African American Influence on Country Music Can’t Be Understated, or Overstated

DeFord Bailey/Rhiannon Giddens/Charley Pride/Dom Flemons

In March of 2018, Smithsonian Folkways issued a unique collection of music from former Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons called Black Cowboys. Full of primitive country and folk songs, recitations of black cowboy poems, utilizing primitive instruments like cow bones, quills, and 4-string banjo, it was a deep reenactment of what you might have heard from African American trail riders and pioneers during American expansionism, including modes of music making, lyrical phrasing, and instrumentation that went on to influence Western music and country styles that traditionalists in the country genre still employ today.

Since the motivation of Dom Flemons was just as much archival as it was commercial, Black Cowboys flew somewhat under-the-radar, unless you were looking for such a thing. But these types of projects play a pivotal role in keeping important traditions of country music alive. Fellow Carolina Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens has a similar project on the way called Songs of Our Native Daughters that will be released by Smithsonian Folkways on February 22nd. A collaboration with fellow female African American roots performers Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah, the album is said to portray the often overlooked suffering, resilience, and agency of black women during the slave era.

For many years, the influence and contributions of African American musicians in country music went mostly overlooked, or overshadowed by their Caucasian counterparts. Blues and country harmonica player DeFord Bailey wasn’t just the first black performer on the Grand Ole Opry, he was the first performer to ever be introduced on the radio program that they called “The Grand Ole Opry.” On December 10th, 1927, NBC radio announcer George D. Hay informed listeners that the previously-known “Barn Dance” program would henceforth be known as “The Grand Ole Opry.” The very next performer that aired was DeFord.

Black street performer and blues musician Rufus Payne, or “Tee-Tot,” taught Hank Williams how to play the acoustic guitar, forging in Hank from the age of eight certain performance modes and blues progressions that would go on to greatly influence his sound. Jimmie Rodgers, who is considered the Father of Country Music to many (others consider it as A.P. Carter of The Carter Family), also incorporated blues styles and progressions into much of his music. From the very beginning and with some of country’s most earliest stars, the influence of African Americans was palpable, and critical to the formation of the genre. Without those African American influences, country music may have sounded different in its popular incarnations, and perhaps it wouldn’t have become as popular since Hank Williams was the genre’s first real superstar, and his blues style is what separated him from other performers of the era.

However there has been a recent trend by media and even some artists to overstate the influence of African Americans in country music in an effort to systematically downgrade the influence of white performers in the ever-present politicization of culture that often derides “whiteness” as implicitly unsavory, inherently exploitative, if not outright evil. This effort appears to want to revise history to state that country music was primarily, or solely an African American art form, and it’s an aberration to characterize country music as an expression of agrarian whites beyond a few minor contributions. This revisionist endeavor has been emboldened even more lately due to the metastasizing of political vitriol throughout society, and the presence of two new African American performers at the very top of popular country: Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen. Hungry for political narratives around their ascent, the impact of African Americans in country music is becoming more commonly discussed, and often inaccurately embellished.

In a recent article in The Guardian, mainstream pop country music performer Jimmie Allen stated plainly, “Country music came from black people – it all started with the blues and bluegrass….” This assertion by Allen was not met with any skepticism by the interviewer, and no clarification or context was offered. In fact the interviewer drove home the misnomer by citing the most anecdotal and often called upon factoid used to portray country music as originating from Africans as opposed to Caucasians—the origin story of the banjo.

It is most certainly true that the banjo was exported to the United States during the 17th Century via West African slaves, or at least the 4-string version of the instrument that originally utilized an animal skin as a sound board. This is one of the many important contributions that black musicians gave to the original sound of country music and American folk. However the lineage of the instrument from an animal skin stretched over a gourd body to the modern string instrument we know today as the banjo also had other contributors and influences, chiefly the Portuguese “banza” or “bandora,” which is where the term “banjo” is though to be derived from. According to some musical historians, the bandora either preceded, paralleled, or at least influenced both the construction and popularity of the modern banjo.

But taking it as a given that the banjo is an African instrument, this still in itself doesn’t make country music, bluegrass, or American folk distinctly a mode of expression either exclusively or primarily influenced by African Americans. The violin or fiddle, the mandolin, the guitar, the dobro, and other traditional country instruments have their origins in European cultures. The steel guitar is a distinctly Hawaiian instrument that was brought over to the United States and primarily incorporated into country music as World War II GI’s were returning home. Nobody would assert that country music is either distinctly or predominately a Hawaiian art form due to the presence of the steel guitar. The instrument simply contributed to the greater soundscape of the music which has drawn influences from a host of cultures, including African Americans.

In an era when nuance is often drained from discussion, and people feel the need to settle on binary conclusions that often misrepresent the wide array of facts, country music must be considered to some as either black or white, when it truth its origins and history fall well within shades of grey. However if one was forced to settle upon one predominant racial influence on the genre, then country music would have to be considered a distinctly Caucasian art form, with its most potent and lasting influences coming from the folk and fiddle traditions of Irish, Scottish, and English settlers in America’s Appalachian and Southern regions, then mixed with the Western influences of the Singing Cowboys of Hollywood’s early silver screen era, and folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie.

