For nearly a century, these Black artists have shaped country music

Written by:

Matthew Leimkuehler

Photo of Lesley RIddle
Published in full from USA TODAY
Decades before Entertainer of the Year trophies and heated competition for radio placement, the fiddle — descending from European immigrants — and the banjo — created by African slaves — melded in the American South.But record companies marketed early country music, known as “hillbilly music,” to white listeners, a misnomer carried through the 20th century that many artists, historians and advocates continue to dispel today.Read along for nearly a century of Black presence in country music, from DeFord Bailey setting the world “on fire” with his harmonica to Mickey Guyton’s vital Grammy-nominated 2020 single “Black Like Me.”


The big bang

In summer 1927, producer Ralph Peer spearheaded Bristol recording sessions that became known as country music’s “Big Bang.” Inside the Virginia-Tennessee border city, he cut recordings from Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family laying a foundation for nearly a century of music to come.

And Lesley Riddle, a Black artist, wandered Appalachian hollers in the late 1920s and 1930s to “catch” songs for A.P. Carter, de facto leader of the original country music outfit.

“I was his tape recorder,” Riddle once said, according to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. “He’d take me with him and he’d get someone to sing the whole song. Then I’d get it and learn it to Sara and Maybelle (Carter).”

In total, Riddle embarked on about 15 song “catching” trips. He also helped Maybelle Carter develop her famed “Carter Scratch” guitar style, heard on many Carter Family songs, including “Wildwood Flower.”

“They traveled together for three or four years,” said Dom Flemons, an award-winning musician and scholar. “There was no career in music in those years,” he continued. “And Lesley didn’t try to make a career in music.”

Riddle left music in the 1940s, but picked up a guitar again in 1965 at the request of folklorist Mike Seeger, who documented Riddle’s songs and stories prior to his 1980 death.

Riddle was one of many Black musicians to influence formative white country singers. Arnold Schultz, considered an ace western Kentucky picker in the 1920s, imprinted his style on a young Bill Monroe. In the 1930s, a young Hank Williams met Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a bluesman who taught him “all the music training I ever had.”

“White America was a bit blind to a greater truth about the music that it had inherited,” said Ketch Secor, front man of old time band Old Crow Medicine Show.

He added: “In all of these cases, what’s happening is that someone needs to help white America understand that the richest songs are Black American songs.”

Despite deriving from Black and white Southerners, country music at the time was packaged for segregated audiences. Hillbilly music was released in the 1920s for white record buyers. Black consumers were marketed toward “race records.”

But racial lines blurred in the studio. Research compiled in the 2013 book “Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music,” found at least 22 integrated “proto-country” sessions happened before 1932. These sessions included at least 50 Black players, according to NPR.

“Up to the big crash of the Great Depression, you have this flourishing of American vernacular music being raised up on a whole ‘nother level,” Flemons said. “When they collected the material, they had Black and white artists all over the place.”

LATE 1927

DeFord Bailey ‘changed the entire world’

DeFord Bailey stepped in front of a microphone on the Grand Ole Opry and “changed the entire world,” said Flemons.

Bailey, a Black entertainer from Tennessee, was one of the Opry’s first stars — a musician the Country Music Hall of Fame described as having “helped to inspire the name of America’s longest-running radio show.”

He often played the howling “Fox Chase” and “Pan American Blues,” a tune recreating sounds of an L&N Railroad train. He’d be known on-air as the “Harmonica Wizard.”

“He set it on fire with that one little harmonica,” Flemons said.

The Opry fired Bailey in 1941 due to alleged publishing disputes between radio stations and ASCAP, the rights organization that licenses some of his hit songs. He opened a shoe shining business in Nashville, and wouldn’t be billed at the Opry again until 1974.

“He rarely played for anyone except friends after that,” according to Bailey’s 1982 Tennessean obituary.

Bailey entered the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

Armstrong and Rodgers

A jazz powerhouse and country music’s leading star crossed paths in a Los Angeles studio to record a song showing the artistic reach of “hillbilly” music.

Louis Armstrong joined yodelin’ sensation Jimmie Rodgers to record “Standing On The Corner (Blue Yodel #9).” The song melded Rodgers’ Mississippi blues influence with timely jazz shepherded by Armstrong.

Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s wife and Fisk University alumna, joined on the recording.

“That recording is a really great illustration of how deeply Jimmie Rodgers had internalized the language of the blues,” said Steven Lewis, curator at the National Museum of African American Music. “And also how close early country music and Black popular music were.”


Modern Sounds

In ’62, Ray Charles released “Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music,” an album that captured his take on tunes he heard on the radio growing up and played as a young musician in Florida honky-tonks.

In a decade when Music City embraced a “Nashville Sound” framed by smooth, pop-leaning production that bucked rock ‘n’ roll’s growing fervor, Charles offered country music unquestionably his own.

“Just A Little Lovin’,” “Bye Bye Love” and “Hey, Good Lookin'” — songs made famous by Eddy Arnold, the Everly Brothers and Hank Williams — were doused in nuanced orchestration, swinging big bands and tonic storytelling from Charles.

Country radio failed to embrace “Modern Sounds,” but it nonetheless reached listeners who crossed genre lines blurred by Charles on the release.

“It isn’t an attempt to sound like the past,” said Charles L. Hughes, author of “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.”

“It is really clearly Ray Charles’ attempt to not only say, ‘I like country music and I can do country music,'” said Hughes. “It’s an attempt to talk about modern sounds in country music.”

Six months after the first “Modern Sounds,” Charles released “Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music Part II.” In “Modern Sounds,” Charles released what many consider one of the greatest albums of all-time.


A superstar emerges

In 1963, an aspiring baseball player and part-time country singer named Charley Pride visited Music Row at the urging of singer Red Sovine, who saw him perform the previous year in Montana.

Pride — a sharecropper’s son from Sledge, Mississippi, who at the time chased major league ambitions between shifts at a smelting factory and honky-tonk gigs in Montana — knocked on the door of Cedarwood Publishing, meeting would-be manager Jack D. Johnson.

Two years later, he landed a deal at RCA with the help of Chet Atkins and producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement.  In the mid-1960s — as civil rights activists marched for equality in the South — the label hesitated at promoting an African-American in country music. The company marketed Pride’s early singles, such as “The Snakes Crawl at Night” and “Before I Met You,” without distributing his picture.

But his voice was undeniable. By 1967, Pride reached the top 10 on country radio charts and didn’t look back. With a smoothly distinct voice and boisterous work ethic, Pride began cementing an unmatched legacy in country — a career that totaled 29 No. 1 songs and a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. He reached a pinnacle of commercial country music success reached by few before him, becoming the best-selling RCA artist since Elvis Presley before him.

“To be doing that at a time when nobody really wanted him here, it’s crazy to look back now … that must’ve been so hard,” said country star Darius Rucker said. “I can deal with whatever comes my way because it can’t be near what Charley went through. That’s something I told myself.”


Linda Martell at the Opry

In 1969, Linda Martell became the first African-American woman to sing on the Grand Ole Opry, months before releasing her lone 1970 studio album “Color Me Country.”

The album featured “Color Him Father,” a touching Vietnam War-era cover about embracing new family after “our real old man, he got killed in the war.” The song peaked at No. 22 on the country charts.

Shortly after “Color Me Country,” the South Carolina singer retreated from the limelight, where she’d stay for decades.

In a Rolling Stone profile published last year, she detailed instances of systemic racism — promoters canceling shows because of her race, working with a label called Plantation Records, and enduring racial hecklers — that pushed her out of country music.

“You’d be singing and they’d shout out names and you know the names they would call you,” she told Rolling Stone about a time on stage in 1969.

In the 1970s, some Black country singers — Stoney Edwards, O.B. McClinton and Big Al Downing — saw modest success, but it would be decades after Charley Pride before gatekeepers embraced another chart-topping African-American star.


Pointer Sisters’ ‘Fairytale’

“Fairytale,” a single from soul staple The Pointer Sisters, pushed the group into groundbreaking country music territory.

Behind the slick fiddle-and-steel guitar breakup single, the sisterly group with Arkansas roots performed at the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville and became the first Black vocal group to perform on the Grand Ole Opry.

The song, released alongside blues and R&B tracks on the group’s “That’s A Plenty” album, earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.

