On the bookshelf
Black Country Music: Listening to Revolutions
By Francesca T. Royster
University of Texas Press: 248 pages, $25
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In the introduction to his new book, “black country music: Listening to Revolutions,” Francesca Royster recalls a country music festival she attended in her hometown of Chicago in July 2014. A black woman at a predominantly white event, Royster approached the few other blacks she had spotted. “Why are you here?” she asked them. Was it for the music? Everyone objected: “Sorry, I don’t know anything about country music.” “Sorry, I can’t help you.” “Sorry, I’m just here for the barbecue.”
These dismissive responses, according to Royster, came less from a place of sincerity than from an impulse of self-protection. Maybe each of these people had really lost 40 hard-earned dollars for the simple pleasure of sitting outside on a hot day with a paper plate of barbecue; maybe they didn’t even notice the white men on stage with their cowboy hats and violins. “Or maybe I was asking a fundamentally uncomfortable question,” Royster writes, “highlighting an awkwardness that most of us, as we navigate white spaces, might try to ignore or suppress for ourselves. amuse.”
Royster, an English professor at DePaul University, doesn’t dwell in his book on why country music has been such a long-standing taboo for black Americans. Instead, she reflects on the many ways black artists have challenged expectations and stereotypes. “Black people are always inventing new ways to survive white supremacist freedoms,” she writes, “and that includes country music.”
The past few years have been pivotal for Black country artists and their fans. Today’s black country musicians are seen, heard and valued like never before in the genre’s long and troubling history – topping the charts, winning prestigious awards and collaborating with country royalty. Their emergence (or rather their recognition) has been the subject of radio shows such as Rissi Palmer’s “Color Me Country” and Willie Jones’ “Cross Roads Radio”, as well as the 2022 documentary “For Love & Country”. . A traveling collective revue, Black Opry, is currently selling out venues from Nashville to New York, with an upcoming appearance at The Troubadour in West Hollywood. This year’s popular Stagecoach and Palomino festivals, in Indio and Pasadena, respectively, featured many black artists, including Valerie June, Rhiannon Giddens, Breland, Reyna Roberts, Yola and Amythyst Kiah.
Royster’s book, however, is not so much a history of the African-American country music experience – editor Diane Pecknold’s 2013 anthology, “Hiding in the mixexplores this story better. “Black Country Music” is more of a hybrid of memoir, critical analysis, and journalism focused on a few select contemporary artists and their singular contributions to the genre.
Royster writes with scholarly scrutiny, frequently referencing and quoting Audre Lorde, Daphne Brooks, and Bell Hooks, among many other scholars. But she also brings her personal story into the analysis, approaching country music from the perspective of a black, queer woman for whom adjusting to a love of the genre is akin to coming out of the closet.
She argues that “Black Country” is distinct from traditional Country and closer to Afrofuturism, writing that the “unpredictable innovation of Black art forms,” including Country, “can be a tactic to subvert the appropriation and control and constraints of white supremacy, especially as they take advantage of new platforms and forms of distribution. This combination of theoretical rigor and a very specific point of view may not be for everyone, but Royster never claims to be definitive; his is more a personal meditation on country music than a study of its past and present. What motivates his work is his taste for the genre and his desire to find his place in it.
Each chapter focuses on one artist, and their choices can be surprising. Beginning with Tina Turner – whose 1974 solo debut album was a collection of country covers – and moving on to Darius Rucker (an obvious choice) followed by Beyoncé (a less obvious choice), Royster’s take on “country music” is subjective, but not without intention. Yet, in such a thin book, is an entire chapter devoted to Beyoncé worth including?
Royster argues that it does, focusing on how even an artist at her level of fame can be hampered by racial notions of gender boundaries. Beyoncé’s performance of her single “Daddy Lessons” at the 2016 Country Music Assn. The awards alongside The Chicks (née the Dixie Chicks), was slammed by conservative country fans and commentators who were angered by the inclusion from a pop singer to the CMAs, to Beyoncé’s support of Black Lives Matter, or simply the inference that “Daddy Lessons” was a country song.
Writing about the backlash to the outlaw-tinged “Daddy Lessons” — which mimic the “Texan justice” tropes of westerns and desperate ballads — Royster points out that rebellion and anti-authoritarianism are celebrated when they are performed by artists such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, but these privileges do not usually extend to those who perform on this tradition. “Country music has made room for its white male outlaws,” she writes, “even if it doesn’t always make room for outspoken black women.”
Royster’s writing is sometimes conjectural, other times pedantic, but in many passages his prose soars, especially in his chapter on Valerie June.
“His voice glides through our ribs, like a ghost, drawn by our hunger, by the space given to him in our shrunken, fasting bellies,” she writes of June. For Royster, June’s voice “conjures up ghosts” – the ghosts not only of June’s musical predecessors, including Jessie Mae Hemphill, Elizabeth Cotten and Geeshie Wiley, but also the ghosts of ancestors near and distant. She wonders how June’s voice can sound like “both the voice of your mom calling you when the streetlights come on and you singing to yourself while you fold the laundry?”
While neither exhaustive nor conclusive, “Black Country Music” is nonetheless an original, timely, and much-needed entry into the long-awaited national conversation about representation and accountability in the country music industry. As the creators and fans of Black Country continue to receive greater recognition, Royster imagines a future in which his question – “Why are you here?” — gives more satisfactory or more honest answers.
Why are we here? Because we belong here.
Holley is a journalist and author of the forthcoming book “An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs and the Nation They Created.”