My favorite track from Rhiannon Giddens’ 2015 folk album Tomorrow Is My Turn is a stone, heart-broken torch-song weeper. I knew I had heard it somewhere before. I listened to it like ten times, and I could hear the other singer’s voice as a shadowy echo, pausing at different phrases, holding different notes. But I couldn’t figure out who the original performer was or even what genre. R&B? Pop song? Jazz vocal? Motown? Early rock? It sounded like it could have been any of them.
So finally, inevitably I Googled it. And then I said “duh.”—
“She’s Got You” is, of course, a Patsy Cline classic, and it’s one of my favorite Patsy Cline classics at that. And the reason I couldn’t place it was obvious, albeit somewhat painful. Giddens is black, and, stereotypically, black women don’t sing country music. My genre assumptions had short-circuited my brain.
To be fair to my brain, those genre assumptions have a lot of oomph behind them. Country music performers are overwhelmingly, and indeed iconically, white. Scholar Geoff Mann has even argued that country as a genre is meant in part to “recruit white people to their ‘whiteness.’”
Country’s a way for people to visualize, create and celebrate white identity, which is why the genre’s extensive black influences (in blue and jazz for example) are often erased or bracketed. Less discussed is the way that country has always tilted not just white, but male.
Bro country as a subgenre is a recent innovation, but the mainstream country Hanks and Willies and Merles have always outnumbered the Dollys and Emmylous. As a result, the very few successful black country performers have all been guys: Charley Pride, Ray Charles, Darius Rucker, DeFord Bailey, and so on.
The recent success of Mickey Guyton and her latest self-titled EP looks, at first glance, like an aberration or a breakthrough. Her single “Better Than You Left Me” is a pleasantly inoffensive country radio woman-power anthem; indistinguishable from a slew of other sweeping pop-with-a-twang efforts. But the song is notable for just that reason. It makes black women in country seem normal or inevitable which, in the past, they haven’t been.
Or have they? Black women certainly haven’t had much play on country radio over the years. But is that because black women don’t play identifiably country music? Or is it because country is identifiable, in part, because it’s played by white people, and especially white men? The Two Gospel Keys’ “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore” is classified as gospel or blues, but if the players were white, it wouldn’t have seemed all that out of place in a country records series—a fact emphasized by the Carter Family’s rendition of the same song.—
The versions are certainly different. But Western swing, hillbilly boogie, and rock and roll demonstrated pretty clearly over the next few decades that country listeners were not adverse to a little rhythm in their repertoire. If record companies didn’t segregate recordings into race and hillbilly records, the Two Gospel Keys and the Carter Family could easily be in a single non-racial-ized genre of rural music. It’s not style or song choice but simply the race of the performers that make the Two Gospel Keys something other than country.
Over the years there has been no shortage of black women who have performed country music — or what would be considered country music if it weren’t performed by black women.
Doris Duke’s 1969 classic I’m a Loser is at least as much country as soul. “I came in to the city from the deep south when he mills shut down/I married a man who treated me like he bought me by the pound,” she sings on “I Don’t Care Anymore” over a guitar strum that Haggard or Bobby Bare would have been proud of.
Other singers, such as Etta James and Candi Staton, actually covered country radio hits. And while you could see “Almost Persuaded” or “Stand By Your Man” as novelties, the truth is that they fit seamlessly into the singers’ repertoire because soul and country weren’t all that different to begin with. Candi Staton even recorded with the same Muscle Shoals session musicians as country performers like Bobbi Gentry.—
Black women, then, have been largely excluded from country not because black women don’t play or appreciate country music, but because country has defined itself in such a way that black women have been excluded from the genre.
Which may not seem to matter that much. After all, Tina Turner and Whitney Houston and Cassandra Wilson have done just fine without country radio airplay, thank you. Black women who have some appreciation or interest in the country tradition or repertoire can take that to success, and even massive staggering success, as Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” demonstrates.—
Country radio, and even for that matter the alt-country community, loses a resource when it can’t manage to include so many great performers. Maybe that’s part of why country is such a creative wasteland compared to contemporary R&B, mainstream or otherwise. But performers like Rhiannon Giddens and Valerie June can find another niche in folk or blues or just in general awesomeness. Country could probably use their help, but they don’t need country’s.
At the same time, though, the exclusion of black women from country isn’t just about the music, and it’s not even just about career success. Pop culture has symbolic resonance, and country is no different. The country tradition is salt-of-the-earth rural hard work; it’s Average Joes trying to get by; it’s the heartland. To the extent that black women aren’t included in country, they aren’t included in any of those memes or tropes either.
Country music is a certain vision of America, and when black women are excluded from the genre, they’re excluded from that America as well. No matter how long they’ve been there, it seems like, black women are always seen as strangers, outsiders and novelties in their country. It would be great if people like Rhiannon Giddens and Mickey Guyton could change that—not only by paving the way for more black women in country but by reminding listeners that black women have been there all along.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian.