CMT’s revealing 2004 documentary paints a broader picture of diversity, acceptance and essential African American figures in country music history.
“My oldest sisters used to say to me ‘why are you singing their music?’ And I said ‘but it’s my music, too,” Grammy winner Charley Pride talks candidly about his love of country music in the 2004 CMT documentary “Waiting in the Wings: African Americans in Country Music.” The 90-minute feature is a thoughtful account of the history of African American involvement in country music and racial structure post-civil rights movement and brings up many questions we are still fighting to answer today: why aren’t there more African American musicians gaining success in mainstream country? Why has history been shaded to discredit their influence and power? Where do we go from here, and how do we build a future upon love, white accountability and tolerance?
Rissi Palmer, an African American musician from North Carolina, reflects on her involvement in the documentary and what her experience has been like in the mainstream market since then. “First of all, it was a fantastic experience. Henri Giles and Karla Winfrey are awesome people. They’re still friends to this day. They are the two who produced the documentary. It was important then and still important now — the overall message of what they were trying to convey: that we, as African Americans, have as much claim to country music as anybody else,” Palmer shares with Popdust over a phone call this week. She issued her self-titled debut album in 2007 on 1720 Records, an indie later absorbed by Universal Music. Her first single Country Girl charted on the Billboard country singles chart, a first for an African American woman in exactly 20 years [Dona Mason’s Green Eyes (Cryin’ Those Blue Tears) charted in 1987].
Not surprisingly, Palmer’s label played the race card in initial marketing plans (a common thread, as you’ll see, which began back in the 1920s). She explains, “In a lot of ways, my label tried to use my race to do marketing to varying degrees of success. In some ways, a lot of the media attention that I got initially in 2007 was because of the fact I was the first black woman to chart in 20 years. That’s a nice accolade, I suppose, but in a lot of ways, it overshadowed the fact that I am also a songwriter and singer and a personality. All these other things are bigger than just the fact that I’m a black person.”
Beyonce’s Daddy Lessons: Country or not?
Popdust was fortunate enough to get our hands on the full-length documentary, too, which does not exist online except for a handful of brief YouTube (above) and Vimeo (below) clips, for an in-depth review and analysis. In the 2016 context, the conversation begins withBeyonce’s Daddy Lessons, a deep cut on her new visual album Lemonade (which was launched with an HBO special). Co-written with Diana Gordon, Kevin Cossum and Alex Delicata, the song is entrenched in Beyonce’s Texas roots and influenced by New Orleans jazz, folk and blues.
Songwriter Cossum spoke with Billboard.com recently about the song, “I don’t want to take the lead as a man, so we were going off on how [Beyonce] was vibing and what her feelings were. It’s pretty much daddy lessons. A girl that grew up tough. Her father was hard on her, didn’t want nobody to take advantage of her. Definitely one of those situations. It painted a country picture in our minds.”
He added, “It sounded tough. ‘So my daddy said shoot.’ You see the whiskey on the table. You see the rifle. It just had that feel to it. It didn’t take the hip-hop element to make it tough, which I think is very cool especially for Beyonce. And it goes with her being from Texas.”
Daddy Lessons has (not shockingly) sparked a flurry of think pieces and critical essays, including an opinion piece penned by CMT News contributor Alison Bonaguro last month. Titled “What’s So Country About Beyonce?,” the story raises issues regarding racial hierarchy, expectations of African American musicians (regardless of prior commercial compositions) and basic country music-making.The article, no matter how well-intentioned, deconstructs decades-worth of sociopolitical progress and forward-thinking.
“Sorry. I just don’t hear it. Sure, Beyoncé’s new album Lemonade has a song with some yee-haws, a little harmonica and mentions of classic vinyl, rifles and whiskey. But all of the sudden, everyone’s acting like she’s moved to Nashville and announced that she’s country now. Just because of this song ‘Daddy Lessons,’” Bonaguro writes. “If you ask me, this song is no more country than her ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).’”
Stylistically speaking, Lessons and Single Ladies could not be more different. The former features a heavy acoustic guitar lead, supported with a soulful vocal from Beyonce, a rich jazz trumpet backdrop, harmonica and a lilting melody line, which also includes a yodel-like lift (as heard after lyrics like “daddy made a soldier out of me” and “daddy held my hand” found in the first verse, as well as later in the bridge). Images of rifle-slinging, whiskey-drinking, motorcycle-riding, blackjack- and classic vinyl-playing unfurl from her lips, seeding ideas of empowerment, her childhood and coming of age as an African American woman. To contrast, the latter song is built on a distinctly dance-club beat, decorated with synth-claps and a driving hip-hop vocal; it also examines the independent matriarchal figure in a modern world. On the most fundamental level, the songs are polar opposites.
