Ka-Ching…With Twang: Country Music in the Culture Wars

In a world where everything white and male and privileged seems threatened by diverse experiences, it was obvious that country music was going to be on the hitlist. (I maintain that there’s a long list somewhere that the social justice movement is ticking off as they go, although things do need to be more representative of the world’s citizenry.)

The type of popular music that evolved from hillbilly music to become a billion-dollar industry based in Nashville, the city in Tennessee where Bibles are printed en masse, is now defending itself from claims that it’s too white and always has been. It took the death of a tall, black man captured on film to prompt a wail for change which had to happen or country music would look daft.

Just as various movie awards were ‘so white’, so a genre built on the white southern experience now looks horribly monocultural. I call this culture ‘Hey girl, hop in my truck and let’s get busy by the riverbank under the stars’. It got to the stage that a satire on this culture, a song called Girl in a Country Song by Maddie & Tae, was a massive hit at a time when very girls were singing those country songs.

I am also convinced that country music, on the commercial side, is deliberately crafted in waves. One year there’s violins and pedal steel guitars on the radio ‘bringing country back’; the next there’s hiphop delivery and processed beats; then we get the ‘return’ of violins. An example: Thomas Rhett, probably the Nashville equivalent of Harry Styles or Ed Sheeran, claims he is ‘country again’ on his new album, complaining that he’s been in LA too long and now gets to sit watching sunsets with his wife.

Money Doesn’t Talk, It Swears

It’s a business, man. Nashville is built on money which attracts writers, performers and (significantly) tourists. There’s a crazy statistic which says the net population of the city is growing by thousands year on year: nobody’s leaving and everybody’s coming in. It can be said that, even more than Los Angeles and New York City, Nashville is the musical centre of the USA as befits its Music City tag. Hen parties head to Broadway where honky-tonks provide alcohol and also live music played by jam bands for generous tips.

There’s the Grand Ole Opry, the Mother Church of country music where any number of professional musicians and comedians entertain diverse crowds of out-of-towners. I spend an hour every Sunday watching the Saturday night show which is shown on Youtube live; I hope to catch a show there when I head to town.

I think the reason country music is at a crossroads is because of the attention from critics and journalists who have come in from outside the genre. Ann Powers, the esteemed doyenne of music criticism, has a base there and often writes about artists with strong female perspectives. The likes of Emily Yahr in Washington DC, Jewly Hight and Marissa M Moss all write regularly about the genre, while Kelly McCartney has a show on Apple Music and writes for Holler Country, with a focus on women and gay artists.

Over the last decade, acts like Kacey Musgraves have attracted gay fans with songs like Follow Your Arrow and Rainbow. Singers such as Brandi Carlile, songwriters like Shane McAnally and broadcasters like Cody Alan are openly gay; Billy Gilman had to hide his sexuality and kd lang had to move out of country music because of her out-and-proud nature, so things have changed in that respect. If you have the talent, it doesn’t matter if you love someone of the same sex.

The next Rubicon to cross is a racial one. It’s America’s big hot-button issue, after all.

In June 2021 two artists released songs that seemed to assimilate them within country music. Shy Carter, who wrote Stuck Like Glue for Sugarland and God Whispered Your Name for Keith Urban, teamed up with Cole Swindell on a song called Beer With My Friends, written with and starring David Lee Murphy, a bastion of the type of country music made in the Garth Era where if you looked pretty and wore a cowboy hat then you could make money. Blanco Brown, meanwhile, updated the Cha Cha Slide and called it The Git Up, a contemporary linedance in the form of a novelty song; his new tune is Nobody’s More Country, which was co-written with Tyler Hubbard from Florida Georgia Line.

Everyone in the American South does country stuff, be it fishing, hunting, driving a truck, going to church, partying with your buddies, chatting up girls or eating pies baked by one’s mother. What country music does brilliantly is to tell stories, three-minute movies with melancholy, layers and style. The work of Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Taylor Swift recalls the stories told by Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, which crossed over to pop audiences who wanted depth in their music.

There is a huge overlap between country and Adult Contemporary music, which is basically the playlist of Magic: How Do I Live by Leann Rimes, Need You Now by Lady Antebellum (more on them shortly) and Amazed by Lonestar are all targeted at mature couples rather than teenagers. There has always been money in this demographic and country music is as much about marketing as it is about music.

