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If you picture a stereotypical country music band, you might think of a team of musicians playing banjo, mandolin, fiddle – maybe harmonica, maybe pedal steel guitar – and someone. one on the mic with a nasal southern accent. While the specifics of your band may vary here or there, whether you realize it or not, your fantasy country band is most likely white. There’s no denying that the country music scene is white space. The vast majority of top country singers today and in history are and have been white. Even for those with limited knowledge of country music – artists like Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw and Carrie Underwood always come to mind in public – their common thread is whiteness. Of the one hundred and forty-six members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, only three African Americans have been inducted, the first being Charley Pride in 2000. There’s been little fuss about it – most people have happily, perhaps subconsciously, digested the idea that country music is for white people. As consumers of the music industry in America, we let them have it.
In fact, like most popular musical genres, country music in the United States began with black people. Specifically, the country’s history begins with the banjo. The modern banjo is a descendant of a West African instrument, made from gourds, called the Akonting. When slaves were taken from Africa to America, their instruments came with them. For four hundred years slaves created their own music, hymns, spiritual songs and country songs, all with roots in African music. As a result, by the 1840s the banjo was considered an exclusively black instrument; it was unheard of for a white person to play the banjo.
In the 1850s, minstrel shows has become very popular. These shows were a terribly racist form of satirical entertainment in which white people dressed in blackface to poke fun at black people and black culture. Performing the music and dance of slaves, with instruments such as the aforementioned banjo, the shows portrayed African Americans as lazy, stupid and foolish – stereotypes that originated on the plantation and still persist as prevailing prejudices against blacks. Then, somewhat unintentionally, minstrel shows introduced the banjo to white audiences in a palatable way, so the banjo was quickly appropriated by white people. Thus, the minstrel show laid the foundation for the rise of hillbilly music around the 1920s.
Hillbilly music, later renamed country, becomes southern music. Hillbilly music was not solely centered around the banjo; early hillbilly artists were inspired by Slavic spirituals, field songs, hymns and blues, which itself has black origins. In the 1920s and 1930s, although America was a deeply segregated nation, black and white Hillbilly artists collaborated on a number of popular tracks. According to Patrick Huber, professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology“Nearly 50 African-American singers and musicians appeared on commercial hillbilly records between those years—because the music was not a white agrarian tradition, but a fluid phenomenon that moved back and forth between races.”
After World War I, hillbilly music was officially rebranded as country music and commercialized. Major record labels wanted to sell country music, but couldn’t if it was mainstream. Thus, the black artists of previous famous records received no recognition and the covers were sold with white replacements. Suddenly, country music became “white music”. White audiences then adopted country music as their own, and as they moved north, white southerners brought country with them, further spreading the idea that country was “white music”. Meanwhile, black artists, musicians and their contributions were effectively erased, into the white mainstream, of their own kind.
Music is shaped by those who market it, make it and consume it. For decades, country music has been dominated by white artists, marketed by a white industry, performing to white audiences. But the black artists who helped make country music what it is today cannot be forgotten. To name a few, By Ford Bailey was one of the first black musicians to gain recognition and was the first to play the Grand Ole Opry – a big deal for country musicians. His playing style on the harmonica greatly influenced the country musicians who followed him. Succeeding Bailey was Charley Pride. As previously mentioned, Pride was the first black artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and is often referred to as “country music’s first black superstar”. He inspired countless black musicians. In their tow, Ray Charles was responsible for mixing country with R&B and pop music in a way that would change the genre forever. His music also helped fuel the civil rights movement. Bailey, Pride and Charles are three of the most recognizable black names in country music, but there are plenty of lesser-known names that also played a vital role in shaping the genre. Gus Cannon was a black musician who helped popularize jug bands (a precursor to country) in the 1920s and ended up teaching Johnny Cash, a world famous white country singer. Additionally, the fingerpicking guitar style that is widely used in country music today was developed by black guitarist Leslie Riddle. The list of black artists who have had an incredible impact on country music is long, but many names remain unrecognized.
Today, black artists still face a number of challenges in breaking into the industry. In 2019, Lil Nas X’s Grammy-winning country rap single “Old Town Road” charted on Billboard’s country charts before being dropped shortly thereafter. Rolling Stone told Billboard, “it does not incorporate enough elements of today’s country music to feature in its current version.” Many have accepted this explanation, but she doesn’t recognize country fans who have accused Lil Nas X of “cultural appropriation” for wearing a cowboy hat; it only proves that country music has become so whitewashed that its history has been essentially erased. Similarly, when Beyonce released “Daddy’s Lessons” in 2016, she faced a strong industry backlash despite the fact that the hit single includes all the elements of traditional country music. Even when Beyonce performed “Daddy’s Lessons” at the 2016 Country Music Awards with The Chicks, country fans were enraged. She also submitted the record for a Grammy but was turned down.
It is also essential to recognize that in the history of country music, black women are almost entirely left out. This is largely because black women, facing both racism and sexism, have been given no platform to break into the industry. The first black woman to enter the country world and achieve commercial success was Linda Martell, who released her debut album, color me the country, in 1970. Over the past decade, we have seen the number of black country artists increase, but they still face discrimination.
Despite the challenges, many black women are still working to change the nature of gender. Black female country artists gaining prominence today include Valerie June who combines folk, blues and gospel in her music; Allison Russel, who helped form the band Po’ Girl in the early 2000s and whose solo music career took off with three Grammy nominations after her 2021 album “Outside Child”; Brittney Spencer, a rising country pop artist who was recently named one of “12 Black Artists Shaping the Future of Country Music” by USA Today; Amythyst Kiah, an incredibly powerful and moving singer who plays both banjo and guitar; and Mickey Guyton who released “Black Like Me” in response to the death of George Floyd and recently sang the national anthem at the 2022 Super Bowl. “Black Like Me” was nominated for Best Solo Country Performance at the 2021 Grammy Awards The reality and profound depth of each of these artists’ experiences as Black Women in America shines through in their music, which can be found on Spotify or Apple Music.
Country is often dismissed as simply and superficially about getting drunk, driving the truck, or a despised lover shoving his “key into the side of his cute little bloated four-wheel drive”. Yet another common theme of country songs is to tell the story of life’s hardships; even Johnny Cash’s most popular song is called “Hurt”. But what is overlooked by white Americans is that hardship is at the heart of the black experience in the United States, fueling the soul of country music, hence why the two are inextricably linked. . Since country music would not exist without the black experience and the neglected but tireless work of black musicians, defending and legitimizing black history is crucial. Black people are a central target of the oppressive structures of the United States, they are constantly told that so many elements of American culture are not for them; both basic needs like healthy low-cost food, adequate education, housing, affordable health care – but also expressive disciplines to which black people have contributed greatly like arts, music, dance, entertainment, etc – are often considered “white domain.” In reality, American culture was built on the backs of black people. It’s time to properly acknowledge history, give due credit, and support Black Country artists.