Beyonce’s track record of commercial solo output is either considerably pop-leaning (Dangerously in Love, Deja Vu, 4, B-Day) or undeniably urban (Beyonce, 90 percent ofLemonade). Most times, she blends the two styles unapologetically and effortlessly. But there’s no mistaking her foray into country music, however, with Lessons, as anything more than an artist expressing and paying tribute to her roots. Saving Country Music founder and editor Kyle Coroneos writes, rather pointedly, in a recent story, “For the record, ‘Daddy Lessons’ is not a country song. This is just the truth of things.” And later, “Is the song ‘inspired’ by country music, or Beyonce’s upbringing in Houston? (Which trust me, is not a ‘country’ town despite being in Texas.) Well sure it is. But that doesn’t make it a country song.”
“And yet for some reason, it is some indomitable point of pride by certain members of the entertainment media—most of whom only know country music from the outside looking in—as well as super fans from the Beyonce camp that everyone universally recognize ‘Daddy Lessons’ as a country song, and welcome Beyonce to the ‘country format,’ or they’re clearly sexist, racist, ignorant hayseeds who must be smeared and destroyed for taking such an incredibly insulting stance against Queen Beyonce.”
Coroneos also points to this The Houston Press’ post, in which writer Amy McCarthy highlights the musical merits of the track. “Horns, fiddles, jangly guitar riffs and Beyonce’s flawless voice combine to create a track that is both immensely listenable and undeniably country. The elements of a good country tune — the rich storytelling, the harmonies, the sound — are all there.” Later, she hones in on the lyrics, specifically, “[The song] is personal storytelling at its best, woven with vivid imagery and sonic elements that have always characterized what it means to be a good country song.” SCM’s latest retort comes after this song review, in which Coroneos spouts, “Why exactly this song is considered country is beyond me. Is it because Beyonce randomly says ‘Texas’ for no damn reason at the beginning, or screams ‘yee haw!’ once or twice? If this is what makes a song country, then this is the most stereotypical of stereotypical observations possible.” But he later concedes, “Nonetheless, ‘Daddy Lessons’ is still more country than Sam Hunt.”
On the premise of storytelling, Daddy Lessons is as much a country song as anything on the radio these days but with significantly more grit. Bonaguro agrees, even if her next comments are distressing. “The song does have a message that might be considered country — almost like Miranda Lambert’s ‘Gunpowder & Lead’ or ‘Kerosene’ — so that much I get. But that’s it.” She later concludes, “It doesn’t sound like a country song to me, she didn’t cut it at a studio in Tennessee, and it certainly wasn’t written by a group of Nashville songwriters.”
Miranda Lambert, a hard-working white singer from a middle-class upbringing, was born in Longview, Texas (three hours north-east of Houston, Beyonce’s point of origin). She has an extensive background in performing on the Texas honky-tonk and bar circuit and often fuses a red-dirt sound into her music, grounded in the blues and soul of the South. Her debut albumKerosene in 2005 features a play on classic blues rhythms; look no further than tracks like I Wanna Die, New Strings and What About Georgia? What makes these songs work is the country inflection she undeniably injects in the vocal, boldly coloring outside the traditional lines into a broader musical range.
The prominent framework of guitar throughout the album should not go unnoticed, either, an instrument which became the signature of blues and black music in the mid-twentieth century (following the decline of the banjo, but more on that later) and is often primarily associated with white culture. Lambert’s subsequent major label releases have continued strong experimentation in this regard, also reaching back into bluegrass music as found onPlatinum’s All That’s Left, featuring Vince Gill and The Time Jumpers, Old Sh!t and Gravity is a Bitch. Elsewhere, she dabbles in pop (Girls, Platinum), alt-country (Little Red Wagon) and singer/songwriter introspection (Bathroom Sink, Holding on to You). There’s no denying her talent, and there has been very little uproar over her musical intentions.
Wynn Stewart, Jean Shepard, Buck Owens and The Buckaroos, and Merle Haggard and the Strangers would beg to differ on Bonaguro’s second claim. All three acts were essential music-makers who rose out of the Bakersfield Sound era of California in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a movement which quickly spilled over into the rock and pop worlds of the ‘70s (see: The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and others). “‘Bakersfield’ really is not exclusively limited to the town itself but encompasses the larger California country sound of the Forties, Fifties and on into the Sixties, and even the Seventies, with the music of Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, the Burrito Brothers and the Eagles — they are all an extension of the ‘Bakersfield Sound’ and a byproduct of it,” Dwight Yoakam told Country Guitar magazine in 1994. “What went on there led to there being a musical incarnation called country rock. I don’t know if there would have been a John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival had there not been the California country music that’s come to be known as the ‘Bakersfield Sound.’” [via Country Perspective]
Furthermore, here are a few modern examples dismantling Bonaguro’s piece: newcomer Cam was born in Huntington Beach, Calif. and raised in a northern town called Lafayette, with her debut studio album Untamed soaked with the same kind of rollicking country-rock disposition of the ‘70s — plus, she co-wrote Maybe You’re Right on Miley Cyrus’ 2013 album Bangerz; Thomas Rhett’s latest multi-week smash Die a Happy Man was co-written with two dominantly-pop songwriters, Sean Douglas (Jason Derulo, Madonna, Hilary Duff) and Joe Spargur (Fifth Harmony, Pitbull, Travis Mills); and Keith Urban’s latest studio album Ripcord is essentially a glossy pop record with flecks of country thrown in for good measure (Pitbull appears on one of the heavier latin-dance tracks).
Rissi Palmer gathers her thoughts on the CMT piece. “Ummm. I mean. It was an opinion piece. It was slightly knee-jerk. I agree and disagree on certain points. Beyonce is not a country artist. It’s interesting that country radio is playing her song,” she says (Vanity Fair identifies the evidence); also, according to the latest Nielsen Music report (via Billboard),Daddy Lessons has received spins here and there across the country. “Even though she’s not someone trying to [go country] — unless she’s working on a country album — she’s not trying to be a country artist or trying to branch out into country. It’s interesting that a spot that could have gone to a fledgling artist, who is trying to pursue country music, is now taken by a Beyonce song.”
More to the point, she continues, “Beyonce is from Houston, and she has Louisiana roots. Probably, like me, she listened to country music. You couldn’t really escape it. If you have southern roots, somewhere in your family, you’ve heard a country song or you listened to some country music or there is a country record in somebody’s collection. To say that she’s not country blah, blah, blah…she’s a Texas girl. She’s a country girl, too. She might be an R&B artist, but she’s got that [country] within her.”
The White World & African American Females
Both the CMT and SCM pieces underline the long-standing association of whites and European Americans with country music, unintentionally disregarding the early African American ties to the genre and blend of soul, gospel and blues. The production sequencing on Daddy Lessons alone signifies a deeper and richer understanding of the formats’ ethos and complimentary influence than most current country stars, with the exception of acts like Lambert, Little Big Town and Carrie Underwood, whose Choctaw County Affair is undeniably a Delta Blues-country song.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, African American Studies Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said it best in CMT’s documentary, “Because of our original contributions, you would think we would be much more readily identified and acknowledged within that music, but we’re not. And you’d think we’d readily pick it up, which we don’t.”
Don Cusic, music historian, then declares the documentary’s central thesis: “Country music is a symbol of the white power structure that is left over from reconstruction.” Indeed, when you look at the current country marketplace, there are only three recognizable African American names: Darius Rucker, former frontman of Hootie & the Blowfish, upstart Mickey Guyton and Cowboy Troy, a central figure of the hick-hop movement (a blend of country, hillbilly music and hip-hop).
When asked the question: “Why haven’t things changed in the 12 years since the documentary?” Palmer takes a moment and offers this engaging, detailed response:
“I wish I had an answer. It’s hard being a female. You have a really interesting conundrum there. Country music already has an interesting relationship with female artists. You’re gonna hear 5 to one on radio today. You just are. You’re gonna hear five guys, and then you may hear one or two females. It’s always been, historically, harder for females. I’m not really sure why. I know there was a big controversy last year with the statements [radio consultant Keith Hill] made about females being tomatoes [read here]. Then, you add onto that the unknown for a person being black or any other race. The record industry is not really known (at least right now) to take risks. A lot of times, it is seen as this huge compounded risk. ‘Oh, gosh, she’s female AND she’s black.’ I don’t think it is necessarily that it is overtly racist; I just think it is someone overthinking things and trying to take ‘the easy way.’ You can’t say that it is for a lack of talent, because if you just Google ‘African American country artists,’ you’ll find hundreds, thousands. You can’t tell me that out of all those people that there isn’t someone who isn’t a star. There is someone talented enough. It’s a matter of wanting to take the path of least resistance.”
