A Beginner’s Guide to Black Country Music
Country music is known as being overwhelmingly white, but these 25 artists defied expectations
The CMA Awards are no stranger to controversy (like, for example, when Sturgill Simpson busked outside the event in 2017 to raise money for the ACLU, saying, “Hegemony and fascism is alive and well in Nashville, Tennessee”), and this year was no different: the preeminent country awards show faced criticism last week for holding an indoor event in the middle of the pandemic, and many attendees were seen maskless throughout the broadcast. And after the show neglected to mention the late John Prine, who passed away earlier this year after a battle with COVID-19, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires announced they were returning their CMA membership cards over the snub. (That ignited its own, separate controversy that elicited some thoughtful responses from Isbell on Twitter.)
But beyond those missteps, this year’s ceremony seemed like a conscious effort to right some wrongs by shining light on the contributions to country music made by Black artists. Darius Rucker served as co-host, becoming only the second Black person to host the ceremony after Charley Pride cohosted with Glen Campbell in 1975. Pride was also honored this year with a Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to him by Jimmie Allen, who told the legendary singer, “I might never had a career in country music if it wasn’t for a groundbreaking artist who made the best kind of history… Thank you, Mr. Charley Pride, for all the songs and for breaking down so many barriers with your remarkable life.”
After winning Female Artist of the Year, Maren Morris used her acceptance speech to highlight the Black women in the genre who have inspired her, saying, “I have a lot of people to thank, and they’re the typical ones that lift me up and made this dream come true with me. But there are some names in my mind that I want to give recognition to, because I’m just a fan of their music and they are country as it gets. And I just want them all to know how much we love them back. And just check out their music after this. It’s Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer, Rhiannon Giddens. There are so many amazing Black women that have pioneered and continue to pioneer this genre. And I know they’re going to come after me; they’ve come before me. You’ve made this genre so, so beautiful. I hope you know that we see you. Thank you for making me so inspired as a singer.”
If all you know about country music is the stereotypes or the white male-dominated slice of it that gets played on country radio, you may be surprised to learn that there is, in fact, a long, rich history of Black country performers. Sadly, to this day, they’re too often overlooked, so with that in mind, we’ve put together a playlist to provide an introduction. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but we hope it serves a jumping-off point for those who are curious about where to start.
DeFord Bailey was a pioneer; the harmonica player was the first performer ever to be introduced on the Grand Ole Opry as well as the first Black performer on the show. He toured with the likes of Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff, despite running into difficulties finding food and housing on the road in the South due to the Jim Crow laws of the time.
Charley Pride is arguably the most successful Black country singer. In 1967, the former baseball player became the first Black performer at the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey, and he’s one of three Black artists (along with Bailey and Darius Rucker) to have become a member of the Opry. He enjoyed massive success in the ’70s with tracks like “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” and “I’m Just Me,” earning three Grammys. In 2000, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 2017 he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Country music isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the legendary Ray Charles, but in 1962 the singer famously put out Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, a record that saw the Georgia native putting his own spin on 12 country standards. At the time, it was a huge risk, but it paid off: the record, now generally accepted as one of Charles’s finest, was a massive hit, with both the album and single “I Can’t Stop Loving You” being certified gold and earning Charles a Grammy (albeit for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording).
In 1969, Linda Martell made history as the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, but just five years later, she made the heartbreaking decision to walk away from a career in music. Years later, she would reveal that it was racism that forced her out of the industry. In a Rolling Stone piece this year that dubbed her “country music’s lost pioneer,” she recalled audience members yelling racial slurs at her, a promoter canceling a show of hers after he discovered she was Black and a producer on Hee Haw trying to pressure her to pronounce the words in her song a certain way.
Stoney Edwards signed to Capitol Records just six months after recovering from a horrific on-the-job injury from his days as a forklift operator. His first single, the emotional “Two Dollar Toy,” draws from his real-life experience after the accident: injured and unable to provide for his family, he tried to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and leave them so there’d be one less mouth to feed, but he stepped on a toy on his way out, which woke up his daughter Janice and convinced him to stay.
Big Al Downing
A member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Big Al Downing began his career playing piano for Wanda Jackson, including on her 1960 single “Let’s Have a Party.” He would eventually hit the charts as a solo artist, with his song “Mr. Jones” rising to No. 20 on the country charts in 1978.
The Pointer Sisters
The Pointer Sisters are best known as a dance act, but in 1974 the group released the country song “Fairytale” as part of their album That’s a Plenty. They performed it at the Grand Ole Opry that year, becoming the first Black vocal group to play on that iconic stage, and the song eventually won them the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. The following year, it was covered by none other than Elvis Presley.
Though he grew up listening to country music, O.B. McClinton actually started his career as a soul songwriter, penning tracks for the likes of Otis Redding (“Keep Your Arms Around Me”) and James Carr (“A Man Needs A Woman,” “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up”) before eventually becoming a staff writer at Stax Records. In 1971, he started recording as a country artist on the label’s Enterprise subsidiary.
