Skip to comments.Examining the color of country music
Posted on 07/02/2006 9:37:15 AM PDT by Chi-townChief
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the 1992 film "White Men Can't Jump," dimwitted Billy (Woody Harrelson) and his sassy girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez) are riding in a convertible and listening to a cassette of Ray Charles' classic country album, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." As Charles croons "Careless Love," Billy asks, "Would somebody please explain to me why this Negro is singing cowboy music?"
"You know, this is my favorite song," Gloria says. "It makes me think about making love to you. It makes me want to just take you, and lock you up in a room, and make love to you over and over and over and over and over."
Billy adds: "I didn't say I didn't like it."
The scene is played for laughs, of course, but many listeners, both white and black, have been -- and remain -- resistant to the notion of African-American artists singing country music. But a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum titled "I Can't Stop Loving You: Ray Charles & Country Music" explores the beloved musician's immense contributions to the genre.
Over the course of his career, Charles recorded more than 100 country songs -- a trailblazer for other African Americans, from Charley Pride to today's Cowboy Troy, who would later take on this predominately white genre.
At the center of the Charles exhibit is his album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," which was released in 1962 and quickly sold more than 1 million copies. The LP included country standards like "You Win Again" and "I Can't Stop Loving You." Charles quickly followed up the album with a second volume, which included his timeless rendition of "Take These Chains From My Heart."
"In an interview clip in the exhibit, Charles talks about how the record company thought he was crazy to make an album of all-country songs in 1962," explained museum staffer and exhibit co-curator Michael Gray. "We have to remember the social context. This was before the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King delivers his 'I Have a Dream' speech. This is two years before the Civil Rights Act [of 1964] that banned segregation in public places. It was a brave move for Ray Charles to validate the music of the white, Southern working class during a time of racial turmoil in America."
The exhibit, which runs until the end of 2007, includes numerous video clips, including Charles' appearances on Glen Campbell's and Johnny Cash's TV variety shows, a duet with Buck Owens on the series "Hee Haw" and the 1983 music video for "3/4 Time," which was shot at the Dusty Road Tavern in east Nashville. This was one of country music's first promotional videos.
"African Americans have always played a key role in country music, dating back to the early string bands and all the way up to the present day," Gray said. "There's always been a lot of fluidity between R&B and country music. Record labels separated the music early on, by color. They had the 'hillbilly' line [of records] and the 'race' music line. But in reality, black and white musicians were learning from one another, and sharing instrumentation and lyrical themes. There was a lot of fluidity, but if you have to point to a particular artist and album that helped break down those race barriers, it certainly would be Ray Charles and 'Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.' "
In the decades following Charles' landmark "Modern Sounds" recordings, only one black country performer became a true superstar. Charley Pride had a whopping 28 singles reach No. 1 between 1966 and 1989.
When Chet Atkins signed Pride to RCA in 1965, the company decided that until the singer scored a significant hit, the label would not mail out any promotional photos of him. The theory was that some country disc jockeys might not play a song if they knew it was by a black singer.
Pride's third single, "Just Between You and Me," was written by Cowboy Jack Clement and became a Top 10 hit in late 1966. Clement, who is white, produced Pride's first 20 albums. Clement thinks that RCA's approach in marketing Pride was wise.
"I still marvel at the fact that a major label could be that smart," Clement said with a grin. "They decided they weren't going to mention the race thing. They were just going put it out and say, 'Here's a brand-new artist, and we're behind him.' "
At the beginning of his career, Pride put his predominantly white concert audiences at ease by gently joking about his "permanent tan." Pride's magnificent voice and fan-friendly attitude have made him one of the biggest country stars of all time. During the acceptance speech for his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000, Pride thanked those early supporters who had backed him despite what he called "the pigmentation situation."
At age 68, Pride remains an active performer. He's currently working on a gospel album, and he'll appear at the Hodag Country Festival in Rhinelander, Wis., on July 13, and at the Little Nashville Opry in Nashville, Ind., on Sept. 23.
The battle of Troy
Despite some chart successes, no African-American artist has come even remotely close to matching Pride's achievements. In the '70s, '80s and '90s, several black artists -- including Stoney Edwards and Cleve Francis -- tried to follow the trail Pride had blazed. But on the Country National Airplay chart compiled by Radio and Records for the week ending June 23, not one of the top 50 singles was by a black singer or a by band with a black member.
But there is a new generation of African-American country artists adding diversity to this lily-white genre.
Most prominent among them is Cowboy Troy, a rapper -- yes, a rapper -- closely associated with Big & Rich. In a savvy career move, Cowboy Troy raised his national profile by co-hosting this year's season of the TV show "Nashville Star" alongside Wynonna. His debut album, 2005's "Loco Motive," featured a blend of country and hip-hop. Despite receiving little radio airplay, the album has sold well.
"I think that Cowboy Troy's success points out that the audience is more interested in experimentation than the industry is," said Diane Pecknold, who teaches courses in popular music at the University of Louisville. "Many in the industry didn't think [Pride] had a chance, but the audience did not have a problem with him."
