In the Shrine

Growing up, Brittney Spencer was like most African American girls. The Baltimore native—who made a splash in 2021 performing with Mickey Guyton and Madeline Edwards at the CMA Awards and whose “Sober & Skinny” received a 2022 CMT Music Award nod for Digital Performance of the Year—loved R&B and hip-hop. By the time she was 15, she was keeping collages of her favorite entertainers in a binder. Her bedroom wall resembled a musical shrine: an assortment of posters that included Beyoncé, contemporary gospel legend Fred Hammond and pop princess Britney Spears. But a few others raised some eyebrows among her loved ones.

“I’d have the Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton and Brad Paisley pictures up there too,” Spencer reveals. What began with a friend’s introducing her to the music of the crossover country trio known today as The Chicks became a full-blown obsession. “I didn’t grow up on country,” continues the singer/songwriter, who studied classical music throughout her youth. “My family didn’t listen to it, but as soon as I figured out what country was, I went crazy. I dove in headfirst.”

Spencer connected to something deeply raw and spiritual whenever she listened to country. Its rich harmonies reminded her of the gospel music she was raised on and sang as a standout in the church choir. She became a relentless radio listener, devoured country-music videos by the likes of Kenny Chesney, Gretchen Wilson and Keith Urban on CMT and took classes on the history of country.

In 2013, Spencer moved to Nashville. This was a risky career path given that country music was (and still is) predominantly a white man’s game; commercially, there were few success stories for Black artists.

Among those few was harmonicist DeFord Bailey, the first Black performer to play at the Grand Ole Opry. He was a regular presence on the Nashville institution’s influential radio show in the 1920s and ’30s.

Genre-jumping genius Ray Charles, the trailblazing Charley Pride, New Orleans’ angel-voiced Aaron Neville and former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker finished off the short list of Black entertainers able to break through. As for African American women, they were virtually nonexistent.

“I’ve met musicians in Nashville who, just five years ago, were told ‘no’ because the labels didn’t know what to do with a Black country artist,” Spencer attests. Since then, there has been some change. Today, Spencer is part of an unapologetic movement of Black artists redefining the predominantly white genre on their own terms.

In 2020, she was busking on the streets of Nashville and working as a backup singer when she tweeted her cover of The Highwomen’s “Crowded Table.” The response was overwhelming, prompting Highwomen Maren Morris and Amanda Shires to invite the unsigned artist to perform with their supergroup at the Bottle Rock festival in Napa, Calif. Spencer is now working on her debut album, the follow-up to her critically acclaimed EP Compassion (Common Exchange).

People Hear With Their Eyes”

A native of Milton, Del., Jimmie Allen made history when he became the first Black act to launch a career with two consecutive chart-topping songs at Country radio, “Best Shot” and “Make Me Want To,” both from his 2018 debut, Mercury Lane (BBR/Stoney Creek). This year, the double-platinum headliner was nominated for the Grammys’ Best New Artist Award.

“Growing up, it was me, two white kids and a Mexican. We’d go down to the pond or out on this boat fishing, and we’d listen to mixtapes,” Allen recalled to Holly Gleason in a 2021 HITS interview. “We’d go from Brooks & Dunn to Kirk Franklin to George Strait, Matchbox 20, Biggie… We all got to know music and listen in its purest form. It wasn’t about what you looked like or some idea of what we were supposed to want—there were things in all of it that we liked.

“But some people hear with their eyes,” Allen continued. “They see a Black guy and tell me they hear Charley Pride and Darius Rucker when the song is more Keith Urban or Pitbull. When skin color comes into play, people focus more on that than the music.”

A Hard Life on Easy Street

In 2020, Arlington, Tex.-born Mickey Guyton became the first Black woman to perform at the Academy of Country Music Awards. She’s also been honored as Country Music Television Breakout Artist of the Year and in 2022 received three CMT nods. Guyton has spoken quite openly about her sometimes turbulent career.

After signing with UMG Nashville in 2011, she tried her best to sound, dress and wear her hair like her white female country colleagues. “I know we’re all reaching for this magical thing that doesn’t exist,” she told HITS in 2021, “trying to fit into a country-music scene saturated with men and what they do. But as soon as I let go of ‘I need to be on Country radio,’ catering in a way that’s not my truth or sound, I found my voice.”

A decade in, Guyton’s voice is preternaturally strong. Her powerful statement “Black Like Me” shook up the country industry, sparking a much-needed conversation in a genre that hasn’t always been welcoming to African Americans.

“It’s a hard life on easy street/ Just white-painted picket fences as far as you can see/ And if you think we live in the land of the free/ You should try to be Black like me,” Guyton declared. The song also made her the first Black woman to be nominated for a Grammy in the Country Solo Performance category.

