Q&A: Who’s making Black country music?

Photo via Ahmed Rizkhaan on Unsplash.

By The Daily Yonder

March 13, 2024

Q&A: Who’s Making Black Country Music?

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Francesca Royster is a writer and professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago. Since Beyoncé announced her forthcoming country album during the Super Bowl, Royster’s 2022 book, Black Country Music: Listening for Revolution, has gotten a new wave of attention (including in this very publication).

I had some questions for Royster, too. Enjoy our conversation about Black country activism, the sordid American history of Blackface minstrel shows, and country-radio gatekeepers, below.

Groups like the Black Opry, mentioned by Royster, are spotlighting Black artists making country music.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: What made you want to write about country music in the first place?

FR: One of my writing mentors used to tell me that when you discover a topic that makes you uncomfortable or makes you feel like you want to skip or rush through it, it’s a sign that you should write about it. So country music as an African American woman has felt uncomfortable like that for me – just because I’ve often experienced it as a very white space. At the same time, I grew up partly in Nashville and went to college in Kansas, and country music sounds and style were very familiar, and even homey. I had interviewed my dad about his experiences as a part-time sessions musician in Nashville, and the hunger that he described of some alt-country musicians for integrating soul and funk and Latin beats. (My father is a percussionist and an English Professor, and plays congas and other percussion instruments.) And that got me interested in exploring these moments of attraction and repulsion of African American music at different historic moments, and also the experiences of country fans. And then I really found a history often hidden from us of African American creative contributions and even rootedness in country music, together with Latinx, Hawaiian and other indigenous cultures. I think we’re at a very exciting moment of historic and cultural reclamation, from collective discoveries of the banjo as an African instrument to Black cowboys and their music, to the important archival work of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, including Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, to Lil Nas X to Beyonce to the Black Opry. And as I started my exploration, all of this great new music was exploding around me. It was a great moment of synchronicity.

DY: In the book you mention that it feels like we’re at the start of a broader, more self-conscious Black country music moment. Why do you think people are taking on the place of Blackness in country now, specifically? Who do you see as at the forefront of that trend?

FR: Yes, I do think we’re at the start of a more self-conscious Black country movement. I think that some of this has been a long time coming, with past artists like DeFord Bailey, Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Linda Martell, Ruby Falls, Millie Jackson, The Pointer Sisters, Darius Rucker, and Rissi Palmer, among others.  (And of course, artists like Rucker and Palmer are continuing to make great country music.) But I think that the self-conscious part of it is important. Some of this is because of the important activist work of artists who are very self-consciously writing songs and talking during their concerts and other programming about the history and roots of country music and Black music. These are artists who bring in the archives into their work, and find musical concert spaces as teaching spaces – like Rhiannon Giddens and Our Native Daughters (Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla) and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, as well as Valerie June, Dom Flemons, and others. Rissi Palmer, Holly G.’s Black Opry, and Kamara Thomas (The Country Soul Songbook) are activists and or musicians who have done important work to create country music spaces for fans and musicians of color, and this has helped inform and feed the larger conversation.

(I especially want to praise Rissi Palmer’s Color Me Country podcast, which creates these public conversations with artists, scholars, journalists and folks in the industry – a great resource. Rissi has also done important work to help fund emerging artists, working with Holly G. on the Color Me Country fund.) And then scholars, writers and journalists are also helping make these musical changes and challenges thoughtful and historically informed – folks like Jewly Hight, Marcus Dowling, Charles Hughes, Nadine Hubbs, Amanda Martinez, Santi Holley, Alice Randall and others.

Q&A: Who’s making Black country music?
Royster’s book, Black Country Music, was released in 2022 from University of Texas Press. (Image provided by Francesca Royster)

DY: I wasn’t exactly shocked by the history of Blackface minstrelsy in country music, but I also wasn’t familiar with it. For readers who haven’t seen the book, how did minstrel shows factor into the history of institutions like the Grand Ole Opry? Were Blackface performances particularly common in country spaces, as opposed to other white-dominated genres?

FR: As my friend, scholar Matthew Morrison has written about extensively, Blackface minstrel shows were the​ foundational popular entertainment, and shaped almost every musical genre. As we think about popular music from slavery through the 20th century, Blackface humor and music was a way of borrowing from African American creativity, while erasing and dehumanizing Black people, from minstrel shows, to vaudeville, and then entertainment like The Grand Ole Opry and The National Barn Dance. Both the Opry and The National Barn Dance included live performances that incorporated Blackface songs and humor. This also serves the ways that country music was marketed to whites, pretty much exclusively, while also drawing from African American songs, instruments and musical forms. Indeed, the minstrel show was the​ way that the banjo transitioned from an instrument made by and performed by African American people, to white people, first imitating and caricaturing Black people. It’s also a factor in the ways that country music can be used to harken back to a nostalgic, sometimes pre-Civil-War south, and as a way of protecting ideas that country music is authentically white.

DY: You write that “many northern Black people’s discomfort with and rejection of country identity and country music have to do with a distancing from rural life and the South associated with a painful past.” That quote made me wonder about the discomfort of rural, southern Black people. Did your research lead you to any observations about geographic divides among Black people on this topic?

FR: In my reading, as well as conversations with my family and other people I interviewed, I definitely found some divides in terms of Black people on this topic, especially thinking about the ways that country music is a part of public life. Many Northern Black people that I spoke with expressed connection and identification with country music through earlier generations, but sometimes also pain and shame. For my grandmother, for example, leaving her country ways behind was a way of getting along with my Northern born grandfather, who was a jazz musician.  I really appreciate bell hooks’ book, Belonging​: A Culture of Place, where she talks about the ways that she was taught to distance herself from her own southern rural roots as an academic, and how important it has been to re-embrace her knowledge and identity as a southern, rural person. I also find very powerful the work of William Turner, in The Harlan Renaissance, which is an examination and myth buster in terms of southern Rural Identity.

You also write that, “rather than simply asking for a place at the table, the artists in this book are using country music as a way of exploring a more complex Black identity.” Can you elaborate on that idea here? 

FR: Yes! What I mean by that is that these artists aren’t approaching country music as an “add on” or even a way of marking territory (and here, I’m thinking of John Schneider’s obnoxious comment about Beyonce as playing country as a means of marking territory). But rather, they’re claiming a culture and history that has always included Black creativity and that draws on Black storytelling and Black life. Country music’s past whiteness, as it’s been marketed and perpetuated, simplifies and flattens Black identity as well as other identities. Many of the artists that I’ve written about talk about the ways that they feel the pressures of gatekeeping within the music industry, and that by wanting to perform and record country music, they are playing out of bounds with their own identities and “types” of music. But we know that the construction of country music as a white sound, linked exclusively to white musicians and listenerships, is a construction.

DY: Lastly, what are you listening to lately?

FR: I am super excited for Alice Randall’s new book, and accompanying album “My Black Country​.” Randall writes about her experiences as a songwriter of country music, as well as a professor teaching and writing about country. And she has recorded an album of Black artists like Adia Victoria and Rhiannon Giddens, performing her country songs. I am eagerly awaiting the full album’s release. And OF COURSE, I have been listening to Beyonce’s “16 Carriages” and “Texas Hold ‘Em” and can’t wait for the full album coming out later in March. I love how that album has captured so many people’s imaginations and passions and has created a space for Black listeners who might not have been drawn to country music before, to hear themselves in the music and to learn more about other performers and Black country music history.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.Q&A: Who’s making Black country music?Q&A: Who’s making Black country music?


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