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Country music's blacklist

Black artists still struggling to get a foot in the door

Sunday, February 18, 2001

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Other than Charley Pride, can you name a country artist who is black? No? That's probably because there aren't any. Although rooted in gospel and R&B, country continues to be the domain of white artists.

Illustration by Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette

There's a perception that country music is the province of hillbillies -- those Stetson-sporting studs crooning languorous songs with a Southern drawl.

Oh, and the singers are white, like their audiences. Or so the perception goes.

And with good reason. Many of the images linked to country music are ones with which black people can't identify: Wrangler boot cut jeans, songs of happier days in Dixie and the Confederate flag.

Still, for a growing number of African Americans, listening to and performing country music aren't an anomaly. It's a country way of life.

Country Music Association research indicates that in 1998, 3 percent of those 18 and older who listened to country music on the radio were black. While that number may not be statistically impressive, it's nonetheless significant -- particularly given that those numbers have doubled in just the past two years.

On the performing side of the equation, however, many black artists feel their contributions have been marginalized. Almost without exception, that radio audience of black listeners hears no black performers. Some of those artists aspiring to a country music career say racism permeates the industry; others feel their authenticity is questioned.

It's a boil that festers at country music's borders.

"It never didn't make sense for me to like country music," said Pittsburgher Melvin Moten, a black country singer and songwriter. "I grew up with the music. By the time I learned that it wasn't cool to listen to country, it was too late. I love Hank Williams, and I love writing country songs.

"There are lots of black artists who genuinely appreciate country music."

Common roots

Black association with country music isn't a recent phenomenon. African-Americans have been singing some form of folk and country music since the development of the banjo, a crude instrument crafted by slaves in the 17th century.

The banjo was used to accompany what W.E.B. Du Bois described in "The Souls of Black Folk" as the "sorrow songs," for example:

"The big bee flies high
The little bee makes the honey.
The black folks make the cotton
And the white folk gets the money."

Country music scholar Charles Wolfe, a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, said the history of country music has largely omitted the contributions of black people.

"There has always been a black presence in country music, but that history has been largely invisible," said Wolfe, who is white and has written more than 20 books on everything from country music to the life and times of black blues guitarist Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter.

Charley Pride's mainstream success had a lot to do with his traditional sound, following in the footsteps of performers such as the country icon Hank Williams (that's his portrait behind Pride), who learned to play guitar from a black street musician.

"In the 1920s through the '50s, there was a great interchange between black and white musicians. Chuck Berry remembers being influenced by Hank Williams. But in the '60s, the music became pigeonholed, separated along racial lines. Blues became blues and country became country."

Now, Wolfe said, the country music industry is so image-conscious that it's hard for anyone to find their niche, black or white.

"It's not only black singers," he said, "A 40-year-old white singer who sounds great in Oklahoma can't get a break in Nashville, either. The only people with a shot are young white guys wearing black hats and real tight jeans, or Charley Pride.

"Pride is a sop, though. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame for cosmetic reasons. There's nothing about Charley Pride that sounds black. He sounds like Hank Williams."

One of the Grand Ole Opry's first stars was DeFord Bailey, a black harmonica player from nearby Carthage, Tenn. He performed what was called "black hillbilly music."

Bailey was among the first musicians to record in Nashville. In 1928, he recorded "Ice Water Blues" and "Davidson County Blues" for the RCA/Victor label. Later, he toured with many of the Opry's stars, including Roy Acuff and a young Bill Monroe.

"I've been fighting for years to get Bailey inducted into the Hall of Fame," continued Wolfe. "But the folks in Nashville will hear nothing of it. They inducted Charley Pride because he was safe, a perfect token."

Sarah Ophelia Colley, aka "Minnie Pearl," is a legend in Opryland, too. In the early '70s, sporting Sunday-go-to-meetin' dresses and funny-looking hats with the price tags still attached, she teamed with Roy Clark on the television program "Hee Haw." The show, for all its popularity, presented country people as illiterate and uncouth, not unlike the caricature of black folks as shiftless, conniving and moribund in the 1950s show "Amos 'n' Andy."

