Amazon’s ‘For Love & Country’ Film Erases Critical Black Legacies

For Love & Country is a documentary film on Amazon Prime that looks delve into the subject of Black artists and country music by featuring numerous Black contributors currently in the country music space, as well as interviews with certain journalists and scholars, and comments from local Nashville residents about country music and race. Directed by New York-based filmmaker Joshua Kissi, For Love & Country was originally released on April 7th, 2022.

From the mainstream side of the country music realm, For Love & Country features artists such as Breland, Blanco Brown, Shy Carter, Brittney Spencer, and Mickey Guyton among others. From what many would consider the folk or “Americana” side of roots music, the film features Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah, and Valerie June. For Love & Country also delves lightly into the history of country music and race, specifically highlighting the legacy of Charley Pride.

Though the film means well, and is generally well-made with superb cinematography and high production value, the approach and information conveyed in the film is problematic to say the least, actively participating in erasing the legacy of Black country artists in a film that purports to be championing them in the name of equity.

When For Love & Country was first released, Saving Country Music screened the film and saw its inherent flaws, but not wanting to influence the momentum of the film, decided to reserve comment. However, in a recent op/ed in CMT where performer and For Love & Country participant Breland falsely claims that country music has a “long and violent history with race” while citing this film as where the evidence for the claim can be found, it necessitated a re-watching, as well as a rebuttal.

SPOILER ALERT: There are no instances of “country music” perpetrating violence on Black people—meaning where someone of color was physically assaulted—let alone a “long and violent” history of such activity. In fact, no instance of violence by country music is cited, or even alluded to in the film, or anywhere else in media, or in history. There most certainly is a history of Black performers having a harder time breaking into the country music industry because of inherent prejudices and misconceptions. But conflating American history with country history is unhelpful to the cause, while perpetrating easily refuted falsehoods like the ones found within For Love & Country erodes the viability of all the arguments the film attempts to make.

Among the many criticisms for the documentary, the first is that the creators curiously excluded country artists that actually sound country and fit intuitively within the genre. Though it’s easy and often unfair to criticize any particular list or work for overlooking certain specific artists, For Love & Country seems to go out of its way to avoid Black performers that embrace the conventional country sound, while exclusively highlighting artists that arguably do not.

Where is Chapel Hart, who recently earned a Golden Ticket on America’s Got Talent, and have been featured on CMT’s Next Women of Country? Where is Saving Country Music 2021 Artist of the Year Charley Crockett? Where is Aaron Vance? Where is Tony Jackson? Where is Wendy Moten and others? They’re nowhere to be found on For Love & Country, even though these are the artists that are infiltrating the country music community, breaking down barriers, and challenging stereotypes successfully, while not alienating the expectations to listeners.

For many of country music’s core audience, they wouldn’t question the country credentials of Chapel Hart or Tony Jackson, while they most certainly call into question Breland and Blanco Brown being characterized as legitimate country stars instead of derivative pop/hip-hop interlopers who migrated into country trying to capitalize off the success of Lil Nas X. For Black artists to make a difference in country music, they must be Black, but they also must be country. Otherwise, their presence in the country music space has no meaning, and is more about marketing.

Even artists who straddle the line between genres, but still include a core country appeal such as The War & Treaty who just recently signed to Universal Music Group Nashville are nowhere to be found For Love & Country. Neither is Yola, who’s seen wide success blending country and soul. But perhaps most shocking is the film even left out arguably the most prominent Black country performer of the current era: Darius Rucker.

You get a sense that these excluded artists did not fit the narrative that the filmmakers wanted to present, which is that Black artists have always been excluded from country music, and that their incorporation is very recent. Sure, perhaps some performers weren’t available to participate in the documentary proper. But if you’re going to tell the story of Black artists in country music, the genre’s embrace of Darius Rucker in 2008—now almost 15 years ago—is nothing less than essential.

