Let’s face it. For a host of reasons, it’s pretty rare to see African Americans making country and roots music. But when they do, more often that not, they’re doing it the right way, pushing the music forward creatively while fiercely helping to preserving the past, becoming part of the solution instead of prolonging the problem, with an often unparalleled passion for the music, and an authenticity to their voice. Ask yourself, how many Bro-Country black artists have you seen?
It’s hard enough these days to be a traditional country artist or a roots performer in its own right. That already sets you as a minority in the music world who will have to fight an uphill battle against the forces that will tell you the music needs to “evolve,” and your sound and modes are not relevant. Add on top of that being of African American descent in a majority white art form, and it takes an additional level of intestinal fortitude to press forward not found in most people.
Whenever you find a performer who doesn’t fit in the stereotypical mold of what we expect certain music artists to be, that’s when you know you’ve found someone with a true passion, because they’ve had to overcome those stereotypes and sideways glances when it might be easier to just fold and move on to something else.
But these black artists aren’t just brave and noteworthy for their participation. They are often the leaders in their respective fields. They are the ones making sure the old country songs don’t go unsung. They’re the ones finding new ways to express old sentiments with traditional instruments. And the attention upon them isn’t just because they present an unusual case as a country or roots performer of color. It’s because they are often excelling in their field, at least creatively.
A perfect case study is classic country crooner Tony Jackson from Richmond, Virginia. You may not find anyone better suited to sing the old country classics from folks like George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Randy Travis. And this Navy brat turned Marine Corps enlistee turned country crooner can do it right on cue when called upon. Tony Jackson’s self-titled 2017 record includes renditions of such iconic songs like “The Grand Tour” by George Jones, and the often-covered “Nashville Cats,” along with original compositions that especially resonate with country music’s traditional crowd.
Though receiving little love from the mainstream, Jackson has garnered a strong following online, with his covers of old country classics often receiving views in the hundreds of thousands on YouTube and Facebook. He has a great story too, being first turned on to country music when he was living in Spain as a child, and met Randy Travis who was performing for service members. If country music ever had a traditional artist of color in the cue to break out, it would be Tony Jackson.
One consistency when it comes to African American traditional country artists is their insistence on paying homage to the greats that came before them, and putting aside time from their own music in reverence and tribute—an exercise lost on many of today’s country stars. Though Charley Crockett‘s ethnicity is of a much more varied descent that includes Jewish and Caucasian bloodlines along with his Creole heritage, he still certainly fits in the class of minority country artists making a difference by revitalizing old country songs. As another very promising rising star in country and roots, Charley Crockett been making big waves by playing to capacity crowds opening for the Turnpike Troubadours over the last couple of years.
But before Charley was ready to record and release what many believe will be a big breakout record full of original songs, he put his own time and money into recording an album called Lil G.L’s Honky Tonk Jubilee in 2017. A collection of songs from Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker, Roy Acuff, Webb Pierce and others, the 16 tracks find Charley Crockett interpreting timeless compositions with such love, you would have thought they were his own. Not just your average traditional covers album, Honky Tonk Jubilee is Charley building a country music foundation, and proving his studious discipline and appreciation for the past greats before he ventures to contribute his own compositions to the American songbook in earnest.
But it’s not just covers of traditional country classics that true country artists of African American descent are building careers upon. Maybe one of the most criminally-overlooked artists in country at the moment regardless of ethnicity is Aaron Vance.
Born on Christmas Day as the son of a preacher man, the Mississippi native would spend Sundays singing in pews, and was forced to move often as his father traversed the South leading new congregations. The churches of Mississippi, and Vance’s truck-driving grandfather who listened to Hank Williams and George Jones while Aaron would ride shotgun inspired Vance’s traditional-leaning love for country music. Always the new kid, and always a rare bird due to his love for older country, Aaron had to learn self-reliance, and sticking to who you are from an early age.
Vance has now released three full-length albums of mostly original songs he wrote or co-wrote, including 2016’s Shifting Gears, which saw Vance double down on a more traditional sound, and 2017’s On My Way.
And if you think it’s hard to make it in country and roots as a minority or a woman already, imagine if you had both of those things placed upon your shoulders as you try to create a career in music. However multiple women have been able to rise to that challenge, and not just tread water, but excel in their respective disciplines.
A band that deserves great credit for exposing the African American influences in early country and roots music is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose collection of albums are a great place to start for anyone who wants to explore the deeper impact of African Americans in country. But the talents of Rhiannon Giddens—one of the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ founding members—are bigger than any one band, any one song or album, or even any one medium.
Rhiannon Giddens might be one of the greatest singers in all of country and roots music at the moment, with a very slim field of folks you could compile to challenge that assertion. Her 2017 record Freedom Highway delves deep into the lineage of Africans in America, and the intertwining of the music with their struggles and victories, and it ended up near the top of many end-of-year lists for 2017. Also in 2017, Giddens was a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant.
