George H Lewis. Popular Music and Society. Volume 25, Issue 3. Fall 2001.
Tony Brown must have been having a bad day when he let slip to the New York Times in November 1996 the above-quoted statement about black people and country music. After all, this is the man who cut his musical teeth as a gospel piano player for the Sweet Inspirations, then went on to play keyboards for Elvis in his Vegas-era shows and Emmylou Harris’s hot Band, and later moved to producing country artists as diverse as Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, and Wynonna Judd (Wynonna sings straight notes?!). Of all country people, Tony knows better-but what his ill-advised statement does underscore is some very common (and misguided) thinking on the part of a lot of people, both in and outside the country music business, about the connections-or nonconnections between black people and country music in America.
After all, Deford Bailey, one of country music’s seminal harmonica stylists, was a black man who played “Fox Chase” on the October 14, 1939, network debut of the Grand Ole Opry on NBC, and Dobie Gray, another black man, sang on its last broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium on March 15, 1974. Louis Armstrong (who, himself, recorded a “country” album-Louis “Country and Western ” Armstrong-as one of the last projects of his life in 1970), played cornet on Jimmie Rodgers’s classic July 16, 1930, recording, “Blue Yodel #9,” upon which Earl “Fatha” Hines may have also played piano; Charley Pride had a million-plus country hit in 1971 with “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'”; the Pointer Sisters won a Grammy in 1974 for “Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group” for “Fairytale”; James Brown performed “Your Cheatin’ Heart” on the Opry in March of 1979; and Aaron Neville scored a gold country/pop crossover hit in 1993 with a reprise of George Jones’s classic “The Grand Tour,” as did Whitney Houston with her megaplatinum remake of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” in 1992/93. And those facts just scratch the surface of black influences in country music, as it has evolved to its present pop form. Indeed, as Pamela Foster points out in My Country, more than 400 country chart hits have been the products of black singers, songwriters, musicians, producers, and record label owners. Clearly, black people have had a significant but overlooked and poorly documented impact upon American country music, from the very inception of the form.
Bill Ivey, while Director of the Country Music Foundation, pointed out that the American South has always been a uniquely musical region, drawing inspiration from its variety of folk sources and constantly melding them into new combinations, be they called blues, jazz, rock and roll, or country (289). Unfortunately, early on and primarily for misguided marketing purposes, the recording industry divided this southern music up along racial lines, into two very general categories, with black performances being issued on “race” records and white performances as “hillbilly” series, no matter how inept and inaccurate such a racial labeling and bifurcation of the music itself was.
In attempting to set the record straight, present-day scholars, such as Bill Ivey, Pamela Foster, John Lomax III, Colin Escott, and Nick Tosches have focused on the musical interweaving of black and white elements in American music, tracing these mutual influences as far back as the forced arrival of black people to the New World in the early 1600s. Although black slaves had been singing (and adapting) the English hymns of Methodist ministers and missionaries for close to a hundred years, Tosches, in Country, points to what he claims is the “first important southern reference to country music in America” as the announcement of a fiddling contest in the November 26, 1736, issue of the Virginia Gazette, in which a “fine Cremona Fiddle” was to be played for by “any number of Country Fiddlers.” The Gazette also contained, over these early years, many references to runaway slaves who could be identified by their fiddling prowess, as in the April 23, 1738, issue in which Will, a “dark Mulatto fellow” was identified as being fond of playing the fiddle and as carrying with him “a white Fustian jacket, a lopping ax and a fiddle” (170).
For blacks and whites alike, who listened to and were influenced by each other’s playing, the fiddle was very likely the most common musical instrument in the South, up through the nineteenth century. Black fiddle music, according to Tosches, was not much different than its white source, although generally more direct and raw, with a slightly slower tempo and less of the tremolo that developed in white fiddle bands, especially those from Mississippi. As he says, the tones of these black and white fiddle bands “are plain proof of a century of cultural seepage a century of windings and flowings that spilled onto the lap of the 1920s; both Henry Sims and the Mississippi Possum Hunters” (172).
By the 1920s, the fledgling record industry had discovered that this southern, fiddle-based grassroots music was a salable commodity, which they began to record and market accordingly. By this time, “country” music actually contained not only basic Anglo-American fiddling elements and narrative balladry styles, but it had also assimilated African-American rhythms, blue notes, black fiddling styles, and, via white minstrel shows, the banjo. Even steel guitar, originated by Hawaiian musicians in the late 1800s, was played first in the South by black musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bukka White, and was integrated into “country” music by Frank Hutchison and Jimmie Rodgers (who was sometimes called “a white man gone black” and “a busboy in a roadside cafe singing nigger blues” in his early days), beginning with Rodgers’s recording sessions of February 1928, and soon after by Gene Autry, the “singing cowboy,” in 1931.
