Black Music Month Special: Blacks in Country Music

As we noted last week, Black Music Month began in 1979. In 2009, President Barack Obama further defined June as African American Music Appreciation Month. Our current President said in the annual proclamation, “During June, we pay tribute to the contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to American music. The indelible legacy of these musicians who have witnessed our Nation’s greatest achievements, as well as its greatest injustices give all Americans a richer, deeper understanding of American culture. Their creativity has shaped every genre of music…” And indeed it has, including the one Nashville, for better or worse, is most famous for — country music.

Today’s country tries more and more to become inclusive, as witnessed by two acts on this month’s broadcast of CMT Awards 2017. The winner for CMT Performance of the Year was “Want to Want Me”by Jason Derulo and Luke Bryan, (from CMT Crossroads). On the awards show, Jason Derulo and Luke Bryan had a lot of fun with “Strip It Down” and “Want to Want Me.” Then to close the show CMT had Lady Antebellum and EARTH WIND & FIRE doing “You Look Good” and then bringing the crowd to its feet with “September.”

Country music owes its deepest roots to black musicians and artists — like the ones who taught country pioneer Jimmie Rogers everything he knows about music. There’s a whole crop of black country artists on the rise. With any luck artists like Mickey Guyton, who has been the favorite of both fans and critics since she stepped on the scene, will be recognized for their talent before their skin color. Let’s look at six black (country) musicians who changed country music — DeFord Bailey, Charlie Pride, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Cowboy Troy, and Darius Rucker — and one who is poised to become the next great — Mickey Guyton.

DeFord Bailey

DeFord Bailey

When the Grand Ole Opry began, one of the first great stars was an African American, DeFord Bailey. DeFord Bailey was a pioneer not only for black country musicians, but all country musicians. A world-class harmonica player, Bailey has the distinct honor of being the first musician to be introduced on the Grand Ole Opry. Yes, that’s right, the first performer on the show was a black man. Opry founder George Hay made the announcement live on air on Dec. 10, 1927, when the show officially adopted its name, changing it from WSM Barn Dance, which it had used since it started in 1925.

See Charley Pride at NAMM July 15

See Charley Pride at NAMM July 15

Perhaps the best-known of the all-time greats in the genre is Charley Pride. Charley Pride is celebrating more than 50 years as a recording artist. He has enjoyed one of the most successful careers in the history of (country) music and is credited with helping to break color barriers by becoming the first black superstar within the genre. A true living legend, he has sold tens of millions of records worldwide with his large repertoire of hits. The Country Music Hall of Fame member was recently announced as #31 on the Rolling Stone magazine list of all-time country artists.

A three-time GRAMMY® award winner, Pride has garnered no less than 36 chart-topping country hits, including “Kiss An Angel Good Morning,” a massive #1 crossover hit that sold over a million singles and helped Pride land the Country Music Association’s “Entertainer of the Year” award in 1971 and the “Top Male Vocalist” awards of 1971 and 1972. A proud member of the Grand Ole Opry, Pride continues to perform concerts worldwide and has toured the United States, Canada, Ireland, The United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand over the last several years.

Come meet and hear and see Charlie Pride next month. The 2017 Summer NAMM returns to Nashville’s Music City Center, July 13-15. This year’s show will welcome a variety of legendary performers, including a special performance from Pride, who will release his new album, Music in My Heart, on July 7. Pride will perform on Saturday, July 15 at 1:00 p.m. on the NAMM Reverb Stage on the Terrace as part of the show’s Music Industry Day. Music Industry Day is open to the public and welcomes music professionals, students, academics and others involved in the creation and production of music to The Summer NAMM Show. For more information on the artist, visit CharleyPride.com. For more information about NAMM, please visit www.namm.org, call 800.767.NAMM (6266) or follow the organization on Facebook, Instagram and/ or Twitter.

Tina Turner

Tina Turner

Tina Turner — She may not be known traditionally as a country artist, but Tennessee native and American icon Tina Turner’s stint in country music was huge both for her and for future generations of artists. She wasn’t the first pop/ R&B artist to go country (there’s another coming up in the list), but she chose to introduce herself to the world as a country artist to show her appreciation for the genre.