And though not receiving as much attention as Giddens, yet sticking even more closely to the traditional roots of the music is former Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons. He is also doing his level best to keep the roots of both primitive country, and the African influence within them alive.
In fact when it comes to old time Appalachian string music and Gospel-infused traditional country, there is a healthy list of minority representatives. Valerie June‘s roots music footprint is massive, and though there is certainly a lot of old school R&B in her sound, and other genres would love to claim her for themselves first, the heart of her music still revolves around wood and wires, and the real foundations of country music’s bluesy and Gospel past.
Instead of attempting to classify her, it’s easier to say that Valerie June has a style all of her own. But it’s also fair to say that style resides in country as much as anywhere. Her 2017 record The Order of Time was one of Saving Country Music’s Most Essential Albums, and she has been an important bridge artist because among the other accolades Valerie June deserves, she’s just “hip,” which helps flip the script that the mainstream often attempts to sell you that roots music can’t be relevant.
In fact often it is the women and minorities of roots music that are charting a path forward where the music can both evolve, and adhere to its roots. That’s certainly the case with Rhiannon Giddens and Valerie June, as it is also the case for Canada’s banjo maestro and roots revivalist Kaia Kater. As an outsider to the United States market, she has yet another burden to shoulder as she attempts to make it in roots music. But with a sound and style that’s bold yet sparse, and excellent songwriting bolstering a strong voice, she is charting a path as a rising star in roots music, building off the work others have done before her to break down the myth that black artists aren’t owed a debt of gratitude to the formation of the country genre.
And this isn’t just about tokenism. What makes many of these African American artists unique is not that they’re making distinctly white music as black performers. It’s that they have their own style that builds off the legacy of country and roots, and takes it places that their own unique experiences as African Americans can only infer.
And there are many more artists where this came from, and no disrespect is meant to anyone left out of this discussion. One of the great things about the success for the aforementioned artists is it’s inspiring others that don’t necessarily look the part of a country performer to discover their own passion for the music, and perhaps perform it for others. And this trend isn’t just relegated to front men and women. Side performers like drummer Jerry Pentacost—who has performed with JP Harris, Amanda Shires, and was part of the house band at the 2017 Americana Music Awards—is another example.
Obviously Charley Pride became one of the greatest, and most commercially-successful country singers of all time. DeFord Bailey was one of the Grand Ole Opry’s original performers, though he certainly was treated like a minority during his tenure. A black street performer named Tee-Tot, or Rufus Payne, taught Hank Williams how to play guitar. Cleve Davis was a relatively-successful country star in the early and mid 90’s. So it’s not that the minority influence in country music hasn’t always been there, it’s just always been overshadowed, and just like all the more traditional country and roots performers today, it’s being overshot by all the attention and accolades of the mainstream.
Though even some mainstream country performers of today are worth mentioning, most notably Mickey Guyton. Though some of her material veers towards pop, a few of her singles like her recent song “Nice Things” are leading the charge for keeping the roots alive in popular country. Another interesting prospect that could have mainstream impact is Milton Patton, who like Mickey Guyton, can be a little more soncially pragmatic at times compared to what most traditionalists might want, but is still worth keeping an eye on.
And yes, if you’re mentioning African Americans in country music, it’s worth pointing out Darius Rucker is making his living in the country genre now, and despite quite a few questionable efforts, he did make a #1 song out of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel”—taking a song that might have been ubiquitous in the underground, but was probably worthy of a wider audience all the way to the top of the mainstream charts, underscoring again how it’s often minorities championing the more rootsy material in the mainstream. Even Kane Brown—who is of mixed ethnicity—can’t be accused of not being able to sing the hell out of a traditional country song when he so chooses. He’s done some George Strait covers that are downright astounding. But unlike the other artists mentioned above, Kane chooses to cut more commercially-viable material instead vying to help keep the roots of the music alive.
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One of the differences we see in modern American society is that members of Generation X were taught not to see race or sexual orientation, while the Millennial mindset seems to want to classify individuals and select them out based expressly on race and sex. And of course all of this has become quite polarizing in the current political climate. It even feels a bit strange to select these country and roots artists out based on race. Ultimately they’re just performers who are contributing their songs and voices to the cause. What should single them out is their talent.
When looking at the African American legacy in country music, it’s a good reminder that music is for everyone, and something we can all enjoy together. But the unique opportunity that African American performers hold—and what makes them so important—is the ability to spread the love of traditional country and roots music to crowds who otherwise might not be exposed to it. Often, African American listeners are turned off by what they hear in the mainstream of country because there are so many instances of cultural appropriation that come across as just lame to the modern ear. But play something more traditional, and it awakens something in them, maybe a memory or nostalgia.
“I haven’t had a single problem in all of the places I’ve sung,” says Tony Jackson. “But one of the things I do hear from people after a show is, ‘I’m not a country music fan, but I really like what I just heard.’ You see, I think that everybody likes country music, but most people just don’t know it yet.”