Author Francesca Royster on her new book, “Black Country Music”: NPR

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NPR’s Juana Summers chats with author Francesca Royster about her new book, “Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions” which explores the history and future of black country music.



JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Author Francesca Royster was constantly surrounded by country music growing up in Nashville. But as a queer black woman, she struggled to connect.

FRANCESCA ROYSTER: I never really knew where I was or heard my own story or my own voice in the sound.

SUMMERS: Until his daughter started listening to Lil Nas X.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OLD TOWN ROAD”)

LIL NAS X: (Singing) I’m gonna take my horse down the road to Old Town. I’m gonna ride until I can’t take no more.

ROYSTER: Hearing him and his friends listening to this music over and over again, I thought, well, it had a lot of country elements.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OLD TOWN ROAD”)

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Riding a horse.

ROYSTER: It’s a song where I hear the spirit of black resistance and creativity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OLD TOWN ROAD”)

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Nobody can tell me anything.

ROYSTER: And also, a kind of country humor. It just made me dig into the future of the genre, where some of the boundaries and gatekeepers are less important.

SUMMERS: And that’s exactly what she does in her new book, “Black Country Music: Listening For Revolutions”. In it, Royster explores how listening to country music can be loaded for black people, a discomfort she compares to coming out.

ROYSTER: In my own neighborhood, there’s a country music bar. And I’ve only been there a few times just because of the perception of not being welcome or being an intruder. And sometimes that feeling of moving around in very protected and guarded spaces is what I feel for me, you know, as a queer woman too. That feeling of looking over your shoulder is something that – it’s not an accident. I think that’s part of how the country sometimes operates in our culture to cement an idea of ​​a certain type of whiteness that, you know, those of us who might not fit those identities are supposed to feel at the outside.

SUMMERS: And she says the outsider status even applied to black artists like country music star Charley Pride. He would sometimes open his shows with humorous disclaimers in a largely white-faced room.

(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLEY PRIDE: I said, ladies and gentlemen, I realize it’s kind of unique, that I come here on a country music show with this permanent tan.

ROYSTER: And he used the humor, the humor of having that awesome tan as a way to make people laugh and then move on.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME”)

PRIDE: (singing) They say time will heal all wounds in mice and men.

ROYSTER: I think actually it was a really smart way to pay attention and just name the elephant in the bedroom of his Blackness and then move on.

SUMMERS: I would like to turn to another artist you write about. And I must admit that I didn’t really know Tina Turner’s first solo album, “Tina Turns The Country On”, released in 1974.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “BAYOU SONG”)

TINA TURNER: (Singing) Work for the man as hard as you can. Trying to make a living in this bayou country.

SUMMERS: Put us in place. Where was this album in the incredible career of Tina Turner?

ROYSTER: So Tina Turner made this album at a time when she had already achieved incredible notoriety as part of the Ike & Tina Turner magazine. It’s a cover album, and she’s doing it as she’s about to part ways with Ike Turner. And I can’t help but feel that these songs are shaped by her life and that experience of surviving that tumultuous marriage which also included incredible artistic control over what types of music she could cover.

SUMMERS: Is there an example of a song about that?

ROYSTER: I really love his cover of “Help Me Make It Through The Night” by Kris Kristofferson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT”)

TURNER: (Singing) I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.

ROYSTER: You know, the lyrics are also seductive in a way. But I think underlying it is this incredible feeling of loneliness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT”)

TURNER: (Singing) Devil take tomorrow ’cause tonight I need a man.

ROYSTER: And so when I was listening, I was listening to Tina’s voice, which makes me feel her own view of Kris Kristofferson’s vulnerability, but, you know, given the kind of experience frame of a black woman .

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT”)

TURNER: (singing) I don’t want to be alone.

ROYSTER: So for me, it’s such a strong song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT”)

TURNER: (Singing) Help me get through the night.

ROYSTER: And one where you really see the drama and the intimacy that country music can offer.

SUMMERS: Francesca, culture and music can move quickly, and it’s a space full of innovation and reinvention. When you think about the future of black country music, what do you think it might look and sound like?

ROYSTER: Well, I think what’s absolutely brilliant is how some Black country artists are opening up hybrids of sound and storytelling that haven’t been there before. So I’m thinking of Valérie June…

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF SONG, “SOMEONE TO LOVE”)

VALERIE JUNE: (Singing) Well, if you’re tired and feeling so lonely…

ROYSTER: …Which is not exclusively a country music artist…

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF SONG, “SOMEONE TO LOVE”)

JUNE: (Singing) Thinking that only if you had someone…

ROYSTER: …But who certainly draws a lot of inspiration from her own country roots and the interesting traditions of country music in the kind of new music she’s creating. And I think of people from the subculture like Kamara Thomas or DeLila Black, and they also like to put country together with protest music, country together with punk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “YOU’RE SO COMMON”)

DELILA BLACK: (Singing) You’re so common. Don’t let these demons push you around.

ROYSTER: I feel like this kind of experimental work with the sound and storytelling of country music is going to influence the genre as a whole, even if it doesn’t necessarily happen on the main stages of country music like the Grand Ole Opry.

SUMMERS: Earlier you talked about how there’s a bar in your neighborhood that plays country music. And you don’t go there often. And you talked about this discomfort for many black people, including yourself, of being in these largely white spaces where country music is front and center. And I guess I wonder if, over time, do you think there are more spaces that evolve for Black country fans like you to feel safe?

ROYSTER: I think they’re evolving. Maybe the next thing I should do after that is open my own country music bar. But I think part of what’s changing is how artists come together to organize and perform collaboratively. And I think when performers also find security in numbers, I think that’s also something that could change the future of listeners as well.

SUMMERS: And just to be very clear here, if you open this black country bar, you have to invite all of us.

ROYSTER: Absolutely. Yes definitely. Absolutely.

SUMMERS: Francesca Royster is the author of “Black Country Music: Listening For Revolutions”. It’s out now. Thanks a lot.

ROYSTER: Thank you, Juana. It was great.

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