But, as with “Modern Sounds” before it, the song sputtered on country radio, peaking at No. 37. It reached No. 13 on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 chart. Elvis Presley would cover “Fairytale” the following year.

Following Charles, The Pointer Sisters joined a growing list of artists to bridge soul music with country. Tina Turner kicked off her solo career with a country covers record. Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers collaborated on megahit “Lady” in 1980 (Richie would tribute his country roots with a Nashville-backed album “Tuskegee” in 2012). Aaron Neville blurred genres in the 1990s. Solomon Burke, who has country roots dating back to songs released in the early 1960s, released an all-star album “Nashville” in 2006 … and the list goes on.


Darius Rucker debuts

Decamped from 1990s jangle-rock band Hootie & The Blowfish, Darius Rucker inked a country record deal with Capitol Nashville and released his debut country single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.”

Rucker faced skepticism from programmers when he began a transition into mainstream country music. He once showed a song to a pair of radio gatekeepers — “they’re my buddies and I love ’em,” he prefaced — who initially balked.

They said they liked the song a lot, they thought it was great, but they didn’t think their audience would accept a Black country singer,” Rucker told The Tennessean. “If you look up to that point, it makes total sense.”

Despite the hesitation that greeted Rucker, “… Think About It”  reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, marking the first chart-topping country single from a Black artist since Charley Pride’s “Night Games” in 1983. In his first decade as a solo artist, Rucker sent eight songs to No. 1 on country radio.

Notably, in 2013, he released “Wagon Wheel,” an Old Crow Medicine Show cover that became one of the biggest country songs of the 21st century. “Wagon Wheel” earned Rucker a Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance in 2014.

“My real thought, even while making [my first record] and when the record was done, was I hope there’s a little bit of noise and they let me make another record,” Rucker said. “I loved makin’ that record so much I wanted to do it again.”


To the ‘Old Town Road’

Lil Nas X took a trip down the “Old Town Road,” a path that asked listeners and pundits to question what, nearly 100 years after the Bristol sessions, qualifies as country music? 

Like Ray Charles, Cowboy Troy, Beyoncé at the CMA Awards and others before him, Lil Nas X blurred elements of country with the day’s popular sound — trap beats and rap verses, in his case. Billboard booted “Old Town Road” from the country charts despite evidence of white country artists infusing hip-hop into singles.

Still, the song’s impact echoed for months to come. It broke consumption records, earned Grammy Awards and took CMA Fest by storm. The song sparked others in country-rap, such as major label upstart Breland and Blanco Brown’s viral hit “The Git Up.”


‘Black Like Me’

At his peak, some referred to Charley Pride as the Jackie Robinson of country music. But the path for Black country singers after Pride wasn’t followed as quickly as in the major leagues. Pleas for diversity on the charts and in positions of power in country music continue today.

Artists including Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen ensured it wouldn’t take decades for another non-white singer to top country charts after Rucker. In 2018, Allen became the first Black country singer to launch his career with a No. 1 hit, “Best Shot.” Since 2017, Brown, a biracial singer, logged five No. 1 song on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.

Rissi Palmer, the “Country Girl” singer who’s performed at the Lincoln Center and Grand Ole Opry, launched in 2020 a show on Apple Music called “Color Me Country.” The program highlights Black, Latino and Indigenous history and presence in the genre. Her guests include singer Miko Marks, up-and-comer Brittney Spencer and Americana outfit War and Treaty, the latter excelling in a format outside of commercial radio that includes essential country songwriting from roots expert Rhiannon Giddens and British singer Yola.

Singer Mickey Guyton captured her experience in the country song “Black Like Me,” released at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement. Despite virtually no support from terrestrial radio and being signed to a major record label deal for nearly a decade without releasing a full-length album, the performance earned her a Grammy Award nomination.

She is the first solo Black woman to earn a Best Country Solo Performance nod. Still, there’s more work to be done.

“When you’re already a woman and already not getting played on radio, the last thing you want to do is say one more thing to stop them from wanting to play you altogether,” Guyton told Variety in 2019. “I felt like I was walking on eggshells a lot. But if you’re speaking the truth in love… I’m not here to shame anybody. I’m just begging people in my industry to want to stand with me and figure this out.”