They're out there
According to the 2005 edition of the Arbitron publication Radio Today, approximately 2.4 percent of country radio listeners are black. On the surface, that number seems small, but when one considers that country is an enormously popular format, this translates to millions of African-American fans.
Anecdotal evidence among industry observers suggests that some of these fans occasionally hide their love of country music in social situations to avoid criticism from black friends who believe that white country music acts and fans generally are racist.
Vocalist Rhonda Towns, whose new release is "I Wanna Be Loved by You" on the independent label Dawn Records, believes her contemporary country sound can win over fans of all races.
"Country music fans can see through somebody [who's] trying to do something because it would be a niche," Towns explained. "I don't want to be a novelty. There are other African Americans who have been trying to make it, too. I do feel like I'm a leader and a pioneer. Sometimes you're given a cross to bear to open up a door that hasn't been opened before."
Towns will perform at Country Thunder in Twin Lakes, Wis., on July 20 as part of a festival lineup that also includes Keith Anderson, Big & Rich, Cowboy Troy and Gretchen Wilson.
Another young singer generating a buzz in Nashville is Ericka Dunlap (at right), who was crowned Miss America 2004. The first African American to become Miss Florida, Dunlap spent her childhood in Orlando listening to country music and clogging. She did not, however, sing a country tune in the big pageant.
"For a long time, there was an unwritten rule that if a contestant in the Miss America competition was singing a country song, or clogging, or playing the fiddle, or doing anything that was representative of country music, more than likely she wasn't going to get any farther than the top 10," Dunlap said. "I was leery of presenting my country side, so I decided to play it safe ... I did a song entitled 'If I Could.' It was a contemporary-jazz piece. It worked!"
A bottom-line business
Numerous factors make it difficult for a black artist to break into mainstream country music nowadays. Racial discrimination may be a factor in some cases, but an equally powerful roadblock is major labels' dominance of the industry.
Pecknold -- whose forthcoming book from Duke University Press is The Selling Sound: Country Music, Commercialism, and the Politics of Popular Culture -- feels the consolidation of the country music industry has limited the opportunities for aspiring black artists (or any act differing from the status quo) to get signed to a major label.
"Major labels have to invest so much in every artist they sign that there are just fewer artists [on the rosters]," Pecknold said. "Because of the economics of the industry now, those labels are not willing to take a chance on anything. The middle market that existed in the 1970s is gone. To some extent, alt-country and Americana have been cultivated to fill that middle market for albums that sell at the 500,000 level."
Bobby Reed is a Chicago freelance writer.
Black country artists Scores of African-American artists have focused on country music over the years. Here's a brief look at some of them from the past and present:
DeFord Bailey -- The harmonica virtuoso was one of the Grand Ole Opry's biggest stars in the Depression era. He was inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Big Al Downing -- The multitalented Downing recorded R&B, country, rockabilly and even disco songs. His country peak came in 1978-80, when he charted with "Mr. Jones,'' "Touch Me'' and "Bring it on Home.'' Downing died on July 4, 2005.
Stoney Edwards -- The late singer-songwriter recorded five albums for Capitol and had hits with "She's My Rock'' and "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul.''
Ruby Falls -- A native Tennessean and onetime resident of Milwaukee, the late Falls had nine charting hits between 1974 and 1979, including "You've Got to Mend this Heartache.''
Cleve Francis -- Cardiologist Francis left his medical practice to pursue a career in country music. He released three albums for Liberty in the '90s. He continues to perform today.
Dobie Gray -- Best known for the pop smash "Drift Away,'' Gray released charting country singles in the mid-'80s, including "From Where I Stand.'' That song provided the title for the three-disc box set "From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music,'' released in 1998 by Warner Bros. Gray sings on blues belter Shemekia Copeland's 2005 album "The Soul Truth.''
Linda Martell -- The first African-American woman to sing at the Grand Ole Opry, Martell had a Top 25 hit with "Color Him Father'' in 1969.
O.B. McClinton -- The late singer released albums on Enterprise (a division of Stax) and Epic. He had a big hit in 1973 with "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You.''
Alice Randall -- This songwriter's compositions include the Judy Rodman hit "Girls Ride Horses, Too'' and Trisha Yearwood's No. 1 smash "XXX's and OOO's (An American Girl).''
Carl Ray -- A native Texan, Ray has performed at Nashville's famous Bluebird Cafe and in Switzerland. He has recorded a track with David Ball, which should appear on Ray's forthcoming album.
James Sharp -- Based in Atlanta, Sharp has performed in Nashville and Branson, Mo. He appeared in a recent TV ad for Cargill promoting barbeque pork.
Trini Triggs -- Signed to Curb in the '90s, Triggs had a hit single with "Straight Tequila.'' He is a guest vocalist on the Bellamy Brothers' 2005 album "Angels & Outlaws, Vol. 1.''
Oddities and missteps The list of black artists who have recorded country music includes some surprising trivia.
In 1965, the same year the Supremes topped the pop charts with "Stop! In the Name of Love," Motown released the LP "The Supremes Sing Country Western & Pop."
