Ka-Ching…With Twang: Redesigning Country

In late November 2021 the BBC World Service broadcast a documentary about country music. It’s unlike any other country doc that has ever aired before, certainly from a UK broadcaster. It taps into the issues within and outside the music industry, asking whether the genre is moving beyond the ‘white male image’ (as with every other industry you could name and indeed put a 45-minute show for the BBC together).

For the last few years, I’ve seen fewer pieces about melodies and many more about representation. In that time, a few black acts have risen to the top in Nashville. Jimmie Allen won a CMA Award for Best New Artist and is GRAMMY nominated in the same category; Kane Brown is a regular on country radio; and Mickey Guyton is gaining exposure and plaudits for her debut album, which is ‘fine’ (A Country Way of Life). As for Rhiannon Giddens, she is fast becoming the Professor of Country Music thanks to her research into the origins of the genre in the USA.

I argued at the end of my review of Remember Her Name that the beneficiaries of Mickey Guyton’s long-delayed breakthrough will be other black artists. I previously pondered whether Blackamericana would work as a term to be told, no, these acts are country acts. Segregation, in music as in the 1950s, is foolish.

There is, naturally, a political element to the coterie of black acts following in Mickey’s slipstream: it’s to make country music more representative of America. It was Geoffrey Himes whose piece about ‘Afro-Americana’ inspired debate, especially the lines ‘flood of Afro-Americana albums’ and ‘a large crowd of the flawed and mediocre’. This was deleted in the rewrite, as Paste Magazine admitted that:

‘Due to a breakdown in our editorial process, a previous version of this piece contained racially insensitive language that fell short of Paste’s standards. We sincerely apologize for the oversight, and will retain the updated piece to serve as a reminder of our intent to recognize reader feedback and accept responsibility when we falter.’

The Nashville Scene’s end of year poll, curated by Himes, could not be run in 2021. As musician Jake Blount responded: ‘Black people have always been a part of Americana because Americana was built with our sounds.’ Indeed, Himes’ creation of a new genre serves to make black acts ‘compete with one another in the Negro leagues…[He] is not the first white man to see too many black people moving into the neighborhood and respond by building a wall and shutting the gates’.

I feel this was too big a reach, but then I’m not who Jake Blount is and he brings his experiences to bear as per journalism today. He does have a point, regardless.

The Black Experience

The other main story of 2021 (besides a mullet-haired chap caught on camera using an unspeakably awful word) concerned the Black Opry’s founding. There was a Black Opry house at the recent Americanafest where artist supported one another; the next step is to get the rest of the (non-black) world to listen, and to find common ground rather than arguing every point (which they have every right to do).

To return to the World Service documentary, it’s the kind of show that includes sentences like ‘before we talk about race, let’s talk about gender’ and ‘you stay true to your art regardless of genre’ and ‘people tried to step up’ and ‘it’s an overwhelmingly white space’ and ‘there’s a huge black influence which is often forgotten’. This is very much typical of what the BBC’s cultural output is like in 2021. It doesn’t make it any less true but these buzzwords are everywhere and about time, too.

The show was presented by British act Lady Nade, a Bristolian raised by a white mother and grandma. It featured talking heads including musicians Alison Russell (‘I am extremely genre resistant’), Rhiannon Giddens (‘You can hear Africa and Ireland’ in a banjo) and Yola (‘the industry should hire more black executives’ to ensure her skin is lit appropriately). Rissi Palmer notes the erasure of black voices in country music, including the A&R man for the Carter Family and the man who taught Hank Williams how to play guitar.

We’ll see Rissi in the UK at The Long Road festival next September when she brings an all-woman line-up, acts to be confirmed, to the Front Porch stage. Rissi recalled the farce of being asked to choose a love interest for a music video, but because she couldn’t have either a black or a white one she was left ‘rolling around in the sand by myself’!

Journalist Andrea Williams also appears on the documentary. She complained after the show was broadcast, as an attendum to the show, that black women have to work with white musicians and producers to get anywhere. I like Andrea, who has also set up a database of black instrumentalists, but you have to wonder when she will find happiness and contentment with her activism.

Fun fact: Alice Randall, another interviewee, was the first black woman to write a country number one. Born in Detriot and Harvard educated, Alice co-wrote XXXs and OOOs with Matraca Berg ‘in about 45 minutes’, which namechecks both Aretha Franklin and Patsy Cline. Randall is best known as a writer of fiction and who bigs up other black artists, but if only country music had been more receptive we may have had a rival for Loretta Lynn or Lori McKenna. ‘A third of all cowboys were black and brown,’ she adds as a QED.

In conversation with both Andrea Williams and Marcus K Dowling, I have learned that ‘every house is built with a single brick…To deny the placement of the brick is to deny the potential, and likely eventuality, of multiple bricks and multiple houses’, which I think was Marcus’ way of saying that we need to build the House of Country Music with diverse bricks. Andrea fights for ‘the many musicians and other black creatives for whom the movement hasn’t started’, which seems to encapsulate her desire to celebrate every black artist working in whatever art, be it painting, music or film.

