From DeFord Bailey to Ray Charles to Solange: The Long Lineage of Black Artists Making Country Music Pop
An extensive examination of country music’s black origins and lasting impact on black artistry, from the 1920s to 2019.
At the start of “Almeda,” there’s a swaying, maudlin twang in Solange’s voice as she sings “pour my drank, drank, sip, sip, sip, sip.” In the ninth track of the artist’s latest album, When I Get Home — a project rooted in celebrating southern Blackness, afro-spirituality, healing, and the sensuality of oneself — Solange’s Houstonian twang pans wider as she approaches the lines “Black faith still can’t be washed away/Not even in that Florida Water.”
This sonically matches the angelic-wailing on “Stay Flo,” the somberness evoked in the word “lone” being repeated on “Beltway,” and the “swangin on them” breakdown present in “Sound of Rain.” When I Get Home is not just an avant-garde, free jazz record enhanced by the vibes of neo-soul, chopped-n-screwed technique, and afrofuturism. When I Get Home also plays as a composite, contemporary country album.
During the live stream of When I Get Home’s musical film, Solange revealed that she aimed to highlight the oft-forgotten or otherwise unknown Black cowboy culture. But, she isn’t the only creative keeping the Black Yee-Haw Agenda alive. Emerging artist Lil Nas X, who now has a Billboard Hot 100 entry under his belt with the trapped out “Old Town Road” attests we’re currently witnessing the evolution of country music.
As a genre stemming from an alchemy of blues and folk, country music has a storied history in Black art spaces. Despite this presence often being erased, cast away, or discredited, from the 1920s to 2019, Black artists have been the one’s pioneering and preserving country music, and that impact can be seen through its traverse influence over art from across genres and generations.
Born in Smith County, Tennessee on December 14, 1899, DeFord Bailey would eventually foster the foundation of country, which was at first referred to as “hillbilly music.” Afflicted with polio as a child, he combatted that pain by listening to the Appalachia sounds of nature.
Eventually, Bailey would move to Nashville where the sound of country and western was becoming popular in the local music scene. Bailey’s superior harmonica skills would have him dubbed “The Harmonica Wizard” by Dr. Humphrey Bate and George “Judge” Hay on the radio show The Barn Dance. Two years after being established in 1925, the hourlong Barn Dance would be renamed “The Grand Ole Opry,” inspired by the larger than life, operatic musical stylings of Bailey’s instrumentation. The jubilant harmonica work on Bailey’s “Ice Water Blues” and “John Henry” would become popular staples on the Grand Ole Opry.
In addition to the contributions of The Harmonica Wizard, Lesley “Esley” Riddle played a separate role in shaping Americana. A leg amputation during his years as a teen prompted much downtime and lead him to take up playing the guitar. Unfortunately, misfiring a shotgun caused Riddle to lose a few fingers, altering how he played the instrument. While DeFord Bailey was helping to popularize country music on the radio, Riddle was playing alongside other Black artists — Steven Tarter, Brownie McGhee, and Blind Lemon Jefferson — on John Henry Lyon’s Tennessee porch. In 1927, A.P. Carter of The Carter Family swung by that hotspot for musical inspiration. In awe of the blues and gospel sound he heard from Lesley, Carter invited the guitarist to his family residence in Virginia. Due to how he helped shape the sound of the Carter Family— teaching Maybelle Carter how to play guitar in his “Bottleneck” style— Lesley became one of country music’s first mainstream A&Rs and producers. From 1927 to 1942, The Carter Family would record signatures such as “The Cannonball,” “I Know What It Means to Be Lonesome,” and “Let the Church Roll On.”
During their heydays as Black musicians in the south, both Bailey and Riddle dealt with Jim Crow Era restrictions. While touring with his white peers, Bailey couldn’t eat or sleep in the same venues, was pressured to play new music against his will, and received unfair pay— leading to his departure from the music scene by the mid ‘40s. Riddle dealt with erasure from song credits of The Carter Family. While the Carters often acknowledged his influence whenever they could, the band’s publishing did not. Eventually, Riddle moved to upstate New York, and sold his guitar, losing contact with the dissolving Carter Family. Prior to their deaths in 1980 and 1982, both Riddle and Bailey returned back to performing for live audiences in the country music circuit.