Indeed. If you Google “African American country artists,” artists such as Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ruby Amanfu, Miko Marks and countless other singers, songwriters and musicians will pop up.
For major change to happen, Palmer asserts it will take “someone being a superstar and a person who completely takes it to the top. Of course, then everybody [will say they] believed in it the entire time. It’s going to take a person wanting to take a chance on an artist and having the right label, the right songs and be at the right time. Things will have to line up. Again, it’s not because there hasn’t been anyone who has come along that’s just so damn good; for whatever reason, things haven’t lined up.”
Joe Nichols has this to say about Pride’s work, in the documentary. “He was so good you couldn’t refuse his ability, no matter what he looked like.” And he’s right. Comparatively, female artists (regardless of race) today have to out-work, out-perform and out-represent country music compared to their male counterparts. The same goes for any African American musician with aspirations for Nashville and the country music industry.
Hillbilly Music, Race Music & “Playing in the Dark”
VOX writer Victoria Massie penned an urgent response to the original CMT story. “[Beyonce] tells the story of heartbreak and self-affirmation through a Kübler-Ross model of grief sung in classic R&B ballads, trap, soul, rock, and also, notably, country music,” she writes of Beyonce’sLemonade. “This is a testament to Bey’s artistry. But it is also a reflection of the integral part black people have played in American music since its inception across all genres — including country music.”
Massie goes on to cite crucial African American players such as Deford Bailey — known as “the Harmonica Wizard,” an instrumentalist who played more shows at the Grand Ole Opry in 1928 than any of the white performers — and jazz legend Ray Charles, whose 1962 recordModern Sounds in Country and Western Music presented “a soul paradox,” as Diane Pecknold surmises in an essay titled “Making Country Modern” in the 2013 book of scholarly work “Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music.” Pecknold later concludes, “[The album] changed everything about class politics of country and virtually nothing about its racial politics.” [p97] Bailey, most known for his groundbreaking Pan American Blues, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Ray Charles addresses the dilemma he faced in making his landmark album in the CMT documentary. “They [the label] thought I would lose a lot of fans by doing this album. I took the attitude ‘well, that’s possible I could lose some fans but if I do it right, I think I’ll gain more fans than I’ll lose.” Modern Sounds would go on to become the first country album to sell one million copies, despite the industry and major country trade publications re-writing history. The distinction is often credited to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings’ Wanted: The Outlaws, a compilation disc issued in 1976. Sounds would also be exploited by broadcasters and the industry at large as a way to frame country music as “modern,” following what was coined “hillbilly music” in the ‘20s-’40s, even though gatekeepers “both embraced and excluded the album.” [p82]
Massie’s piece also includes a brief reference to the banjo’s early origins in Africa — “African instruments were brought over by the slave traders to the new world. They needed instrument[s] to encourage people to come up on deck to exercise because the conditions were so terrible,“ Ulf Jagfors, banjo historian, affirms in the documentary. Slave trade and slavery began in the early 17th century, when a Dutch ship arrived in Jamestown, Virginia (then a British colony) with 20 African slaves aboard. By 1860, more than a million people were being moved around like livestock. “There’s a very thin line between the music of the slave and the music of the slave master,” talk-show host and comedian Arsenio Hall states in the documentary.
This racial hierarchy would continue to spill over into the modern world during the Reconstruction Period (post-Civil War) and into the commercialization of country music in the 1920s. In the beginning, white “old-time” music was marketed as “hillbilly music” to the white, southern, middle-class worker and black music was labeled “race music” and marketed to the African American population; both were paired with explicit visuals for the respective hillbilly and race series released by record labels. The images on music packaging “all hearkened back to a preindustrial rural South, particularly, a Mountain South, that was deeply embedded in the American popular imagination,” writes Patrick Huber in his essay “Black Hillbillies.” [p26] The perpetuation of such imagery, as found on the cover of the 1928 Old Time Edison Disc Records brochure or with the absence of African American fiddler Jim Booker in a studio portrait of Taylor’s Kentucky boys for Gennet Records (an incident clouded in mystery to this day), raises alarming questions about “both the extent and motivations of [record] companies’ efforts to conceal the identities of African American artists on hillbilly records,” which was commonplace with cross-listing. Also, there were concerns over “whether or not white record buyers actually realized, or even cared, that African American artists” appeared on the albums.
Dyson attests, in the documentary, “The division of hillbilly versus race music was predicated simply and almost exclusively on a kind of racial hierarchy that ‘this belongs over here to the black folk’ and ‘this belongs with the white folk.’”
