Yee Haw! The Rise of Black Country

Thanks to Darius Rucker, Rissi Palmer and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, black folks are finally rediscovering their country roots.

42nd Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards All-Star Jam

I’d like to dedicate this record

Right here to my main man

Johnny Cash, a real American gangsta…

Grand Ole Opry, here we come

—Snoop Dogg, “My Medicine”

There’s long been an assumption that black folks and country music just don’t mix—even though that assumption completely erases from history the music and success of Charley Pride, Ray Charles and even the Pointer Sisters: To many blacks, country music is seen as synonymous with rednecks and white supremacists, its incongruity with pigmented people, relegating it to little more than a bad punch line in pop culture. (Cue Samuel Jackson and Bernie Mac stranded at a country juke joint in Soul Men! Two brothers singing country and dancing the two-step! Hilarity ensues.)
For far too long if you loved country, and you had, what Pride called a “pigmentation situation,” chances are, you kept that love on the down low.

Now, it seems, it may finally be OK to come out of the closet.
Oprah recently dedicated an entire show to country music, declaring, “Country music is the real soul music!” Sitting next to her was
Darius Rucker, of Hootie and the Blowfish, who made history atop the country charts, the first African-American solo act to have a No. 1 country hit since Pride wrapped things up in 1983. (Ray Charles, performing with Willie Nelson, had a hit in 1984.)

In an interview with The Root, Rucker said country comes as naturally to him as any other kind of music. “Country music is just part of what I like,” he said. “To me, it wasn’t country or soul or rock. It was all just music to me.”

And Rucker’s got plenty of interesting company. The black country scene, it seems, is booming. These days, there’s Pittsburgh-born Rissi Palmer, who, in “Country Girl,” insists that country is “a state of mind, no matter where you’re from.” There’s Cleve Francis, the guitar-playing cardiologist.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a black bluegrass band, does a mean cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” on banjos and fiddles. Then there’s Cowboy Troy, dubbed “the world’s only 6’5” rapping black cowboy”:

People say it’s impossible, not probable, too radical,

But I already been on the CMAs,

Hell, Tim McGraw said he liked the change,

That he likes the way my hick-hop sounds and the way the crowd screams when I stomp the ground,

Now, big and black, clickty clack and I make the train jump the track like that

Even hip-hop acts like Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg are getting their country on. Snoop’s “My Medicine” is about as far from “Gin and Juice” as you can get. And last fall, Lil Wayne joined Kid Rock onstage at the Country Music Awards, performing “All Summer Long.” Sadly, Weezy’s performance wasn’t a true marriage of urban and country—he remained silent and rhymeless, strumming on a guitar while Kid Rock worked the room.
For all the burst of activity, Rucker has been the breakout success. His CD, Learn to Live, reached No. 1 and has remained on the charts for 30 weeks. The disc’s first two singles, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “It Won’t Be Like This For Long,” each sailed to No. 1, making Rucker the first male artist to get two debut singles atop the Hot Country Songs chart since Clay Walker 15 years ago, according to Billboard.

But don’t think I don’t think about it

Don’t think I don’t have regrets

Don’t think it don’t get to me

Between the work and the hurt and the whiskey