Country Music is Not to Blame for Tina Turner’s Lost Country Legacy

When the news broke on Thursday, May 24th that the great Tina Turner had passed away, music journalists from around the world mobilized to memorialize this towering woman of music in many different ways. For Saving Country Music, this took shape as a recitation of Tina Turner’s contributions to country music that came as a surprise to many people.

No, Tina Turner was not a country music star. But her first solo album in 1974 was called Tina Turns The Country On! and included country and folk classics. Turner also recorded about 10 or so other country songs during her career, both during her time with Ike Turner and afterwards. She also inspired Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson to write the country classic “Good Hearted Woman.”

We’re all music fans first, and then our loyalties split down genre lines. That’s why the entire music world mourned the loss of Tina Turner, including country fans. But it’s always cool when you discover that someone you may not expect loves country music like you do, whether that’s some sports celebrity, actor, or in this case, a pop, soul, and rock star. It’s even more cool when they performed country music, like Tina Turner did.

Though Turner definitely deserved more recognition for her efforts in the country music realm while she was still alive, it was warm to see country fans discovering that in her own little way, Tina Turner was one of us. She loved country music. But of course, in this polarized and outrage-driven environment that we live in today, some are taking the moment of Tina Turner’s death to assert that the singer was one of country music’s Black contributors that was somehow shut out or shunned by the country music industry.

Though it’s certainly true that at times in the past, country music has been less than accommodating or outright hostile to certain Black performers in shameful ways, this is absolutely not the case with Tina Turner. Creating this canard is a gross rewriting of history being perpetrated by people who want to use Turner’s death to morally preen while once again using country music as the foil.

The day after Tina Turner passed away, Rolling Stone posted a story entitled, “Tina Turner’s Solo Debut Was a Country Album. Why Hasn’t the Genre Claimed Her as Its Own?” Of course, it’s paywalled, like so many of these think pieces these days. But the summation of the article reads in part,

Despite recording a series of country songs by Dolly Parton, Hank Snow, and Kris Kristofferson for her 1974 solo debut ‘Tina Turns the Country On!’, the album remains a curiosity, or entirely unknown, by today’s country music listener. What’s more, Nashville and the genre have yet to embrace Turner the way it has other country-adjacent icons…”

The article is rather quick and surprisingly poorly-constructed by Joseph Hudak. It’s not even clear if he wrote it, or if it was author Francesca T. Royster who is also cited. Either way, instead of running down the full breadth of Tina Turner’s country music contributions and bonafides in an attempt to educate the public and re-introduce Tina’s legacy into the country music canon, the article just descends into a succession of buzzwards and sloganeering about Tina Turner to try and ingratiate itself to a constituency, speaking about her “power” and her ability to “weaponize lots of different kinds of music.”

Marcus K. Dowling writing for The Tennessean does a much better job actually running down what Tina Turner did within the country music realm, why country music meant something to her, and why Tina Turner should mean something to country music. But still, the implication is that it’s country music’s fault that Turner didn’t make it as a country music star. Once again stuck behind a paywall, the article is titled “How Tina Turner’s interrupted country legacy could have changed the genre.”

But in neither of these stories do you read about how Tina Turner came to Nashville and couldn’t find producers and players to work with her, or how she was shuffled out the back door at the Grand Ole Opry, or how they released a single to country radio but country radio refused to play it. The reason for this is because these stories don’t exist, nor do any others that in any way implicate “country music” as being unfair or unaccommodating to Tina Turner or her music in any way.

As one former country music DJ commented:

I’m a lifelong fan of country music and I was working full-time in country radio in 1974. But this is the first I’ve ever heard of Tina Turner’s country album! Don’t remember my station having a copy of a single or an album by her. Nor do I recall hearing her played on any other country radio station around that time. Our playlist was tracked weekly by Billboard, Cashbox and Record World so we consistently had great service from all the country record labels in Nashville. Maybe if we had a copy we might have played it.

For the record my station did play “Fairytale” by the Pointer Sisters that same year. Their record label ABC/Blue Thumb sent us a promotional copy. I recall quite a few other country stations played that song too. Great tune.

So why wasn’t Tina Turner “embraced” by country music? The answer is very simple, verifiable, and common sense: it’s because her country music album and songs have been out of print for some 40 years. Tina Turns The Country On! is not available for streaming our download anywhere, nor has it ever been. The album was never in production even during the CD era. Unless you purchased one of the original copies released on vinyl, you’ve never heard the album. Only a few copies are available on eBay, and unless you’re willing to pony up between $88.00 – $249.00, you’re out of luck for listening.

Rolling Stone says, “It’s out of print now, but even so the album hasn’t made the impact that it deserves.” But how is it supposed to have any impact whatsoever when nobody can hear it? And this is not country music’s fault. Once again, “country music” is being addressed like it is a monolith, as if it’s artists, fans, labels, institutions, and industry all work in lock step with each other—and in this instance, to actively not embrace Tina Turner, despite her releasing a country album.

But it wasn’t even a country label that released Turner’s country album in the first place, it was United Artists out of Los Angeles. The album was recorded at Bolic Sound in Inglewood, California that was built by Ike Turner. If anyone should be implicated for not embracing Tina Turner’s country output and depreciating it in the modern music diet, it should be them. In 2021, Tina Turner sold her entire catalog to BMG for $50 million. In theory, it would now be up to BMG to reissue Tina Turner’s country music, including her debut album and the respective singles. So far, they have not.

