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Rewriting Country Music’s Racist History

Artists like Yola and Rhiannon Giddens are blowing up what Giddens calls a “manufactured image of country music being white and being poor”

Rhiannon Giddens performs during rehearsal for the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular in BostonJuly Fourth , Boston, USA - 03 Jul 2018

Both as a solo artist and with the group Our Native Daughters, Rhiannon Giddens is illuminating the multiracial origins of country music.

Michael Dwyer/AP/Shutterstock

I’m never more black than when I talk about country music. By which I mean: I’m never more aware of my blackness than when I’m rambling on about my love of the genre, receiving quizzical looks back. The unspoken onus in the moment is: Explain yourself — how do you like country?

The look is, in part, because everyone is pretty sure they know country music. They don’t have to like it to think this. In fact, the folks who don’t listen to country are more likely to claim knowledge of the subject matter: of country songs and what they’re about, of the kind of people who listen to country, of their values, their likes and dislikes.

This is kind of impressive. In 2020, audiences are so used to genres blending into one another, used to having no borders in music. But the image of what country music is persists. It does not matter how many variations of country abound — it’s somehow easier to reduce country to a single dimension. And with that comes along an image of who listens to the music. And more important, who makes it.

At some point, it became an accepted cultural narrative that country music is the domain of white people. This has never been the case, but more to the point, it has never been further from the truth than right now. The myth persists while a number of black artists are challenging its foundation, hiding in plain sight on the country charts or on tours or on the radio. They don’t care much for that myth. They tell a different story. And they tell it damn well.

Yola didn’t say much about the history of Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern when she stepped onto the stage one cold night in January. She just played her heart out.

Founded in 1947, the Horseshoe is a local cathedral of live music, but the place built its name booking country and rockabilly acts in the 1950s. From Willie to Waylon, Loretta to Conway, they all passed through the Horseshoe.

That night in Toronto, Yola’s gorgeous voice filled the room. She belted her way through her set, her voice soaring with songs like “Faraway Look” and “Ride Out in the Country”.

Yola’s been having a moment. The British singer’s debut album, Walk Through Fire, netted her four Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist. She graced many year-end lists and won the U.K. Album of the Year at the U.K. Americana Awards. Vogue described her as “breaking the country stereotype of mournful white guys strumming guitars.”

I asked her about this characterization, and why there’s such an ease in positioning country music as the domain of white artists. “I think it’s more than just an image of country music — it’s been sold as the story of country music,” she tells me. “This myth that won’t die of it being ‘the white man’s blues’ is both a good origin story, and kind of erases a lot of what else went into making that origin.”

Halfway through the show, as she rips through a hearty rendition of “Love All Night (Work All Day),” the voices of two white men rise behind me. They’re arguing, blissfully unaware of their impact on the people trying to enjoy Yola. “I just don’t think you can call her ‘country,’” one says to the other. “This is soul.” “She’s fucking good, though.”

A few people around me shake their heads. Yola, of course, can’t hear any of this. She’s dancing her heart out.

What went into the making of country music as you know it is a lot of construction. A lot of mythmaking. The man credited with setting the foundation of commercial country also just happened to have been given a pen to write his own version of how it came about.

Ralph Peer was the beginning of the business of country music. Working for a struggling record company in the 1920s, the white record executive went to the American South with the sole purpose of finding competition for Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, a black woman. In the South, he was convinced to record Fiddlin’ John Carson, in what became recognized as the first commercial country-music recording, “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.” Peer took credit for inventing something he called “hillbilly music” — what country was known as until after the Second World War.

But if that sounds a little too tidy, it is. Peer’s greatest contribution was as an innovator of the genre as a commercial tool: He found that by marketing hillbilly records to white audiences, and “race records” to black audiences, he could sell more records. It didn’t matter that what he found in the South were white and black musicians recording the same songs and playing the same music with the same instruments. It didn’t matter that the boundaries between genres didn’t exist. It didn’t matter that black musicians were teaching white musicians the art of the string band, and the white musicians were learning fast. For Peer, the label became the tool to sell the record. Then the sell became the story.

Yola performs at Music Marathon Works.To Nashville, With Love Tornado Benefit Concert, Nashville, Tennessee, USA - 09 Mar 2020

Yola performs at Music Marathon Works in Nashville.

EMG/Shutterstock

How is it possible that a manufactured story comes to pass as established common knowledge? Rhiannon Giddens has been trying to expose the lie for years. Through her music, through her writing, through her speaking — by any means necessary.