Darius Rucker’s move to country resulted in three consecutive #1 albums and four #1 albums in total, as well as ten #1 songs, including his debut single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” which compared to much of today’s country, is a more traditional-sounding track. The problem was that these truths throw the characterization of For Love & Country into question. So instead, Darius Rucker’s entire legacy is ignored, including his Grand Ole Opry membership, his Grammy Award for his rendition of “Wagon Wheel,” and all other accomplishments.

They also ignore Kane Brown and his eight #1s, starting in early 2017. And even though some country purists would scoff at Darius Rucker and especially Kane Brown being considered in the country conversation, both artists at times in their careers have released songs that are unquestionably country, including Kane Brown who gained popularity early on singing covers of Randy Travis and George Strait songs on social media. You get a sense that these artist who actually have a respect for the sonic parameters of country music are seen as Uncle Tom’s in the perspective of this film’s creators.

There are many other Black artists within the Americana realm that also could have been highlighted, from Tré Burt, to Kaia Kater, to Joy Oladokun, Leyla McCalla, Tammi Savoy, Milton Patton, Sunny War, Ben Hunter, Rissi Palmer, Miko Marks, Dom Flemons, AHI, and others. Simply running through a list of all the Black artists in the greater country and roots realm helps to highlight just how inclusive the community has become in recent years. Though it’s unquestionable there still could be more Black artists in country music, and more opportunities for these artists, it’s not 2008 when Darius Rucker first arrived, and Keb’ Mo’ and the Carolina Chocolate Drops were some of the few Black performers in Americana.

Within the first three minutes of the film, the timeline of when Black artists impacted mainstream country music in the modern era is mischaracterized when Jimmie Allen is presented as the first Black artist to have a debut single peak at #1 in country music history, referencing Allen’s “Best Shot,” which hit #1 in November of 2018. This is the first of many false or misleading facts presented in the film. As mentioned previously, Darius Rucker’s debut country single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” from 2008 also debuted at #1. Rewriting the script by a decade, and writing Darius Rucker and Kane Brown out of the country music picture, For Love & Country presents an inaccurate timeline of the importance, success, and integration of Black contributors in today’s country music.

But arguably the worst offense of For Love & Country is the wholesale erasure of Black contributors from country music’s past, most notably Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Charles, Country Music Hall of Famer DeFord Bailey, along with major label artist Stoney Edwards, pioneering Black female artist Linda Martell, “Big” Al Downing who charted multiple Top 20 singles for Warner Bros., appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and Hee-Haw, and was nominated for the ACMs New Artist of the Year, the and others to once again assert the false claim that a rule was in place in country music that only allowed one Black artist to be successful, and that role was fulfilled by Charley Pride. Not only does this claim erase the contributions of other prominent Black country artists, it tokenizes Charley Pride’s success.

Since they can’t erase Charley Pride’s 29 #1 hits, his 1971 CMA Award for Entertainer of the Year (the 5th artist ever to win the award), his two consecutive Male Vocalist of the Year awards in 1971 and 1972 (the 1st ever male two-time winner) as easily as they can the legacy of Ray Charles, Stoney Edwards, and others, they basically chalk Charley Pride’s success up to a smoke screen that the powers that be in country music allowed to happen so they couldn’t be accused of being racist, which ultimately discounts Pride’s accomplishments, including knocking down the color barrier.

For Love & Country was written in part by Elamin Abdelmahmoud, a Sudanese-born, Canadian-based journalist for Buzzfeed. He was also the author of the lengthy, widely-shared feature article “Jason Isbell Is Tired of Country’s Love Affair with White Nostalgia” published in Buzzfeed in mid December of 2021, which included a host of false claims and mischaracterizations, including that country music had been “violent” toward Black women without presenting any supporting instances or evidence. Elamin Abdelmahmoud also falsely claimed in the article, “In the era of Charley Pride, country music’s biggest Black superstar, there was a pervading ethos that country music only has room for one Black star.” This falsehood ended up being carried over into For Love & Country.

