For all its beauty, honesty and emotion, country music also has a reputation as “white people music.” It’s an unfortunate label that only alienates fans and keeps the genre stuck in trite stereotypes and cliches.
But it’s not entirely untrue, thanks in large part to skittish label executives who are afraid to think outside of the box they built for their own genre. Singer Carl Ray said it best when he told The Guardian, “‘I perform in places where I’m the only African American and I’ve never had a bad experience. The problem is not with the fans, it’s with the executives – they’re trying to go with what’s worked before, and they’re trying to keep their job.”
That was 10 years ago.
In reality, country music owes its deepest roots to black musicians and artists — like the ones who taught country pioneer Jimmie Rogers everything he knows about music. Or the ones who wrote the groundbreaking music that was made mainstream by Elvis Presley. It’s not just Darius Rucker, there’s a whole crop of black country artists on the rise. With any luck country singers like Mickey Guyton, who has been the favorite of both fans and critics since she stepped on the scene, will be recognized for their talent before their skin color.
Here are seven African-American country musicians who changed country music.
DeFord Bailey was a pioneer not only for African American Country singers, but for all country musicians. A world-class harmonica player, Bailey has the distinct honor of being the first country singer to be introduced on the Grand Ole Opry. Not just the first black country singer, the first ever country musician. Yes, the first performer on the show was a black man. Opry founder George Hay made the announcement live on air on Dec. 10, 1927, when the show officially adopted its name, changing it from WSM Barn Dance, which it had used since it started in 1925.
Bailey would go on to play the Opry regularly as well as tour with country music greats like Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff through 1941. Unfortunately, a conflict with his recording rights essentially ended his career that year. A licensing conflict between two organizations made it so he could not perform his most well-known songs on air, and soon Bailey was tragically relegated to shining shoes and renting rooms for a living.
A rare appearance in 1974 launched the Opry’s “Old Timers’ Show,” and Bailey received one of country music’s greatest honors when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005 — 23 years after he passed away.
One of our living legends of country music, Charley Pride embodies everything there is to love about country music. With talent matched only by his resiliency and character, Pride rose to fame at the height of racial tension in America and eventually earned 39 No. 1 singles, selling over 70 million albums. The only artist to outsell Pride for RCA was Elvis Presley.
But it’s not just about sales, Grammy Awards, Entertainer of the Year awards or “first black country singer” moments, though Pride certainly has his share of those. What makes Pride such a huge influence on country music is the way he changed perceptions of what it meant to be “country.”
Most listeners and radio programmers didn’t realize they were listening to a black man when Pride first hit the radio in the 60s. That was partially due to the absence of a picture on his promotional singles.
When they did learn, it didn’t matter. Pride’s smooth voice helped ease the tensions of the working class struggles he sang about and resonated with. Furthermore, his history as a hard-working former baseball player who got his start singing before the games was endearing to listeners. He trampled the prejudices of some of his biggest fans simply by being who he is.
To this day, Pride insists that when it comes to country music his color is not important. But he showed just how colorblind music really is at a time when the nation, and country music, needed it most.
Pride recently kicked off his 50th anniversary tour, and you can find dates here.
She may not be known traditionally as a country artist, but Tennessee native and American icon Tina Turner’s stint in country music was huge both for her and for future generations of artists. She wasn’t the first black pop/R&B artist to go country (there’s another coming up in the list), but she chose to introduce herself to the world as a country musician to show her appreciation for the genre.
In 1975, only a year before leaving her abusive husband Ike Turner, Tina stepped out on her own to release her first ever solo record. A collection of Turner’s version of some of her favorite country songs, Tina Turns the Country On! earned her a Grammy nomination (albeit in the R&B category, thanks to the awards’ old way of categorizing music).
And while she didn’t gain breakthrough solo success until the 80s, Tina’s stint as a black country singer inspired a whole world of musicians to cross into country. Her booming personality and vocal delivery also inspired a new wave of big-voiced country singers like Reba McEntire to take control of the stage, instead of sticking to the reserved demeanor seen in most country artists at the time.
To this day, her hometown celebrates her country music roots with its Tina Turner Heritage Days every year.
Aaron Neville was born in New Orleans and grew up around the southern and creole influences of Louisiana. He started off singing with The Neville Brothers, but eventually had a solo career. Neville’s voice is high and smooth, and lends itself well to R&B, but the singer never limited himself to one genre.
One of Neville’s most notable collaborations with a prominent country singer wasn’t even for a country song. His work with Linda Ronstadt in 1989 for the Grammy Award winning song “Don’t Know Much” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that year.