He’s perhaps still best known as the lead singer of Hootie & The Blowfish, but Darius Rucker has carved out an impressive niche for himself as a country singer. In 2008, he signed to Capitol Records Nashville, and his debut solo single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” hit No. 1, making him the first Black solo artist to top the charts with a country hit since Charley Pride’s “Night Games” in 1983. The following year, he became the first Black artist to ever win the CMA’s New Artist of the Year award.
In 1998, the Louisiana native released his self-titled debut album, which produced three Hot Country singles: “Straight Tequila,” “Horse to Mexico,” and “The Wreckin’ Crew.”
Dubbed “the Cinderella of Country Music,” Vicki Vann released her debut album Miracle in 1999. In 2004, she was featured (along with Trini Triggs and Rissi Palmer) in CMT’s documentary Waiting in the Wings: African-Americans in Country Music, which examined the ways many Black performers in the genre were and are unjustly relegated to the sidelines.
Long before there was Lil Nas X, Cowboy Troy blended rap and country into his self-described “hick hop” on his hit single “I Play Chicken With the Train,” featuring vocals by Big & Rich on its hook. “But I already been on the CMAs/Hell, Tim McGraw said he like the change,” he boasts. “And he likes the way my hick-hop sounds/And the way the crowd screams when I stomp the ground.”
Aaron Neville’s primarily known for his excellent work as an R&B/soul singer, but he went country in the early ’90s, covering the George Jones classic “The Grand Tour” and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. In 1994, he teamed up with Trisha Yearwood on Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” and the pair took home the Grammy for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals.
A native of Flint, Michigan, Miko Marks released her debut single “Freeway Bound” in 2005, and she quickly earned the admiration of Erykah Badu, who appeared as her mother in the music video for the autobiographical single “Mama” the following year.
The leap from cardiologist to country singer isn’t exactly a common one, but that’s what Cleve Francis did when he left his medical practice to pursue a career in country music in the late ’80s. He released three albums between 1992 and 1994 and charted four Hot Country singles before eventually returning to practice cardiology in Northern Virginia.
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Carolina Chocolate Drops are an old-time string band formed in Durham, North Carolina, who manage to toe the line between respecting and displaying a deep knowledge of the genre’s traditions and bringing a little modernity to it in the form of fun covers like their take on Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” Member Rhiannon Giddens also has an impressive solo career in her own right that is absolutely worth checking out.
Before he began recording his own brand of bluegrass gospel music, Carl Ray wrote songs for Johnny Nash, including “You’re the One,” “We’ve Got Trouble,” “Sing World A Love Song” and “Baby You’re Mine.” His album Coming Home features a duet with bluegrass legend Rhonda Vincent on “The Old Rugged Cross.”
In 2017, Kane Brown became the first artist to top all five of Billboard’s main country charts simultaneously thanks to his self-titled debut album and its lead single “What Ifs.” In a 2018 interview with People, he revealed he didn’t find out he was biracial until he was seven or eight years old, saying, “I thought I was full white … I found out that I was biracial and I still wasn’t thinking anything of it, but then I started getting called the N-word. I didn’t even know what it meant. I learned what it meant, and that’s when it started affecting me. I got in fights over it when I was little.”
Mickey Guyton first broke out with her single “Better Than You Left Me,” but this year it was her poignant “Black Like Me” which went viral in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide protests this summer. “If you think we live in the land of the free,” she sings, “you should try to be Black like me.”
Jimmie Allen’s “Best Shot” topped Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in November 2018, making him the first Black artist to reach No. 1 on that chart with a debut single. His next single, “Make Me Want To,” also topped that chart. This year, he collaborated with Noah Cyrus on “This Is Us.”
Valerie June’s music transcends genre, blending everything from folk and blues to soul and bluegrass influences, but the singer and multi-instrumentalist’s work can all loosely be described as “roots music.” It’s sure to appeal to country enthusiasts, and in 2017, Bob Dylan revealed in an interview that he’s a fan of hers.
Scott Eversoll began his country music career in the early ’80s after a stint in the Marines, and you may have heard some of his work without even realizing it, as it’s been featured in TV and movies like Touched By An Angel, 21 Grams and Wild Hogs.
Yolanda Quartey — known professionally as simply Yola — hails from England, but that doesn’t mean she’s not well-versed in all things Americana. Last year, she released her debut album Walk Through Fire and was featured on two tracks of the supergroup The Highwomen’s self-titled record. Walk Through Fire earned her four Grammy nominations, for Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song, Best American Roots Performance and Best New Artist.
Rissi Palmer’s debut single “Country Girl” peaked at No. 54 on Billboard’s Hot Country charts in 2007, making her the first Black woman to chart a country song since Dona Mason did in 1987. In many ways, it was validation; she had previously turned down a recording contract at the age of 19 after executives tried to shift her focus from country to pop and soul.
Brittney Spencer has worked as a background singer for the likes of Carrie Underwood, United Pursuit and Christopher Cross, but she’s also managed to carve out a solo career of her own in Nashville. She released her EP Compassion earlier this year, and she earned praise from Maren Morris and Amanda Shires on social media after her cover of The Highwomen’s “Crowded Table” went viral.
You can check out a Spotify playlist of all the artists featured here via the embed below.
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