In 1975, only a year before leaving her abusive husband Ike Turner, Tina stepped out on her own to release her first ever solo record. A collection of her take on some of her favorite country songs, Tina Turns the Country On! earned her a Grammy nomination. Tina’s stint as a black country artist inspired a whole world of musicians to cross into country. Her booming personality and vocal delivery also inspired a new wave of big-voiced country women like Reba McEntire to take control of the stage, instead of sticking to the reserved demeanor seen in most country artists at the time.

Ray Charles

Ray Charles

Ray Charles — Ray Charles is the rare artist whose music completely eclipses genre boundaries. And while, like Tina Turner, he’s not known traditionally as a country artist, Charles stepped into the country spotlight several times and left a lasting impact. One of his first gigs as a musician in the 40s was playing with a country band called The Florida Playboys.

Ray first began recording country songs in the late 50s, and in 1962 he released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The album is widely considered to be Charles’ greatest record and one of the most important country records of all time. Charles’ signature arrangements, complete with spunky piano licks and big band punctuation, helped introduce country music to an entirely new generation that had never heard some of the genre’s biggest hits before. Thanks to Ray Charles, country music’s popularity exploded.

Cowboy Troy

Cowboy Troy

Cowboy Troy — Some of today’s best-selling country acts owe the genesis of their biggest hits to Cowboy Troy. How so? Well, he was doing the whole “hick-hop” thing years before acts like Jason Aldean (“Dirt Road Anthem”), Luke Bryan (“That’s My Kind of Night”) and Florida Georgia Line (“This Is How We Roll”) cashed in on it. Cowboy Troy’s mark on country music is undeniably huge.

What separates Troy Coleman III from the other acts is that he was always making music that fused country twang with rock music and hip hop lyric schemes, starting in 2001. He’s one of the original members of Big & Rich’s “MuzikMafia,” which also saw success prior to the 2010s. But Troy’s influence on the scene can ultimately be heard in the hits that launched other (notably white) artists to their sold-out World Tour status.

Darius Rucker performs at the Sixth Annual "Darius and Friends" benefit concert at the Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville on June 8.                   	       photo: Jeremy Polzel

Darius Rucker (photo: Jeremy Polzel)

Darius Rucker — In many ways, Darius is the new torchbearer for country artists who don’t fall in line with the expected “white southerner” trope. Though his solo career as a country artist is still less than a decade old, Rucker’s influence and success already has him pinned as the “next” Charley Pride — and not just because of his skin color.

As a founding member and primary songwriter for soft rock band Hootie & The Blowfish (contrary to popular belief, the name was a combination of nicknames and Rucker was not “Hootie”), Rucker co-wrote the 16th best-selling album of all time in Cracked Rear View. He always described his sound as more country-leaning and introduces the classic hit “Let Her Cry” as the first country song he ever wrote.

When Rucker first went solo, 2008’s Learn To Live was born. The album led to three No. 1 country hits, including “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “Alright.” It also laid the groundwork for his second record, Charleston, SC 1966, which cemented Rucker as a mainstay in country music. He went on to record one of the most-played country songs ever, his version of “Wagon Wheel.”

All the while, Rucker has been received as a masterful songwriter with a genuine honesty in his delivery and a sound that is both uniquely his own and respectful of the deepest country traditions. Rucker is not simply an influential black country artist, he’s one of the best songwriting artists in modern country music.

And while Rucker downplays the role of color in his career (like Pride), his success is important. As long as there are gatekeepers in country music, there will be barriers to truly talented artists getting the support they deserve. And no matter the record-setting careers of folks like Pride and Rucker, suits are nervous of breaking from stereotypes.

But fans want to hear great country music, regardless of color. The backbone of country music was built and is strengthened by artists both black and white. These pioneers proved the effect they can have on the critical and commercial success of country music, and little by little are reducing notion that country music is anything other than the music of all people.

Mickey Guyton will perform on The Park Stage at Walk of Fame Park during the 2016 CMA Music Festival (photo: Catherine Powell).

Mickey Guyton (photo: Catherine Powell).

Mickey Guyton — Born in Arlington, Texas, Candace Mycale “Mickey” Guyton moved around the Lone Star state as her father’s engineering job took them to Waco, Tyler, Dallas and Fort Worth. Music was a constant in her nomadic life. She began singing gospel in church when she was only five and grew up listening to a variety of artists, including Dolly Parton, LeAnn Rimes, Whitney Houston and gospel innovators BeBe and CeCe Winans.