In 1993 he came out with “The Grand Tour”, an undeniably country song filled with fiddles and lonely lamentations. The next year Neville recorded the Patsy Cline classic, “I Fall to Pieces” as a duet with Trisha Yearwood.
Neville’s versatility enabled him to swing easily between genres, allowing others, such as Darius Rucker, to follow in his footsteps years later.
Ray Charles is the rare artist whose music completely eclipses genre boundaries. And while, like Tina Turner, he’s not known traditionally as a country music singer, Charles stepped into the country music spotlight several times and left a lasting impact.
For starters, one of Charles’ first gigs as a musician in the 40s was playing with a group of country musicians called The Florida Playboys. He first began recording country songs in the late 50s, and in 1962 he released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
The album was one of many of Charles’ homages to his love for country music (he released another volume and several country singles throughout his career), and is widely considered to be Charles’ greatest record and one of the most important country records of all time.
Charles’ signature arrangements, complete with spunky piano licks and big band punctuation, helped introduce country music to an entirely new generation that had never heard some of the genre’s biggest hits before. Thanks to Ray Charles, country music’s popularity exploded. He paved the way for fledgling artists like Merle Haggard to become bona fide American superstars.
Ray Charles also stood up against racism. In 1961 he famously cancelled a performance in Augusta, Georgia when he learned that the black audience would be segregated upstairs in the venue. It wasn’t as dramatic as the movie Ray led audiences to believe, but he did get sued for breach of contract.
Some of today’s best-selling country singers owe the genesis of their biggest hits to Cowboy Troy. How so? Well, he was doing the whole “hick-hop” thing years before acts like Jason Aldean (“Dirt Road Anthem”), Luke Bryan (“That’s My Kind of Night”) and Florida Georgia Line (“This Is How We Roll”) cashed in on it.
Sure, it may not be the kind of “change” a lot of traditional country fans were hoping for, but Cowboy Troy’s mark on country music is undeniably huge. What separates Troy Lee Coleman III from the other acts is that he was always making music that fused country twang with rock music and hip hop lyric schemes. Unlike artists who saw their stars rise with a hick-hop hit or two, it was never just a fad for Cowboy Troy, who started in 2001.
The conservative Texan grew up in Dallas and graduated from The University of Texas at Austin. He had success with his first major label record, Loco Motive in 2005, which peaked at No. 2 on the album charts. From there, Troy ultimately became a fixture on television, co-hosting and appearing on a number of shows, from Nashville Star to Dancing With The Stars.
He’s one of the original members of Big & Rich’s “MuzikMafia,” which also saw success prior to the 2010s. But Troy’s influence on the scene can ultimately be heard in the hits that launched other (notably white) artists to their sold-out World Tour status.
Darius Rucker is, in many ways, the new torchbearer for country artists who don’t fall in line with the expected “white southerner” trope. Though his solo career as a country artist is still less than a decade old, Rucker’s influence and success already has him pinned as the “next” Charley Pride — and not just because of his skin color.
As a founding member and primary songwriter for soft rock band Hootie & The Blowfish (contrary to popular belief, the name was a combination of nicknames and Rucker was not “Hootie”), Rucker co-wrote the 16th best-selling album of all time in Cracked Rear View. He always described his sound as more country-leaning and introduces the classic hit “Let Her Cry” as the first country song he ever wrote.
When Rucker, who is originally from South Carolina, first went solo, execs tried to get him to release an R&B record, which was met with minimal fanfare. However, when Rucker got his chance to make the music he felt most at home making, 2008’s Learn To Live was born. The album led to three No. 1 country hits, including “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “Alright.”
It also laid the groundwork for his second record, Charleston, SC 1966. Named in homage to one of his heroes Radney Foster (whose Del Rio, TX 1959 is widely considered one of the greatest country records of all time), the record cemented Rucker as a mainstay in country music. He’d eventually go on to record one of the most-played country songs ever, his version of “Wagon Wheel.”
All the while, Rucker has been received as a masterful songwriter with a genuine honesty in his delivery and a sound that is both uniquely his own and respectful of the deepest country traditions. Rucker is not simply an influential black country artist, he’s one of the best songwriting artists in modern country music.
And while Rucker downplays the role of color in his career (like Pride), his success is important. As long as there are gatekeepers in country music, there will be barriers to truly talented artists getting the support they deserve. And no matter the record-setting careers of folks like Pride and Rucker, suits are nervous to break from stereotypes.
But fans want to hear great country music, regardless of color. The backbone of country music was built and is strengthened by artists both black and white. These pioneers proved the effect they can have on the critical and commercial success of country music, and little by little are reducing notion that country music is anything other than the music of all people.