Twang Is Not A Color
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the website 2steppin.com, and has been reprinted here with permission. This comprehensive look at race relations in country music was written prior to the rise of Darius Rucker as a hitmaker. The 9513 would love to hear your comments about race in country music today, and about whether or not you think Rucker’s success has opened doors for other African American country singers.
They were only children but society’s prejudices had already seeped in and stolen something from them. Brothers didn’t dress like cowboys and they didn’t sound like that.
“I just love country music and I’m sharing country music,” said aspiring black recording artist Carl Ray. “I’m part of the process of change. It’s almost like a Martin Luther King movement without the crowds.”
But what’s to change? After all, Charley Pride broke the racial barrier long ago, didn’t he?
From 1966 to 1989, the hits never stopped. Twenty-nine songs made it to #1 on the charts. And after Charley, there was, well, there was — who?
Country music today remains the most homogeneous of all musical genres. The industry’s myopic vision regarding minority artists not only thwarts the hopes and dreams of individuals, it disenfranchises African-American listeners.
Most damaging of all in the long run, business decisions made on Nashville’s Music Row perpetuate the idea that country music fans respond first to what they see, and secondarily to what they hear.
Image is undeniably important in today’s country music scene as evidenced by the marginally talented, but good-looking, artists who’ve achieved success. However, in implying that black is an image white country music audiences cannot embrace, the industry has managed not only to misread its audience and lose potential new stars, but to negate its own history.
African-American influences in country music can be documented at least as far back as the 1920s. Harmonica ace, DeFord Bailey, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1926. “Whites and blacks in rural communities in the South played in stringbands,” said Frankie Staton, head of the Black Country Music Association. “Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, learned guitar from black laborers he worked with.”
Robert Johnson was a black blues musician and contemporary of Jimmie Rodgers. Retrospective boxed sets of music from both artists are available today. “If you go back and play those two boxed sets, they’re not very different from each other in sound. And you begin to understand, first hand, why they call country music the white man’s blues,” said Tom Roland, music columnist for the Nashville Tennessean. “Hank Williams was taught by a black street musician called Tee-Tot. In fact, the near inseparability of early country music and early blues is now documented in a 3-CD compilation released by Warner Bros. in 1998. Called “The Black Experience: From Where I Stand,” the album presents 52 black artists’ contributions to country music and includes not only African-American artists primarily known for their contributions to the blues, but those such as Charley Pride and Cleve Francis, who identified themselves solely as country artists.
Though many African-Americans have contributed their talents to country music, only Charley Pride has ever achieved true and lasting success. His career is even more remarkable when one considers that he entered country music in 1966 during a period of great racial unrest in this country.
Why was he successful when all others have failed?
“Charley Pride made it because Chet Atkins stood up for him,” said the BCMA’s Staton, “They didn’t put his face on his album covers. They put out this album by a brother and nobody knew he was black.”
Roland agrees, “They didn’t send out any publicity photos, which is unusual. The idea, I’m sure at that time, that an African-American artist might even be trying, was absurd. He was really country, particularly when he started. He was called ‘Country’ Charley Pride the first few records. And, in fact, though Jack Clement was producing him, they put the names of four different producers on the records, the first couple of albums, just so people would know that there were a number of high-powered executives who all believed in this performer.
“So, radio stations were playing his records before they discovered his ethnicity and, at that point, how do you get off the record? How do you pull it without labeling yourself a racist? So, it was kind of shrewd on RCA’s part because once they’re on it, they can’t just jump back out.”
The approach taken by RCA in launching Charley Pride’s career indicates that executives feared racism in their audience and media outlets. It will never be known whether Pride would have succeeded had he been presented as other artists of the day were. The instant communication of today’s world, as well as the business climate in Nashville today, ensures that no new careers will ever be launched that way.
While one can list some of the reasons Charley Pride succeeded, explaining why all other African-American artists have failed to establish themselves is a much trickier proposition.
Everybody a Follower
Ultimately, is it, as Ed Benson of the Country Music Association said in a recent article, a question of money and luck not race? Is it true that if one black singer becomes a star, every label will want to have one?
Roland noted that the copy-cat mentality has precedence in Nashville. Teenager Lila McCann was signed to a recording contract soon after 13-year-old LeAnn Rimes topped the charts. Prior to the success of Alabama in the 1980s, few groups were heard on country radio. After their debut, the airwaves were filled with the sounds of Exile, Restless Heart, Southern Pacific, The Desert Rose Band, and others. The achievements of George Strait, Garth Brooks and Clint Black ensured that, for a period of time, every male artist signed was a physical mirror of those kinds of artists, with the hat and the Wranglers.
But how does one become that first black star since Charley Pride to break racial barriers? Opinions vary. Intangibles mount. Certainly the equation is not quite as simple as stated by Benson. Overt racism, economic racism, marketing, talent level, business sense and the hallowed need to “pay dues” all may play a role.