If anything, country music fans are thirsty for this material, and have been clamoring for it for decades. That is why over the years, there have been truck stop-style reissues of Tina Turner’s country material under scores of names, often from European-based companies that are known for skirting copyrights through import schemes. Tina Turner Sings CountryThe Country Side of Tina Turner, Country My Way, Country In My Soul, and Country Classics are just some of the many titles that have compiled Tina Turner’s country material in quasi albums, but many of these have been pulled from shelves and streaming sites due to their spurious copyright permissions.

So why haven’t Tina Turner’s country songs been officially reissued, and why have they remained out of print for decades? The short answer is that we really don’t know. One reason could be because they are country. As classic country fans will attest, large swaths of country catalogs from important country artist continue to be out of print while artists from other genres enjoy quicker and more complete integrations into the streaming era. Since country fans tend to stream music less, labels and rights holders like BMG do not make country titles a priority for reissue.

But this is Tina Turner. She is a major international star. Though Saving Country Music spent significant time trying to find an answer as to why Turner’s country material remains out of print and there doesn’t seem to be a definitive one, some have asserted that this was at the behest of Tina Turner herself. Reading up on the recording of Tina Turns The Country On! you find that the album was Ike Turner’s idea, not Tina’s. He believed by recording country and folk material, it would introduce Turner to a wider audience.

And by the way, with multiple songs from Bob Dylan as well as “Don’t Talk Now” by James Taylor, the album wasn’t just meant to be considered country, but country and folk with an R&B twist. That is why the album received a Grammy nomination for “Best R&B Vocal Performance.” It was also full of obvious country cover songs as opposed to original material composed either for or by Turner.

Some believe that the disappearance of Tina Turns The Country On! and all of her country-related singles was at the behest of Tina Turner herself, perhaps because she didn’t care for it. Though there is no confirmation of this, it’s one of the few plausible explanations. Tina Turner is an international superstar. Even if it’s early career output, the revenue her country album and songs could garner would be significant. Turner’s catalog earned $3.7 million in 2022 alone. Why would any label leave any portion of her catalog unavailable unless it was voluntary on Turner’s part?

But moreover, the entire discussion of whether Tina Turner could have been big in country seems to miss the bigger picture of Turner’s career. Always considering himself a kingmaker, Marcus K. Dowling of The Tennessean asserts in his article claiming Turner’s country career was “disrupted,” “In another life, Tina Turner could’ve been one of the greatest country music artists ever.”

But if she had been, it would have been at the detriment of her becoming an international superstar. Country music would have been limiting to Turner. This is the reason Taylor Swift, Linda Ronstadt, Shania Twain, and other women left country music for the greener pastures of pop. Why would anyone sit back and second guess the overwhelmingly successful career trajectory of Tina Turner?

Tina Turner herself explained to Larry King in 1997 that the United States was too limiting for her, let alone country music. That is why she chose to move with Switzerland later in life. “Europe has been very supportive of my music,” she said. “I’m as big as Madonna in Europe. I’m as big as—in some places, as the Rolling Stones.” Maybe if anything was less accommodating to Tina Turner, it was the United States in total.

Let’s not be hyperbolic ourselves though. In neither the Rolling Stone or The Tennessean article do they come out and say that racism is the reason Tina Turner wasn’t big in country music. But then again, they don’t have to. They understand this is the implication and how it will be interpreted. Reading through the social media comments, that’s exactly how it was interpreted. They also don’t say racism was the reason because there is absolutely not a shred of evidence this is the case.

Instead of attempting to implicate “country music” as being responsible for not embracing Tina Turner enough or disrupting her country music career, how about lobby for the release of her country music to the wide public so we can all enjoy it? That is the barrier standing between Tina Turner being embraced by country fans. That is what has disrupted her legacy in the genre.

Not to toot the ol’ horn, but when Saving Country Music published a retrospective on another overlooked Black country music contributor in Stoney Edwards—and specifically bemoaned the fact that so much of his music was unavailable digitally—it led in part to UMG Nashville re-releasing Stoney’s six major label albums. This was something “country music” did to make sure Stoney’s legacy didn’t continue to go overlooked.

Saving Country Music is a traditional country music website. As soon as news of Tina Turner’s passing broke, it immediately became an imperative to make sure the public knew about her contributions to country music. Many other country music websites behaved similarly. And this wasn’t the first time SCM had mentioned Tina Turner’s debut album or her efforts in country music, and others have as well. It’s a disputable opinion that “country music” did not embrace Tina Turner, despite the lack of availability of her country songs.

But the bigger question is why everything has to be a culture war scuffle these days? The death of Tina Turner was a moment when music fans of all genres could come together and mourn the loss of an icon beloved the world over by country, rock, pop, soul, and hip-hop fans alike, white and black, American, European, Asian, African, and everyone else.

Yes, it is imperative on the press and academia to make sure the contributions of people like Tina Turner to cultural institutions like country music do not go overlooked. But you can do that without casting aspersions and asserting spurious or outright false claims. This only undercuts the potency of arguments when actual moments of racism and exclusion arise.

© 2024 Saving Country Music