Charles L Hughes gives a precis of the additions made to Country Music USA concerning the song Daddy Lessons by Beyonce, which is clearly a country song made by a girl from Houston. There is also the well-rehearsed arguments for Old Town Road, the longest-running number one in Hot 100 records, being a country song. Yola argues that Fancy Like has ‘changed the definition of country music to suit you’ and she has a point. Singer Reyna Roberts succinctly says she makes ‘Reyna Music’ such as the clapalong Stompin’ Grounds and is full of praise for the guidance she has had from Mickey Guyton.

Black Opry

On December 18 at the famous Exit/In venue in Nashville, after an inaugural gig in New York City in October, the Stars of the Black Opry Revue come to town, virus permitting, for a $20 ticket.

Aaron Vance, a preacher’s kid from Mississippi, seems to have put out two albums in 2021. He has a fan in Trigger from Saving Country Music, who wrote in 2020 that Vance was one of many acts who are ‘helping to keep country music history alive’ today. Trigger recommends his song Let’s Get Along from his 2017 album My Own Way, though the data shows that Cabin Fever is his ‘hit’ because of the jaw’s harp and the catch in his vocal delivery.

Fellow performer Jett Holden has covered Say You’ll Be There (yep, that one) while his original composition Taxidermy has the line ‘leave me a mangled mess’ in the chorus.

Lizzie No’s song Please Don’t Change Your Mind has enjoyed nearly 4m listens since it came out on a 2017 collection called Hard Won. Her voice is like gossamer thread and her strumming puts her in the folky mould of Lori McKenna or Tenille Townes. I would love to hear her interpret some of their tunes, actually. Similarly quiet and tender is the voice of Joy Clark, who has a song called Love Yourself that is perfectly contemporary. Both Lizzie and Joy veer into Americana, the genre for people without genres, but have a great grasp of melody.

The night’s ‘special guest’ is Frankie Staton, who put out her piano ballad Anaheim this year, which namechecks Diana Krall and plenty of Californian signifiers. Frankie co-founded the Black Country Music Association in 1995. The organisation was profiled by Rolling Stone in 2020 and co-founder and singer Cleve Francis noted that success was given, not earned. Staton, meanwhile, became the leader and ‘single-handedly accomplished’ many of their initial goals. These included Black Country Music showcases at the Bluebird Café where the admission was free.

Staton says in the piece that she became a godparent of the scene, the shoulder for people to cry on in the face of executives like Tony Brown who was ‘futilely searching’ for someone who didn’t sound like ‘a really bad version of Charley Pride’ or a pop singer who saw Nashville as a last resort. Valerie Hawkins was told ‘people sometimes hear what they see’ by Jim Ed Norman, another of the famous old guard of executives who didn’t want to market black singers. On the other side, a DJ at WSM-Radio was criticised for ‘kowtowing to black people’.

As with all voluntary or small organisations, it was politics that crushed it, with paying members feeling ‘entitled to performance slots’ and outsiders recognising cliques. The Black Opry has revived the spirit of the Black Country Music Association and, by inviting Staton, know the shoulders on whom they stand. For this reason too, Rissi Palmer named her radio show Color Me Country after Linda Martell’s record which has regained prominence and was also profiled in Rolling Stone under the headline ‘Country Music’s Lost Pioneer’.

In a bit of a coup, Black Opry has announced a three-night residency the weekend of January 20-22 at Dollywood (again, virus permitting).

Three To Watch

As well as Breland and Willie Jones, who are signed to major labels but can’t seem to gain much traction on country radio (though happily their streaming numbers are good), there are three releases from 2021 which are also worthy of attention.

Miko Marks first tried to get people to listen about 15 years ago, around the time Rissi Palmer was getting knocked back by imbeciles. Having worn the get-up (clothes, hat, boots), she eventually shaved her head. She played CMA Fest three times, once with her husband operating the soundboard, and failed to get the support from radio which would push her to bigger stages.

In March, backed by her band The Resurrectors, Miko released Our Country, a ten-track set which has the same swing as those old tunes made in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The album begins with the piano-led Ancestors, a song in the tradition of the Staple Singers. Pour Another Glass (‘of wine, Jesus’) and Mercy (‘Lord, for the children’) take us to church, while Goodnight America quotes America the Beautiful and sounds stark and relevant, just as This Land Is Your Land was when Woody Guthrie did the same thing 80 years ago.

The album’s big hit is We Are Here, which is about the human experience: ‘Poisoned water is all we have to drink…Laid off in the afternoon’ but ‘we hold on to faith’. Miko shows great empathy here, with a light rootsy backing. I also like the funky feel of Hold It Together, full of universal brotherhood and sunshine in the darkness, and the messages of Travel Light (‘all that’s left is to run’) and the singalong Not Be Moved.

