes presented as white and male. And so there’s, you know, that old story of having too many women in country music in terms of airplay, so let alone Black women. So often in the past, there’s been this history where there can only be one artist at a time, you know. And it would seem that doing more than that has created a lot of tension, and it’s been difficult to get airplay for these artists. So it does still feel like a place of constraint.

But I also see the impact of the artists themselves in opening things up, like thinking about Brandi Carlile’s efforts in Nashville or some of the collaborative work of the Black Opry and Holly G, like people who are really intentionally organizing the artists themselves to work together to try to kind of interrupt the process of things and, you know, it might be yet to be seen if the industry will continue to be as static. But I hope that what will happen is that that continuous presence and just inspired music is going to change the way that the industry operates.

It does raise a question, though: What accounts for success in the country music industry? And how do Black artists fit into that measurement? It used to be that commercial success was measured by the sales of albums, for example. But what would be an appropriate index to measure the impact and influence of Black artists in country music right now? 

Well, I think that part of what one index, this is not an official one, but really to take a look at spaces that are often figured as country music – spaces like the Opry but also fests like the Americana Fest or other fests – and kind of looking out there to see if the fans themselves are there, if these are spaces where fans of color feel like they have a place and their stories are reflected as well as, you know, the artists on the stage. And so, to me, that synergy I think is really important. And maybe this is the case where the industry would will change in response to a kind of vocal demand on the part of the fans themselves and changing expectations.

What would it mean for the industry to change in a way that would be more inclusive?

Right now, we’re at a moment where some new Black artists are getting contracts, where there are appearances on the CMAs and there’s increased visibility of Black artists. And just like a sense of, I think, the word “reckoning” that keeps coming up, like in terms of thinking about country music in this moment. So I think that that’s the beginning of the change. But what I think would really affect it would be kind of long-term financial investment in the artists that are given contracts and some interest in expanding the ways that new artists are let in and are allowed to get recognition like, you know, thinking about the Country Music Hall of Fame, for example, or some of those other measures.

I have to ask you about a line in the title. “Listening for Revolutions” – is that revolution happening right now, or is it still in the distance somewhere? How do you see it? 

I hear it, and I hear it in terms of what’s happening on and off the mainstream stages of country. I chose for my cover the music of Our Native Daughters, led by Rhiannon Giddens and with Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla. I feel like the kind of music that they’re making is bridging the sonic gap of what has been erased in terms of Black music’s contribution to country music in general, and really kind of bringing Black historical stories to the content of country music. I feel like that kind of work, even as it might be working along the edges of country and Americana or folk, I think that that kind of work has a response and is pushing the industry to try new things. And I think that the kinds of questions that artists like Rhiannon Giddens or Rissi Palmer are raising in terms of the whys of the industry and how things have been closed is really important, as well, and having public conversations about that.

Even an artist like Lil Nas X, who is not as invested I think in the genre and is more of a crossover artist I would agree, his ability to excite people and to make his music visible is changing the ways that country music is measured and some of the standard ways that country music as a genre was protected by some of the lists – like the Billboard’s lists – that they’re actually proven to be insufficient to really capture what’s happening musically. So younger artists like Lil Nas X are creating their own paths for getting their music out there. And I think potentially that’s also revolutionary, because it means that the ways that, you know, who controls what music is distributed and is made popular is now more in the hands of artists.

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