Jimmie Rodgers’s music, incorporating as it did yodels, African-American rhythmic structures and blues forms, black slide guitar and piano players, and-as previously noted-even Louis Armstrong on cornet-was not the only example of this musical fusion that was being marketed as white “country” music. Henry Thomas, a black singer who wrote and recorded 23 sides for the Okeh “race” label in the 1920s, authored several songs that were made classic “hillbilly” hits by Uncle Dave Macon and Grand Ole Opry star Lew Childe-among them “Arkansas,” “Fox and the Hounds,” and Fishin’ Blues.” Even the hillbilly/folk classic “casey Jones,” assumed by many to be of white racial origin, was originally written by Wallace Saunders, a black engineer at the Canton, Mississippi, roundhouse, a few days after the actual train wreck on April 30, 1900.
Later country singers also had their black musical influences. As John Arkins, in The Carter Family, recounts, A. P. Carter, who traveled through Virginia and Tennessee to collect folk tunes for the Carter family to record, had a poor memory for melody and often had Lesley Riddle, a black blues singer and guitar player, accompany him to help him remember. Riddle very likely gave the Carters their blues-based hits “Motherless Children” and “Cannonball Blues,” as well as influencing Mother Maybelle in developing her famous “Carter Scratch” guitar playing technique-one that has become the model for generations of country pickers since.
Hank Williams learned a good deal musically from Rufus Payne (“Tee Tot”), a black street musician in Georgiana, Alabama, where he and the young Williams were playing for spare change outside the bars in the mid-1930s. As Colin Escott, Williams’s biographer, says: “One of the elements that would set Hank apart from the hillbilly mainstream was the irresistible drive of his music … the lazy swing and suck rhythm on his up-tempo records was almost certainly Payne’s legacy” (10-11).
Other country artists who have acknowledged early black mentors and influences include Bill Monroe, who was taught to play guitar by black Kentucky fiddler and guitarist Arnold Schultz, with whom he played square dances in his formative years; Bob Wills, whose first record was a cover of Bessie Smith’s “Gulf Coast Blues”; Chet Atkins, who traces his guitar picking technique back through Merle Travis to an unnamed black coal miner (Gaillord); Mickey Gilley, who took Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” to the top of the country charts in 1976, and who speaks of being greatly influenced by frequent visits (with his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis) to black blues clubs in Ferriday, Louisiana, in his youth; and George Jones, who was inspired by Little Richard’s music to write “Rock It” and record it (as “Thumper Jones”) in 1956. As Doug Green has observed: “If the rough edges of rural blues had been smoothed-even polished-to make them palatable to the country music audience, they were present nonetheless in the hot solos of Bob Wills’s fiddlers, guitarists, and horn men, in the ‘high lonesome sound’ of Bill Monroe’s singing and the slurred phrasing of his fiddlers, in the rhythmic, syncopated, electrifying guitar picking of Merle Travis, and in the wailing tone and bent notes of Hank Williams’s emotive voice. The blues didn’t really go away-they were simply absorbed more deeply within country music’s mainstream” (77-78).
The musicological segregation of southern music, invented by the recording industry in the 1920s, has served to obscure the amazing crossfertilization that has gone on, some small bit of which is documented above. This has, in turn, reinforced the modern myth of country music as authentically and purely white in origin and evolution, a “fact” that may be convenient for racial purists who try to link their cultural identity to the white (or the black) side of this false musical bipolarity but is, in fact, completely inaccurate and untrue. Based on the musical structure of his songs. Hank Williams was, to a great extent, a blues singer, and, as Buck Owens once remarked, if Chuck Berry had been white, he would have been a country singer. Even Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), who sang and played his songs in a decided country style, is forever cataloged as a blues, or “race,” artist-again, due mostly to the color of his skin, not the color of his music.
This issue, as it applies to country music, has at last been addressed by Nashville. The Country Music Foundation and Warner Bros. Records’ Nashville Division have combined forces to produce a three-disc, annotated box set of black influences in country music that is both groundbreaking and myth busting in nature. From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music documents this influence as being of three major and historically specific types, each covered on a separate disc.
