Op-Ed: It’s Time for Country Music to Elevate Its Overlooked Black Voices
Imagine a world where, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement's recent resurgence, country music's headlines were not dominated by chatter regarding Lady A and the Drive-By Truckers' ham-handed attempts at reconciling the negative connotations of their band names. Imagine an industry in which a multitude of Black country stars, buoyed by the passion of protesters worldwide, boldly launched into hard, but necessary, dialogues with the genre's majority non-Black fanbase.
Of course, this idyllic version of events did not occur — but why? And how does the genre achieve essential course correction for Black artist visibility in an immediate, profitable way?
Quickly making space for Blackness in greater abundance in country music does not require discovering brand-new Black artists, then integrating them into the genre's finest traditions. There are already a greater number of Black stars than those currently established who can showcase themselves via their songs, voices, and supergroups, and through songwriting that appeals to the ethos of the country audience and this, or any, societal moment.
Country music has celebrated and currently celebrates a few Black stars: DeFord Bailey, Charley Pride, Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen, Yola, Rhiannon Giddens, and a handful of others. However, overall, these performers are the footnotes and commas, rather than the subjects and periods, in the annals of country music history. They've thrived within mainstream country music, but without its commercial acceptance.
Performers entirely unknown or less regarded by mainstream eyes and ears are present and more than prepared to handle critical engagement at this crucial moment.
In the wake -- and, in a way, because of -- the Black Lives Matter movement, space now exists to sow Black talent like seeds among country music's well-regarded superstar ranks: to grow its future beyond its past. Thankfully, performers entirely unknown or less regarded by mainstream eyes and ears are present and more than prepared to handle critical engagement at this crucial moment.
It's unquestionably impressive that Maren Morris rode her Laura Veltz and Jimmy Robbins co-write "The Bones" to the top of a multitude of Billboard charts in a remarkable, year-long song cycle. However, within that same timeframe, Black British folk-country singer-songwriter Yola released a cover of Elton John's Bernie Taupin-penned 1973 hit "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a Grammy Hall of Fame inductee widely regarded as one of John’s, and pop music’s, best songs ever. Her version is so lushly soulful that it inspired John himself to cosign her performance: "If you haven't heard of Yola … go and see her," the icon noted. "You'll be delighted at what you hear."
Seven months after its release, Yola's version of the song still sits at less than one million streams. It, like Morris’ “The Bones,” however, is transcendent, and certainly is worthy of greater visibility and an audience from all genres.
Country music fans unfamiliar with Yola’s solo work may know her from her verse in the Highwomen’s eponymous song, an altered cover of the Jimmy Webb-penned classic “Highwayman.” The song, performed by the four white women in the country supergroup and Yola as a special guest, tells the story of how women have historically sacrificed themselves for a higher sociopolitical purpose.
The issues women face in country music are well documented, and there is a demonstrated need for Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires to sing songs that ultimately create balance and respect for women in country music. However, the issues Black women face in everyday American life are possibly twice as significant.
The collective work of African American folk quartet Our Native Daughters — Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell — showcases something both Black and feminine that adds depth and breadth to the reclamation conversation, while still delivering soul-stirring material with pop-crossover potential. Just as the Highwomen’s four members are lauded singers, songwriters and musicians, Our Native Daughters’ Giddens and McCalla were members of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, while both Kiah and Russell are well-regarded artists in bluegrass and roots music, respectively.
The supergroup's cover of Bob Marley's 1973 single "Slave Driver," as well as the original "Mama's Cryin' Long," brilliantly highlight the intersectionality between the women's empowerment and Black Lives Matter movements. Both songs can be found on Our Native Daughters’ debut album, 2019’s Songs of Our Native Daughters, released via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings just over six months before the Highwomen released their debut album via Elektra Records. Though the former label has an acclaimed 70-year history, its reach and scope are far from that of a mainstream imprint. Given that the album showcases, as Smithsonian Folkways Records notes, "unflinching, razor-sharp honesty, confronting sanitized views about America's history of slavery, racism and misogyny from a powerful, black female perspective," it's prescient to this global moment and deserving of more listeners' ears.
Furthermore, there's the matter of how Black artists harness the same institutional history and genre tropes that white men have within country music. Historical connections from Hank Williams to Luke Combs and from Elvis Presley to Orville Peck are entirely possible; however, if trying to do the same for Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen or trap-styled up-and-comers Lil Nas X, Breland and RMR, it's complicated. There's navigation that involves the likes of Charley Pride, and even soul-to-pop country leaners such as Al Green, but when it comes to Black artists in country music, skin color is not always indicative of the character of one’s voice.
The collection of music released by folk artist (and another former Carolina Chocolate Drop) Dom Flemons is also important to consider when establishing a lineage for Black men in country music. The multi-instrumentalist has played the Grand Ole Opry and is enshrined in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. His last two albums — 2018’s Black Cowboys and 2020's Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus — also do well to establish a connection to a century of impressive contributions by Black artists. Flemons comprehensively highlights country music's progression in everything from roots and folk to hip-hop and Tejano-influenced sounds.
Mickey Guyton, the lone Black woman signed to a major Nashville label, has taken a decade to achieve the mainstream popularity that Carrie Underwood and Patsy Cline — the artists to whom Rolling Stone, in 2016, noted her voice is most favorably compared — achieved in 75 percent less time, combined. This miscarriage of both talent and justice is likely related to the fact that there isn't a storied history of Black female vocalists in country music. Guyton herself is even aware of this fact: "There's nobody else like me in this space, so anytime they tried to compare me to somebody, they couldn't quite put their finger on it,” she noted to NPR in a recent interview.
These logical country music course corrections not only level the playing field for Black and white artists, they open fans’ eyes and ears to a deracialized sonic universe for the first time.
However, there is the story of Whitney Houston, to whom Guyton's voice was compared by the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. The only time Houston ever sang a popularly released country song was with her 1993 cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You." Famously, Houston’s version of the Parton-penned song was on top of the charts for a then-record 14 consecutive weeks, won every award for which it was nominated, and is currently preserved in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." It is so well done that it made Parton herself, the first time she heard it on the radio, "almost wreck [her] car." Ultimately, based on that comparison alone, Guyton deserved an opportunity a decade ago.
Artists such as Yola, Our Native Daughters, Flemons, Guyton and numerous others deserve to stand equal to, not separate from, white performers. Ultimately, these logical country music course corrections not only level the playing field for Black and white artists, they open fans’ eyes and ears to a deracialized sonic universe for the first time. As evidenced by a racially balanced country music scene, Black Lives Matter is not a statement: It’s a restorative and invigorating way of life.
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