Economics and Marketing Segmentation
It’s the subtle racism pervading Music Row marketing and promotion decisions that can be most damaging. Roland said it can take anywhere from $500,000 to a million dollars to put out the first album by an artist and industry executives are understandably skittish when it comes to investing that amount of money. Decisions made concerning African-American artists may involve racism but it is more likely that the labels don’t totally believe mostly white audiences are going to accept black performers.
The industry needs to overcome its fear and market those artists to all country music listeners, black and white alike.
“Marketing segments people, said Roland. “It used to be you could listen to one station and hear Jim Reeves, and the Beatles and Frank Sinatra all on one station. That would be impossible today. People are niched and segmented…and one of the first segmentations that people did was based on gender and skin color. I think from a musical standpoint, using skin color as a way to separate people into styles probably creates an artifical difference that doesn’t necessarily need to play out.”
“Country music is only marketed to white people, but black people listened to the Grand Ole Opry and liked what they were hearing,” Staton said. “Looking at last year’s BCMA showcase, probably 60-70% of those in attendance were white. I know a lot of young black kids that love LeAnn Rimes. Black women under 25 especially like country music.”
African-Americans comprise 12%-13% of the total U.S. population. A recent marketing survey, Simmons Study of Media and Markets (1993, 1994) showed that between 17 and 24% of African-American adults, eighteen and older, in major markets, listened to country radio. Working with the above figures, the country music industry projects that approximately 2% of their total listening audience is black. Though this seems a small number, most African-Americans listening to country are females between the ages of 18 and 44, a very desirable marketing demographic. The industry’s failure to market to blacks means that current listeners with buying power are ignored. It also indicates that record labels have, for the most part, discounted the possibility of gaining a larger share of the African-American listening audience.
And how do African-American listeners feel about country music?
Jackie Nelms has been listening for over 20 years. “To me, country and western is like the blues. It’s about hard times, losing somebody, being out of a job. That’s what I relate to.” She enjoys the older artists as well as ’90s artists such as Alan Jackson, Lori Morgan and Vince Gill. “When Billy Ray Cyrus made that ‘Achey Breaky Heart’, the rap was that he didn’t pay his dues and he just happened to get lucky. But to me, he appealed to the womenfolk. I saw all colors liking that, myself included.”
Nelms loves country music but agrees record company executives fear white audiences will reject black performers. “They don’t think that whites will accept African-Americans singing country. That’s the reason I think they got together on a lot of different music a few years ago when they had duets between blacks and country and western singers. (Rhythm, Country & Blues, MCA, 1994).
Learning the Ropes
African-Americans have faced many of the same problems other artists experienced when trying to break into the business, although the problems were magnified with few predecessors, or mentors and lack of any kind of network.
Ray was philosophical and drew upon his own experiences as he commented, “The lack of blacks overall really making headway is because a lot of them just stay in their little country towns and don’t branch out. A lot of that is economics for them. They can’t afford websites. They can’t afford posters. They may not have the right pictures. They don’t know how to do some of these things.”
Indeed, when Ray made appearances at 1998’s International Country Music Fan Fair, he himself had few promotional items and little knowledge of what was needed. Only his first CD, recorded locally in Broken Arrow, Okla., was available for sale. Ray has since acquired a publicist, a website and well-designed promotional material, all essential items for any artist trying to break into the business.
The Black Country Music Association, headed by Frankie Staton, and located in Nashville, provides a forum for and gives visibility to credible black artists. By assembling a network and building an infrastructure previously lacking, it gives African-American performers a place to turn to for advice and education in the music business.
“Frankie’s been through a lot,” said Roland. “She knows what other people are facing and now there’s somebody willing to say, okay, this is what you’re up against, and give somebody a realistic view..not only of the upside but the down side.”
While there is now an organization to aid new black artists, it remains up to the individual to lay the groundwork for future success. Ray spoke of the need to pay dues and establish credibility by working the local communities and circuits to build an audience. “They can’t deny you if you’re selling records, and they can’t deny you if you’ve got an audience,” said Ray. “When opportunity knocks, and you come to the table, they see you as someone who already has an engine in place for success.”
Is the Talent There?
“Frankly, I’ve heard some of the stuff, some of the music that’s being put out, and people are saying, ‘Get behind this African-American singer,’ and a lot of times the artistic qualities are not quite there, and what do you do with that?” asks Tom Roland.
He spoke about a recently established record company and the new artist and single release it was promoting, “I had no idea she was a black singer. I liked the first two lines and then there was this thing she did with her voice that was incredibly annoying and I didn’t want to deal with it. Then you find out (she’s African-American) and well, there you go. Unfortunately that’s sometimes it. The quality is not there.”
In discussing the woman’s record company, Roland said, “They have the equipment…and they certainly have the money but the money is not well spent. It’s spent on somebody who’s not ready to be a recording artist yet. What do you do with that? If I’m a radio station, I’m not going to play it, and I don’t think you should play it just because the artist is African-American.”
