Examining the color of country music
July 2, 2006
BY BOBBY REED
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the 1992 film "White Men Can't Jump," dimwitted
Billy (Woody Harrelson) and his sassy girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez)
are riding in a convertible and listening to a cassette of Ray
Charles' classic country album, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western
Music." As Charles croons "Careless Love," Billy asks, "Would somebody
please explain to me why this Negro is singing cowboy music?"
"You know, this is my favorite song," Gloria says. "It makes me think
about making love to you. It makes me want to just take you, and lock
you up in a room, and make love to you over and over and over and over
Billy adds: "I didn't say I didn't like it."
The scene is played for laughs, of course, but many listeners, both
white and black, have been -- and remain -- resistant to the notion of
African-American artists singing country music. But a new exhibit at
the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum titled "I Can't Stop Loving
You: Ray Charles & Country Music" explores the beloved musician's
immense contributions to the genre.
Over the course of his career, Charles recorded more than 100 country
songs -- a trailblazer for other African Americans, from Charley Pride
to today's Cowboy Troy, who would later take on this predominately
At the center of the Charles exhibit is his album "Modern Sounds in
Country and Western Music," which was released in 1962 and quickly
sold more than 1 million copies. The LP included country standards
like "You Win Again" and "I Can't Stop Loving You." Charles quickly
followed up the album with a second volume, which included his
timeless rendition of "Take These Chains From My Heart."
"In an interview clip in the exhibit, Charles talks about how the
record company thought he was crazy to make an album of all-country
songs in 1962," explained museum staffer and exhibit co-curator
Michael Gray. "We have to remember the social context. This was before
the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King delivers his 'I Have
a Dream' speech. This is two years before the Civil Rights Act [of
1964] that banned segregation in public places. It was a brave move
for Ray Charles to validate the music of the white, Southern working
class during a time of racial turmoil in America."
The exhibit, which runs until the end of 2007, includes numerous video
clips, including Charles' appearances on Glen Campbell's and Johnny
Cash's TV variety shows, a duet with Buck Owens on the series "Hee
Haw" and the 1983 music video for "3/4 Time," which was shot at the
Dusty Road Tavern in east Nashville. This was one of country music's
first promotional videos.
"African Americans have always played a key role in country music,
dating back to the early string bands and all the way up to the
present day," Gray said. "There's always been a lot of fluidity
between R&B and country music. Record labels separated the music early
on, by color. They had the 'hillbilly' line [of records] and the
'race' music line. But in reality, black and white musicians were
learning from one another, and sharing instrumentation and lyrical
themes. There was a lot of fluidity, but if you have to point to a
particular artist and album that helped break down those race
barriers, it certainly would be Ray Charles and 'Modern Sounds in
Country and Western Music.' "
In the decades following Charles' landmark "Modern Sounds" recordings,
only one black country performer became a true superstar. Charley
Pride had a whopping 28 singles reach No. 1 between 1966 and 1989.
When Chet Atkins signed Pride to RCA in 1965, the company decided that
until the singer scored a significant hit, the label would not mail
out any promotional photos of him. The theory was that some country
disc jockeys might not play a song if they knew it was by a black
Pride's third single, "Just Between You and Me," was written by Cowboy
Jack Clement and became a Top 10 hit in late 1966. Clement, who is
white, produced Pride's first 20 albums. Clement thinks that RCA's
approach in marketing Pride was wise.
"I still marvel at the fact that a major label could be that smart,"
Clement said with a grin. "They decided they weren't going to mention
the race thing. They were just going put it out and say, 'Here's a
brand-new artist, and we're behind him.' "
At the beginning of his career, Pride put his predominantly white
concert audiences at ease by gently joking about his "permanent tan."
Pride's magnificent voice and fan-friendly attitude have made him one
of the biggest country stars of all time. During the acceptance speech
for his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000, Pride
thanked those early supporters who had backed him despite what he
called "the pigmentation situation."
At age 68, Pride remains an active performer. He's currently working
on a gospel album, and he'll appear at the Hodag Country Festival in
Rhinelander, Wis., on July 13, and at the Little Nashville Opry in
Nashville, Ind., on Sept. 23.
The battle of Troy
Despite some chart successes, no African-American artist has come even
remotely close to matching Pride's achievements. In the '70s, '80s and
'90s, several black artists -- including Stoney Edwards and Cleve
Francis -- tried to follow the trail Pride had blazed. But on the
Country National Airplay chart compiled by Radio and Records for the
week ending June 23, not one of the top 50 singles was by a black
singer or a by band with a black member.
But there is a new generation of African-American country artists
adding diversity to this lily-white genre.
Most prominent among them is Cowboy Troy, a rapper -- yes, a rapper --
closely associated with Big & Rich. In a savvy career move, Cowboy
Troy raised his national profile by co-hosting this year's season of
the TV show "Nashville Star" alongside Wynonna. His debut album,
2005's "Loco Motive," featured a blend of country and hip-hop. Despite
receiving little radio airplay, the album has sold well.
"I think that Cowboy Troy's success points out that the audience is
more interested in experimentation than the industry is," said Diane
Pecknold, who teaches courses in popular music at the University of
Louisville. "Many in the industry didn't think [Pride] had a chance,
but the audience did not have a problem with him."
They're out there
According to the 2005 edition of the Arbitron publication Radio Today,
approximately 2.4 percent of country radio listeners are black. On the
surface, that number seems small, but when one considers that country
is an enormously popular format, this translates to millions of
Anecdotal evidence among industry observers suggests that some of
these fans occasionally hide their love of country music in social
situations to avoid criticism from black friends who believe that
white country music acts and fans generally are racist.
