Country music has a race problem, and it goes back decades. I do not pretend to be a scholar of country music history, so the claims made in this article should be taken with a little more salt. There are also certain movements in country I’m deliberately not talking about because they aren’t particularly relevant to my point. Still, with the recent developments in country of Beyonce performing at the Country Music Association Awards and Lil Nas X nearly topping the country charts, I feel my contributions could be useful.
Country music is one of the three original genres of music — country, blues, and folk (and you could argue they’re all one and the same). Country music essentially predates sonic recordings. Although Congress has formally recognized Bristol, Tennessee as the birthplace of country music (evidently it was a slow day for legislation in 1998) based on Ralph Peer’s Bristol recording sessions, but this is only the birthplace of recorded country music. Still, I can’t talk about what we don’t have record of, and as this was largely the music of poor people, there’s not a lot of sheet music for 19th century country music.
Out of Ralph Peer’s Bristol Sessions came the two biggest icons of the first generation of country music, Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Listening to these two in 2019, the distinction between them and the blues artists of the time isn’t terribly strong. Hell, the Carter Family even has a popular song called “East Virginia Blues.” There is of course the lack of the blue note, that peculiar but beautiful note that artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Big Bill Broonzy embraced so strongly, but the larger factor was race. In this era, blues is essentially just black country music. The distinction between this generation of country and folk is even less clear, an ambiguity that would persist throughout country’s history. Country did evolve into something distinct from the blues, though. The entry of banjos and washboards into the musical lexicon of country in the 1930s set it apart from the blues, which edged closer to jazz by including horns and pianos.
The great ambiguity of blues and country can be illustrated in DeFord Bailey. Bailey was the first great star of the Grand Ole Opry, but this black harmonica player turned out influencing the blues more than country. Listening to “Fox Chase” and “Old Hen Cackle” you hear a lot more Little Walter and Sonny Terry than Willie Nelson and Doc Watson. Still, he toured with Bill Monroe rather than Big Bill Broonzy, and his version of “John Henry” was released by the label both in the “race” series and “hillbilly” series.
Entering the electric era, rockabilly came into prominence. I discussed the most famous of rockabilly artists last week, Elvis Presley, but didn’t dive into the country element of it. Rockabilly can be boiled down to two parts blues and one part country. It baffled many music categorizers at the time, and many country fans had a negative reaction to it. Perhaps this can be chalked up to musical puritanism, but it smacks of racism, as rockabilly threatened to culturally racially integrate America (and, eventually, it succeeded). Which rockabilly artists are recognized as country today and which are not has more to do with their later careers than anything else. Johnny Cash, who fell in line with country standards in the 60s and 70s, was redeemed in the eyes of country listeners. Elvis, who stuck with black influenced music, was not. The Country Music Association was formed to keep rockabilly artists out of country music.
The countrypolitan Nashville sound of the 1960s, audible in early Willie Nelson records or the work of Patsy Cline, is unrecognizable from the pioneers of country music. The tones of the guitars, the use of strings, the pianos, they sound nothing like the working class music of the Bristol Sessions. Additionally, bluegrass music from Kentucky, West Virginia and Appalachia came to prominence in this time with musicians like Bill Monroe, who had been recording since 1945 but not charting until this period. It’s heavy use of mandolins and uptempo rhythms was nothing like those Bristol recordings. Both countrypolitan and bluegrass, music with strictly white influences, were accepted into country music.
Two things on race in this period. One is the success of Ray Charles’ 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. This album is generally considered rhythm and blues, because it was made by Ray Charles, but it is made completely of country, western, and folk standards. Indeed, the hit off the album “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” could easily be mistaken for a Willie Nelson song from the same period. Modern Sounds is not well remembered, although Sturgill Simpson did pay homage to it with his 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Second is the success of Charlie Pride, who is considered a country musician to the point where he is one of three black people inducted in the Grand Ole Opry. Pride is the epitome of Countrypolitan with strings, chorus, and pedal steel guitar. Pride was accepted into country music in part because his sound had no trace of blues or rock in it. Because Charlie Pride was devoid of black cultural influences in his work, country music embraced him.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, now that rock had been thoroughly disassociated from its black roots, country was ready to embrace it. Gram Parsons, Buffalo Springfield, and John Denver all became prominent and popular country rock artists. These artists were more inspired by white rockabilly artists like Elvis and Buddy Holly rather than the black artists that inspired the rockabilly artists who were disavowed by country fans, and so while they aren’t considered strictly country, they’re often included in the country canon as an offshoot, similar to cowpunk’s relationship with country music.
Following these developments there were outlaw country, country pop, alt-country/cowpunk, stadium country, and many others, but, as much as I’d love to talk about Taylor Swift, I think I’ve made my point. Country music has persevered for over a century because it is inclusive of all white styles, but has difficulty being inclusive of black artists in the same way.
Beyonce’s performance at the CMA Awards was a breakthrough for black country artists, as, even though she isn’t a country artist, the CMAs recognized that her song “Daddy’s Lessons” was essentially country. But the exclusion of Lil Nas X from Billboard’s Country Hot 100 chart was a huge step backwards, and my hat is off to Billy Ray Cyrus for stepping up to support him.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.