Country music: An ugly past and troublesome present

Wednesday, June 17, 2020 - 7:38pm

NOSELL

Wikimedia Commons

Black squares. Thoughts and prayers. Heart emojis and hashtags. That about sums up the country music community’s response to the recent uprisings for racial justice that were sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. Instead of using their platforms to advocate for change and denounce white supremacy, many country artists have been reprehensibly quiet. 

As a longtime fan of the genre, I’d be lying if I said I was surprised by the silence. Artists’ flowery calls for “peace” and “unity” might as well be plucked from the lyrics of hit songs like Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” or Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good.” Fear of backlash for taking a stance is so prevalent in country music, the presumed resulting downfall for doing so has its own verb: getting "Getting Dixie Chicked." But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the time to lament artists’ avoidance of anything “political” or make excuses for a culture that skirts around the “controversial.” It’s time to get specific. We need to talk about country music’s relationship with white supremacy.

Before there was “country music” and “R&B,” there was “hillbilly” or “old time” music and “race records.” “Hillbilly music” was strictly sung by white people, while “race records” were exclusively recorded by Black people. But the music itself? It was all the same kind of sound. Predominantly poor Southerners, white and Black, had been swapping songs, techniques and styles for years. Long before the recording industry, which got its start in the 1920s, could officially start to segregate the music by using different labels. Hank Williams, for example, learned to play guitar from the Black street performer Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. Lesley Riddle, a Black musician, accompanied A.P. Carter of the Carter Family on song-collecting trips throughout Appalachia. 

Of course, appropriation is important to this story too. Few people know of “Tee-Tot” Payne or Lesley Riddle, but Hank Williams and the Carter Family are country music legends. How many other influential Black musicians have been forgotten, only to have their contributions live on, credited to white performers? The history of the banjo provides another example. Today, the banjo is a decidedly country instrument associated with whiteness. But it has African origins. The banjo was a plantation instrument solely played by enslaved people decades before blackface entertainers popularized it in minstrel shows in the 1830s. 

The institutions dedicated to telling country music’s story have played a part in preserving the myth of its essential whiteness. Three out of the 139 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame are Black. The label executives who guide country music’s future have contributed as well. When Charley Pride was first releasing records in 1967, his label didn’t send promotional pictures of him to radio. Darius Rucker’s country career was only made possible by his previous success as the Hootie and the Blowfish frontman. The narratives surrounding the careers of newcomers Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen are examples of this too. As successful Black country artists, they have been tokenized — simultaneously used to represent industry “inclusion” and made to feel like they don’t belong. This is acutely insulting when so many hit songs on country radio today are heavily influenced by hip hop and R&B. Thomas Rhett’s rise to fame was bolstered by synths and drum machines. Sam Hunt literally raps on almost all of his songs. Their acceptance as “country” has been met with criticism, but Rhett and Hunt, both white, have been accepted nonetheless. The same can’t be said for Lil Nas X. "Old Town Road" was excluded from Billboard’s Hot Country chart for “not being country enough” — a move that echoes the decision to separate genres by race from nearly 100 years ago. 

This history has cultivated a culture that is not only unwelcoming of non-whiteness, but distinctly anti-Black. A few weeks ago, I came across a post that some of country’s more outspoken artists were sharing on their Instagram stories. Rachel Berry, a Black country music lover, shared the nervousness she’s experienced while attending concerts. Before buying tickets, she looks up “the name of the town/city and then ‘racism,’” when she wants to stand up for a song, she worries “‘what if someone yells a racial slur at me?’” and when she walks through a festival full of confederate flags, Berry writes that she feels “uneasy.” Her story went viral and for good reason. Everything she wrote seems obvious upon reading it. But having gone to quite a few country music concerts myself, I have to confront the less obvious fact that my whiteness has shielded me from those kinds of worries. When I’ve seen confederate flags waving in the parking lot of a concert venue or printed on a fan’s T-shirt, I have had the privilege of merely looking away. How many Black country fans haven’t seen their favorite artists in concert for their own safety?

In a similar vein, how many Black country artists haven’t been given the chance to be seen? Unsurprisingly, many of the racial justice movement’s biggest advocates in country music have been Black country artists themselves. Every single day since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve watched Mickey Guyton speak out, share information, write articles, give interviews and release her new, timely song "Black Like Me." She shouldn’t have to educate the industry that has, for the most part, rejected her talent, but that’s what she’s been doing. Alongside fellow Black country artists like Rissi Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens, Guyton is demonstrating the importance of Black women specifically in country music. While Black men have been tokenized, Black women have been excluded almost entirely.

Unequivocally, Black people belong in country music. Giving in to the idea that country music is “white music” means giving up on Black country artists, Black country fans, country music’s real, albeit messy, history and the essence of country music itself — telling the truth. 

The widespread use of sayings like “anything but country” prove that the genre’s reputation remains rooted in whiteness. As Prof. Nadine Hubbs explains in her book “Rednecks, Queers & Country Music,” that phrase works because country music is not only associated with whiteness, but a particular kind. The picture of the person you’re imagining, the stereotypical country music fan, is layered with labels any “good” white person knows to avoid. Poor, uneducated, old-fashioned. This, in and of itself, is problematic not only because it’s classist, but because it’s a distraction from the problem at hand. Scapegoating country music fans curtails accountability because ignoring the fact that all white people benefit from and take part in sustaining the myth of white supremacy ends up reinforcing it. 

And, for the most part, the stereotypical country music fan doesn’t exist. In 2019, a country music listener’s average household income was $81,100 and, from 2014 to 2019, country music audience growth within the “African American population” was 55 percent. It’s necessary to dispel cliches because writing off an entire genre, and its fanbase, as helplessly backwards isn’t helpful, especially when country music is as popular as ever. 

Country music festivals and concert venues must follow NASCAR’s lead and ban the confederate flag. Beyond acknowledging the historical contributions Black people have made to country music, the industry needs to recognize, and give opportunities to, today’s Black country artists, producers, songwriters, musicians — everyone. This includes hiring Black professionals to fill administrative roles and positioning them to become industry executives. And the culture has to change. We need to expect more from the industry, artists, fans and music itself. 

On June 11, I woke up to a stylized, russet-colored announcement that one of my favorite bands was changing their name. I was stunned. And over the moon. Lady Antebellum was officially becoming Lady A. The group was taking action to denounce the connotations “antebellum,” meaning pre-war, has with slavery. 

But the shockwaves kept coming. First, it was the realization that the racist implications of the band’s name hadn’t crossed my mind in years. The meaning of “antebellum” isn’t news to me. The need to look out for confederate symbolism in the country music world isn’t news either. And still, I had normalized it. A few hours later, I found out that the real Lady A, a Black blues singer, hadn’t been consulted about the switch. Both revelations made me red with embarrassment. What else have I been missing? Systems, including the country music industry, have a way of disguising the status quo as just, but that doesn’t excuse individuals, or bands, from ignorance and complicity. In the spirit of expecting more, the copycat Lady A needs to have another name change.

This is just the beginning of what will be a long conversation. In the past, I’ve made a point to write about sexism in country music. I haven’t given the same energy to racial justice. As we’ve seen with artists like Mickey Guyton, these issues have more in common than just being wrong, they’re linked together. Moving forward, I’m committing to raising my expectations and holding the music and community I love, along with myself, to higher standards. It’s the only way change can happen.