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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 toward diversity and inclusivity is 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 know