Trini Triggs is currently the only African-American with a recording contract. It appears he has the talent level needed to succeed.
Trini auditioned for Mike Curb (of Curb Records) and sang acapella. As soon as he was done singing, Mike Curb wanted to sign him,” said Susan Collier, publicist for Triggs. “Trini broke a record in Radio & Records magazine (which contains weekly country music chart compilations). He broke LeAnn Rimes’ record for charting with the least amount of reporting stations. His record was eight reporting stations, LeAnn’s was 19. Normally there needs to be 30 or 40 stations before you chart on Radio & Records.”
“Everybody loves him,” Collier added, “he is so charismatic.”
Carl Ray has collaborated with Johnny Nash and other mentors and works diligently at the craft of songwriting. He is constantly trying to improve his vocals and said, “If you’re a tenor, you have to be really good in order for them to sit and listen to you. Otherwise they’ll put you in the category of the other ‘hat’ singers, so you’ve really got to step up to the plate.”
The Path to Success – The Need to Be Different
“This business is tough enough whether you’re white, black, green or yellow. Whether you’re in country or rhythm and blues,” observed Ray. “The competition is stiff. You’ve got to find anything you can just to get in there and be different. Whether that’s your personality, whether that’s your music, whether that’s your relationships, you’ve got to find a way to do it.”
To get a feel for the magnitude of the problem, Roland suggests heading out to a large record store and imagining you’re an artist with one CD. As you look over the rows and rows of albums by all the different artists in all the different genres, try to figure what you could do to make your music stand out enough that someone will find it and buy it.
The need to be different, then, is important for any aspiring artist. For African-Americans entering the country music field, their color is already a visible difference. Thus, most black performers find themselves balancing the need to be different with the need to fit in. In order to establish their credibility within the industry and with audiences, they often approach the business as traditionalists in both image and style.
For male artists, (female artists’ images are much less restrictive), the traditional country music image, since the days of the early westerns, has been entwined with that of the cowboy. In order to prove they belong in country music, male artists often feel they must adhere to the cowboy look as presently defined by such artists as George Strait, Mark Chesnutt, Alan Jackson, etc. This approach is probably sound and may even be critical.
“I think a label would sign a black or hispanic artist with talent as long as they look like Roy Rogers with dark skin,” said long-time white country music fan, Kim DiLoreto. “Most of my favorite country singers do have that look. George Strait, Gary Allan, Chris LeDoux. It has more to do with Wranglers and Reistol hats than with skin color.”
As Collier pointed out, referring to Trini Triggs, “The look and the sound is both very traditional.”
It is in the sound that tradition becomes more problematic. Black artists have often chosen to compose and present songs that are, stylistically, of the honky-tonk sub-genre of country music, the sub-genre labeled as “traditional country” in today’s country music field.
Though many listeners would be grateful for that approach, the current artists who are most successful, such as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, are those who have broken with the traditional sound. Indeed, the newest group to achieve mega-success, The Dixie Chicks, have pursued a pop-country sound.
Any African-American artist, attempting a career in country music, must make a difficult choice. Choose the traditional sound, and one almost ensures limited success in today’s musical climate. Head in the direction of pop-country, and one loses not only credibility as a country music artist, but probably the very reason for pursuing this difficult career in the first place.
Face to Face
So where do things stand, and what is the day-to-day reality? Carl Ray says he’s not discouraged in pursuing his career. Frankie Staton of the BCMA is, overall, somewhat optimistic, “I see a change in attitudes – a very slight change. The world’s changing and Nashville has to change too.”
Are things changing or are they not? What happens when African-American artists meet their audiences? For one thing, audience composition hasn’t changed much. Cheryl Harvey Hill, publicist for Carl Ray, noted, “We were at a KVOO radio station listener appreciation party. Carl was the only black and there were 5,000 people there. The interesting thing was, there were no blacks in the audience. It was well-publicized that Carl was going to be there, so you’d think that blacks would come just to see a black country music singer.”
Jackie Nelms said, “It’s hard for a person to make it inside as far as performing. That’s where the barrier is because the audience is not going to be a mixed audience. I would like to go (to concerts), but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable there at all.”
How do those white audiences react to African-American performers? “Trini’s been very accepted,” said Susan Collier, Triggs’ publicist. “At all of the shows, Trini’s gotten great feedback, and long autograph lines.”
Hill agreed, “People have lined up for up to two hours just to shake Carl’s hand. When they hear him sing, they are amazed. The comment I hear most at concerts is, ‘Wow, he doesn’t sound black!’ From small children to senior citizens; I see people hug Carl who I am sure have never even touched a black person in their life before. And now they are not only hugging him, but they are willing to wait in line for hours to have their picture taken with him.”
“That’s what music does,” said Hill. “Music erases the color. As soon as Carl starts singing, he is a country music singer who just happens to be black, not a black man who sings country music.”
Now, that’s country music.
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