Vocalist Rhonda Towns, whose new release is "I Wanna Be Loved by You"
on the independent label Dawn Records, believes her contemporary
country sound can win over fans of all races.
"Country music fans can see through somebody [who's] trying to do
something because it would be a niche," Towns explained. "I don't want
to be a novelty. There are other African Americans who have been
trying to make it, too. I do feel like I'm a leader and a pioneer.
Sometimes you're given a cross to bear to open up a door that hasn't
been opened before."
Towns will perform at Country Thunder in Twin Lakes, Wis., on July 20
as part of a festival lineup that also includes Keith Anderson, Big &
Rich, Cowboy Troy and Gretchen Wilson.
Another young singer generating a buzz in Nashville is Ericka Dunlap
(at right), who was crowned Miss America 2004. The first African
American to become Miss Florida, Dunlap spent her childhood in Orlando
listening to country music and clogging. She did not, however, sing a
country tune in the big pageant.
"For a long time, there was an unwritten rule that if a contestant in
the Miss America competition was singing a country song, or clogging,
or playing the fiddle, or doing anything that was representative of
country music, more than likely she wasn't going to get any farther
than the top 10," Dunlap said. "I was leery of presenting my country
side, so I decided to play it safe ... I did a song entitled 'If I
Could.' It was a contemporary-jazz piece. It worked!"
A bottom-line business
Numerous factors make it difficult for a black artist to break into
mainstream country music nowadays. Racial discrimination may be a
factor in some cases, but an equally powerful roadblock is major
labels' dominance of the industry.
Pecknold -- whose forthcoming book from Duke University Press is The
Selling Sound: Country Music, Commercialism, and the Politics of
Popular Culture -- feels the consolidation of the country music
industry has limited the opportunities for aspiring black artists (or
any act differing from the status quo) to get signed to a major label.
"Major labels have to invest so much in every artist they sign that
there are just fewer artists [on the rosters]," Pecknold said.
"Because of the economics of the industry now, those labels are not
willing to take a chance on anything. The middle market that existed
in the 1970s is gone. To some extent, alt-country and Americana have
been cultivated to fill that middle market for albums that sell at the
Bobby Reed is a Chicago freelance writer.
Black country artists
Scores of African-American artists have focused on country music over
the years. Here's a brief look at some of them from the past and
DeFord Bailey -- The harmonica virtuoso was one of the Grand Ole
Opry's biggest stars in the Depression era. He was inducted
posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Big Al Downing -- The multitalented Downing recorded R&B, country,
rockabilly and even disco songs. His country peak came in 1978-80,
when he charted with "Mr. Jones,'' "Touch Me'' and "Bring it on
Home.'' Downing died on July 4, 2005.
Stoney Edwards -- The late singer-songwriter recorded five albums for
Capitol and had hits with "She's My Rock'' and "Hank and Lefty Raised
My Country Soul.''
Ruby Falls -- A native Tennessean and onetime resident of Milwaukee,
the late Falls had nine charting hits between 1974 and 1979, including
"You've Got to Mend this Heartache.''
Cleve Francis -- Cardiologist Francis left his medical practice to
pursue a career in country music. He released three albums for Liberty
in the '90s. He continues to perform today.
Dobie Gray -- Best known for the pop smash "Drift Away,'' Gray
released charting country singles in the mid-'80s, including "From
Where I Stand.'' That song provided the title for the three-disc box
set "From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music,''
released in 1998 by Warner Bros. Gray sings on blues belter Shemekia
Copeland's 2005 album "The Soul Truth.''
Linda Martell -- The first African-American woman to sing at the Grand
Ole Opry, Martell had a Top 25 hit with "Color Him Father'' in 1969.
O.B. McClinton -- The late singer released albums on Enterprise (a
division of Stax) and Epic. He had a big hit in 1973 with "Don't Let
the Green Grass Fool You.''
Alice Randall -- This songwriter's compositions include the Judy
Rodman hit "Girls Ride Horses, Too'' and Trisha Yearwood's No. 1 smash
"XXX's and OOO's (An American Girl).''
Carl Ray -- A native Texan, Ray has performed at Nashville's famous
Bluebird Cafe and in Switzerland. He has recorded a track with David
Ball, which should appear on Ray's forthcoming album.
James Sharp -- Based in Atlanta, Sharp has performed in Nashville and
Branson, Mo. He appeared in a recent TV ad for Cargill promoting
Trini Triggs -- Signed to Curb in the '90s, Triggs had a hit single
with "Straight Tequila.'' He is a guest vocalist on the Bellamy
Brothers' 2005 album "Angels & Outlaws, Vol. 1.''
Oddities and missteps
The list of black artists who have recorded country music includes
some surprising trivia.
In 1965, the same year the Supremes topped the pop charts with "Stop!
In the Name of Love," Motown released the LP "The Supremes Sing
Country Western & Pop."
The Pointer Sisters' "Fairy-tale" won them a 1974 Grammy award for
best country vocal performance by a duo or group.
Sammy Davis Jr. cut a 1982 album called "Closest of Friends," which
has been reissued on CD under various titles, including "Sammy in
Nashville: Great Country Standards."
Michael and Janet's marginally talented sister, LaToya Jackson,
flopped with her 1994 album "From Nashville to You."
Most bizarre of all is the 1970 album "Louis 'Country and Western'
Armstrong," which was produced by Cowboy Jack Clement. The disc is
considered a forgettable novelty among many jazz aficionados.
Clement has always regretted the poor quality of the album. He has
spent years recording new instrumental backing and merging it with
Louis Armstrong's original vocals. Clement expects to complete the
project soon and then reissue the album.