Guyton’s 2021 album Remember Her Name was nominated for Best Country Album. Its title track was up for Country Song and Solo Performance. On the record she pursues a number of powerful themes related to identity, including the unprecedented “Love My Hair,” the inclusive “All American” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” a devastating lament for a misogynist world.

“Rock bottom is where you have your biggest breakthroughs,” she confided. “I was so broken, I couldn’t go on writing BS that didn’t mean anything to me.”

Worldwide Beautiful

Since his 2015 debut, Chattanooga’s Kane Brown has become one of the genre’s most consistent hitmakers, racking up three #1s and 10 Top 10s at Country radio. His 2018 sophomore release, Experiment (RCA Nashville/Zone 4), debuted at #1 on the Pop album chart and has sold more than a million units. He’s won multiple ACM Awards and been nominated for countless other laurels. His much-admired single “Worldwide Beautiful” addressed racism and other forms of discrimination with a message of all-embracing humanity.

“I’m biracial,” Brown told HITS’ Gleason in 2021. “We have to work the hardest because we don’t get seen as either. Black people see my skin and see me as white; white people see my skin and think I’m Black. So I fit nowhere but everywhere at the same time.” When asked if he felt obligated to speak out, he replied,I feel all the responsibility in the world. People like me, Darius [Rucker], Jimmie Allen, Blanco [Brown], we’re all in this to help broaden who’s playing this music. But let’s be fair. If racism ever ends, it’s not because one person does it; it’s because a lot of people did what they could over time.”

“Too Many of Us to Ignore”

Hailing from Burlington, N.J., BRELAND introduced his infectious amalgam of country and trap on his 2019 debut, “My Truck,” a platinum surprise that reached the Top 30 on the Country charts. He most recently appeared on the remix of Kidd G’s Top 40 Country single “Dirt Road.” In February of 2022, BRELAND inked with Warner Music Nashville.

Memphis singer/producer/songwriter Shy Carter has been a Nashville go-to for more than a decade; the WMN artist has written or co-written hits for everyone from Sugarland (the 2010 #2 Country single “Stuck Like Glue”) and Billy Currington (2015’s #1 Country hit “It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To”) to Kane Brown (2017’s septuple-platinum Top 20 Pop entry “Heaven”).

And Pennsylvania-born, Missouri-raised Rissi Palmer, who in 2007 became the first African American woman to chart a country song—her debut, “Country Girl”—since Dona Mason managed the feat 20 years earlier, remains an outspoken voice for Black artist empowerment in the country-music community. She’s currently the host of Apple Music’s Color Me Country Radio With Rissi Palmer.

“Today there’s just too many of us to ignore,” Brittney Spencer says of the growing crop of Black voices in Nashville. “There’s just so much good music coming out. We are too good not to accept. Quite honestly, our story is too interesting to ignore. I’m just proud of us for meeting the moment.”

For veteran country act Frankie Staton, who grew up a fan of Parton, Patsy and Loretta, it’s been a long time coming. “Finally, I’m seeing a change in Nashville that I’ve been fighting for for many years,” says the singer/pianist, who’s been on the front lines for Black artists in country music since the mid-1980s. Based in Music City, Staton is today joined by a new generation dedicated to expanding racial equality in a country sphere that includes Holly G and the Black Opry Revue. “I’m excited about it,” she enthuses.

“You People”

The journey has at times been painful. Staton recalls many instances of rank racism, such as the time she tried to get her elegant ballad “Leading Lady” heard by a white song publisher.

“I gave him the lyric sheet and he acted like he didn’t even want to read it,” she remembers. “So he listens to half the song, and if a publisher listens to half a song in this city, you are good. And he says, ‘I don’t believe you could write a song like that.’ There were people in the country community who would ask me, ‘Why do you want to do this? This music isn’t about you people.’”

“Leading Lady” would be released on a 1986 Mercury/PolyGram country compilation. And though she was unable to land a record deal, by the next decade, Staton had reason to be optimistic; in 1996 she founded the Black Country Music Association, a support system for Black country artists looking to be seen, heard and signed.

The organization has hosted a series of well-received Nashville showcases that attract press outlets and label executives. Still, when Staton sent three of her best singers to audition for the Grand Ole Opry, they told her, “You have to be good to sing here.” “It was awful,” she confides.

Black country artists have struggled just to stay in the game. Unsung acts like Cleve Francis, Valierie Ellis Hawkins and the band Wheels were mishandled by label execs or dropped from their development deals altogether. Hearing about these incidents, Staton remembers, “I knew there was something wrong with this city.”

agon Wheel” and Other Turns

Before the 2008 emergence of Rucker as a country performer, the towering Charley Pride was the last African American artist to score a #1 Country single, in 1983 with “Night Games.” How huge was Pride? During the peerless star’s 1967-1987 run, he amassed 52 Top 10 Country hits, 29 of them chart-toppers. The only RCA act to sell more records was Elvis Presley.

