A Brief History on Black Artists in Country Music and the Ones Who Are Carrying Their Legacy Forward
Country Music has always been home to Black artists, says Time Magazine, However, in recent years that has not proven to be the case. Ken Burns, American filmmaker, released a 16-hour documentary series, Country Music, in 2019. In it he discusses how genres like rock, jazz, pap and every facet of country, is indebted to African-American traditions. Burns says, “Commercial decisions by white industry executives led to their exclusion from the genre for decades.”
Religious hymnals, field songs and slave spirituals were incredibly influential in the early beginnings of country music. Many songs arranged by black people were later turned into hit songs sung by white artists. For example, a black minister wrote a hymn, “When the World is On Fire” which was then turned into the Carter Family’s hit, “Little Darling, Pal of Mine.” James A. Bland, a black New Yorker, penned the song, “Carry Me Back To Old Virginny” which later on became the official state song of Virginia. Had he been alive in 1940 when it became the official state song, he would not have even been welcome in the state.
Despite deep segregation in the South in the 20’s and 30’s, black and white musicians collaborated on many now famous recordings. Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong both became legends who’s influence would continue for generations to come. Despite their obvious differences, when they performed “Blue Yodel Number 9” it was obvious that their passion and love for country music came from the same place.
DeFord Bailey was a country and blues star from the 1920’s to 1941. Bailey accomplished many “firsts'' in country music for African-Americans. He was the first performer to be introduced on the Grand Ole Opry, the first African-Americon on the show, and the first performer to have music recorded in Nashville. Even with these many accomplishments, his race was still hidden from his radio audience and was forced to find separate accommodations when touring through the South with the Grand Ole Opry. After being fired by the founder of the Opry, it took the Opry another half century to admit the second black member, Charley Pride. Darius Rucker is the only other black member of the Grand Ole Opry.
“It’s truly surreal because I've listened to Charley Pride since I was a kid. When I was a little kid in the early '70s and Charley's making these records, I remember having a Charley Pride record in my mom's collection that I don't think my mom ever put on, but she bought that record because he was a Black man singing country music...I remember the first time I saw Charley on Hee Haw because Hee Haw was so big for me because I love music and one of the three places you could see musical on TV was Hee Haw. It was Hee Haw, American Bandstand and Soul Train. That's where you saw music on TV and here comes this guy that looks like me singing "Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'" and you're like, "Oh my goodness,"...and now, decades and decades later, to be a part of him getting an award... There's nobody that deserves it more than Charley," says Rucker on sharing the stage with Pride.
Mickey Guyton, Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Rissi Palmer, Reyna Roberts, and Brittney Spencer are just a few of the current artists who represent the progressive Black country movement. The Boot says, “These performers making country music that paints within, but without, the lines established by the white, but borrowed-from-Black, country music norm allows for the navigation of the new sonic terrain...Black artists deserve to reclaim - and then yes, ultimately share - the instruments, inspiration and influence ‘borrowed’ from them for 100+ years.” Paying tribute to the Black artists of the past is essential for Black integration in present day Country music.
Written by Haley Moloney with contributions from Marcus K. Dowling, Rissi Palmer, and Shelley Hamilton.