“Those were huge influences,” she says, recalling a particularly pivotal moment. “I was at a Texas Rangers baseball game and LeAnn Rimes was singing the National Anthem. This was right when she came out with ‘Blue’. I was completely mesmerized.”

Mickey knew instantly what she wanted to do with her life, and although she possesses the kind of strong, evocative voice that could succeed in any genre, Country music is her passion.

“Of all the music out there, Country is the most honest, the most genuine and speaks to my heart” she says.

Mickey moved to Los Angeles after high school to attend Santa Monica College. She worked long hours at two jobs, struggling to make ends meet, but held on to her dream of becoming a Country singer. A chance encounter turned everything around. A friend introduced her to producer Julian Raymond (Glen Campbell, the Wallflowers) who was immediately impressed with Mickey. He connected her to Gary Borman and his partner Steve Moir, the company that built the careers of Faith Hill, Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum from day one.

Mickey moved to Nashville in 2011 to pursue her dream and has embedded herself in the town’s songwriter community the last six years. Also in 2011, Mickey signed to Capitol Records Nashville and made her first national television appearance on stage at the White House during an all-star concert that included James Taylor, Dierks Bentley, Kris Kristofferson, The Band Perry, Darius Rucker and Lyle Lovett. The show was captured by PBS and broadcast as part of their “In Performance at the White House” series. Mickey’s riveting rendition of Patsy Cline’s classic “Crazy” was one of the highlights of the night.

“When I sang for Gary and Steve, they saw potential in me,” explains Mickey. “Now I have a record deal with Capitol Records, I’ve sung at the White House and I’m making an album. It’s very, very humbling because if you would have asked me a few years ago if I would have pictured myself being at this point, I probably would of laughed and said, ‘Yeah right!’ I’m very appreciative of it because I understand how hard it is for artists to get to this point. I feel extremely blessed.”

Mickey released an acoustic EP, Unbreakable, in conjunction with her iTunes Festival performance in Austin, TX. She is currently putting the finishing touches on her debut album with producers Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift, Keith Urban) and Dann Huff (Faith Hill, Keith Urban, The Band Perry).

Mickey’s debut single is the powerful “Better Than You Left Me” which she co-wrote with Jennifer Hanson, Jenn Schott and Nathan Chapman. The single broke Country Aircheck history for the most one–week adds for a debut act’s first single. Mickey has appeared on several Who To Watch for lists including NPR, Billboard, Spotify, Yahoo! Music, Huffington Post, Mashable, Taste of Country and Nashville Lifestyles. She was also featured in the Wall Street Journal and “Better Than You Left Me” was USA Today’s Song Of The Week. On January 10, 2015, Mickey made her Grand Ole Opry debut at the historic Ryman Auditorium. Her emotional and powerful performance brought the audience to their feet. In 2016, she was nominated for the New Female Vocalist of the Year honour at the ACM awards.

“African-American country musicians” — a listing of 32 well-known

Arthur Alexander, DeFord Bailey, Cuje Bertram, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Cowboy Troy, Al Downing, Cleve Francis, Adrianna Freeman, Will Glover, Dobie Gray, Mickey Guyton, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Damien Horne, Ivory Joe Hunter, Herb Jeffries, Mike Johnson (yodeler), Laura Love, Miko Marks, Linda Martell, Dona Mason, O. B. McClinton, Aaron Neville, Rissi Palmer, Charley Pride, Lionel Richie, Lesley Riddle, Roy Roberts (blues artist), Darius Rucker, Trini Triggs, and Vicki Vann.

ABOUT THAT BANJO….
An instrument that almost immediately conjures up images of country music is the banjo. It’s a not-widely-enough known fact that the banjo came to the U.S. from West Africa, and that it took root due to the enslaved Africans and their children who defied restrictions on the drum by picking out beats on the “banjar,” as it was sometimes called.

The banjo is indeed just about everywhere: an instrument that transmits the flavor of “roots” and “authenticity” to pop of many stripes. In fact, Tulane University once sponsored a two-day symposium titled “The Banjo in the African Diaspora,” which featured speakers and performers probing the African roots of the instrument. Banjology is also the name of a website at Duke which is putting up great material and music documenting the banjo’s Africanness in America.