But Pride’s mainstream country fame couldn’t shield him from the taunts of racist country fans. And even some industry peers gave him the nickname “Supern----r.”

“Charley was a hero to me and so many other people, and I’m honored to be able to say that over the years he also became a friend,” says Rucker, who early on was told by the Nashville establishment that country radio would not accept a Black singer. “When I was getting started in country music, I knew that no matter what happened to me, I could handle it because Charley had faced so much worse than I ever would.”

Today Rucker is the most successful Black country act since Pride. Along with four #1 Country albums, including the platinum Learn to Live (2008) and True Believers (2013), he’s scored 11 #1 Country singles. His nine-times-platinum 2013 cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” made Rucker the only solo male country artist, Black or white, to achieve that milestone.

“I think any time people can see someone who looks like them having success, it gives them encouragement to know that they can have a chance too,” Rucker says of the new generation of Black country performers who’ve broken through. “There are so many talented artists who deserve to be heard, and I’m just happy they’re getting that chance.”

Of course, there are many more Black country—and country-adjacent—artists out there, among them country-soul visionary Willie Jones, folk-country multi-instrumentalist Allison Russell, the extraordinary Rhiannon Giddens (who led the groundbreaking string band The Carolina Chocolate Drops) and alternative bluegrass-country-blues musician Amythyst Kiah.

Joshua Kissi, director of the 2022 Amazon documentary For Love & Country, which examines the history of the genre through the eyes of Black artists and contributors, says the recent surge of success for Black talent in country music should come as no surprise.

“Black artists in country music, like in many other spaces of society, politics and culture, are experiencing a refreshing change of the powers that have traditionally been,” ventures Kissi, who traces the cultural roots of country—first marketed as “hillbilly music”—back to West Africa and the introduction of the banjo, brought to America by enslaved people. The percussive string instrument would shape the sound of country music.

“And there isn’t one way to be Black,” Kissi adds. “Having a multitude of voices is vital to the growth of the country-music genre. At the same time, music is just one aspect of society. Amplifying diverse Black voices in general is what’s important.”

Roadblocks & Rallying

Yet Black country artists still face systemic roadblocks in an industry founded as exclusively white. A 2021 study on representation in the country-music industry conducted by SongData’s Dr. Jada Watson found that from 2000 to 2020, only 3.2% of the artists signed to Nashville major labels were people of color, with a mere 0.9% women. During the same period, artists of color received only 2.3% of Country-radio airplay, still important to establishing a country act’s career despite the rise of streaming in the genre.

And while even this paltry figure did represent a boost in representation—between 2002 and 2007 artists of color made up just 0.3% of total Country-radio airplay, rising to 4.8% from 2014 to 2020—the increase is attributable strictly to male artists.

Nonetheless, Nashville does finally seem to be coming around. “We want to be inclusive of everybody,” ACM CEO Damon Whiteside told the Country Music Media podcast in 2021. “All fans of all races and all ages love country music the same way we do.”

In 2019 the ACM set up its Diversity and Inclusion Task Force to address the issues faced by women and minorities in country music. And Black label executives like James Marsh (Warner Music Nashville National Director of Radio), Candice Watkins (Big Loud SVP of Marketing) and Rakiyah Marshall (founder/CEO of publishing and artist-development firm Back Blocks Music) continue to push for much-needed advances behind the scenes.

Ultimately, however, changing hearts and minds continues to be a work in progress. In the summer of 2021, country star Morgan Wallen was caught on video using the N-word. He was briefly dropped from radio playlists nationwide, and his label suspended his contract. But when Wallen made a surprise appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in January of 2022, musicians called out the storied venue’s public dedication to making the venue more welcoming to Black artists. Meanwhile, the hugely successful Wallen has apologized for his actions and has since raised his profile among rap fans with his featured appearance on Lil Durk’s “Broadway Girls,” which became a Top 20 Pop hit.

In January, Guyton shared a message on Twitter she’d received that read: “We don’t want your kind in country music! All you people talk about is your goddamn race and skin color! Don’t you effers have rap, hip-hop & R&B? Gotta ruin and destroy shit with your woke BS... Get the F out of our country music!”

Country artists Morris, Allen, Kane Brown, Spencer, Miko Marks, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, among others, rallied in support of Guyton.

It was that spirit of community that Brittney Spencer saw firsthand during her first headlining gig in Nashville in December. “I went backstage after my show and there were a lot of people there,” she recalls. “I was, like, I don’t know who the hell let y’all in here! It was so humbling. Then I noticed a crowd of Black people… Blanco [Brown], Jimmie [Allen], Willie [Jones], Camille Parker, Reyna Roberts, Tony Evans Jr.… They were there just to support this show I put together. And it meant absolutely the world to me. Watching so many of us be in this space—it’s empowering.”

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