When Ray Charles was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, many cited his landmark 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country Music as the reason he deserved the accolade, often citing a quote from Willie Nelson that reads, “I think Ray Charles did as much as anybody when he did his country music album.” But as well-meaning as Willie Nelson was with the quote, he was incorrect. Ray’s Modern Sounds did become a massive #1 hit record in both pop and country, but so did the follow up album Modern Sounds in Country Music Vol. 2 released later in 1962.

But that was just the beginning of Ray’s career in country. Ray Charles also released five country albums for Columbia Records between the years 1983 and 1987. During this era of the career of Ray Charles, he performed country music predominantly, and was considered a country star. Ray Charles scored a #1 album in country with his 1984 release Friendship, a #1 song in country with “Seven Spanish Angels,” and six total Top 20 singles in country just in this specific era in the 80s, including the #6 charting “We Didn’t See a Thing” with George Jones and Chet Atkins. This era of the Ray Charles career is regularly overlooked, despite its top-level successes. This era also overlapped when Charley Pride was still very much active in popular country music as well, dispelling the “country music only has room for one Black star” falsehood.

During the heyday of Charley Pride, you also had a black woman, Anita Pointer, score a #2 song in country with Earl Thomas Conley in 1986 with “Too Many Times.” Linda Martell became the first black solo woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry in 1970, and appeared on the program a total of 12 times. She also appeared on Hee-Haw and other country programs, and charted multiple singles including “Color Him Father” and “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” in 1969.

And most commonly and scandalously overlooked, Stoney Edwards released eight country albums between 1971 and 1991, including six for Capitol Records, and released 26 total singles, including the Top 20 hits “She’s My Rock” (1972) and “Mississippi You’re On My Mind” (1975). Stoney had a successful quarter century career in country music as a Black man, and despite the characterization made in For Love & Country, Stoney Edwards was signed to Capitol Records by well-known producer Ken Nelson specifically because of the success of Charley Pride. Like other producers and managers in country music, Ken Nelson believed that Pride’s success presented a new paradigm in country music they needed to capitalize on. This also was considered part of the calculus when Plantation Records signed Linda Martell, who also released and charted singles and albums simultaneous to Charley Pride.

Incidentally, Saving Country Music published a retrospective on Stoney Edwards to mark the 25th Anniversary of his death on April 5th, 2022, which resolved in a call to re-release his catalog digitally since it had gone ignored in the digital age. Two months later and in honor of Black Music Month, UMG Nashville/UMe officially digitally reissued all six of Stoney’s major label albums. A press release was sent out by UMG celebrating the moment, yet only a few outlets covered it, and it went ignored by journalists and outlets who claim advocacy for African Americans in country music.

Stoney Edwards had a successful career in country music as both a performer and songwriter, with George Jones, Emmylou Harris, and others covering his songs. But as we’ve seen throughout the history of country music, having talent, and being signed to a major label does not guarantee you overwhelming success, regardless of race. Most certainly, Stoney Edwards, Linda Martell, O.B. McClinton, and even Charley Pride faced a greater uphill battle compared to their white counterparts.

But the lack of superstar success for Stoney Edwards and others can’t be assumed to only have to do with race, any more than the success they did enjoy should be discounted just because it didn’t rise to the status of Charley Pride. When Stoney Edwards was signed to Capitol, he was 41, and had suffered serious health setbacks due to an industrial accident earlier in his life. In truth, there was a dearth of Black performers coming forward in country music at that time because of the stereotype that country music was predominantly a white art form. This was just as much of a factor for the lack of Black performers in country music as anything.

And it’s not just Elamin Abdelmahmoud’s writing in For Love & Country that forwards this “one Black star” falsehood that has now become inaccurately synonymous with country music history. It’s also carried forward by the supposed experts the film interviews, underscoring this false characterization, and exacerbating the erasure issue.

