If one listens to a “hillbilly” record like, say, Jimmie Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel” back-to-back with a “race” record like Lead Belly’s “Cow Cow Yiki” it should become immediately clear to the listener that often the distinction between these two genres has for many years been (and continues to be) more of an industry marketing rather than musicological one. After decades of segregation, one needn’t watch the CMT Music Awards to know that Country music has for a long time been almost totally dominated by white performers. However, there have always been black country musicians and more continue to emerge. Whether or not they're embraced by the Nashville industry or public is another question.
WHAT YOU KNOW ABOUT THE DIRTY SOUTH?
To Americans for whom there are only two coasts (the East and West), the South is with tiresome regularity portrayed and imagined to be a homogeneous region populated entirely by menacing, toothless, racist rednecks (whereas the North is totally free of racists, naturally). If these regionalist haters ever bothered to explore the South they’d likely be surprised by the physical and cultural variety of the Appalachians, the Delta, the Deep South, the Old South, the Ozarks, the Piedmont, the Upper South, the cities and countryside and so on. It would probably surprise many of them to learn that almost every single county in the country with a majority black population is located in the South since they imagine everyone there to be a white Republican.
Black majority counties in the USA in red
Since the settlement of the South by Europeans and African slaves, there’s been a (not always peaceful, mind you) cultural exchange between African, English, French, German, Scotch-Irish, Scottish, Spanish-Americans and various Native American nationalities. That unique Southern syncretism is no doubt why the South has and continues to produce most of America’s major musical developments including Minstrelsy, Cakewalk, Ragtime, Boogie-Woogie, The Blues, Gospel, Hillbilly/Country, Jazz, Old Time, Cajun, Bluegrass, Rhythm and Blues, Zydeco, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Soul, Bass, Bounce, Buck, and Crunk (to name a few). Yet the music industry -- and many field recorders it should be noted -- have usually tried to segregate music based on performers’ and audiences’ races – dividing them into black and white camps.
Photo by Dorothea Lange
In a genre like country, the traditional instruments (the African banjo, the Spanish guitar, the German harmonica, the Italian mandolin, etc) betray the music’s beautiful mongrel ancestry. In Pamela Foster’s book, My Country: The African Diaspora's Country Music Heritage, she writes that “over four hundred country chart hits are the product of black singers, songwriters, musicians, record label owners, and producers.” Nonetheless, country continues to be marketed and sold as perhaps the purest white of white people’s white music. I reckon it’s because of this reality that most black people with country connections are either working behind the scenes or buying rather than playing the music.
In country music, the Cashville industry plays cultural gatekeeper and in many ways perpetuates the legacy Jim Crow. Not just that, they control and distort the image of the South, much as Hollywood does Los Angeles. Country’s greatest talents haven’t been played on Nashville country radio stations in decades. If something even sounds like country, it’s called “alt country.” The pablum that does get played on the radio is actually polled and market-tested for mediocrity (because it's no alienating).
Meanwhile, modern day minstrels like Larry the Cable Guy (portrayed by a comic from Nebraska who can seemingly never break character) and George W. Bush (a New Haven, Connecticut-born blue blood who can likewise never break character) have based their careers on portraying southerners as unpleasant boobs. The worst part is that their and their ilk’s neoconservative politics, bogus redneck humor and hat country soundtrack have been adopted as authentic by masses of the mentally colonized.
I doubt that I share a lot of opinions with Oprah Winfrey but she does wield a lot of her own mind control ability so when she said “Country music is the real soul music!” I’m hoping that at least a few members of her audience were effectively “audited” (to borrow a term from another cult). I assume that she was attempting to equate the two genres rather than pit them against one another. Surely the common themes of economic struggle, relationship drama, despair, fall and redemption are common to both and have an almost universal appeal. If you need the opinion of another famous black tastemaker, consider Snoop Dogg, who said in “My Medicine,” “I’d like to dedicate this record right here to my main man, Johnny Cash, a real American gangsta. Grand Ole Opry, here we come.”
So here’s to black country musicians who either ignored or fought to erase the color line and, in observance of Black History Month.
DeFord Bailey was born 14 December, 1899 in Smith County, Tennessee. He learned to play harmonica when he was three whilst confined to bed for a year after being stricken with polio. He moved to Nashville in 1918 to perform and his first documented radio performance was on Nashville’s WSM in 1926. The following year he premiered “Pan American Blues” on WSM Barn Dance. 85 years ago the Nashville industry was apparently slightly more racially sophisticated than it is now and Bailey’s 1928 recording of “John Henry” was released on both RCA’s “race” and “hillbilly” series. He passed away in 1982 in Nashville.
BIG AL DOWNING
Al Downing was born 9 January, 1940 in Oklahoma. He began his performing career playing piano and singing in Bobby Poe and The Poe Kats. His first single was “Down on the Farm” in 1958 but it wasn’t until 1971 that he released his debut full-length, Big Al Downing and His Friends. Despite the fact that he’d been recording for over twenty years, he was awarded Billboard's “New Artist of the Year” and “Single of the Year” in 1979. In 1978, he had a hit with "Mr. Jones" followed by "Touch Me (I'll Be Your Fool Once More)" in 1979. He passed away in 2005 at the age of 65 in Massachusetts.