The first, entitled “The Stringband Era,” examines pre-World War II country music from its recorded beginnings with Deford Bailey’s 1927 Grand Ole Opry showstopper “Pan American Blues” to Leadbelly’s late 1930s train songs “Midnight Special” and “Rock Island Line” (to be recorded in the 1950s as white country hits by Grandpa Jones, Johnny Horton, Johnny Cash, and many others). Although the songs in this collection feature black singers, writers and musicians, it is clear from a listen that blacks and whites were toiling shoulder to shoulder in these same southern country musical fields -in fact “Grey Eagle,” recorded by Taylor’s Kentucky Boys in 1927 and included as cut #3 on this disc, is the first mixed-race ensemble recorded in American music (no mixed-race jazz was recorded until 1931), and “Eighth of January” by fiddler Frank Patterson and banjoist Ned Frazier contains the melody used for Johnny Horton’s million-selling “Battle of New Orleans” (written by folk singer and history teacher Jimmie Driftwood) in 1959. In addition to three hot charging preboogie harmonica tunes by the highly talented Deford Bailey (including the historic October 14, 1939, version of “Fox Chase” from the Grand Ole Opry’s NBC network debut show), the disc also contains the Mississippi Sheiks’ hard-driving “Yodeling Fiddling Blues” (sort of a Jimmie Rodgers-inspired run, with raw Howlin’ Wolf-type overtones); the Memphis Jug Band’s wonderfully tight version of “He’s in the Jailhouse Now” (also recorded by Jimmie Rodgers-with different lyricsin 1928); and Charlie McCoy and Bo Chatmon’s sweet version of “Corinna Corinna,” which was later made a country hit by Bob Wills in 1940, only to become-still later-a signature black country blues song for Taj Majal, who sang it most recently with the Rolling Stoneson their 1998 “Bridges to Babylon” tour!
The cuts on this “Stringband Era” disc wonderfully capture the rough acoustic kinship and joy of these early musicians, as they bounced what had become the street basis for recorded country music back and forth between the races-although even then racism was helping define the direction country music would soon be heading in. Deford Bailey, one of the most talented and best-loved performers on the early Grand Ole Opry, was referred to in Opry publicity as the show’s “mascot,” and he was fired in 1941 in a move many felt was racially motivated.
The second disc, entitled “The Soul Country Years,” shows how far apart black and white commercial music had drifted by the 1960s. Although many black people had continued to enjoy country music, its recorded versions were focused exclusively on a white audience by an industry that had divided things up along racial lines. While the first disc of From Where I Stand showed blacks and whites sharing and assimilating songs and styles in a fledgling industry context, this second disc presents black soul singers putting their own vocal styles and rhythm and horn charts on top of white country hits-and creating a new musical context for country that could-and did-“cross over” from both the supposedly racially exclusive “R & B” and “country” charts into the racially mixed (and economically far more lucrative) national “pop” market. (It was probably no accident that this new musical integration was taking place at roughly the same time the turbulence of the civil rights movement ushered in a new but volatile era of racial integration in American society, a social change that probably also was reflected in the appearance of black Motown artists on the white pop charts at about this same time.)
This new soul/country mix of gospel, R & B, and white country music and styles was pioneered by Ray Charles who, while growing up in Greenville, Florida, in the 1930s, reportedly never missed a week of the Grand Ole Opry. Charles showed an affinity for country stylings in his late-1950s hits “Busted” and the Hank Snow song “I’m Movin’ On.” But it was with his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country & Western and his pop single “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” that Charles defined the soul country sound (note-bending gospel/blues vocal interpretations of country lines and lyrics, set to R & B based horn charts, jazz-blues keyboards, and—unfortunately—too many Anita Kerr-type vocal choruses and nearkitsch orchestration). As Charles observed: “I didn’t plan on making a killing on the country stuff. … I just intended to try my hand at hillbilly music. After all, the Grand Ole Opry had been performing inside my head since I was a kid” (Foster 67). Modern Sounds hit #1 on the pop charts, prompted a similar themed follow-up (Volume If) from Charles, and defined a whole genre of music, which is well represented on this “Soul Country Years” disc-although there are some important contributions to this era that are, likely due to licensing problems, missing-most notably the Steve Cropper-written country twang that was a big part of many of Otis Redding’s hits; Aretha Franklin’s soul covers of country songs like “You Are My Sunshine” and “I May Never Get to Heaven”; Sam Cooke’s “Tennessee Waltz”; Swamp Dogg’s “She’s All I Got”; James Brown’s “Still”; and anything by Tina Turner, who recorded three full albums of country tunes in the 1970s.