Giddens has made a career of resurrecting. She’s a brilliant and acclaimed musician, and she’s also a historian of Americana. Her music — both as a solo artist and as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops — skillfully weaves black experiences, history, and roots and Americana music. That includes infusing her songs with slave narratives and difficult histories. In 2017, she received the illustrious MacArthur Foundation grant, the one sometimes called the “genius grant.”

“The idea of what country music is has been carefully constructed to seem like it was always white,” she says. I ask her why people don’t know the history of country music. This is not her first rodeo: She’s got this answer down to a science. “White supremacy,” she tells me. “There is no other way to put it: It was constructed by numerous people as part of the white-supremacy movement.”

Before long, she’s rhyming off examples. “You know, Henry Ford would hold fiddle competitions and forbid black people from entering. … Folk festivals were thinly-veiled attempts to recast the music as white mountain music, as part of a project to create a white ethnicity.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Giddens tells me, “half of the string bands are black. Within 20 or 30 years, you have complete erasure because what gets recorded is what gets remembered.”

Peer’s travels take him across the South, but he certainly does not record every artist he comes across. At a time where commercial record sales are exploding, what gets recorded is political. “What they leave out is more important than what they record,” Giddens says. “And what they didn’t record was massive.”

I mention one of country music’s foundational groups — the Carter Family, a Peer discovery. “Yes, but A.P. Carter didn’t know how to write music,” she says. “So who did he take with him to gather the songs? Lesley Riddle, who could take them to black churches.”

Riddle was instrumental to the success of the Carter Family, memorizing melodies while Carter transcribed lyrics. Today, the Carters are in the pantheon of country, but there’s a good chance the last paragraph was the first time you’ve heard Lesley Riddle’s name.

The image starts to come together pretty quickly. First, you exclude black people from the festivals. Then write them out by not recording them. And pretty soon, “you have this manufactured image of country music being white and being poor.”

“But when a narrative is that clean,” Giddens warns, “somebody wrote it.”

Country music has been packaged as music for white audiences. But it’s not like the apparatuses set up to promote and celebrate black people have been eager to embrace country, either. If country is going to reject black people, black people will reject country, too.

I put this to Giddens, and she offers a theory: “It’s wrapped up in our culture, which is forward-looking, while country is a music of nostalgia.” Do black audiences not gravitate to nostalgia? “Nostalgia ain’t really our bag. We keep moving forward. So we bought into the idea that country is white music, hook, line, and sinker.

“Lots of us think there ain’t nothing for us in that nostalgia.”

Maybe lots of us aren’t interested in that nostalgia, but it’s still a special moment to have a number of black country artists thriving. Just this week, Mickey Guyton addressed the issue of race in America head-on with the powerful song “Black Like Me.” While Yola and Giddens have enjoyed considerable success in Americana, Guyton joins a group of successful mainstream country performers that includes Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, and Darius Rucker.

Rucker, the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, has had a smashing solo career as a country artist. But he didn’t turn to country right away — in between Hootie and his first country record, he put out a largely forgotten R&B album. See, the borders between these genres have always been translucent, even if the audiences might be segregated.

I ask Yola if it ever throws her off that the shows she plays attract a lot of white audiences. She answers with a booming laugh. “Listen, I play jazz festivals and blues festivals and country festivals, and the audience ranges every night, but that makes no difference to me. When I am playing this music, when I am connected to its history, there are no blacker spaces than country festivals or blues festivals.”

I tell this account to Giddens, who’s impressed, but doesn’t share the same feeling. It’s a bit more complicated for her. “It has nothing to do with the audience, who are all lovely people,” she begins. “I feel the conflict of knowing this should be a mixed space. I feel the dislocation. More diverse audiences are coming, but it still feels like the space isn’t safe for us.”

Is communicating the forgotten history of these genres onstage a burden? “I get tired of carrying the ancestral weight of what happened,” Giddens says. “People keep saying, ‘Wow, that’s so cool,’ but I keep having to explain every night at every concert: this is our music.”

“One of the biggest triumphs of African-American music is the banjo,” she continues. “The banjo took over the world. That means we helped create America’s music. Not blues. Not jazz. America’s music, period.”

It’s a theme Giddens explores with three other women: Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. Together, they form Our Native Daughters, an Americana supergroup of black women exploring the role of black women in American history in their 2019 album Songs of Our Native Daughters.

I ask Giddens what it’s like to carry whole histories, to bring them to life. “Sometimes I feel very weary,” she says. “I’m buoyed by it. Overall it’s something I’m very grateful for. But I also feel very tired.”

Likewise, Charley Pride all but exhausted himself on the way to becoming country music’s first black superstar. Pride was the Chuck Yeager of black country artists, the gap-toothed engine that could.

