Country music artist O.B. McClinton with ping pong players visiting from China. New Journal and Guide, May 20, 1972. ProQuest Historical African American Newspapers.
A new generation of artists of African descent appear to finally be making inroads in country music: a genre that has traditionally proven difficult for Black artists, especially women, to successfully integrate into and sustain a long career. Some might not associate people of African descent with country music, but the music genre that was once called “hillbilly music”—which evolved from European music and African influences—benefited from the cultural exchange of Blacks and whites in the American south. For example, the banjo, which figured prominently in the formation of country music (and other American genres) has African origins and the book Banjo: America’s African Instrumentis a helpful resource for those interested in learning about the history of the instrument.
The banjo was not the only contribution that African Americans have made to country music. Contemporary music artist Queen Esther, who performs different genres of music including country, gave a TED talk on the Black roots of country music as well as factors that caused African Americans to shift from performing country music and dominate in other genres such as blues during the early 20th century. Moreover, African American musicians including Arnold Schultz, Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, and Leslie Riddle were influential behind the scenes instructing white country music artists on instrument playing technique with Riddle also providing songs that were recorded by white artists.
During Black Music Appreciation Month, we are spotlighting Black pioneers and contemporary voices in country music.
Black Pioneers In Country Music
DeFord Bailey (1899-1981), a harmonica player and vocalist, was born in Tennessee and relocated to Nashville, the country musical capital of the world in 1918. Bailey found acclaim on the country music scene, recording music in the 1920s and performing in concerts at the Grand Ole Opry until he was reportedly fired from the venue in 1941. Bailey faded from the public’s eye over the next few decades, re-emerging to perform again in the mid 1970s and before his death in 1981. A decade after his passing, a biography, DeFord Bailey: a Black Star in Early Country Music was published.
Listening to country music that was broadcast on the radio in rural Mississippi as a youth had a lasting impact on Charlie Pride (1938-2020). Pride had a career as a baseball player in the Negro Leagues playing for various teams in the 1950s and did a stint in the U.S. Army prior to auditioning for the Sun Records Company in Nashville. Pride would go on to be signed by the music label RCA and see his first single released in the mid 1960s. Pride was the second best-selling artist on RCA behind his label mate Elvis Presley for whom Pride would open concerts in the 1970s. Pride has the distinction of being both the first African American country music artist inducted to the Grand Ole Opry and to win the Country Music Association Artist of the Year Award. Pride amassed thirty-one gold, four platinum and one quadruple platinum album and numerous Grammy awards in his career. Pride’s autobiography, Pride: the Charley Pride Story, was published in 1994, and in 2006 he recorded a video oral history for The HistoryMakers about his life and career which can be seen here.
Ebony, March 1970
In the late 1960s, Linda Martell was on the fast track to become one of the first Black women country music acts when she recorded the single “Color Him Father” that landed her on the country music charts. The single was featured on her lone album Color Me Country (1970). Martell made the rite of passing for all country music artists by performing on the Grand Ole Opry stage and appeared on the popular longrunning TV series Hee Haw. In a 2020 Rolling Stone article, Martell reflected on her brush with stardom in her formative years and recalled the setbacks, including racism and other factors, that extinguished her career before it took off.
Decades later, Black women country music artists such as Mickey Guyton and Rissi Palmer acknowledge that they stand on Martell’s shoulders. Palmer named her podcast, Color Me Country, which features contemporary Black, Indigenous and Latinx country music performers, in honor of Martell’s abum. As the country music industry strives to be more inclusive and diverse, the 2021 CMT Awards, an annual country awards program that is broadcast on cable television, honored Martell with an “Equal Play” Award. This development was reported in an Associated Press article.
Then And Now
In the 20th century, a slew of African American artists, many of whom have southern roots, achieved acclaim and success by recording country music songs and albums. In her book My Country: The African Diaspora's Country Music Heritage author Pamela E. Foster wrote about Black artists in country music including the R&B icon Ray Charles whose 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music contained the song “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and the song sold more than a million copies. Among the many Black artists who channelled the spirit of country as performers, songwriters, or both, include Lionel Richie, Al Green, James Brown, Donna Summer, and the Pointer Sisters whose song “Fairytale” garnered them a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance in 1974.
During the first two decades of the 21st Century, generations of African American artists (including Darius Rucker, Valerie June, Miko Marks, Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Rhiannon Giddens, and the group Chapel Hearts) have continued to showcase the diversity of styles within country, bluegrass, folk and other overlapping genres. Some of these artists are producing and presenting music independently and others are doing so with the backing of major record labels.
A 2020 Tennessee Tribune article “Black Women Finally Getting Country Music Recognition” and PBS Newshour segment from April 2021 titled “How These Black Women Are Reshaping Country Music” demonstrate the resilience of African American women country artists who are forging ahead with their music despite the barriers that have long prevented Black women from flourishing in this genre.
As these artists carve a path for themselves in an industry that has been slow to embrace diversity, we hope that their journeys will be documented and archived. Thereby, future generations of aspiring country music artists of all ethnicities can learn about the trailblazers who came before them and that there is indeed a rich tradition of Black artists who comprise the heart and soul of country music.
The Sounds of Black Music is a blog series featuring resources on music genres and influential artists from across the African Diaspora. This series is written and curated by Tracy Crawford and A.J. Muhammad.