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  • Carl Z.
    Examining the color of country music July 2, 2006 BY BOBBY REED NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the 1992
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 11, 2006
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      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
      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
      white genre.

      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.' "

      Pride's parade

      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
      singer.

      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
      African-American fans.

      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
      500,000 level."

      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
      present:

      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
      barbeque pork.

      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.''

      Bobby Reed


      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.

      Bobby Reed
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