“We’ve seen throughout history that representation is not enough, or Charley Pride would have fixed everything,” says activist and journalist Andrea Williams at the 58-minute mark of the film. “There have always been moments where you see this kind of push of Black artists trying to get in, but then ultimately being shut out. Charley Pride becomes this massive success, so of course other Black people think this is my opportunity. But the walls came down pretty quickly because there could only be one.”

But of course, there was more than one, while the names of the artists who tried to get in at that time and didn’t seems to be resigned to one that For Love & Country could find: Frankie Staton. In the film, Frankie Staton says about Charley Pride, “It solidified the powers that be the ability to say, ‘We’re not prejudice, we have Charley Pride. We have a Black man in country music. I want to quote Dr. Cleve Francis on this. He said, ‘Some 30 million Black people. We shook the country music tree, and one brother fell out, when I know there were many more trying.'”

With that quote, Cleve Francis and Frankie Staton erase that Hall of Fame legacy of DeFord Bailey, who performed on the Grand Ole Opry for 16 years, and was the first ever performer on the show. They erase Ray Charles and Stoney Edwards. They erase Linda Martell, who performed on the Grand Ole Opry when segregation was still an issue throughout the American South, not to mention scores of other Black artists, including ones who may have never seen major mainstream success, but still contributed, including Dr. Cleve Francis himself.

Cleve Francis is a cardiologist from Louisiana, who paused his medical career in the late 80s and early 90s to release four studio albums, including three for major label EMI imprint Liberty Records, which is now known as Capitol Nashville. Dr. Francis was signed to the the label by famous producer Jimmy Bowen. Unfortunately for Cleve, his singles didn’t fare well, and he chose to return to cardiology. But country music gave him a major label deal, which once again disproves the “one Black artist” theory, and Cleve’s own quote. And of course, For Love & Country includes the Cleve Francis quote, but no information on the Dr. Cleve Francis career in country music.

Clearly, and without question, Black performers looking to break through in country music have always been at a disadvantage. For Love & Country does a good job illustrating this with first hand accounts from Black artists about their experiences that should make everyone in the country music community take pause, and ponder the “othering” that has happened to Black contributors for decades.

For Love & Country also does a good job delving into why this “othering” has occurred, including the bifurcating of country music down racial lines in the prewar era for marketing purposes, the misconception that pervades throughout popular culture that country music is exclusively white, along with the enhanced difficulties for Black performers to find traction and support in the country music industry and marketplace.

But another reason the general public believes that Black artists don’t belong in country music is because the legacies of prominent Black contributors continue to be downgraded or outright erased in the public record. And no, it’s not white supremacists or the country music industry that is participating in this Black erasure, it is the activist class made up of a cloistered set of echo-chambered journalists and academics who see country music as a fruitful refraction point for forwarding their professional careers, sowing clout in social circles, and finding traction to launch viral tweets on Twitter.

This creates a regime of perverse incentives for the activist class that created and contributed to For Love & Country that we have now seen play out on numerous occasions, where Black contributions are either erased to embellish injustices, or to celebrate “firsts” that had been accomplished years previous. The false narratives surrounding Lil Nas X’s removal from the Billboard country charts, the assertion that Mickey Guyton was the first black woman to play the ACM Awards in 2020, or that Wu Tang Clan was the first ever black act (or first hip-hop act) to ever play the Ryman Auditorium in 2018, along with many other examples are where we’ve seen this in action, further spreading the idea that Black artists in country are either completely unwelcome, or an entirely new phenomenon, which ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy by dis-incentivizing potential future artists from pursuing careers in country music, and from Black listeners becoming a part of country music’s audience, exacerbating the inventory issue that is part of the reason for a lack of Black representation in country.

There is also a political motivation for some of these activists who simply see the racial quotient as a proxy to forwarding their plans to undermine the values of country music’s more conservative fan base, to then supplant those values with their own value system through highlighting performers they feel are more like-minded to their cause. It’s not necessarily the political motivation itself, but the surreptitious nature that makes their use of the race issue in country music troublesome, and is also likely the reason these same journalists and academics exclude certain Black country contributors from their narratives—wary these specific Black artists do not share their political perspective.