Pamela Foster, award-winning author of “My Country: The African Diaspora’s Country Music Heritage,” details the role record labels played in sustaining this idealism, “They had the misconception that black culture and white culture were two distinct things. Not only were the races commingled in the sense that they shared a lot of cultural things with respect to their daily lifestyles, but they were completely commingled when it came to this notion of country music or rural music.”
Early cross-pollination of the two strains of country music not only included the partnership of the African Americans and whites together in the studio and cross-listing of white musicians into race music and black musicians into hillbilly music, but African Americans directly impacted many country music legends. Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, “worked on the railroads…and worked with black workers,” says Cusic. “The blue yodel that he developed was so influential. A lot of it has been attributed to the African American influence.”
“Like much of American culture, country music has been a form of ‘playing in the dark,’ of using notions of blackness to elaborate and provide effective depth to white identity,” professes Pecknold in the book’s introduction. But, she warns, taking this observation at surface level does more harm than good. “Popular and critical representations of country have focused so intently on its whiteness that it has become difficult to imagine a form of black engagement that does not call racial identification into question.” She goes on to highlight several mainstream films as Nashville and Boogie Nights which use African American country musicians and fans as a way to play “for laughs at the expense of supposedly racist white country devotees.”
There are other influential African American musicians who changed the direction of country music forever. Leslie Riddle’s A&R work for AP Carter was integral to the band’s artistic identity. “There are stories about him basically being a scout and going out ahead of AP Carter and gathering songs that would be appropriate for the Carter Family to sing and then bringing them back and teaching them how to play and sing those songs,” says Foster.
Likewise, a blues player named Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne would become a turning point for Hank Williams Sr. “There’s a black man named Rufus Payne who taught Hank. If they hadn’t met, there might not have been a Hank Williams,” says Hank Williams Jr in the documentary.
Another notable pillar here is Huddy Ledbetter, a folk-blues musician who would go on to publish 48 songs (including Goodnight Irene). “He was first and foremost simply a songster,” says Dr. Charles Wolfe, scholar and author of “A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry,” in the documentary. “He didn’t make any distinctions between whether it was blues or gospel or folk or country. If it was a good song, it was a good song.”
Other monumental African American figures in the establishment of country music as a business and art form include Arnold Schultz, a banjoist out of western Kentucky and often an early root to bluegrass and Travis-picking style; Henry Glover, the first African American producer with a No. 1 country hit (Wayne Raney’s Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me?); and Berry Gordey, founder of Motown Records and who launched five country labels (including Hitsville and MelodyLand) and worked extensively with Curb Records’ CEO Mike Curb beginning in the late ‘70s. Even Ella Fitzgerald, the first Lady of Jazz, had a country hit in 1944 with When My Sugar Walks Down the Street.
The release of Ray Charles’ 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music came not only during the height of the civil rights movement but at a time when “country music was on what they called a downturn,” Charles himself recalls in CMT’s documentary. “What I did create — according to the country people I’ve talked to — was an uplift of the country and western feel of the time.” What resulted was an undeniable wave of releases from major African American musicians. The Supremes would release an album of country material in 1965 called The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop.
“Those labels [under Gordey’s leadership] put out music that made it to the Billboard country singles chart, and none of them was largely successful,” Pamela Foster notes. “None of them lasted for more than a few years. But just that he operated such labels and had such hits is indeed part of country music history.”
Then came (arguably) country’s only bonafide African American superstar. Charley Pride, who remains today the only African American to win Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards, would become the seminal figure for a new generation of country music fans. He would go on to work with such acts as Jack Cowboy Clement, who shares that “it was a novelty to be cutting a country song with a black person” at the time, and Chet Atkins, who would consider that they “might be passing up another Elvis Presley.” Clement, who discovered Pride and produced 20 of his albums, adds, “When I heard him in the studio, that’s when I really knew. Hearing that big, booming voice coming through the speakers in there…it was great.”
Many of Pride’s earliest live performances were like “turning down the volume,” as he recounts of when the audience realized he was a black man for the first time. “What we had come up with, [I] said ‘now, ladies and gentlemen, I realize it is a little unique, me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan.’” The crowd would burst into laughter and ringing applause. Arsenio Hall confirms suspicions on the country appeal to African American audiences, saying, “That’s why when you look at someone like Charley Pride, you have to have tremendous pride in what he accomplished. Here’s a man who love country so much and had the tenacity to stick with his vision despite the fact that he might look in the audience and not see a lot of black people.” Even more problematic, the record label’s initial promotional materials did not include a photograph of Pride; this was later eerily echoed with Curb Records’ Trini Triggs and his single Horse to Mexico. Cody Alan (now the host of CMT After MidNite, CMT Radio Live with Cody Alan and CMT All Access and former radio DJ/programmer for 99.5 The Wolfe) recalls, “I remember not seeing a picture. It was just a white label CD. We immediately thought ‘this is a great song.’”