The Carter Family were not the only white artists who benefited from proximity to Black musicians. Hank Williams was mentored by Alabama’s Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, who helped insert more of a soulful sound in Williams’ brand of “Honky Tonk Blues.” Williams’ junior son released the “Tee Tot Song” in 2002, honoring how his father learned his techniques from Payne. Kentucky’s Arnold Shultz popularized the fiddle’s usage in bluegrass, also coming up with the “Travis Picking” method of playing guitar. In the 1920s, he played fiddle for the mainly white band of Forest “Boots” Faught and inspired the sound of Merle Travis and Ike Everly of the Everly Brothers. Bill Monroe, who is monikered the “Father of Bluegrass,” credited Shultz for securing him with his first paid gig at a square dance.
Although country music continued to evolve and branch off into varying subgenres and styles by the ‘50s and ‘60s, mainstream Black artists in the genre were scarce, despite the pioneering work of their predecessors. On the same end, country music was not in the same spotlight as rock, R&B, and pop. But this would all change in 1962 with the release of Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country and Western.
Charles proved the ideal candidate to tackle a revamped R&B album of country music’s signature hits. Starting off with a jazzy and soulful rendition of The Everly Brothers’ 1957 classic “Bye Bye Love,” Modern Sounds started off on a grandiose note. Carrying the remainder of the album with piano and waltzy pop-soul stylings, Modern Sounds became a no. 1 album in the US. It sold 500,000 copies, broadening country’s appeal in the pop market while rebranding the “Countrypolitan” subgenre— a combination of Nashville-oriented, country-pop with orchestra sonics and choirs. This sound can be heard on Charles’ version of “Just a Little Lovin’ (Will Go a Long Way)” and “Born To Lose.” Because of Modern Sounds’ cohesive fusion of genres, the album appealed to both Black and white audiences— becoming a significant moment in music history that blurred racial barriers.
Both volumes of Modern Sounds, made country music more accessible to audiences and granted other country stars more appeal in the mainstream spotlight. This time period would become known as “the Golden Age” of country music. Following up that success was Charley Pride, a Mississippi native who moved to Montana to pursue a music career after a stint in the Negro Baseball League. After being signed to RCA in 1965, Pride received his first hit record, “Just Between You and Me,” which landed at no. 9 on the Hot Country Songs chart in 1966. He’d become “The First Black Country Star” of the Golden Age.
The success of “Just Between You and Me,” earned Pride his first Grammy nomination for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance, Male. The single’s parent debut album was certified gold after selling 500,000 copies. In 1967, Pride became the second Black musician to perform at the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey. That year Pride released two studio albums, The Pride of Country Music and The Country Way— the latter becoming his first to hit no. 1 on the Country Albums chart and graced the Billboard 200 chart, while “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger” earned two Grammy nominations.
In 1969, Pride finally received his first of 29 career no. 1’s on the Country Songs chart, as well as his first Hot 100 entry (at no. 91) with “All I Have To Offer You (Is Me).” That was followed by five more consecutive country chart toppers. In 1971, he expanded his country sound for gospel and contemporary Christian music, releasing the album Did You Think To Pray, which earned him two Grammy Awards. He’d also become the first Black artist to receive a Country Music Association award: 1971’s Entertainer of the Year, and Best Male Vocalist.
During Pride’s rise, country music briefly had the presence of a Black woman who made her own history. In 1969, Linda Martell became the first Black woman, and the third Black artist, to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Before withdrawing from the music industry, the South Carolina artist would only release one album, Color Me Country, which contained a country cover of the R&B song “Color Him Father.”
As country music proved to be a high record seller, Black artists known for other genres started effortlessly crossing over and interweaving those sonics into their discography. Candi Staton remade Lynne Wynette’s 1968 signature “Stand By Your Man” in 1970. Tina and Ike Turner’s 1971 signature “Proud Mary,” which was a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 song, fused funk with the subgenre of roots rock, a hybrid of southern country, folk, and blues.
