Sharing the Stage
Blacks in Country Music
By Michael Perry - World and I Magazine

Though black Americans have a long history of contributions to the development and commercial success of country music, few black artists have been signed to major record labels. That may be changing.

Is country music in for a sea change?

For some time now, Nashville has been riding a tsunami of twang, but the platinum-plated wave seems to have crested. The star-maker ship is still under steam, but up and down Music Row, you get the feeling that people are looking to grab on to something that will float. Music City USA needs a Next Big Thing. For its part, Warner/Asylum Records has taken a stab at the future by signing the all-male group Wheels.
        With a smattering of cowboy hats among them, the members of Wheels pull on their boots and sing about swimmin' in the river, fixin' on old trucks, and finding love in the supermarket. They sing about Cajun queens, honky-tonks, and Daddy. And lead singer Chris Avery often gets his point across via that old country music standby, wordplay: "Why'd you come/if you didn't wanna go?" sings an injured Avery. The songs on an independent album released prior to Wheels' signing are seasoned with civilized steel guitar chirps and wistful fiddle licks. Sounds like Nashville, sounds like country. Nothing unusual.
        Oh, and then there's this: Their press kit introduces Wheels as "the first black country band signed to a major label."
        Black? Country?
        Of course.

The front end of country

        I heard a song recently, and as some songs will, it shot me straight back in time, back to one of those crystallized moments that somehow survive the silt that sifts down through our brains during all the years between.
        I remember it was summer in Wyoming, and Willie and me, we were running late for Bible study after a long day making hay way out back on the Double 8. I'd been knocking down hay since the dew lifted ten hours ago. Willie was my boss. He was a big, rough-hewn, red-headed, hatless cowboy. He tromped the foot feed on that 4 x 4 Ford and we barreled down the home meadow, stubbly and shorn of its rank grasses. We were, as Willie always said, "motivatin"' when we hit the irrigation ditch--a foot-wide, six-inch deep, sharp-edged groove that racked the chassis and bounced our skulls off the roof of the cab. An eight-track tape skittered from beneath the seat and tapped me on the heel. I read the label. "Who's Waylon Jennings?" I asked. "Punch it in," said Willie. I punched it in. And out of the speakers it rolled: a sound all boogety-boogety and syncopated twang, propulsive and laid-back all the same, and it had me for life.
        I was 16. And up to the minute we hit that ditch, I detested country music. But that sound ... it would be overdramatic to say it changed my life, but it for dang sure changed the flavor of my life.

"You cannot tell me that you can shake the country music tree, and in seventy-five years, only one black man fell out."
Cleve Francis

        This song I heard recently, it put me right back in that truck. Because the sound was the same. That squeezed-down guitar, that loping beat, that well-worn vocal. But it wasn't Waylon. It was a woman, Mary Cutrufello. A woman raised on show tunes in a Connecticut suburb. A Yale graduate.
        A black woman.
        Let's flip the equation. Let me tell you about Rufe "Tee-Tot" Payne. Tee-Tot was a black street musician from Alabama. Somewhere around the 1930s, he befriended a little boy from rural Alabama. Payne taught the boy to play guitar, and they performed together. The boy had a grand name: King Hiram Williams. In the end, they just called him Hank. Even if you've never tuned your radio to a country station, you probably know that King Hiram went on to reign as the King of Country Music. And if you haven't checked in lately, be assured that four decades after he died in the back of a long powder-blue Cadillac, he still holds the office.
        But by and large, even the most avid honky-tonkers are unaware that the man seen as country's supreme sovereign, the archetype from which all country music has since been fashioned, learned his craft from a black man. And if they find it unlikely that a black man presided at the front end of country, they'll no doubt find it doubly unlikely that African Americans would be interested in listening to or performing country music today.
        It's a misperception that permeates the highest levels of the country music star-making machinery. In a November 1996 interview with the New York Times, the president of a major country music record company was quoted as saying, "Country basically is white music. Why would black people want to sing those straight notes ...?"
        Anyone who has ever heard the weepy warp and woof of George Jones or Merle Haggard, or the soaring melismatics of Wynonna, LeAnn Rimes, or Martina McBride will find the "straight notes" comment bemusing; anyone who has studied country music history will find the "white music" quote just plain troubling. It begs the question: Which is more unusual--a black woman singing music that evokes Waylon Jennings, or thirty thousand midwestern country fans standing in a Wisconsin cow pasture singing "God Blessed Texas!" at the top of their lungs?
        In an interesting dialectical twist, to make the case that blacks (as both fans and artists) have been virtually ignored in country music, you have to point out the extent of their involvement in the genre. In his essay, "Lap Dancer or Hillbilly Deluxe? The Cultural Considerations of Modern Country Music," presented at the April 1997 meeting of the Pacific Sociological Association, University of the Pacific sociologist George Lewis writes:

How far could this white Anglo mountain music have come without the benefit of the West African derived banjo, or the fiddling prowess of blacks in the South. ... Indeed, it seems likely that Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Maybelle Carter obtained a good deal of their formative musical knowledge and style from African American street performers--a potentially uncomfortable fact for many in the country audience who have culturally constructed this music as a part of their white, Anglo American heritage.

        In excerpts drawn from her upcoming book, My Country: The African Diaspora's Country Music Heritage, Pamela Foster expands on this theme. Among her observations:

  • Country music is hugely popular in African and Caribbean countries ranging from Kenya to Jamaica;
  • the first American steel guitar recordings were made by black musician Blind Lemon Jefferson;
  • the banjo was invented by blacks;
  • over four hundred country chart hits are the product of black singers, songwriters, musicians, record label owners, and producers; and
  • the number of seminal country artists who count black musicians among their greatest influences is legion.

        But this is just the merest sampling: Foster has overseen an accumulation of evidence that is comprehensive, painstakingly detailed, and ultimately serves as incontrovertible evidence that the idea of black Americans enjoying and playing country music is neither an aberration nor an absurdity. And yet, popular country music remains stubbornly monochromatic.

`Nouveau rednecks'

        When Nashville wants to make itself feel better about its all-white face, it invokes the name of Charley Pride. A gracious man and bona fide superstar, Pride charted more than twenty-five No. 1 hits in his day, and although he's been absent from the charts for years, he still commands a vast, loyal following. But Pride's success is starkly singular. In the three decades that have passed since he was signed to RCA by Chet Atkins, not one black artist has enjoyed even a modicum of Pride's success, and only a sparse handful of black artists have been signed to a major country label. One of them is Cleve Francis.
        "You cannot tell me," says Francis, "that you can shake the country music tree, and in seventy-five years, only one black man fell out. I mean, we do have a reputation for singin' and dancin'."
        If Francis sounds bitter, he isn't. With his chance come and apparently gone, he is simply in a position to speak frankly. "The industry runs things in Nashville, and anyone who hopes to work in the industry is loath to openly criticize," he avers. "There are people inside the thing who would like to change it, but there's no financial incentive or career advancement in making waves. You'll be headed wherever you came from very quickly."
        During his three-album stint with Capitol Nashville in the early '90s, Francis experienced success dampened by frustration. His first two albums charted, and his breakthrough video made Country Music Television's Top 10. The fact that Francis was a practicing cardiologist and that his second release was titled "You Do My Heart Good" created an interesting buzz. "I had a definite, distinct sound, I was different looking, and I had a different background," says Francis. "The industry prays for the publicity I was able to get."

Traditional country music is concerned not so much with line dancing and twang as it is "with subjects that are both quotidian and universal."