The Pointer Sisters' "Fairy-tale" won them a 1974 Grammy award for best country vocal performance by a duo or group.
Sammy Davis Jr. cut a 1982 album called "Closest of Friends," which has been reissued on CD under various titles, including "Sammy in Nashville: Great Country Standards."
Michael and Janet's marginally talented sister, LaToya Jackson, flopped with her 1994 album "From Nashville to You."
Most bizarre of all is the 1970 album "Louis 'Country and Western' Armstrong," which was produced by Cowboy Jack Clement. The disc is considered a forgettable novelty among many jazz aficionados.
Clement has always regretted the poor quality of the album. He has spent years recording new instrumental backing and merging it with Louis Armstrong's original vocals. Clement expects to complete the project soon and then reissue the album.
Geez Louise ! You can't MAKE an entire race of folks play and sing a style of music that they don't dig. More power to the ones that do. If they don't suck, chances are that they will be successful. Does this clown worry about the lack of white rappers ? I think that it says alot that even in 1962 Ray could've had a hit like that.
There's an African influence in most things southern, particularly music. The banjo originated in Africa. Both country music and blues spun off of Gospel, as did rock and roll. I know plenty of rural black folks, farmers, who quietly appreciate country music. Hold to the tradition and play the music; if you're good, appreciation will follow. There's an audience, and always has been, stereotypes of urban would-be "change agents" notwithstanding.
Here's a few actual C&W titles from an email, but I don't know the artists:
"If I'd a shot you when I wanted to I'd be out by now"
"I hate every bone in your body but mine"
"You're the reason our kids are so ugly"
"She Broke My Heart At Walgreen's (And I Cried All The Way To Sears)"
"She Made Toothpicks From The Timber Of My Heart"
"(I'm Pouring) Straight Tequila Over Mixed Emotions"
"I Can't Get Over You 'Til You Get Out From Under Him"
"There's A Tear In My Beer ('Cause I'm Crying For you, Dear) "
"Think Of Me (When You're Under Him) "
"If I Can't Live Without Her, How Come I Ain't Dead? "
"If I Had It To Do All Over Again (I'd Do It All Over You) "
"I'm So Miserable Without You (It's Almost Like You're Here)"
I was the recording engineer for a demo of that last one, it's a classic.
I remember reading one of the history of rock-n-roll books around 1970, I can't recall the author; but when he came to "I Can't Stop Loving You" he was so outraged that you would think that Ray had killed Kennedy. In a similar vein regarding racial stereotyping, a Chuck Berry Anthology CD liner notes compare Chuck and Elvis by saying (pardon the political incorrectness-these are the printed quotes) that Elvis was "a hillbilly who sang with that colored feeling" while asking about Chuck's fondness for country music, "Who is that black hillbilly?"
Have you heard the new one called "Redneck Love Gone Bad?" I heard it on a C&W station here in Florida last week.
I was going to mention that the article needed to name Chuck Berry as one of the first black country performers. A lot of the early rockers sound like hillbillies if you listen to them with today's ear--e.g., Buddy Hollie.
The hard-to-find reason for this little "saunter" about blacks and country music appears to be to tout the new Diane Pecknold book being introduced shortly.
But you have to reread this piece several times to dredge it up through all the author's "razzel dazzel". Because with all his history and clutter and commentary on upcoming events, the book by Diane Pecknold is almost lost.
"Pecknold( Diane) -- whose forthcoming book from Duke University Press is The Selling Sound: Country Music, Commercialism, and the Politics of Popular Culture" (The title should have been underlined)
The author is so wrapped around the axel on black/white ettiquete that simple truths like "Talent Talks and race and BS walks" in the music industry is simply overlooked.
Charlie Pride and Ray Charles are simply "phenoms"... Ray Charles even more so...a GIANT of all time.
Talking about "race" is picking fly specks out of finely ground pepper in a case like this. This is about the "Wonder of American Talent".
This guy should be taken out behind the wood shed for a few ceremonial whacks and be asked to stick more to the points on his future press announcements.
Here is a good study in the roots of two great American music styles.
Each song is a duet with a country and a rthym performer.
Man, those malpractice premiums are really having an effect on the industry.
Robert Johnson, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson,Bessie Smith, Big Momma Thorton, Watermelon Slim, Pinetop PeErkins, and many many others, played music that sounds as much country as Rock & Roll. Certainly the form, content and style are all there.
I just loved that guy on the show with Wynonna (is Wynonna a black name?). :)
I would have to agree with that.
I would add Mahalia Jackson in the mix as well.
Lionel Ritchie did at least one C & W song, "Deep River Woman".
Yup. Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, and probably many others would have been happy to be considered Bluesmen, in addition to their C&W credentials.
Sorry but I have to disagree with you strongly on that... if you go back in time on rural white music to time and places of little to no contact with black music you still can clearly see (or hear) it as "root" Country Music ... however from day one of Black and White music "meeting" there been heavy cross pollination going both ways to the betterment of both.... honesty sung from the heart know no color
>Man, those malpractice premiums are really having an effect on the industry.
Who better to sing songs about a broken heart?
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