Also missing due to licensing problems are any “Modern Sounds”era Ray Charles songs-a huge (but apparently unavoidable) omission. The set does, thankfully, include Charles’s 1959 version of “I’m Movin’ On,” but for the rest one needs to turn to Rhino Records’ The Complete Country & Western Recordings: 1959-1986, a four-CD box set that points up the interest that Charles has taken in country music throughout his long musical career and which does include, as disc one, the groundbreaking tracks of Modern Sounds, Volumes I and II, in complete, crisp, and clear remastered form. As Willie Nelson remarked about Charles’s first hit single from Modern Sounds, Volume I: “With his recording of? Can’t Stop Loving You,’ Ray Charles did more for country music than any other artist.”
What he did was launch his soul-flavored country sound in the pop market, where-much to his record company’s amazement-it took off as had few recordings before it. Three weeks after the single’s release, it had sold 300,000 copies, and in the next week alone it sold an additional 400,000. Record dealers had not seen action like this since Elvis’s early singles. By mid-June “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” had sold one and a half million copies and sat at the #1 spot on the pop charts for five straight weeks. Matching it, positionwise, was the Modern Sounds LP, which displaced the West Side Story soundtrack as the #1 best-selling alburn in the country.
Interestingly, although Ray Charles had the hottest record in the country in the summer of 1962, traditional country stations did not play it-although some urban country stations had no problem with the song. Whether race had a large part to do with this cannot be proven-conservative country radio didn’t play any of what they defined as “pop” covers of country songs at the time. So the major impact of Modern Sounds was not in the country market itself, but rather in the attention it garnered for country music across the pop and R & B spectrums, and the number of other black performers it alerted and attracted to the country genre for material.
The Complete Country and Western Recordings box set includes more than the Modern Sounds albums-three full discs more! From 1962 through 1986, Charles would return to country music for material often, recording Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to a backward bossa nova beat in 1965; a stone soul version of Buck Owens’s “Crying Time” in 1965; and a whole album entitled Love Country Style in 1970-which featured Charles’s transformation of June and Johnny Cash’s upbeat “Ring of Fire” into a slow, sultry swamp ballad. Later, Charles would record three more all-country albums. Wish You Were Here Tonight (1983), Do I Ever Cross Your Mind (1984), and From the Pages of My Heart (1986)-as well as Friendship (1985), an album of notable duets with the likes of Willie Nelson (“Seven Spanish Angels”), Johnny Cash (“Crazy Old Soldier”), Merle Haggard (“Little Hotel Room”), George Jones and Chet Atkins (“We Didn’t see a Thing”), and others.
All of this material (and more) is included on the Rhino box setsome 92 songs worth! And, as is to be expected, not every cut is as brilliant as 1965’s “Busted” (written by Harlan Howard and originally recorded by Johnny Cash) or even Tony Joe White’s “3/4 Time” (1983) in which, after singing of a woman “who likes to make love in 3/4 time,” Charles revisits the thought, slyly tossing in the line; “It’d be nice, you know. …”
Still, 92 songs are a lot to absorb. This collection is not a “best of,” it is an “all of and includes some miscues and clunkers (like the patronizingly cute “Stringbean” and the too saccharine-smooth “The Pages of My Mind,” which was Charles’s last top-forty country chart hit in 1986), along with more than its share of innovative, classic numbers. In the end, though, it’s tough to fault anything that Brother Ray has wrapped his lungs around-he usually finds something interesting to do with a song (as long as it’s not drowned in orchestra-kitsch). And, even if a large amount of this work was not groundbreaking—which it especially is on discs one and two of this collection-the mere fact that the man, from 1959 to 1986, recorded 92 songs Rhino could call country is yet another indicator of the import of black artists in country music during this quarter-century period.