African American singer and songwriter Linda Martell (her signature hit Color Him Father was demoed and recorded the same day she arrived in Nashville for Plantation Records) details her experience in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s music business. “‘She’s a black artist, that’s the selling point,’” she remembers of the label’s marketing plan. “Everything is about packaging and about marketing.”
She continues, “The climate of race relations [then] was not good. No matter how well your record was doing, you weren’t accepted. I traveled to Beaumont, Texas. The club owner flat-out refused to let me play.” After a call with her manager, she was handed a $1500 check for the gig, and that didn’t include pay for the musicians on tour. “You get through them but not without some scars,” she says. Martell would become the first African American woman to play the Opry in 1969. The parallels between Martell’s, Pride’s, Triggs’ and Palmer’s experiences are haunting, monumental and telling of a much larger problem.
Rissi Palmer shares her own interactions with a diverse audience and industry gatekeepers. “For the most part, I think a lot of times executives and business people tend to underestimate the listener. There was a lot of trepidation in the beginning of ‘how is Rissi going to be accepted’ and discussing my look and what the styling should be and who should be in the videos,” she says. “If people like the music and feel like the sentiment and artist are real, I don’t think people really care. I found that to be true for me.”
“Of course, there have been isolated incidents where people have been like ‘oh my god, I didn’t know black people liked country music’ or other very interesting statements,” she says. “But most people were like ‘wow, you can really sing’ or ‘I really love this song.’ I have a very mixed audience. If you go and look at comments on my Facebook page, it runs the gamut — you have black women, older women/younger women, older white men/younger white men, gay/straight. Music is like that; it’s a universal language.”
There may or may not be a similarity between the civil rights movement of the ‘60s and the 2010s barrage of police brutality. Palmer considers if anything can be linked to the obvious lack of African Americans in mainstream country music. “I don’t think country music itself has done anything to promote or encourage [racism] at all. That’s individuals within the country itself; that’s not the music. Honestly, it’s a really complex question. There isn’t an easy answer. A surface answer: no. I don’t think country music has a hand in the racial or political climate right now. If you listen to radio, country and pop are trying to stay as far away from anything political or racial. Everything is about having a good time. Everybody just be happy. I don’t see anyone making any major racial statements. In fact, I haven’t even really heard anybody endorsing that publicly. Our current political situation…is really intense. People’s energies are running really high.”
Brad Paisley’s 2013 collaboration Accidental Racist (from Wheelhouse), with LL Cool J, called into question art’s responsibility of leading the conversation and how we can move forward as a nation and as a people. He told Entertainment Weekly of why he chose to release the song, “I just think art has a responsibility to lead the way, and I don’t know the answers, but I feel like asking the question is the first step, and we’re asking the question in a big way. How do I show my Southern pride? What is offensive to you? And he kind of replies, and his summation is really that whole let’s bygones be bygones and ‘If you don’t judge my do rag, I won’t judge your red flag.’ We don’t solve anything, but it’s two guys that believe in who they are and where they’re from very honestly having a conversation and trying to reconcile.”
Needless to say, Accidental Racist blew up the internet. “The assumption that there is no real difference among black people is exactly what racism is. Our differences, our right to our individuality, is what makes us human,” The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates articulated the severe, damaging implications of the song, one of many think-pieces at the time. “The point of racism is to rob black people of that right. It would be no different than me assuming that Rachel Weisz must necessarily have something to say about black-Jewish relations, or me assuming that Paisley must know something about barbecue because he’s Southern.”
The major takeaways from the CMT documentary are the conclusive evidence of African Americans’ indisputable right to country music, how they shifted the conversation and the reasons why whites need to be held accountable for the past. These matters are articulated through the extensive accounts of a vast smorgasbord of songwriters, producers, executives, singers and engineers.
