By Katelyn Skye Bennett | Editor-in-chief
Country music stemmed from Black roots, and several contemporary country artists including Willie Jones are reclaiming the genre, establishing their place on the scene and welcoming a more diverse array of listeners.
As a life-long country music fan, however, I can recall only a handful of Black artists who have become popularly known and just a few others who keep persevering enough to be marginally noticed.
Country music is a spectacle of white culture. Its fanbase has largely resisted any real conversation about race despite tackling other difficult topics like domestic violence and suicide. It’s not always a welcoming genre, if we’re being honest.
However, music isn’t meant to exclude, and the Black artists who have succeeded in the industry do it for the love of the music. They’ve created beautiful, lasting work. Today we’ll pay tribute to the Black history of country music and highlight incredible contemporary artists who have the potential to help the country music scene grow in healthy ways.
To educate on country music’s development, Pandora also offers a well written history, and the genre’s Black origins — including the history of the banjo — are touted during and outside of Black History Month. Vanderbilt even offers an entire course on Black country music, and PBS’ Ken Burns explored this topic in a 2019 Special!
Historically, Charley Pride is the most famous Black country musician. He was popular in the 1970s, about halfway through the genre’s 100 year radio history. Pride passed away in December 2020 of COVID complications, rounding out a year of tragedy.
The musically diverse Pointer Sisters had a country moment closer to my parents’ time, as did Tina Turner, and Ray Charles was recognized by the Grand Ole Opry for his influence on the genre. His interpretations of the artists’ work helped launch stars like Hank Williams to fame.
The influence of Black musicians impacted the industry even when their voices weren’t lauded. In fact, Hank Williams Jr. paid tribute to one of those musicians: his father’s blues guitar teacher, Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. Tee Tot’s training shaped one of country music’s greatest stars.
It’s notable that Hank Williams was taught by one Black musician and spurred to fame by another. Though the country music industry is overwhelmingly white — and straight, and majority cis male, inspiring occasional songs from women pushing back — the influence of Black musicians has been pervasive.
The 2000s to 2020s
In 2008 Darius Rucker came on the scene, crossing over from rock — another genre heavily influenced by Black artists but fronted largely by white musicians. Formerly the lead singer for Hootie & the Blowfish, Darius Rucker made the bold switch to country and is still making radio hits.
Around the time that Rucker crossed over to country music, Rissi Palmer also released her 2008 hit, “Country Girl,” though she never reached Rucker’s consistent level of fame.
Mickey Guyton is another Black woman consistently highlighted on lists of Black country artists. While her break may be just around the corner, a handful of Black male artists have already emerged in recent years.
In 2015 Kane Brown rose to fame with his hit “Used to Love You Sober,” and he is an established and beloved part of the country music scene now.
In 2018 the incredible Jimmie Allen released his debut album with the radio hit “Best Shot” after sharing his self-titled EP, and he’s since released his 2020 ‘Bettie James’ EP, which includes collaborations intended to honor his family. The artists include Mickey Guyton, Darius Rucker, and the late Charley Pride in one of his final recordings before he died. Shoutout to Black artists supporting each other!
Meanwhile, X Factor star Willie Jones released his debut album, ‘Right Now,’ and introduced a single off the album that, much like Mickey Guyton’s latest hit, has the potential to shift the culture of country music by expanding what being a proud American looks like.
Diverse American Dreams
Yes, just last month Willie Jones released the country song I’ve been waiting years to hear: “American Dream.” It’s a song dedicated to young Black men, whose experience in this nation differs significantly from their white counterparts so often at the center of country songs.
Jones even acknowledges the murders of Eric Garner and George Floyd and praises other Civil Rights Era and modern Black Lives Matter Era heroes who have sacrificed their lives or careers for the sake of freedom.
“When you’re living as a Black man, it’s a different kinda ‘merican Dream.”Willie Jones
The musician references a stream of Black changemakers in the song’s bridge, and he expands what honoring the flag can look like in the United States: “Some people can’t breathe for the flag, had to take a knee for the flag…”
While Jones’ music is otherwise typical of the genre in sound and content, the artist actually welcomes Black women into his music videos and adds a communal aspect that’s rarely seen in white artists’ videos.
History in the Making
Country music centers around stories, but rarely Black stories. Yet contemporary Black artists are changing that, slowly shifting the culture and making the genre more inclusive by taking up space. Want to help? Get Willie Jones on the radio. Call your local station to request “American Dream.”
At any concert, you’ll hear the artists thank their fans, and thus comes today’s call to action. The continued and vocal support of Black artists by established white musicians, the consideration of label heads, and advocacy from radio figures is essential as the industry grows.
These things plus a willingness on the part of us listeners to esteem the work and words of Black musicians — including financially supporting their music — can tangibly shift country music culture to be more in line with its storytelling values. This may also promote freedom for all Americans.
The large scale reaction to Morgan Wallen’s recent use of the n-word, with iHeartRadio and other stations immediately pulling his music, indicates that the country music may be slightly more open to growth now.
Listen and support Black artists even if it’s gritty, even if the songs aren’t about people getting along like the world is perfect. After all, the country song that’s going to play next will likely indicate that the world isn’t perfect, yet it’s not without hope. (Radio hosts, I’m looking at you here. Your commentary is impactful.)
Last but not least, listen and support music about Black joy! In an industry where Black artists are the minority, love for the music is why they persevere and why their music is so strikingly enjoyable!