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WHEN most people think of country music, they envisage plaid-wearing, guitar-strumming artists like Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton. They rarely think of black men like Charley Pride.
Pride, who died on December 11 at the age of 86, was one of the very few black superstars in the history of American country music. Acknowledging his contributions to the genre, the Country Music Association Awards presented him with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award in November.
In a year when protests about racial injustice swept across the US, it was a symbolic moment for the industry as it celebrated the black presence in country music. It had been pressurised to acknowledge its troubled history of racial difference.
Much of the history of country music has been displaced by convenient myths created during the genre’s commercialisation in the early 20th century. Travelling the American South in the 1920s looking for white performers and songs, white record executive Ralph Peers played an important role in obscuring the black roots of the genre.
The story of the Carters, the “founding family” of country music, is a well-known origin myth of the genre. One of Peers’s discoveries, the family were a three-piece group from Virginia consisting of AP Carter, his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle.
The group are credited with popularising country music with their unique harmony style and catchy songs. But less well known is the story of Lesley Riddle, the one-legged black musician who led AP Carter to black sources and songs, memorising melodies for Carter’s transcription.
This is just one of the many examples of how country music has been whitewashed for nearly a century. The commercialisation of country music consigned the work of black artists to “race” records, while white performers were categorised as “hillbilly” or “country & western,” a filtering process that determined mainstream sounds and performers in these categories for several generations.
From the harmonica player DeFord Bailey in the 1920s and 1930s, through to Pride in the 1960s and ’70s, and Darius Rucker in the early 2000s, this categorisation also consistently sidelined the contributions of people of colour in country music, with the exceptions only proving the rule.
Today, the country-music industry and its mainstream sounds remain white and anodyne. The norm is often mid-tempo ballads about drinking, pickups and relationships. A benign feel-good vibe predominates and topics that might be deemed controversial are avoided.
However, a new generation of black performers has emerged both within the mainstream and at the margins of country music. These performers are shifting the discourse on race and challenging the origin myths of country, much to the discomfort of the industry.
The rise of Black Lives Matter has also upped the ante on Nashville’s silence on racial injustice.
To some extent, this black presence has been commercially incorporated. The music of young, rising black country stars Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown could be said to mimic mainstream country fare with its narratively conservative lyrics and traditional country style, although both do occasionally reference hip-hop sounds and racial identity.
There are, however, those who strive to break the mould. In recent years there has been an emergence of genre-blending artists who mix hip-hop rhythms and country tropes, which have proved disruptive.
One standout example is Lil Nas X, whose song Old Town Road became an internet sensation in 2019 and sparked a row within the industry after it was removed from the Hot Country Songs chart. Explaining its decision, Billboard, which runs the chart, said that the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current form.”
This incident spawned the equally popular remix featuring country star Billy Ray Cyrus, who defended the track as country.
Much more forceful in breaking the Nashville mould is the music of black female performers Rhiannon Giddens, Yola and Mickey Guyton.
Guyton, a black Texan singer, released the song Black Like Me in June, with punchy lyrics on the experience of growing up black in the US. The chorus runs: “If you think we live in the land of the free/You should try to be black like me.”
Although there has been overwhelming silence in the industry about racism, a handful of white artists have made forceful statements about racial injustice, most notably the Appalachian country star Tyler Childers.
In September, he released the album Long Violent History, which quickly drew attention as a departure from his usual material. It mostly consists of covers of old fiddle tunes, but the title track, a ballad in which Childers asks his listeners to put themselves in the place of African-Americans facing daily injustices and violence, was a surprise.
Childers explicitly connects the historical struggles of rural mining communities in Kentucky to contemporary struggles for racial justice.
The song invites the listener’s empathy, appealing to an imagined rural community’s sense of fairness and justice and its mythologies of violent redemption: “How many boys could they haul off this mountain/Shoot full of holes, cuffed and layin’ in the streets/’Til we come into town in a stark ravin’ anger/Looking for answers and armed to the teeth?”
Part of what makes Childers’s reference to a “long violent history” so resonant is that many of the fiddle songs that precede the title track refer to this history, with several referring to Civil War conflicts.
When the title track plays out with a few skewed bars of My Old Kentucky Home, a 19th-century minstrel song associated with white supremacy and the antebellum South, we are reminded of the role of music in both celebrating and challenging the racial order of things in the US.
Country music’s reckoning with race has only just begun. As its black roots are further exposed and pioneers like Charley Pride take on fresh significance, we can only hope that the future of the genre is more diverse.
Liam Kennedy is professor of American studies at University College Dublin. This article first appeared in The Conversation, the conversation.com.
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