Jun 26, 2020 12:01 PM

Country music reckons with racial stereotypes and its future

Posted Jun 26, 2020 12:01 PM
The Chicks (Photo: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DixieChicksMSG062003.jpg">Wikimedia Creative Commons</a>)
The Chicks (Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When country singer Rissi Palmer was working on her debut album, she wanted a song like Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” a song that would introduce her and tell her story to fans.

On her 2007 debut single, “Country Girl,” she celebrated her country roots while explaining that she didn’t have to look or talk a certain way to call herself a country girl.

“I said that I am not white in the first verse, and the label was like, ‘No, no, no,’” said Palmer, who then rewrote the lyrics to make it feel more universal. “It was very intentional when I wrote that song to talk about all the women, or all the people, that might not necessarily fit in the box, but are still of the same mindset.”

The country music industry has long been hesitant to address its long and complicated history with race, but the death of George Floyd in police custody and the protests it sparked in the U.S. and around the world became a sound too loud for the genre to ignore.

Over the past weeks, country artists, labels and country music organizations posted about Black Lives Matter on social media, participated in the industry wide Blackout Tuesday or denounced racism outright. On Thursday, Grammy-winning country group, The Dixie Chicks announced it would drop “dixie″ from its name. The group said in a statement that it wanted to meet “this moment.”

But Black artists say the industry still needs to address the systematic racial barriers that have been entrenched in country music for decades. Stereotypes that country music is just for white audiences, written by white songwriters, and sung by mostly white males are reinforced daily on country radio, playlists, label rosters and tour lineups. In recent years, however, the conversations about country music have shifted to a broader acknowledgement that non-white artists have always been in the genre, even if they aren’t always recognized.

Artist/scholar Rhiannon Giddens received a MacArthur Foundation grant for her work to reclaim Black contributions to country and folk music. And artists like Darius Rucker, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen have all had No. 1 country hits in recent years, while Mickey Guyton just released an unflinching song called “Black Like Me.” But that ingrained culture of exclusivity remains a struggle to change.

“You can look at the reviews of my first album. I was called colored, like, ‘I didn’t know colored people like country music,’” said Palmer, who had three singles reach the Hot Country Songs Chart. “I used to get messages all the time on MySpace, saying, ‘I am so sick of you. Why are you trying to be white?’ or ‘Why are you trying to take over country music?’”

Change hasn’t been easy. After Grammy-winning country group Lady Antebellum announced they were changing their name to Lady A, they later had to apologize to a Black singer who had been using that stage name for years.

Atlanta-based country rapper Breland also wanted to address, with a wink and a smile, country music’s racial blinders with his TikTok-fueled song “My Truck.” The music video starts with a white guy in a black cowboy hat singing as smoke billows across a dusty landscape, then Breland abruptly shoves him out of the frame to announce, “Don’t touch my truck.”

“I just felt like it was time for people to change their perspective on what country music is and what country music can be, because there is an audience of country music listeners under 30 who believe Black Lives Matter,” said Breland, whose song reached No. 26 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and has been remixed with Sam Hunt.

Like Lil Nas X’s genre bending “Old Town Road,” Breland playfully fuses trap rhythms with country tropes about horses, do-si-dos and beer on his self-titled EP and sings with country artists Chase Rice and Lauren Alaina. Breland said country music labels can’t just continue to focus on one type of audience.

“There’s a group of country listeners who love country music because of the way it sounds, but don’t love some of the politics that they know are going on behind the scenes,” he said.

Historically country music was created by and played in both white and Black communities in the South, but the music became marketed along racial lines in the Jim Crow era, said Amanda Marie Martinez, a historian and writer who is studying country music and race. White country music was stigmatized early on as “hillbilly music” so the industry started pushing it toward the rising white middle class as a way to make the genre more respected and hugely profitable.

“In the process, they’ve also prioritized the white, middle income, relatively conservative listener as their demographic, kind of the opposite of youth culture,” Martinez said.

But there were periods of diversity, such as the post-Civil Rights era, when Black artists like Charley Pride, Linda Martell, O.B. McClinton and Stoney Edwards were having success, alongside Johnny Rodriguez and Freddy Fender, who were singing in English and Spanish.