In 1974 Tina Turner had released her debut solo studio album, Tina Turns The Country On! The roots rock-centric LP featured the Nutbush, Tennessee native covering two Bob Dylan songs and Dolly Parton’s “There’ll Always Be Music” and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. By 1978, Turner had split from Ike, releasing her third studio album, Rough, which featured Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
Audiences were familiar with the soul and disco funk of The Pointer Sisters, but their 1974 sophomore album, That’s A Plenty, stored a surprise. The album’s seventh track, “Fairytale” became a Top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and Top 40 on Hot Country Singles. The lyrics revolve around a break-up resonated with country audiences so much, that The Pointer Sisters became the first Black group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, and the first female group to win a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
In 1977, Lionel Richie scored a no. 1 R&B hit, penning “Easy” for his group The Commodores. With the breezy hook of “easy like Sunday morning,” the soft rock ballad was an ode to his hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama. 1978’s “Three Times A Lady,” also had a similar southern charm injected into Richie’s vocal delivery. Due to his mastery of lyricism, Kenny Rogers asked Richie, in 1980, to write his signature “Lady,” which topped the Hot 100, Country Songs, and Adult Contemporary charts.
These charting accomplishments took place during a time when soft rock and country-centric adult contemporary cuts were becoming mainstream music staples. In 1983, Richie earned a solo no. 1 with “All Night Long (All Night),” which glazed the song’s tropical pop essence with a bit of country flavor. Three years later, he’d collaborate with Alabama on “Deep River Woman,” which peaked at No. 10 on the Country Songs chart.
That same year, Tina Turner revisited her country-rock roots, releasing “What You Get Is What You See,” an uptempo that featured Eric Clapton on guitar. Tracy Chapman would later make an impression with her 1988 statement song “Fast Car,” a folk-rock tune about a woman trying to escape poverty aligned with the working class spirit of country music, as did the resonance of Chapman’s bright, husky voice. Later on, Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” aligned with the country blues of another prolific figure, B.B. King.
Transitioning into the ‘90s, country’s influence on adult contemporary pop persisted. Aaron Neville’s smoothly creole-based falsetto paired well with country singer Linda Ronstadt in 1989, as “Don’t Know Much” became a crossover for both, winning a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. In 1992, Whitney Houston blew box offices and radio away with her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Neville released “Grand Tour,” in 1993, which included fiddles and lamentations, and by 1994, he linked with Trisha Yearwood to cover Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces.”
That same year, Hootie and The Blowfish would offer signature roots-rock gems, “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Let Her Cry,” which were fronted by Charleston, South Carolina’s Darius Rucker. Later in his career, as a solo artist, Rucker would make history by becoming the first Black man since Charley Pride in 1983 to top the Hot Country Songs chart, with the 2008 track, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” He became the first Black man to have his debut solo country single earn the top spot, the second Black artist ever to win a Country Music Association Award and the first to win Best New Artist in 2009. In 2014, “Wagon Wheel” won him a solo country Grammy.
Country in the early to mid-‘90s focused on revitalizing the Golden Years, while mainstream R&B and hip-hop utilized the genre to create even more alternative styles. On the hip-hop tip, Arrested Development became the alternative to the era’s growing gangsta rap, with their hit, “Tennessee” and the banjo-backed “Mr. Wendal” in 1992. Both songs offered messages of Afrocentric spirituality — both records becoming pop crossover successes.
Later, what became subtly noticeable was how R&B singers were vocally styling themselves to resemble country artists, but with more soulful-pop sensibilities. Babyface produced and wrote two noteworthy examples: TLC’s smash hit, “Diggin’ On You,” and Toni Braxton’s Secrets deep cut, “There’s No Me Without You.” Dionne Farris went solo from Arrested Development and released her own hit, “I Know.” Two years later, in 1997, she followed up with “Hopeless,” a soulful classic that appeared on the Love Jones film soundtrack. Legendary Atlanta production group, Organized Noize was responsible for producing the deep south anthem “Blackberry Molasses” by Mista, which Solange and The-Dream alludes to in “Almeda.”
This energy continued into the early 2000s, with Aaliyah’s self-titled album rejecting casanovas on the riddling “Extra Smooth.” Philly native, Res would create an indie critical buzz and cult following with her 2001 alternative album, How I Do, the stellar LP that includes “I’ve Known The Garden,” “700 Mile Situation,” “The Hustler,” and “Tsunami.”