These include Ivory Joe Hunter; Stoney Edwards; Ruby Falls; The Pointer Sisters, who would win a Grammy in 1974 for Best Country Vocal Performance Duo/Group for Fairy Tale; Big Al Downing, with 15 country hits to his credit; Alice Randal, the first African American woman to pen a No. 1 country hit, Trisha Yearwood’s X’s and O’s; songwriter Anthony Smith (Reba, Vince Gill); and Lionel Richie, who penned such hits as Kenny Rogers’ Lady, Conway Twitty’s Three Times a Lady and Alabama’s Deep River Woman. Decades later, in 2012, Richie released a country album called Tuskegee, a set of reinterpretations of previously released material as duets with country stars, which would earn him country nominations at the Billboard Music Awards, American Music Awards and the CMA Awards.
The stories of American Idol’s Kimberley Locke, Triggs (who would only release three singles in the early 2000s on Curb Records before being dropped), Cleve Francis (a DC-area cardiologist who issued three albums on Liberty Capitol in the mid-90s) and Vicki Vann are also told in excellent detail in the documentary.
“I don’t think it matters if you’re black or white singing country,” Locke surmises. “Does it matter that Eminem raps? Does it matter that Pink has R&B songs all over the charts? Does it matter that Christina Aguilera has R&B songs all over the charts?”
2016: Abandonment and Accountability
The ongoing quandary regarding the lack of African Americans in country music can also be framed around this quote from Pamela Foster: “Black people themselves have largely abandoned their own music. Nobody took it away from them. Nobody said ‘you can’t have a label or you can’t have eight million dollars and six acts trying to make it in country as opposed to just 12.’ Nobody told black people that but themselves.”
The seeming abandonment of country music has more to do with the surging blues, soul and gospel which sprung up in the deep South during the ‘20s and ‘30s (with roots stretching back centuries). As the focus of black music shifted, so did the inclusion of banjo, for example, in their music. “As the blues, accompanied by new dances like the slow drag, replaced the older musics, the need for the five-string banjo disappeared,” writes Tony Thomas in an essay titled “Why African Americans Put the Banjo Down.” [p156]
The belief that the instrument served as far more than accompaniment and took on a voice of its own feeds into the prominent call-and-response style of playing found in African tradition. “The guitar is another voice that sings lines of music in response to the singer’s voice and other instruments,” Thomas continues. African American custom indicates the importance of such a musical structure in not only supporting the physical vocal line but serving as one or more voices in tandem with the rhythm and harmony it created.
As one can hear in Beyonce’s Daddy Lessons, the atmospheric and African tradition of presentation is steeply fused with a modern polish. As Beyonce sings the chorus, which reads “With his gun, with his head held high / He told me not to cry / Oh, my daddy said shoot / Oh, my daddy said shoot / With his right hand on his rifle / He swore it on the bible / My daddy said shoot / Oh, my daddy said shoot / He held me in his arms / And he taught me to be strong / He told me when he’s gone / Here’s what you do / When trouble comes to town / And men like me come around / Oh, my daddy said shoot,” there is an innately blues-swing aspect to the melody, a playfulness as the guitar breathes next to her voice. Unlike a typical urban-pop Beyonce track, the instruments serve a conversational purpose, sitting comfortably along with the third, fourth and fifth voices (the harmonica, trumpet and saxophone).
CMT quickly posted a follow-up response to Alison Bonaguro’s initial piece. Writer Claire Heinichen emphasises that “as those in Texas and many other states will point out, country music can be recorded anywhere.”
Later, she provides her own opinion:
“For me, though, I couldn’t quite come up with a checklist of what makes a song ‘country.’ As a long time country fan, I’ve always identified country songs by their artful storytelling and the feeling they give me. It’s not all beer cans and truck beds, it’s families and first loves and heartbreak and everything in between. ‘Daddy Lessons’ is everything I expect from a great country song. The song, which tells the story of a Texas upbringing accompanied by a prominent acoustic guitar, feels honest and intriguing, and like Beyoncé is giving me a window into her life. It may not have been written or recorded in Music City, but it echos the sound and sentiment of songs I hear here every day.”
Many of today’s biggest country stars agree. “There is just something intangible about it that it feels like a country song,” Dierks Bentley told Billboard.com recently. “It’s not just choruses that are catchy and verses that could be intermixed anywhere as some pop songs are. It’s a real story that she tells about what’s going on in her life growing up.”
Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild chimed in, “She has some stories to tell – that’s clear on Lemonade. And that’s what makes country music great.”
Radio personality and host Bobby Bones even shared some food for thought. “With country music it’s all about the message, how you are able to present it and the authenticity of it. It’s not just an acoustic guitar and a cowboy hat. I think the message of being true and honest has stayed the same from the beginning and I think the Beyonce song fits that mold.”
