Black artists from other genres performing country music shouldn't be treated as novelties. Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums from 1962 instantly spring to mind, and they inspired The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop (1965) and other overviews of pop country trends (also nothing new). From there, Tina Turner debuted as a solo artist in 1974 with a country album, and the Pointer Sisters made history that same year with Grammy award-winning country song "Fairytale." Beyond those examples, white country artists benefitted over time from African American contemporaries' genre line-blurring brilliance, from Kenny Rogers' working relationship and lasting friendship with Lionel Richie to Dolly Parton finding success with a Donna Summer co-write ("Starting Over Again" was a No. 1 for Parton in 1980). None of that cancels out important discussions about the country music business' longstanding and deeply-rooted race problems. It's simply perspective on why you shouldn't be taken aback by this headline: R&B singer Monica is working on a country album.
The hitmaker behind "Angel of Mine" and Brandy collaboration "The Boy is Mine" had a recent encounter with the "Any Man of Mine" crowd when she appeared on "Pray," a selection from Jimmie Allen's Bettie James Gold Edition.
"Jimmie Allen is an incredible guy who loves his family and knows they've brought him through a tremendous amount of things," she told Billboard. "That's what we related most about...I met Little Big Town when Brandi Carlile and I were in the studio working on my country album -- it may be out before the end of the year -- and I heard harmonies up the hallway. That turned into them participating on 'Pray,' so it was one of those real organic situations after Jimmie called me about doing the record."
Much like Allen, the Pointer Sisters and so many other Black artists with a deep love for country storytelling, Monica discovered the genre at a young age through relatives.
"I grew up loving country music and my stepfather, who raised me, is a Methodist minister, but he also drove buses and he would take us to Nashville, Gatlinburg and Dollywood in Tennessee," she told Billboard. "I became a really big fan of Dolly Parton, at about 8 or 9 years old. That was my real introduction to country music. Shortly after, it was Kenny Rogers. I started listening to the depth of the songs and the fact that they were unafraid to say whatever it was they felt. I felt like this was a great time for me to really step into an area that I've always admired and loved. We're just getting started, but I have so enjoyed it and been welcomed with open arms."
Since her '90s success, Monica scored three more No. 1 albums: After the Storm (2003), The Makings of Me (2006) and Still Standing (2010). Recent song "Trenches" (feat. Lil Baby and The Neptunes) is the title track from a forthcoming independent release that's separate from the recording artist and actor's country project.