Turning back to Where I Stand’s “Soul Country Years” disc, one is struck by the early and innovative rock-and-roll feel the first four cuts bring to the disc. The leadoff track, “Bloodshot Eyes,” was written by Wynonie Harris, who also wrote “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” which was covered by Elvis in his second Sun recording session in September of 1954. Listening to Harris here, one can hear how important his merger of country and R & B was in defining the small combo sound Elvis, and other rockabilly artists, went on to make so popular, as was also the work of KoKomo Arnold, whose “Milkcow Blues” (not included here) was recorded not only by Presley, but also by Bob Wills, Moon Mullican, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Cut three, “Down on the Farm” by Big Al Downing, with its crazed piano and breathless, hurtling vocal, also underscores the major contributions black artists had in the development of the rockabilly side of country music. Downing, in fact, went on to add his smoking piano style to one of the classic white rockabilly hits Wanda Jackson’s “Let’s Have a Party,” in April 1958. But, as Nick Tosches remarked, “the blackness that was in rockabilly in no way constituted an innovation in country music-the black inculturation in the music of old-timers such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills was far greater, far greater” (207).
The second cut on “Soul Country Years,” the Orioles’ R & B cover of Darrell Glenn’s “Crying in the Chapel” (which had given Glenn a #4 country hit), and cut four. Ivory Joe Hunter’s cover of Ray Price’s #1 country hit “City Lights,” both dramatically show the technique of reinterpreting country hits through an R & B sensibility, and the impact this had in developing early, ballad styles in rock and roll. In this musical context, another important artist (missing from this collection) must be mentioned-Brook Benton, whose butter-smooth ballads “It’s Just a Matter of Time” and “Endlessly” were both taken to the top of the country charts by Sonny James (in 1970) and Randy Travis (in 1989). Benton also recorded a country album, On the Country Side, and wrote songs for Don Williams (“The Ties That Bind”) and others throughout his career.
Things on the disc become more countrified from then on, with Fats Domino’s “You Win Again” (Hank Williams), Arthur Alexander’s “Detroit City” (Bobby Bare), and Joe Tex’s “Half a Mind” (Roger Miller), though the collection loses a bit of credibility (or perhaps gains a bit of humor) by including the Supremes’ clueless country version of “It Makes No Difference Now,” which, if nothing else, does underscore the fact that when a new musical bandwagon is defined, not everyone lured by the bucks to clamber aboard knows what they are doing.
The best tracks here are the soul ballads that define this genre-Al Green’s “For the Good Times,” Solomon Burke’s “Just Out of Reach,” Etta James’s “Almost Persuaded,” and “Little” Esther Phillips’s pioneering “Release Me,” which hit the pop charts at the same time Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds did, and resulted in Phillips recording and releasing a fine album of soul country songs on Lenox Records, which is a wonderful companion piece to Charles’s work and which someone ought to rerelease on CD, as it is an important and nearly forgotten contribution to this genre of music. (Rhino Records, are you listening?)
Where I Stand’s, third disc, “Forward with Pride,” focuses on the assimilation of black artists into modern country music. As one might expect from the disc’s title, the largest number of cuts-four-on this disc are by Charley Pride, and they start the disc off in a grand, exciting way, from the Chet Atkins-produced first hit “The Snakes Crawl at Night” to Pride’s million-selling 1971 single, “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” Charley Pride was a country music heavyweight, logging 29 #1 singles between 1966 and 1986, winning three Grammys, being named the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year twice and, in 1971, being named CMA’s Entertainer of the Year, the highest honor the Association bestows upon a currently working artist. All this public acclaim for a black artist whose record company, in 1966, refused to release a standard publicity photo along with his first recording, for fear the country audience (or, more likely, country radio) would reject him, a point tellingly recounted by Faron Young to Ralph Emery in an early 1990s interview (Emery 113-14).
Although these four Pride cuts are important and span the most popular part of his career, those who would like a more in-depth look (and it’s recommended) should examine RCA’s The Essential Charley Pride collection, which includes 20 songs ranging from Jack Clement’s early “Just Return You to Me” and Hank Williams’s classic “Kaw-Liga” to the more recent Ben Peters-penned “Burgers and Fries.” And, yes, the CD does have a picture of Charley on the front! Another good glimpse of Pride at his artistic peak can be had in The Sensational Charley Pride, a 1969 gold record that has recently been rereleased by Koch and contains wonderful versions of Doug Kershaw’s cajun/country “Louisiana Man” and Jack Clement’s “Let the Chips Fall.”