        And yet, it was almost as if the industry didn't know what to do with him. Francis was never put on tour with other major acts. After his third album, he was dropped by the label. "Race was definitely a factor," says Francis, "but this wasn't some sort of conspiracy. They didn't have a meeting in the back room or anything, but they acted in a traditional fashion and ignored what they had."
        When Francis was a boy growing up in Louisiana, his mother bought him a guitar, but it came, so to speak, with strings attached. "We were poor southern kids," says Francis, "and she wanted us to get an education. 'I tell you what,' she said, `if your grades fall, I'm puttin' this thing in the attic!' I wanted to keep my guitar, so I studied, and over the years, I sang to buy food and books, and to buy a car when I was in school."
        While working on his master's degree at William and Mary College, Francis played three nights a week at a roadside bar called the Castaways. "I was the only black man in the pub. The rest were beer-drinkin' rednecks. They'd invite me to the trailer park after the show to have a beer with them. I never had a racial incident.
        "It was the same when I was touring for Capitol. I toured all through the South and not once did I have trouble because of my race. I was welcomed with open arms and given standing ovations." He laughs. "In 1993, I was grand marshal of the Peanut Festival in Dothan, Alabama!
        "And so, when industry gatekeepers explain that the racial divide in country is caused by rednecks, I respond that the problem is with the nouveau rednecks ... the people at the top. These guys determine how it's marketed, and they make like it's all white and all these white people wear hats and boots. As a result, young urban blacks have grown up seeing this as segregated music. The marketing these people do just reinforces that by creating an artificial separation."
        Francis fears that the price of this marketing will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. "In 1994, I was invited to Texas to perform at an all-black function. I was so excited about singing before a black audience for once in my life, and after three numbers, man, they just got up and walked out. Out of five hundred people, there were maybe fifty left. Afterward, many of them told me, `it's nothing against you, I just can't stand the image country music is associated with.' Notice, they weren't talking about the way I sounded.
        "The music is in danger of falling victim to both black and white ignorance."

Constructive engagement

        Frankie Staton has been performing and writing country music in Nashville for seventeen years. Most recently, she has been playing piano and singing at Opryland and on the General Jackson paddle wheeler. "The other night, some old man came in and said, `I got to have some Willie [Nelson],' " chuckled Staton recently. "I played him four albums' worth."
        When Staton read the New York Times piece, she decided it was time to rock the boat, albeit constructively. In February 1997, she organized the first Black Country Showcase at Nashville's famed Bluebird Café. Audition tapes poured in from all corners of the country. Other showcases have followed, and Staton formed the Black Country Music Association as a way to broaden support for the movement and organize seminars on all facets of the country music industry.
        "We need to get the whole industry involved, not just singers," says Staton. "Black people want to be involved at every level, from producers to booking agents to road managers to bus drivers."
        While the long-term impact of Staton's efforts remains to be seen, there have been encouraging signs. Wheels appeared at a BCMA showcase in June and was signed shortly thereafter. After her BCMA showcase appearance elicited raves from seasoned Nashville music journalist Bill Friskics-Warren, Cynthia Mae Talley was signed to a development deal with ------. In part as a result of his association with the BCMA, songwriter David Wayne has had the opportunity to cowrite with well-known BMG songwriter Kenya Wakler. Perhaps most revealingly, the labels are beginning to call Staton to find out more about the movement.
        "This gives substance to what I've been saying all along," says Staton. "The talent was there, it just wasn't being shown."
        There have been other signs of hope. A number of accounts have been popping up in the popular press exploring the issue of blacks and their relationship to country music. Mary Cutrufello and her edgy country sound have signed with the rock label Mercury in New York, but as Nicholas Dawidoff reminds us in his book In the Country of Country, traditional country music is concerned not so much with line dancing and twang as it is "with subjects that are both quotidian and universal. ... The country that will last uses deceptively simple details to say profound things about the American experience." As such, one of the era's most important country singers is a New Jersey rocker named Bruce Springsteen.
        Cutrufello could do worse. The fact that she's been working with legendary country iconoclast Steve Earle suggests she won't. And Cleve Francis is cheered by the fact that a project he helped foster, a three-CD collection of historic recordings titled The Black Experience in Country Music: From Where I Stand, is due for release from Warner-Reprise and the Country Music Foundation in early 1998.
        At this point, the fact remains that the involvement of African Americans in country music--as progenitors, as performers, and as partakers--is simply not reflected in the charts. Change will come slowly, if at all. There are a million reasons to fail in Nashville, no matter what your color. And black artists will face additional pressure; the caption hailing Wheels as the first black country band signed to a major label also read, "... their success may determine the fates of other black artists."
        "Everyone involved seems cautious," says David Wayne. But the word is getting out. And if the word gets out, the music will follow.

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