Before black people made it to the cities in the Great Migration, African Americans were country people, and we were making music. So where do you draw the line between the blues and country? Listen to Night Train to Nashville, a compilation of Nashville R&B between 1945-70, and you’d be hard pressed not to hear the country. And what is zydeco but Creole country music, rooted in the sweat-soaked bayous of southwestern Louisiana?
“This was not always a lily-white music,” said Peter Cooper, senior music writer for the Tennessean. “This music was not the property of white people, initially… There are plenty of African Americans who have sung country music. There’s never any doubt that the music is borderless. But the business has not been.”
When Charley Pride first started singing country back in ’66, he was dubbed “Country Charley Pride” so that there would be no mistaking that this black man was no soul singer. But Pride wasn’t the first. Back in the earliest days of the Grand Ole Opry, one of its biggest stars was the harmonica-playing DeFord Bailey, the grandson of slaves, who stormed the country scene back in the ‘20s and ‘30s with what he called “black hillbilly” music.
In 1941, in what may have been a racially motivated move, Bailey ended up getting fired from the Opry over a licensing agreement with ASCAP. The Harmonica Wizard spent the rest of his life ostracized from music, earning a living cutting hair and shining shoes. He died in 1982, too soon to see himself honored in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Cooper sees a correlation between the challenges to Jim Crow-style segregation and the corporatization of country music. “There was maybe a lockdown,” Cooper says. “But it’s hard to attribute it to one thing. Beyond the obvious, the South’s history as a racially conflicted region, when you look at how corporate country works, it’s very afraid to take chances. There was a time in country music when females weren’t supposed to headline shows. Many record executives look for any reason to say no.”
No doubt about it, Rucker’s proven success and name recognition with Hootie and the Blowfish made his crossover less risky to country music executives. “If I was a new artist, trying to make a record, it would have been a lot harder,” Rucker says.
So will Rucker’s success and the growing appeal of acts like Rissi Palmer and the Carolina Chocolate Drops help black musicians—and music lovers—reclaim their country roots? Is there any chance that, say, Beyoncé, might discover her Creole roots, pick up the accordion and rock the zydeco like Rosie Ledet?
That may be a stretch.
But to black folks who think that country music is strictly a white affair, Rucker issues this challenge in his talk with The Root: “Just listen for one day. If you don’t hear five or 10 songs that you like, then I’ll accept that you think country music sucks. But until then, I say, ‘You’re babbling because you don’t know.’”
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.