Country Music Ain't Black & White: 'Hidden in the Mix'

Photo of Willie Nelson and Ray Charles (Austin 1984) by © Joe Adams from Ray Charles Video Museum

These explorations of the African-American presence in country music are welcome at a time when country music is treated, by insiders and outsiders, as a purely white genre, and exceptions to that are treated as aberrations, gimmicks or novelty songs.

Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music

Publisher: Duke University Press
Length: 384 pages
Author: Diane Pecknold, Editor
Price: $27.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-06
“You take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddam thing exactly.”

– Ray Charles

South Carolinian Darius Rucker is talked about as the heir to Charley Pride – the idea being that he is the first African-American country star since Pride. They are, after all, the second and third African-Americans to be inducted in the Grand Ole Opry, after DeFord Bailey; Rucker was the next after Pride to have a #1 song on the country charts. So they at least stand out as the institutionally recognized African-Americans in country. Within the comparison is the assumption that they are anomalies in the world of country music: others.

That lurks, too, whenever a high-profile black musician dips a toe into country waters. Snoop Dogg dueting with Willie Nelson, for example, is seen as a novelty song, as are country-rap hybrids in general, even when performed by a white Southerner who therefore gets more easily identified as “country” (say, Colt Ford). It was an obvious part of the recent Internet hubbub about the Brad Paisley song “Accidental Racist”, featuring rapper LL Cool J as a guest. Intended as a Southern-Northern truce on racial profiling, one even with an air of revealing how whites and blacks really think, the song’s awkward generalizations and metaphors drew widespread guffaws. One piece of that reaction was surprise, even anger, that anyone would dream of such a pairing, as if their musical worlds are so different as if to be inherently incompatible.

Let’s set aside for a second that LL Cool J also inserted Paisley rather comfortably into his own recent track “Live for You” – a relative of LL’s many ballads, going all the way back to 1985 -- getting Paisley to sing a hook that might as easily been sung by a current R&B singer. Like Ne-Yo, for example, who has done two recent duets with country star Tim McGraw, one on each of their albums. Back in 2004, McGraw appeared on a Nelly song too, again a ballad. In an Entertainment Weekly interview at the time, Nelly backed away from the earlier claim he or his publicists had made that the song sounded “country” to him, instead playing into the interviewer’s assumption that the song was a left-field oddball which no one could expect.

But let’s set aside Nelly and McGraw, and Ne-Yo and McGraw, and Snoop and Willie, and forget for a second about all of the country singers who use hip-hop expressions in their songs (Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”, for one) and all of the rappers who market themselves more to country crowds (Cowboy Troy, for example). Let’s set them all aside and go further back in time, back to the beginning, really.

Some of the more astute voices in the “Accidental Racist” web hullabaloo used historical examples to fit the song into a larger history of Southerners constructing and reconstructing their identity in reaction to what they imagine to be their cultural image -- like Eric Weisberd’s NPR piece "Brad Paisley’s 'Accidental Racist' and the History of White Southern Musical Identity". History, too, is our friend when it comes to the misinformed notion that country music has only ever had a few black faces, or the idea that black and white musicians of the South making music together is a modern anomaly.

That’s where the new book Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, edited by Diane Pecknold, steps in to set the record straight, within a dozen essays that tackle varied topics while persistently analyzing the racial history of country music and how it manifests itself, or is ignored, in the present – including in the works of country-music historians.

One history recounted throughout the book is that of southern music from before the invention of “country” as a genre, when the music was played by both whites and blacks. The first essay, Patrick Huber’s “Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932”, is the one that explores it at the greatest depth. That makes it the perfect foundation for the rest of the essays, as the pivotal fact in how we think about African Americans and country music is that they were there from the beginning, before country music became known as such. That this part of history is left out, Huber suggests, has more to do with the lack of recorded music from this period than with any malicious intent.

Also, the recording-industry labels that were applied to music to make it easier to market to racially defined audiences have stuck around and evolved into the genres we know see as distinct musical categories. Huber writes: “What began as merely marketing categories soon evolved, for all intents and purposes, into musical genres… and the generic labels of race and hillbilly would remain the sound-recording industry’s dominant terms to describe black and white southern vernacular music, until rhythm and blues and country and western replaced them shortly after the end of World War II.”

This writer and others note how this separation instigated the idea that country equals white, an idea that clearly remains to this day and can even be worn as a badge of honor, almost, by some fans and artists. The bulk of the book is given to scholars and critics thoughtfully exploring how these genre constructions, and their related racial constructions, have affected how musicians and music get greeted and treated, from the folk history around early African American instrumentalists like Arnold Shultz (as told in Erika Brady’s fascinating “Contested Origins: Arnold Shultz and the Music of Western Kentucky”) to the type of acclaim given Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music which, as Pecknold points out, is treated as strictly a crossover move despite the fact that Charles was playing the sort of music he grew up with. It’s also left out of the official story of country music (Pecknold notes that it was the first country album to sell a million copies, but is never recognized as such), though Charles as a figure has now been embraced by country artists.

The story of that album, and the ways Charles’ choices traverse the waters of race and class, gets more complicated the more you dive into it, which is both the story of every essay in this book and the story of country music when it comes to race. Other essays probe into African Americans’ relationship with the banjo; Southern soul music and its relationship to country; the love for country music in the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia; the Nashville songwriter Alice Randall, who has written hits for Trisha Yearwood and others and is African American; and “hick hop” (Adam Gussnow’s “Playing Chicken With the Train: Cowboy Troy’s Hick-Hop and the Transracial Country West”).

The common denominator in these essays is not just revelations about the presence of African-Americans in country music or explosions of the idea that country music is “white” instead of “black” for actual musical reasons, though those are major pieces. There are also recurring attempts to dig tunnels beneath the bodies of water around the islands of genre, especially when it comes to country music. Pecknold describes genres, in Charles’ view, as “vast borderlands of shared traditions rather than clearly demarcated lines”.

Is it that ridiculous, really, that Nelly might write a song which feels like country music? Or that some of Trace Adkins or Alan Jackson's ballads might sound, as they do to me, like soul songs? The lines here are more fluid than they appear, even if audiences have been constructed around the idea that they are not.

What music audiences, white and black, think of as 'white' and 'black', and why they've been led to think that way, is also a major part of this story. It's about race and class, about how we think of ourselves and others. Hidden somewhere within Hidden in the Mix might be the answer to a question I have bouncing around my brain; Why does Pitchfork write about Beyonce and R Kelly, but not Carrie Underwood and Tim McGraw?


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