“Historically, the country music industry has really capitalized on finding a base audience of white conservatives, and that is a pocket of consumers that doesn’t exist across the board elsewhere,” says journalist and professor Amanda Martinez, who has taught country history classes. “In the late 1970s, the U.S. took a really conservative turn. The cowboy came back into fashion. And this was coupled with Ronald Reagan assuming the presidency in 1980, and he sells himself as a cowboy. And in turn, the country music industry and the CMA in particular rally leaned into those associations.”

But this is a very stereotyped version of country history, and one that excludes one of the most prominent and important movements that emerged 40 years ago. It was during the Reagan 80s when the progressive sound and approach of artists such as Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Steve Earle took root in country music, and found great commercial success, including recognition from the CMA. These artists planted the seeds for what ultimately would become alt-country, and what we call Americana today.

These progressive country artists at times took very left-leaning perspectives on current events, and that is what we see today in the Americana class of performers and fans. By including artists such as Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah in the cast of For Love & Country, it’s imperative to also cite the Americana community of which they are a part of. It’s these two artists who give the most harrowing accounts of being judged for being Black in the music industry, and specifically for playing the banjo. But those weren’t country music experiences. Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah weren’t experiencing this discrimination on Music Row. These are experiences these artists faced in the folk and Americana realms, and in an environment dominated by professed liberals.

Let’s also not forget that it was during this same era of the Reagan 80s that Ray Charles signed his five-album deal with Columbia Records, and was charting albums and singles, refuting the idea that it was during this era that anti-Black conservatives took root in country music. Charley Pride also remained active during this era, charting seven #1 singles.

Professor and journalist Amanda Martinez goes on to say in the film, “By the 1990s, country music was the most popular format on the radio. And of course, it all funnels back to radio, because radio is the most influential force within the country music business.”

But this again forwards misconceptions and erasing elements upon the country narrative. Common among the activist class is a very base understanding of country music as being almost myopically centered around radio and Nashville. For Love & Country underscores this misconception as one of the films core assertions.

As Saving Country Music explained recently in the article “Quit Claiming Mainstream Country Radio is the Only Way To Success,” only focusing on radio systemically downgrades contributors who are not on the format as if they don’t exist. It’s a form of erasure in itself. Mainstream country radio at this point is a niche market appealing to a niche audience that is in no way representative of country music at large, accounting for less than 1% of the practicing musicians in the genre. Using radio panels to represent the entire population of country performers is an easily-refuted red herring that similar to the “one Black artist” mantra continues to be employed irresponsibly, and in a way that eliminates an entire class of country music creators.

The 2nd biggest artist in all of country music at the moment is Zach Bryan according to the Billboard Country Albums chart, and he’s virtually non-existent on radio. Tyler Childers has minted three Certified Platinum records and a Double Platinum record without radio. Kacey Musgraves won the CMA, ACM, country Grammy, and all-genre Grammy Award for Album of the Year for her album Golden Hour without significant radio play.

Radio play is not the only measurement of success in country music, or even acceptance within the genre, and hasn’t been for years. And the country music landscape is much more omnivorous than just Nashville. Though Nashville is certainly the most important epicenter in country music, there is a whole scene in Texas, with superstars selling out arenas, its own radio network, touring circuit, festivals, awards, and recording infrastructure.

So the ultimate question is, why do we continue to see the erasure of Black and Brown contributors and accomplishments in country music, and commonly from the same crop of activist journalists and academics who proport to be for resetting the legacy of Black artists in the genre? Some of it might have to do with ignorance, and lack of a depth of knowledge about country music.