E Pluribus Unum

Which brings me to summer 2021. Morgan Wallen has the biggest album of the year but the most significant thing he did to promote it was a leaked video of him drunkenly using a horrible word that briefly forced his suspension from Big Loud Records. He is back on the roster now and has gained support from Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, two of the more critically acclaimed acts in town who could be called ‘outlaws’. Morgan is not an outlaw: he is, like his friends Florida Georgia Line, a cash cow with a mullet who sings expertly crafted songs about love and loss targeted at an 18-34 demographic.

Two of his contemporaries, Maren Morris and Luke Combs, spoke at the Country Radio Seminar with Ann Powers about accountability. Maren used her platform to promote black artists from the awards podium while Luke once again apologised for appearing in a music video of the rapper Upchurch where the Confederate flag was prevalent. Maren went so far as to say she didn’t want to play festivals where the flag was flown in the audience, as well as lampooning the ‘family’ nature of country music as ‘protecting white people’. You could substitute ‘status quo’ for the last two words.

Black performers have seldom if ever been welcome in this family; indeed, ‘hillbilly’ and ‘race’ were separate categories in the early days of commercial music. For tokenistic reasons, and because he made a lot of money for RCA Records, Charley Pride was one of the most popular country stars of the 1970s. Ray Charles was welcomed into the genre too, because he transcended categorisation.

No black woman was given a fair chance, even if she had been the first to play the Opry. Now 80 years old, Linda Martell told her story to Rolling Stone last year. The article opened: ‘Long after the music faded out, she can still hear the hateful words.’ Martell’s posters promoted her as the First Female Negro Country Artist and her album Color Me Country came out on Plantation Records. In 1970! She couldn’t play a show in Texas, despite being booked, because the promoter was shocked by her skin pigmentation.

Linda also alludes to the idiocy of the business aspect of country. Harper Valley PTA was such a smash for Jeannie C Riley that Plantation Records directed all their energy into her, not into Linda, and she was prevented from moving to another label by industry politics. Linda went on to sing on cruise ships, run record stores, teaching kids and even drive buses, using her birthname Thelma.

Rissi Palmer has taken the title of Linda’s album, which was recorded in a single day and was out of print for years, for her own Apple Music show. Give the album a listen and you’ll discover a great set of 11 country songs including Before the Next Teardrop Falls and the toe-tapping Color Him Father. Linda’s voice has the same plainness as Loretta Lynn’s and it sounds very commercial, especially with the contemporaneous arrangements.

Mickey Guyton didn’t even know Linda, the South Carolina-born daughter of a sharecropper, existed but ‘she gave me the courage’ to perform in the country genre, even as her newborn child is a victim of morons via social media. There’s also a burgeoning movement in country and roots music which allows black women to tell their stories. The trio of Alison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Rhiannon Giddens formed the supergroup Our Native Daughters, while Englishwoman Yola is an heir to Mavis Staples and featured on the Highwoman project with Maren, Brandi, Natalie Hemby and founding figure Amanda Shires.

Two beloved acts have had to remove references to Southern history from their names: Lady Antebellum have long been known as Lady A, while Dixie Chicks were thinking of changing their name long before they dropped the first word. Lady A even played their song Like A Lady with an almost all-black band behind them, perhaps to distract people from the controversy of taking the name of ‘the real Lady A’, Anita White, who accused them of ‘using their privilege’. She revealed that the band’s Hillary Scott ‘immediately burst into tears’ when the pair talked, upset at the offence caused. It’s a great big mess that perhaps would have been solved by not using the word Antebellum in their name in the first place.

Charley’s Heirs

The most notable representative of black Southern country has been the rock star from South Carolina whose band Hootie & The Blowfish (another stupid name!) went multiplatinum in the days when rock music was the dominant genre. After an album of r’n’b, Darius Rucker pivoted successfully to country while including covers of Purple Rain and Hootie hits in his live set. Significantly, he has had plenty of radio hits, including It Won’t Be Like This For Long, If I Told You and, of course, his version of Wagon Wheel. Four of his five albums have topped the charts and he is preparing to release a new album in late 2021, helped by the feelgood smash Beers and Sunshine.

Darius hasn’t really been able to outline his experience as a black man on his albums, preferring themes of fatherhood, husbandhood, beers, sunshine and how shoes, wine and Patsy Cline make his life alright. His tremendous, raw interview with NBC Today in February 2021 saw Darius do something for the first time (to quote his song): really open up and share with his audience the pain of being a black man not just in country music but in America.