His career is extraordinary. Just between 1969 and 1971, he had eight Number Ones on the country charts — eight chart-toppers in two short years. Overall, he has 30 chart-toppers to his name. He became the second black man to become a member of the prestigious Grand Ole Opry (DeFord Bailey was the first).

Pride seemed to spend a great deal of his career trying to have as few conversations about his race as possible. He’s not especially confrontational or cagey about it, despite the stories of hostile audiences and institutions numbering in the dozens. In doing so, in the eyes of many, he became the country star who transcended race. Even if his label at first tried to cover it up.

Charley PrideCharley Pride 1982

Charley Pride in 1982.

Globe Photos/mediapunch/Shutterstock

RCA famously sent his first few singles to radio stations without promo photos. The line they use is “so the music can speak for itself,” but of course the line they leave out is: “so the picture of a smiling black man doesn’t do all the talking.”

In his memoir, Pride describes a conversation with the country giant Webb Pierce, who told Pride, “It’s good to have you in our music.” Pride said the comment made him uneasy. “Webb, it’s my music too,” he replied.

If country’s race problem is bad and largely unacknowledged, country’s gender problem is bad but at least openly spoken about. Country radio has an abysmal history of promoting and playing women. As it has with black artists, country writes out women from the marquees. Artists who transform the genre are treated like passing moments.

The collective known as the Highwomen — Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby — came together to change that. The group distill the forces of rebellion against the shitty hand women in country have been dealt.

It’s important that one of the first voices you hear on a record meant to be a pushback against country’s inequality is Yola’s. She has the third verse on “Highwomen,” the opening track of the group’s self-titled 2019 debut and one of the album’s brightest moments.

In an updated version of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” where each new verse tells the story of a persecuted woman in history, Yola’s is about a Freedom Rider — a protester who rode buses into segregated states to confront discrimination in public transit — who gets killed during a protest. The protests of the Freedom Riders form an especially dark part of America’s history. At times, police would work with local Ku Klux Klan chapters and turn a blind eye to planned violence by white supremacists against Freedom Riders.

“As long as we have to navigate white people’s fragility, we’re going to have a difficult time with these conversations.” – Yola

Yola’s verse concludes, “I sat down on the Greyhound that was bound for Mississippi/My mother asked me if that ride was worth my life/And when the shots rang out, I never heard the sound/But I am still around.” It’s a moving verse, made more powerful by the prominence of the place it occupies.

I ask Yola how the verse came about. She recalls an “emotionally considered” writing process, and describes trying to capture the spirit of being black in America in a country verse: “That verse gets at a bravery that is kind of dangerous, but it’s kind of lit. And that’s what blackness is.”

She remembers that Jason Isbell, who plays on the record, was always sensitive to the space he’s taking up. He stepped back, she says, to “let stories ring out and be felt in the room. To not get in the way.”

Are people often getting in the way? Yola thinks for a moment. “Maybe it’s the story of black people in country music. People don’t know how to get out of the way because they don’t realize the privilege they have. As long as we have to navigate white people’s fragility, we’re going to have a difficult time with these conversations.”

This article will be written again. It’s an eternal story. Maybe the names will be different, but the pattern continues: Country music doesn’t seem to have a great appetite for acknowledging that it’s built on black music, and black artists like DeFord Bailey, Ray Charles, Charley Pride, and countless others who helped it get here. As a result, the next wave of black artists transforming country might get treated as a novelty, too. “Hey, it’s a black country singer! How cool!” So this article will be written again.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can start to fix the problems by properly acknowledging that country wouldn’t exist without black people. “There’s a lot of the historicizing of figures like Woody Guthrie,” Yola tells me. “We will talk about Willie Nelson. But I think of the people who don’t get the same volume written about them.”

“I always think about Charley Pride. It would’ve been so easy for me to never hear his name if I didn’t have someone in my life invested in talking about the history of people of color in country and roots music,” she adds. “It would’ve been so easy for me to miss his music… after a while, one can’t help but think that’s purposeful.”

Today’s crop of young black artists in country are freeing themselves from the story of the genre belonging to white people. In the process, they add themselves to an already long legacy of resisting an intentional mythology.

This is ultimately a hopeful story. “The story is utterly beautiful. Especially when you consider the racism and violence at its foundation — and still the genres found a way to work together,” Giddens says. “Don’t let them tell you it’s about you have this, and I have this. No. We have all of it.”

Elamin Abdelmahmoud is the author of the upcoming collection of essays Son of Elsewhere (McClelland and Stewart, 2021).

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