Miko followed up the album with Race Records, an EP of six covers. It begins with eight bars of harmonica which introduces the traditional tune Long Journey Home. There follow fine arrangements of Whiskey River, Tennessee Waltz, Hard Times (a very old ballad from Stephen Foster which also featured on the album) and the harmony-rich Foggy Mountain Top, which was written by AP Carter. Throughout, Miko’s voice sounds terrific and powerful with plenty of character.

The set finishes with a faithful cover of Long As I Can See The Light, the Creedence Clearwater Revival gospel-blues. I hope Miko makes it over to the UK soon.

Once you hear Chapel Hart, you’re a fan. Like Runaway June or Dixie Chicks, there are three of them and their voices blend just as well. Unlike those two trios, Chapel Hart are an independent act putting out the music themselves. More impressively, they were named one of the Next Women in Country by CMT along with Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts, so in the next year they will have their videos played in rotation alongside the moneyed acts.

The album The Girls Are Back In Town was trailed by the single You Can Have Him, Jolene, which is an alternate take on the tale Cam told in Diane. The trio’s version picks up on the ‘last song’ and notes how often Jolene’s man leaves the room to talk to her, which makes the narrator the Jolene figure who would be delighted for her man to be taken back. The harmonies fizz over pedal steel guitar and a really quick beat and it’s creeping up to 100,000 streams on Spotify.

The tender waltz Nearly Over You is a fine way to open the album. Fiddles, harmonies and a lyric about holding on to the memories of a former paramour sounds like country music to me. The triple-time feel is repeated on Just Say I Love You, where Danica Hart’s vocals are close-mic’d for maximum effect. The tender Angel is about a little girl who is ‘the last to get picked, the first to get picked on’, with ‘broken wings’ who waits for salvation.

They crank up the sound on 4 Mississippi, which contains a fine guitar solo, and on Grown Ass Woman, which is as fun as its title, a t-shirt slogan in the making. Even grown-ass men recognise the power of the song. The title track ends the album on a party-starting high with some fab riffage, a rapped section and a big cussword in the chorus, while Jesus & Alcohol contains the lyric ‘Jesus always said to love your enemy’, which must be why the girls are a-drinkin’ to the accompaniment of organ and barrelhouse piano.

I Will Follow (‘where my heart leads the way’) is a clapalong, singalong stomp full of humanity and self-assurance. I could really hear this on the daytime playlist on Radio 2. I would love to know the inspiration for Jacqui’s Song. Full of blissful chord shifts, it’s sung from the perspective of a woman looking back on her life, full of highs and low, and dispensing advice in the chorus about carpe-ing the diem.

Tailgate Trophy is another fun song which sounds like what it’d be like if TLC or Destiny’s Child tried their hand at the Dixie Chicks. I know that comparison will have been made before but it’s true. In any case, ‘I need some TLC’ is a lyric in the song.

So much of Adia Victoria’s album A Southern Gothic, released by Atlantic Records, is about escaping the evangelical aspect of growing up Christian, so-called Purity Culture. She grew up in Carolina, which explains the tracks called Carolina Bound (‘Tennessee has broke me’ is its sombre opening line) and album opener Magnolia Blues which namechecks Carolina. The latter song has been listened to over 1m times on Spotify; it’s got a fine arrangement too, with some pizzicato strings towards the end.

Mean-Hearted Woman is grounded by a looped guitar riff, above which Adia Victoria sings of avenging ‘all the pain you put me through’. She isn’t loud, but by being softer it sounds more menacing, like when a gangster tells you to do as he says in barely a whisper. There is great command in her voice even if she doesn’t bellow or belt her lyrics.

Whole World Knows tells the story of a girl who ‘would stray…not even humble’ when she turned 16, while Troubled Mind (which is addressed to ‘Lord’) follows on from that in a manner which suggests deliberate sequencing. Please Come Down opens with a broken arpeggio and the arrangement matches the ‘wind howling round and round’. It is certainly gothic, and kudos to Adia Victoria who has co-produced the album with Mason Hickman.

She wrote some of the album in Paris but also while working at the Amazon warehouse in Nashville. Far From Dixie is driven by a drum loop and a vocal which is heavily processed (like in Glory Box by Portishead). Adia Victoria wrote it on an aeroplane and the lyric reflects that, not just in the title but in the opening line ‘I’m running slow up against the sky’ and the line in verse two about neighbours being ‘sweet as a Southern sky’. The elements are present in Deep Water Blues, which lollops along prettily and has an addictive groove.

There’s a cover of the Blind Willie McTell song You Was Born To Die with added Jason Isbell on blues guitar and Margo Price and Kyshona Armstrong contributing verses. Matt Berninger of indie-rock darlings The National appears on album closer South For The Winter, which sounds perfect for an emotional scene in one of those arthouse movies set in New Mexico or somewhere. ‘It’s the cold that makes me wonder why I left home’ is the melancholic line, and the vocalists dance around the melody.

Quietly, Adia Victoria is becoming a superstar. Chapel Hart should keep releasing top-notch music, while Miko Marks has her moment in the sun after all those years of sufferance.

Find out more about Black Opry here.

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