The primary Anglo influence on American country music goes undisputed by the consensus of historians insulated from identity trends or equity arguments. While it’s true that some of country music’s most defining historical accounts potentially could have spent more time exploring the African American influences in the music, over-emphasizing these influences in retrospect as either the major generation point or sole origin of country music does not help to set the record straight, it only see-saws the misnomers in a different direction.

It is also not fair to portray the contributions of African Americans to country music as being buried in the annals and institutions of the genre. The previously-mentioned DeFord Bailey is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, inducted posthumously in 2005. Rufus Payne’s burial place in Montgomery, Alabama is marked with a prominent marker paid for by Hank Williams Jr. and Grand Ole Opry members, commemorating his contributions to Hank Williams and country music. Charley Pride is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and scored 40 total #1 hits during the height of his career, and is currently a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Ray Charles had two #1 country records, and six Top 20 country singles. In the more modern era, Darius Rucker has scored four #1 hits and eight Top 10’s after moving to the genre from popular rock, not to mention the recent #1 successes by Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown.

That said, clearly black performers have been an unmistakable minority throughout the history of country music, especially compared to other American genres. But a lack of presence by African American artists shouldn’t be assumed as being solely the result of the purposeful exclusion of them, or the presence of universal racism against them, even if racism did play a role in the outcomes of certain performers. When artists of color showed potential and appeal in country music, they often were pushed to the forefront, and sometimes specifically to help stave off the stigma of country music as a solely white art form, or racist at its core. Charley Pride won country music’s most coveted award, the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1971. He also won Male Vocalist of the Year in 1971 and 1972. Darius Rucker won the CMA’s New Artist of the Year in 2009.

The reason for a lack of black performers throughout the history of country music is partly due simply to black performers choosing other genres to perform in that better fit their influences, sound, and natural tendencies. This doesn’t mean an underpinning culture of racism didn’t persist in the genre in certain eras, or in certain institutions. But this isn’t the sole reason for the small number of successful black country artists.

The current crop of popular African American country performers—namely the aforementioned Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen—are often given credit for overcoming country music’s racial barriers, and re-igniting the genre’s African American lineage. But these performers are arguably tearing down country music’s traditions by not respecting the roots of the music—including, if not especially, the traditions forged by important and influential African American performers of previous eras. By making country music that is derivative and no different than pop or R&B, artists like Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen are doing a disservice to the important legacy of African Americans in country music.

Meanwhile throughout the landscape of African American roots performers, there are plenty of artists who are upholding, preserving, and pushing forward the traditions of African Americans and Caucasians in country music. These include the aforementioned Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, as well as performers such as Aaron Vance, Charley Crockett, Valerie June, Mickey Guyton, and others. In fact per capita, African American country performers often do more to preserve the roots of the music than their Caucasian counterparts. Unfortunately though, these contributors often get systemically overlooked and downgraded by the success of superstars such as Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen, and the media who obsesses over these artists due to their popularity, and their supposed importance to country music as African Americans.

READ: African Americans Helping to Keep Country & Roots Music Alive

In the current era when much of media feels the need to battle “Trumps America” at every turn, country music has found a bullseye on its back as a perceived bastion of conservative values and “whiteness.” But the motivation of these revisionists with their anecdotal and often misleading information is not to set the record straight, it is to tear down an element of “whiteness” by disenfranchising Caucasian’s value and contributions to country music. Far from battling racism or being a catalyst for important revisionism for the history African Americans have played in the genre, it potentially creates more divisiveness, misunderstanding, and even racism by embellishing African American’s role contrary to historical facts.

Another recent example of this revisionism is the new 50th Anniversary Edition of the Bill C. Malone book Country Music USA. Professor Tracey E. W. Laird added a new chapter to the book that was supposed to cover the last 15 or 20 years in country music, and instead was a dissertation on country music and politics centered upon the performance of Beyonce at the 50th Annual CMA Awards, and her supposed snubbing by the Grammys and the CMAs for her song “Daddy Lessons.”

Except for country music, every major popular American genre has its roots primarily in African American origins, from hip-hop and R&B, to blues, to rock and roll which is primarily blues-based, to jazz, and Gospel, even though African Americans make up a minority of the American population. Country music is the only American genre where Caucasians played a predominant role in genre’s formation. That doesn’t mean African Americans didn’t contribute either, because they did, and that’s been a truth that was de-emphasized or overlooked too often in country music’s historical narrative. But to attempt to strip Caucasians of their country music influence is not only in contradiction to historical consensus, it can be counter-productive to the effort to make sure all country music artists are dealt with equitably regardless of color moving forward, whether they are current artists, or previous contributors who deserve to be framed in a proper historical context.

Ultimately, in country music today, it’s not your race which which puts you in peril of being ignored or downgraded. The overwhelming success of Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown prove that. What puts you in peril of being ignored and downgraded is having the audacity to play actual country music.