In 2000, St. Louis would truly be placed on the mainstream map with the star power of Nelly. His debut studio album not only embodied the region he was hailing, but would go on to redefine midwestern rap with the help of country influences. His rapping technique and lullaby instincts on Country Grammar’s title track, “E.I.,” and “Ride Wit Me,” helped the album dominate sales that decade, eventually selling over 10 million copies and becoming the ninth ever hip-hop album in history to be certified diamond. The 2002 follow up, Nellyville, would keep the momentum going with the country rock anthem “#1” and the signature smash “Hot in Herre.” In 2004, he’d release “Over and Over,” a striking collaboration with country star Tim McGraw that peaked at number three on the US Billboard Hot 100. In later years, Nelly would provide radio with more country-skewing records including 2010’s “Just A Dream” and a 2013 remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.”
Country’s extensive role in rap and hip-hop goes beyond the success of Nelly. Some more notable examples: the harmonica get down on OutKast’s “Rosa Parks;” Sheryl Crow guest appearing on Salt-N-Pepa’s “Imagine;” the electric guitar present on Diddy’s “Bad Boy For Life;” Nappy Roots saluting “dem country boys … with them big fat wheels” on “AwNaw;” and Petey Pablo hailing “North Carolinaaaaa” on the banger “Raise Up.” This has all shaped the country rap of Cowboy Troy who released his debut studio album Loco Motive in 2005– ultimately leading the way for Young Thug’s country-geared 2017 mix-tape Beautiful Thugger Girls and Lil Nas X’s success this year.
At 2005’s Black Banjo Then and Now Gathering, a small group of Americana and old-time folk instrumentalists formed Carolina Chocolate Drops. Lead by world-renowned banjo player and vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, the group has gone on to secure a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2010. That project, Genuine Negro Jig even contains a string cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit Em Up Style.”
In terms of Black women currently at the forefront of mainstream R&B and pop music, alongside Solange, Beyoncé and Rihanna have both infused country elements into their sounds. In 2011, it became apparent that LOUD’s “California King Bed” was intended for country audiences, as Rihanna performed the song at the CMAs. In 2015, she partnered with Kanye West and Paul McCartney for the folksy “FourFiveSeconds,” before going on a vocal rodeo with ANTi’s “Desperado” the following year.
Beyoncé’s traces of country go back to the vocal harmonizing of Destiny Child’s “Fancy” over an acoustic guitar in 2001. Since then, she’s provided Tina Turner-reminiscent funk on B’Day’s “Suga Mama,” accompanied by a southern-esque music video in which she rides a mechanical bull in her own sultry rodeo. Even the 2009’s I Am … Sasha Fierce bonus track, “Hello,” finds Bey accessing her consistent twang, particularly when she hits “When you talk, er’rybody talk cause you know just what to say.” In 2016, she was greeted with tremendous opposition from some country critics when performing “Daddy Lessons” from LEMONADE at the CMAs. The controversy could be labeled as unfounded to say the least, as “Daddy Lessons” is a part of the country diaspora, which Black musicians helped mold. Beyoncé went on to enlist The Dixie Chicks for the remix, with “Daddy Lessons” already possessing traits of the group’s subgenre, “Dixieland,” a jazz styling of country folk which originated from New Orleans, alongside Zydeco.
Last year, two Black men made country history as Jimmie Allen’s debut single “Best Shot” hit no. 1 on country radio, and Kane Brown’s album, Experiment, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200. Brown has already notched two no. 1’s on Hot Country Songs, with “Heaven” landing at no. 2, but topping 2018’s year-end Country Airplay chart. Since, Brown has linked with Khalid — who brings his native El Paso style to his own brand of R&B —for the remix of “Saturday Nights.” Also on the R&B side, K. Michelle has been teasing the possibility of releasing a country album— not too far of a reach from her last albums, More Issues Than Vogue (“Got Em Like”) and Kimberly: The People I Used To Know (“Run Don’t Walk”).
With all this rich documented and rediscovered history, the Country Music Hall of Fame only has two Black inductees: Charley Pride and DeFord Bailey. The recognition of two artists out of the plethora of Black artists who have been instrumental in shaping the genre somewhat mirrors the limited scope of representation in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. However, this doesn’t erase the measure and magnitude of Black artists’ leadership in preserving and pushing country music forward— their blood, sweat, and tears keeping the heart of the genre pumping since its very start.
Da’Shan Smith is a pop culture writer based out of New York City. You can follow him @nightshawn101
*An older version of this piece omitted Young Thug.