In addition to the four included Pride songs, “Forward with Pride” also contains three astonishingly sensitive and soulful cuts by Stoney Edwards, including his own “Pickin’ Wildflowers,” and a song George Jones later recorded for a #1 hit, “She’s My Rock,” which reveals just how much Jones, himself, learned about this song’s unique phrasing from the black singer. Other highlights here include Otis Williams and his allblack group, the “Midnight Cowboys” doing Tom T. Hall’s “How I Got to Memphis;” Dobie Gray (who wrote songs for Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, and Razzy Bailey) singing “From Where I Stand,” Aaron Neville following George Jones with his dramatic reading of “The Grand Tour,” and the mysterious and unfairly forgotten La Melle Prince, a black woman said to have been brought to producer Owen Bradley’s attention by Marty Robbins, and who was tagged “the female Charley Pride” with her release of “The Man That Made a Woman Out of Me” a song completed at her first and only recording session in Nashville, for Decca Records, in October 1969.
And yet, with all the rich and rewarding music that “Forward with Pride” contains, it is somewhat unsettling to note that there is not much in the form of black influences in country music included here that is more recent than the late 1970s or early 1980s. Yes, Neville’s “Grand Tour” charted in 1993 and Cleve Francis had a modest hit in 1990 with “Love Light” (included here). But Neville has not had continued success with country material (he recorded “For the Good Times” in 1995 but it failed to chart), and Francis, after three early 1990s albums, has dropped out of the music industry. The great Stoney Edwards, who recorded most of his important country material in the 1970s, died in 1997. Even Charley Pride, although still touring occasionally, seems more interested in his banking interests and music publishing today than he is in recording country music. Who is left now to “go forward” with? And what path might be taken?
One answer might lie in a project hatched in the mid-1990s by MCA Records’ Al Teller, to match country and R & B artists in duet fashion on specific songs wherein artists and producers felt the chemistry might be right to transcend conventional musical boundaries. The result, an album titled Rhythm Country and Blues, is uneven but does contain some startlingly successful black and white musical mergers, the best of which is the version of “Southern Nights” developed by Allen Toussaint and Chet Atkins, although Al Green and Lyle Lovett’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” and Sam Moore and Conway Twitty’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” are both close seconds. As Don Was, producer, says in the liner notes: “Country and R & B are simple forms that are highly emotional. And structurally, when you started breaking down the classic songs, there wasn’t that much difference. The material easily crossed lines. Therefore, the music could probably cross them as well.” Listening to Trisha Yearwood wrap her voice around Aaron Neville’s in wringingly emotional harmony on the Patsy Cline classic “I Fall to Pieces” or Travis Tritt soulbending his notes with Patti Labelle on “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby,” you hear exactly what Was means. As John Lomax III had remarked in 1985: “There are elements of blues or ‘soul’ music in the works of every serious country stylist … How far apart are George Jones and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland anyway when we define the ‘soul’ and emotion that lie at the heart of each master’s appeal?” (131). If nothing else, Rhythm Country and Blues would make a fine fourth disc for the From Where I Stand box set. It defines the sort of soul-country one hears coming through so strongly in songs like Wynonna’s magnificent version of “Woman to Woman” on the 1998 MCA tribute album for Tammy Wynette, or on the Vince Gill/Gladys Knight collaboration “Ain’t Nothing but the Real Thing,” another fine cut on the Rhythm Country and Blues disc itself.
As we move through the millennium, I hope the colors of country will continue to include black in even more unique permutations and combinations than the collections reviewed in this essay have documented. That, however, may be a somewhat optimistic thought. Although there are some black artists continuing to involve themselves in country music -such as the bluegrass singer Tasha Harris; the “country soul” singer Mary Ann Palmer; the more mainstream, Charley Pride-sounding Trini Triggs; and Frankie Staton, who also, in 1997, put together the annual Black Country Showcase at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe-black country singers are today having a tough time being heard. Mary Cutrufello, who moved from Austin to Nashville with country songs like “Just the Whiskey Talkin’,” could not get a contract based on country music and switched to rock for her debut album on Philo in 1998. Wheels, a much-touted black country group who signed with Asylum in 1997, was dropped without releasing a note in 1998 (although there is a 1996 independently recorded album of their material available on Starry Eyed Records). Given the industry’s continuing slavish connection to country radio and its perceived white demographics, I’m afraid it will take more than the historical awareness documented in the recordings reviewed in this essay to convince today’s conservative and commercially poporiented Music Row to build on this rich but fragile aspect of their musical heritage-but I hope I’m wrong.
“Country music is a lot like blues … It’s simple, honest. I love that real country sound in itself, the pureness of it … We should never let this sound-the sound of the hills and mountains -slip away.” ~ Ray Charles