For Love & Country contributor Andrea Williams is primarily a sports writer. Buzzfeed‘s Elamin Abdelmahmoud hosts pop and political podcasts. It doesn’t mean these individuals cannot speak or share their opinions on country music, or bring important perspectives as Black individuals who find passion in this subject matter. But in the case of the For Love & Country film, they should have consulted with individuals with more depth of knowledge about the Black legacy in country music who could tell them it was imperative to mention the legacies of Ray Charles and Darius Rucker at the least. Otherwise, it erodes the important arguments and perspectives For Love and Country looks to share. They should have found perspectives beyond the cloistered Twitter echo chambers many of these elite-class academics and journalists dwell in where falsehoods such as “one Black artist” fester, and are parroted unchallenged in a cloud of cognitive dissonance.

Or, perhaps these individuals do know about Darius Rucker and the country career of Ray Charles. After all, if they claim to be experts on the Black legacy in country music, how couldn’t they? But with perverse incentives to portray things as being worse than they are to create leverage against the country music industry, perhaps the erasure is not as innocent.

Despite not including Darius Rucker, Ray Charles, Stoney Edwards, and others, For Love & Country interviews numerous Black Nashville residents about their perspective on country music. In fact, the main recurring character in the film is a local Nashville native named Mike Floss. Near the end of the film, he states, “It’s not just [about] opportunity, because opportunity just gives you the chance to operate within the parameters that’s already set before you walk in the door. But power gives you the opportunity to do something pure. If we could change that, if we could hold power, that’s the key.”

Power is often what these individuals are after: power over country music’s institutions, power over the CMA, power over the radio format and festivals. Most certainly, Black people should not be excluded from positions of power in country music. But if they assume these positions of power, they should also be of the country community, and advocates for the music as opposed to other objectives. They should know about the important Black contributors and groundbreakers in country music, as opposed to being either ignorant of them, or actively working to erase them for potentially ulterior purposes.

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Amid the formation of the Country Music Association (CMA) and the opening of the original Country Music Hall of Fame in the late 60’s, CMA and Hall of Fame founders Tex Ritter and “Uncle” Joe Allison commissioned the well-known American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton to make a painting called “The Sources of Country Music” (see below). Currently residing in the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda, and positioned to be the very first thing you see as you walk into the room, the painting was not only the last work of Thomas Hart Benton, it is also considered to be one of his finest, and it is the most expensive artifact within the Hall of Fame’s possession—even more expensive than the guitar of Hank Williams, or the mandolin of Bill Monroe.

The six foot high and ten foot wide painting portrays a chorus of Gospel singers, two fiddlers for the mountain music influence, two women to represent the female impact on country with one playing a dulcimer, multiple couples near the back dancing, a towering cowboy picking out a Western tune on guitar, and a black man sitting on a stump, playing a banjo. In the background is also a railroad engine, a steamboat, a church, and four African Americans standing on the shore of the river, with their hands outstretched in song.

Tex Ritter, Joe Allison, and Thomas Benton were purposeful and forward thinking with who and what they chose to include in the painting so that no matter what happened in the future, the sources of country music were cemented in time. They specifically made sure to include Black individuals foundational to the sound and formation of country music, along with a banjo whose origins come from Africa and the Caribbean. Perhaps at the time, this was a controversial decision to some who saw country music as primarily a white art form. But today, this artistic representation is just as imperative to fighting back the false perception of some that the Black legacy in country music was erased, despite it being well-ensconced within the tomes of historical literature, as well as institutions such as the Country Music Hall of Fame. You can argue with some who’ve never read the literature and don’t know this history is there, but you can’t argue with a picture.

The problem with the lack of Black participation in country music has always been one of perception. The founders of the CMA, and the historical record has always been expressive and accurate on the importance of Black string band and blues performers to the country music sound. Though For Love & Country does work to attempt to explain this, by focusing more on showcasing modern performers well outside of that sonic heritage, avoiding other performers that reside well within it, while also inaccurately portraying historical truths, the film arguably does just as much harm as good to accurately portraying the role of Black creators in country music.

…and even in the film’s activist approach, it most certainly does not in any way characterize or verify country music having a “long and violent history” towards Black performers, despite the assertion of Breland and CMT.

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