Black History in Country Music

At The Nash News, we devoted much of our time to listening and learning about the importance of Black History in Country Music over the past month and wanted to share what we learned.


Just because Black History Month takes place once a year, doesn’t mean our work towards diversity and inclusivity is ever one and done. We are excited to continue sharing what we’ve learned about Black History in Country Music and the new wave of talented Black artists who are breaking boundaries and paving their own ways with their music.

Country music is known for being an integral part of American culture. At its roots, country music tells stories and features relatable themes that make it easy to connect with. What so many don’t know about country music is that it has roots in Black America. Black country artists don’t typically appear when you look at the country charts or are the people you listen to when you turn on your local country radio station, but it is crucial to acknowledge and give credit to the Black singer-songwriters who have formed what country music is today and those who are trying to make a name for themselves in the industry.


In an article for Time Magazine written titled “Black Artists Built Country Music—And Then It Left Them Behind,” Andrew R. Chow explores the 2019 documentary done by Ken Burns titled Country Music, and how it highlights the influence Black people had on the early beginnings of country music. “Many of the songs that early hillbilly artists played were likewise inherited and adapted from black sources — like slave spirituals, field songs, religious hymnals or the works or professional black songwriters” (Chow). Certain genres of country music are also heavily influenced by bluegrass, a genre that originated from African people. It is also known that the banjo is an instrument that was originally created in West Africa; the instrument has become an integral part of defining the country’s southern sound.


There were also many well-known country acts that were taught by and inspired by black artists. Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne was a mentor to Hank Williams, known as one of the best country singer-songwriters of all time, after they met in 1932 in Alabama; the blues musician taught Hank Williams how to play the guitar. In Memphis, Johnny Cash met Black musician Gus Cannon who also helped him learn the guitar as well. Lesley Riddle, an African-American from Burnsville, North Carolina created the finger-picking guitar style which was made popular by Maybelle Carter and her family. The finger-picking sound shaped country music to what it is known as today.


One of the first Black country singer-songwriters who made a name for themselves was DeFord Bailey. Also known as “The Harmonica Wizard,” DeFord Bailey was diagnosed with Polio at an early age and used a harmonica as his main source of entertainment. After making an appearance on WSM Radio, his career skyrocketed. He created hits with his own versions of “Fox Chase,” “Pan American Blue,” and the “Dixie Flyer Blues.” DeFord Bailey started to perform on a program hosted by George D. Hay called WSM Barn Dance regularly. The show’s name was eventually changed to “Grand Ole Opry” in 1927, the change was made right before Bailey was set to perform making him the first musician to perform on the Grand Ole Opry radio show; this also made him the first Black person to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Being on this radio show gave Bailey a large audience and his performances were highly praised and studied by musicians from all over the country.

Fast forward to the early 2000s when singer-songwriter Troy Lee Coleman Ⅲ, also known by his stage name Cowboy Troy, was creating country music that would later inspire the current acts. A lot of the songs Cowboy Troy wrote and performed were in a new genre called “hick-hop.” This specific genre in country music would later be done by acts like Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Jason Aldean.


Darius Rucker is another Black artist who shaped country music and still continues to do so today. After performing with GRAMMY Award-winning group Hootie and the Blowfish, Rucker took his musical direction and went country. There hadn’t been a high-selling Black country since Charley Pride when Rucker came into the scene. Darius Rucker was a passionate songwriter and his first single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” which he co-wrote, went to the No. 1 spot on the country charts. The first two country albums Rucker made featured five No. 1 singles all of which he had co-written. He was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in 2012; the last African-American to be inducted before that was in 1993.


Over the years, many Black artists have written songs for country artists and their work deserves to be highlighted. Otis Blackwell, a Black songwriter, has sold over 30 million records with the songs he’s written. In 1956, he wrote the song “Don’t Be Cruel” which was recorded by Elvis Presley; the song spent ten weeks at the No. 1 spot on the country chart for ten weeks. Well-known artist Lionel Richie produced Share Your Love, a Kenny Rogers album from 1981. Richie also sang background vocals and wrote four songs that appeared on the tracklist. Even Beyoncé has dabbled in country music with her song “Daddy Lessons” from the album Lemonade. She performed this song at the CMA Awards with The Chicks in 2016.


Some Black songwriters and producers today include Jamie Moore who is a three-time GRAMMY nominee; he currently has a deal with Big Loud Publishing. His first No.1 hit came with writing credits on “May We All,” sung and performed by Florida Georgia Line. He also wrote the certified platinum No. 1 song “Chasin’ You” sung by Morgan Wallen. Some other songs he’s written have been recorded by Ingrid Andress, Chase Rice, Matt Stell, and Madison Kozak.


Shy Carter is a Black songwriter who has credits on many songs for country artists. He has written songs for Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and Kane Brown. He also wrote the No. 1 hit and certified two-times platinum “Stuck Like Glue” performed by Sugarland. 

Current black singer-songwriters in the country scene include Mickey Guyton who gave a stunning performance at the 2020 Academy of Country Music Awards with her song “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” This song is meant to bring awareness to struggles women face and in an interview, Guyton specifically mentioned the challenge that women face when it comes to having their music played on country radio. After George Floyd’s death in May of 2020, she wrote a song called “Black Like Me” about what it’s like being a Black person in America. The song was nominated for a GRAMMY award at the 2021 award show where she took the stage to perform the moving track. In 2022, Guyton was nominated for even more GRAMMYs and has even been chosen to sing the National Anthem at Super Bowl LVI.


Rhiannon Giddens is a Black singer-songwriter very passionate about bringing awareness to the origins of country music. She is in a band called Native Daughters where she plays the banjo with three other Black women. She starred in two seasons of the TV show Nashville and has been nominated for six GRAMMY Awards; she won one of them with a group she co-founded called Carolina Chocolate Drops.


Rissi Palmer is a Black country artist who debuted with her song “Country Girl.” She started “Color Me Country Radio,” a podcast where she has conversations with black and brown artists of Country/Americana/Roots music. She is also going to be included in a new exhibit by the Country Music Hall of Fame called “American Currents: State of the Music” which starts on March 12th and is meant to showcase country artists, songwriters, and musicians who shaped the year of 2020. Palmer also brings awareness to rising Black country artists each year with her recurring “Color Me Country Class Of” series.


Some up-and-coming Black singer-songwriters emerging in Country Music are Tiera, Reyna Roberts, Jimmie Allen, Yola, Brittney Spencer, Amythyst Kiah, Willie Jones, and Breland.



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To stay educated about the Black influences in country music, people can listen to the previously mentioned “Color Me Country Radio” Podcast hosted by Rissi Palmer; the latest episode featured guests Maren Morris, Andrea Williams, and Cam. There is also an informational TED talk by Queen Esther called “The True Origins of Country Music” which is a great, useful resource. It’s time we give Black singer-songwriters in the country scene the credit and support they deserve.


Resources:

Chow, A. (2019, September 11). In country Music, Ken Burns explores the genre’s Black Roots. Retrieved February 22, 2021, from https://time.com/5673476/ken-burns-country-music-black-artists/

Glanton, D. (2018, August 29). The roots of country music. Retrieved February 22, 2021, from https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-09-16-9809190003-story.html

To hear more of country music’s best new releases, head to our Playlists Page and follow The Nash New Releases playlist on Spotify. For the latest in country music news follow The Nash News on InstagramFacebookTwitter, and TikTok and don’t miss our brand new newsletter!

#MickeyGuyton #BlackHistoryMonth #JimmieAllen #BIPOC #DariusRucker #RissiPalmer

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