Dobie Gray was born 26 July, around 1941 near Houston, Texas. Details about his birth are somewhat sketchy although his real name was most likely "Lawrence Darrow Brown" but neither that nor his birthplace nor the year of his birth are known with complete certainty. He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and recorded variously as Leonard Ainsworth, Larry Curtis, and Larry Dennis. As Dobie Gray he had his first hit with "Look At Me" in 1963. He had a bigger hit with "The ‘In’ Crowd" in 1965. His 1972 recording of "Drift Away" became his biggest hit the following year. He subsequently moved to Nashville where he began collaborating on songwriting with Tony Seals. He continued to release albums as well that blurred the lines between country, soul, pop and rock. He passed away 6 December, 2011.
Otis Williams was born on 2 June, 1936 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He sang in the doo-wop group, The Charms, before recording “I Fall to Pieces.” He was drafted in 1960, which brought about the dissolution of his group. He returned to recording in 1965 as a solo artist, first performing soul. He moved to Nashville in 1971 and formed (at least on paper) the all-black Midnight Cowboys (although in reality it was a Nashville gimmick and the backing band were actually white session musicians). They recorded and released Otis Williams and the Midnight Cowboys the same year. Williams still performs.
Few musicians refused to conform to industry marketing notions like Ray Charles. The man invented soul music in 1954 with “I Gotta Woman” (at Amoeba we file him in the ..… section). He was born on 23 September, 1930 in Albany, Georgia. He was completely blind by the age of seven which is probably part of the reason why he didn’t see any reason to not record Blues, Gospel, Jazz, Pop, Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, and yes, even Country music. His album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962) was his _19th_ release in five years and his first number one. He released “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” "Born to Lose," "You Don't Know Me," and "Careless Love" as singles off of it. He went on to blaze all kinds of crazy trails before passing away at 73 in Beverly Hills in 2004.
Charley Frank Pride was born 18 March, 1938 in Sledge, Mississippi. He began playing guitar in his teens. After DeFord Bailey, he became the second black performer inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. After pursuing a career in baseball for several years, he was persuaded to pursue a career in music by Red Foley and Red Sovine. Pride signed with RCA in 1965. In order to not offend thin-skinned racists, for the first couple of years of his career his agent prevented any images of the black musician from circulating. By 1969, the silky smooth variety of country known as the Nashville Sound had evolved (or devolved) into Countrypolitan, which basically erased the remaining musical edges between county and pop (bubblegum pop was comparatively avant-garde, if anything). Underlining this fact, from 1969 to 1971, Pride had eight number one hits on both the pop and country charts simultaneously. None of this is mean to make light of Pride’s commercial and cultural achievements, rather, I merely mean to illustrate that by the late 1960s the industry was comfortable with a black country artist as long as he was solidly middle-of-the-road. If Pride had been making honky-tonk or outlaw country, there is no way that he would have been so readily embraced.
Obie Burnett McClinton was born 25 April, 1940 in Senatobia, Mississippi. He released his first single, “Tradin' Stamps,” in 1964. As a child he became interested in country by listening to Hank Williams – Williams had incidentally learned guitar from black musician Rufus Payne. He penned several tracks on Country-Soul great James Carr’s albums You Got My Mind Messed Up (1966) and A Man Needs a Woman (1968). The so-called “Chocolate Cowboy” released his debut, O.B. McClinton Country, in 1971. He passed away in 1987 from cancer, just 47 years old.
Frenchie “Stoney” Edwards was born 24 December, 1929 in Seminole County, Oklahoma. In 1968 we was sidelined for two years by a workplace disaster. As he recovered he started singing honky-tonk and was discovered by a lawyer who thought, in the wake of Charley Pride’s success, that black country musicians might become a hot commodity. He signed with RCA and released five country albums. He’s best known for the song, "She's My Rock," a Top 20 country hit that was later a hit song for Brenda Lee and then for George Jones. He died in 1997 of stomach cancer.
Robert Dwayne Womack was born 4 March, 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio. When he was just ten, he appeared on his first recording with Curtis Womack and the Womack Brothers’ Pennant single, "Buffalo Bill". In 1976 he released BW Goes C&W. He had suggested the unlikely title of Step Aside Charley Pride, Give Another Nigger A Try! Womack’s interest in the music was genuine; he said of it, "Country & Western is my roots, it's deeply rooted in all my song and lyrics. My people came from the hills of Virginia and played it a lot." His country album was a commercial flop and his last for United Artists. He’s still performing and releasing records to this day.
Several black performers such as Aaron Neville, Al Green, Esther Phillips, Pointer Sisters’s “Fairytale” (1974) have recorded country songs. Artists like James Carr would blur the line (and “Dark End of the Street” 1967 would be covered by country acts like The Flying Burrito Brothers) between white and black southern music in what came to be referred to as Country Soul.
In the last few decades, more and more black country musicians have entered the scene although more often remaining relatively obscure. The 1980s gave us Bobby Jonz and Carl Ray; the 1990s gave us Cleve Francis, Frankie Stanton, Petrella, Trini Triggs, and Vicky Vann; the 2000s gave us Carolina Chocolate Drops, Cowboy Troy, Darius Rucker (of Hootie & the Blowfish fame), Dwight Quick, Miko Marks, Po' Girl, and Rissi Parker; and the 2010s have thus far produced Rhonda Towns. If there are more to add to the list, hit me with them!