They say actions speak louder than words. The best-selling all-female country group of all time, the Grammy-winning Dixie Chicks, covered Daddy Lessons during a concert stop earlier this month. If Beyonce’s original wasn’t spelled-out enough, this song is a country song.
As Vanity Fair appropriately maintains, too, “Good luck to any country music critic trying to claim that slightly tweaked version isn’t a country song. And if it’s country when the Dixie Chicks do it, then it’s country when Beyoncé does it.”
Following the interview, in a quick Facebook message, Rissi Palmer writes, ““One last thought: I don’t remember there being this much uproar when Kelly Clarkson did a country song with Jason Aldean [‘Don’t You Wanna Stay’] and went on to win a CMA for it. She hasn’t recorded a country album either…and they [Clarkson and Beyonce] are both from Texas.”
[The nature of Clarkson’s own involvement in country music — punctuated by collaborative efforts with Aldean, Reba McEntire (Because of You and the 2008 joint-tour) and Vince Gill (Don’t Rush) — and lack of any considerable criticism certainly open the door for a separate discussion, but it is noteworthy here, nonetheless.]
Interestingly enough, white mainstream country artists are currently being romanced by the rhythm and blues. Within the past few years, singles from Thomas Rhett (Crash and Burn, co-written by Chris Stapleton, undeniably samples Sam Cooke’s Chain Gang), Chase Rice (Ready Set Roll, Gonna Wanna Tonight), Luke Bryan (Kick the Dust Up, Strip It Down) Canaan Smith (Love You Like That), Brett Eldredge (Lose My Mind), Chris Lane (Fix), Carrie Underwood (Heartbeat), Old Dominion (Break Up with Him, Snapback), and poster-boy Sam Hunt (Take Your Time, Cop Car) — among many, many others — are firmly planted in the musical roots of the blues. But no one is striking out against them for their appropriations of African American culture; instead, Beyonce out-schools them all with an inherently-country song which combines historical conventions of African tradition and the music associated with whites.
In Palmer’s own single Country Girl, she provides an appropriate book-end suited to the entire thread of this conversation. “It’s a state of mind no matter where you’re from / Living like your grandma done / ‘Cause good home training ain’t a common thing / If this is who you are, let me hear you say / You don’t have to be a Georgia peach from Savannah Beach to say / From Arkansas to appreciate a Southern drawl / Don’t need no kin from West Virginia to have it in ya / Show the world you’re a country girl.”
Popdust also caught up with Palmer about what life has been like post-record-deal and where she’s headed next.
What has life been like since you participated in the documentary?
I toured a lot. I was on the road with Sawyer Brown and Chris Young and Carolyn Dawn Johnson. I got to do shows with Lady Antebellum, who were just coming out at the time. I did shows with Taylor Swift and Sara Evans and played Stagecoach. I got to go to the White House. I got to do a lot of really amazing things. I didn’t know that I would be able to do. I dreamed about doing them, but I didn’t know I would be able to do them. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, amazing experience.
I’ve since left my label. I am now independent. That’s been a really great experience, as well, getting to navigate the waters by myself. My music has taken on a different identity from that first album. We tried very much to make an album that was what was being played on country radio at the time and also a reflection of me and my influences. A lot like Beyonce, my musical influences are varied. I grew up loving and listening to country music. My mother was an avid fan. We also listened to gospel, and I grew up in the church. I listened to R&B and pop. So, that is all always in my sound. When I was signed, I wasn’t really able to explore that as much as I wanted to. Now, as an indie artist, my last project, for example, is a reflection of all those things. I’m getting to now be artistically free.
What is next for you? Any new music coming down the pipeline?
I’m working on a new project right now. I don’t have a release date yet. That’s one of the beautiful things about being an independent artist. I don’t have anyone breathing down my neck for deadlines. I’m writing two projects, a second children’s album (which will be one of lullabies) and the follow-up to [2015’s] ‘Back Porch Sessions.’ The new album will take me further into the creative territory that the last one led me down.
I’m playing Lincoln Center in October in New York. I’m excited about that. I’m doing some festivals here and there and enjoying to be able to create at my own pace. As thankful as I am for being signed and having had someone invested in me (because if they hadn’t, let’s be honest, we wouldn’t be talking right now), it was a lot. You had to answer to a lot of people about things I don’t even think about now, like what to do with my hair or what songs to sing in my show or what things to put on social media. It’s nice to be able to be the final authority on yourself and the way you express your artistry. I miss their money. [laughs] I enjoy calling the shots now.
If you haven’t yet, check out Rissi Palmer’s tunes on iTunes. They are a real treat.