Several years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Grenada, a small three-island nation in the Eastern Caribbean. We rented a beautiful yet affordable guest house from an elder Grendian woman named Mrs. Eileen, the auntie of a black Brit we’d befriended on a boat taxi between islands.
Before we left, she insisted that my friend, a DJ, send her some music when we got back to the United States. Specifically, Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves. I had heard their names before on late-night TV commercials selling country-western music compilations, but being a lifelong city girl from a majority black area, I was shocked that a little West Indian lady would even know of, much less special request them.
I associated country music with America’s self-described “heartland”: small towns in the deep South, the Midwest, and the behemoth known as Texas. With cowboy hats and Confederate flags, mullets and mud flaps, race cars and red states full of white folks who want to “Make America Great Again” – for themselves only.
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I’m not totally off-base. I mean, look how the country music industry and fan base has shunned Lil Nas X and even Beyonce’s collaboration with the Dixie Chicks. The last known duet between a rapper and a country artist was actually called “Accidental Racist.” (Dear LL Cool J; don’t ever do that again.)
But my DJ friend had lived in Jamaica for a while and told me Mrs. Eileen wasn’t an anomaly. Plenty of Jamaicans and other Caribbean people were really into country music, she told me. I was so intrigued I actually gave ole Patsy a try and got into her music for a spell.
Then, some years later, I went to a show in Kentucky where the featured musical guest was a black female country music singer named Amythyst Kiah. She was amazing! I had never known that black folks were making country music.
Come to find out, black musicians like Charley Pride, Linda Martell, and even Ray Charles have been operating in the country music scene since the beginning. Black country singer and harmonica player DeFord Bailey was the first artist featured on the debut of the hit country music radio-turned-TV show “Grand Ole Opry” way back in 1927. (Bailey and Pride are the only two black musicians inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.) Even the sound of country (and bluegrass) music — from the banjo to the fiddle — is influenced by our African roots and American adaptations.
Hip-hop and R&B are more commonly associated with our urban African American culture, but our rural roots run deep, too. Many of us who live in or near big cities only have to go a couple generations back to find our relatives who migrated from the south in search of better jobs and less openly racist terrorism. Even today, around 10 percent of African Americans live in rural areas, with another 15 percent living in small metro areas.
While writing this article, I learned that a close friend and her family enjoy listening to country music. She said, “You don’t have to worry about negative content as much when the kids are around,” Plus “black folks love a twangy accent,” she added. My brother admitted to liking the genre a little when his co-workers play it. They reminded me of my friend in Ghana who explained why she and her friends liked country music (and telenovelas, which is a whole ‘nother article): “They are great stories, and we love great stories.”
So if country music is your thing, or reading this article made you the least bit curious, here are 10 contemporary African American country acts you should check out.