Darius was due to headline Country2Country in 2020. He wasn’t the only black country star due to appear: Willie Jones finally released his album Right Now in 2021, which included the singles Bachelorettes on Broadway and Down For It. There’s a version of the latter featuring rapper TI, which tallies with the prevalence of rappers like Nelly on country songs in recent years, but the centrepiece of the album is American Dream, with politically charged verses and a lot of autobiography that is welcome in country music.

A lady who has toured with Little Big Town and Carrie Underwood as a backing vocalist, Brittney Spencer’s solo career has gained support from CMT. The channel played her song Sober & Skinny on a Times Square billboard, something Brittney wrote makes her success ‘our ancestors’ wildest dreams’. It also seems the right time for the independent trio Chapel Hart to break through: two siblings and a cousin (so far, so Kings of Leon) popping out of New Orleans with a fully-formed sound. Last year, bluesman Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top joined them on the song Jesus & Alcohol, which has both twang and soul, harmony and attitude as well as a chorus with the line ‘Pass the Bible and Bourbon…pourin’ and prayin’.

Alongside pop-country kid Kane Brown, who got his start playing covers on Youtube and has had hits like Good As You, Homesick and What Ifs, Jimmie Allen is making black performers visible on country radio. His Twitter biography simply reads: ‘I create music outside of boxes’.

Jimmie’s second album Bettie James is in the form of 16 collaborations, which seems a pop strategy to bring an act to people’s attention by pairing them with known names. Alongside black acts like Nelly, Mickey Guyton, Monica, Charley Pride, Lathan Warlick, Darius Rucker and Kenny Edmonds aka Babyface, there are tunes with Keith Urban, The Oak Ridge Boys, Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley. The radio smash Freedom Was a Highway has Paisley ‘singing along to a hiphop song’, while Noah Cyrus joins Jimmie for the ballad This Is Us.

It is welcome to see black faces in a hitherto white genre, and the hope is that this will in turn draw black fans and musicians to country music and, by stealth, reshape country music for the modern era.

Democracy In Action

To return finally to journalists who chronicle this era, I had a thought the other day. In past generations, music fans used to be organised by tribe: mods, rockers, teds, teenyboppers, Bobbysoxers, punks, goths and Take That fans (subdivided into who was your favourite Take That member).

Today, now that life is lived online through technology, fans are organised by gender, skin pigmentation and sexuality. BTS fans are all one Army, Bieber fanatics are Beliebers and so on. Country fans come in many amorphous groups, including female fans, black fans and gay fans, subdivided still further (but not according to whether you like Dan or Shay, Maddie or Tae, Brooks or Dunn).

Publishing has seen a spike in books from the minority perspective, while the success of Black Panther means Hollywood cannot deny that the black perspective doesn’t make money.

When it comes to country music, the major labels still hold the cards but journalists like Andrea Williams and Marcus Dowling are very vocal, especially on social media platforms, about the state of contemporary country. Andrea’s pieces on Vulture.com are full of scorn and sighing, and she seems on a mission to educate white fans of country music that they are racist.

This is what Andrea wrote in the aftermath of the Lady A story in summer 2020, using the discussion of the word ‘antebellum’ as a forebear of how today ‘labels and publishers and artists must actively and intentionally do the work on the ground to welcome Black people, one by one, into this multibillion-dollar genre that bears their own blood.

‘Racism is everywhere in this industry. It’s in the major label offices with one or no Black employees, the publisher rosters with one or no Black songwriters…

‘For every one Mickey Guyton or Darius Rucker wannabe, there are 100, maybe 1,000, never-wills, the people whose hearts beat to a banjo-laced track but who wouldn’t dare subject themselves to the humiliation of being Black in country music.

‘My husband and I know countless Black artists, musicians, writers, and producers who made their way to Music City only to give up and leave, the idea of shucking and jiving for conditional acceptance by country music’s gatekeepers was too much to consider.’

The emotive language certainly puts across her point, and I am sure country music journalism isn’t used to seeing this sort of thing in print. A year on, Andrea writes ‘Duh’ as business continues as normal after Morgan Wallen’s shameful slur. She opensg her article with reference to black county musicians who never became stars, such as Ruby Falls, Nisha Jackson and Frankie Staton. The last of these pioneered the Black Country Music Association (now disbanded). 2020/21 is just 1975 or 2007 repeating itself.

Andrea’s polemic concerns ‘a segregated industry’ full of ‘chronic racism’ which told black people ‘we never belonged in the first place’. It does seem as if Andrea is a warrior for the voiceless artists: ‘The initial color line drawn by the industry has been repeatedly darkened over time, traced over and over by each new wave of industry executives.’ Those executives ‘can also put on a good face and expresstheir disgust’ when the golden boy does something nasty, ‘then, just a few months later, they can act as if it never happened.

‘The script has a predetermined victor in its white male hero, that the illusion of anything contrary is only meant to keep things interesting — and only temporarily.’ With its ineffable, systemic whiteness, Nashville has ‘stopped the architects and builders at the door, making them feel like unwanted guests and accepting only a handful for temporary stays, all while allowing the long-term occupants to turn something once shared and sacred into a shrine of their own sins.’

Truth Hurts

Whether you agree or disagree, this is Andrea speaking ‘her truth’, one which sees no ‘admission of sickness’, no ‘corporate penance’ from the industry. That isn’t entirely true because the promotional rollout of the album was disrupted, but Andrea uses the welcoming back of Morgan Wallen, which has been number one in country music for most of the year, and the people who helped create it.

‘Never mind that the list of collaborators on Dangerous is starkly white, as is the board that voted on this decision [to withdraw him from award nominations], save for Jimmie Allen.’ It is true that fingers cannot just click equality into life, though allies like Jason Isbell are applauded just as they are in other areas of the critical race debate. Expect to see more ‘allyship’ and questions about ‘anti-racism’ in the next stage of the battle.

I feel a duty to quote Kyle ‘Trigger’ Coroneos, a fearless commentator on the Saving Country Music website. He points out that critics like Andrea and Marcus ‘are solely read by their fellow activist intellectuals’; they are ‘winning every battle but losing the war…using identity to sow division’. Indeed, they seem to be ‘supplanting one unfair system with another’, with a set of rules based on identity.

TJ Osborne, himself fearless having come out this spring, wishes that streaming services should promote gay artists all year round. ‘You doing it in Pride month is nice, but that’s helping you.’ Trigger states that Brothers Osborne are closer to rock than country, while Mickey Guyton was performing in the White House back in 2015, so it does look like ‘her moment’ is being used as tokenism. I hope Grady Smith – who, though gay, never makes this a key part of his criticism – addresses the issue in his criticism, which is very much pro-outsiders.

Fadeout

To that end: will there be ‘structural change’ in country music, which journalists and campaigners demand? The Black Opry channel launched in spring to promote the ‘versatility and diversity in sound’. A festival will run in New Orleans in late October 2021. Rissi Palmer, meanwhile, has become the mother hen of the genre, pointing out that a song that contains rap gets way more support from radio than a song by an act like Breland or Willie Jones. Streaming, Rissi says, is the ‘saving grace’.

Jimmie Allen, whose songs have millions of streams and also radio plays, is preparing two big events this summer to accompany the Gold Edition of Bettie James: a hootenanny in his hometown at Hudson Fields in Milton, Delaware accompanied by DJ Jazzy Jeff on August 7 and, probably on sale there, My Voice is a Trumpet, a book for children which celebrates ‘the many types of voices that can effect change’. Scroll down on his Twitter feed and he’s pictured with his arm around Elton John, ‘such a sweet soul’, and celebrating the ‘world class entertainer’ Garth Brooks being honoured by the Kennedy Center. He also offers pearls of motivational wisdom which has brought him many fans.

It is not news that today anyone can write a review on a microblogging site, or that any artist can recommend other acts, as Elton himself does with his radio show. I reckon Chapel Hart and Brittney Spencer would be the breakout acts at Country2Country 2022 because both feel hugely authentic, the buzzword for country music since commercialism began. As in cinema and literature, where white perspectives keep selling until suddenly a non-white perspective makes money, country music will benefit hugely from talented singers and performers who may or may not choose to bring their skin colour into the conversation.

Just as Taylor Swift has inspired hundreds of girls to pick up a guitar, so might the black singers of the 2020s do the same. Coupled with favourable playlisting and concert bookings, whether part of an affirmative action scheme or just because the acts have a big grassroots following, there will certainly be a golden age of country music.

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