But over the past three decades, country music has progressed into the mainstream. Faith Hill and Vince Gill are intelligent, articulate, attractive sophisticates -- pop stars whose country label is mere window dressing. Even traditionalists have found an audience that extends beyond the Southern hills to Madison Avenue and across the nation to Hollywood.

But it's a progression foreign to would-be black country artists.

Opportunity doesn't knock

Pride stands alone

Most of us are familiar with Pride, country music's greatest black exponent. His "Kiss an Angel Good Morning," released in 1972, was a crossover hit in an era when the term "crossover" didn't exist.

Pride's legacy includes 36 singles to hit No. 1 on the country charts and more than 25 million albums sold worldwide. His induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year is significant not just because of his artistry but because of the symbolism in this achievement. He stands alone -- the Jackie Robinson of country music.

"I've been singing country music since I was knee-high to a duck," said Pride, 62, from his home in Dallas. "I used to wake up before choppin' cotton and listen to the radio. I'm a child of the state of Mississippi, and Mississippi has produced a number of great musical children, from Elvis Presley and Muddy Waters, to B.B. King and Leontyne Price.

"I helped to expand country music. I made blacks aware of the music."

Yet unlike the trailblazing Robinson, the path Pride cleared is mostly footstep-free. Few black people embraced him or his music and, ironically, some in the black press treated him like a yodeling, distant hillbilly cousin, rarely giving him coverage. He endured the pain of being called a sellout and the clumsy comments from blacks about a black man singing country music.

He channeled those remarks into energy. When he talks about the criticism, he recalls a recent trip to Kansas City for a reunion at the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame (Pride played in the Negro League with the Memphis Red Sox), where a black man asked why he was singing country music.

"If I were still choppin' cotton in Mississippi, what would he have asked?" Pride said rhetorically.

"The three basic ingredients of American music are country, gospel and blues," said Pride. "It's the bacon, eggs and grits of American music. Everyone is born to do something. I was born to be a country singer. I will not apologize for that."

And he doesn't.

Though he began his career during the height of the civil rights movement, Pride said, he was never made to feel as if he didn't belong in front of white audiences.

"I came along at the height of racial tension," he continued. "There were times when it could have been confrontational, but I never had to endure any of that stuff. I have been successful because people realized that I wasn't a phony. I am true country."

More than a quarter-century after Pride's greatest success, though, many black performers wait patiently for that elusive opportunity to cross the country threshold. It's as if country stardom for an African-American is like lightning that doesn't strike twice.

There are, apart from the aging Pride, but two black country artists -- Trini Triggs on Curb Records and Wheels, a black country band on Asylum Records -- within the otherwise lily-white confines of major record labels.

"I do believe Trini has what it takes to be extremely successful," continued Pride. "He has the voice and the looks. But the question becomes, 'Does the industry want another Charley Pride?' I believe they do, but sometimes I wonder."

There are those who hope to change that.

Growing up in Anniston, Ala., black singer and part-time model Rhonda Towns was drawn to the music of Tanya Tucker and Reba McIntyre. "I've always loved country music," said Towns from her Phoenix home. "Country music was played at my house, and I never felt it belonged to anyone." Despite some racially repugnant themes and stereotypes, Towns embraces country as "American music that [addresses] the lives of everyday people."

In 1994, as a participant on TV's "Star Search," Towns performed a couple of songs by Wynonna Judd. From there, she approached Nashville executives, sometimes making as many as six trips a year to Music Row. But she has yet to claim an inch of country music's landscape.

"It's been hard," said Towns, who in 2000 was the first black artist to appear at the annual International Country Music Festival in Switzerland. "I was truly amazed by the way I was received in Europe. But Nashville is tough. I won't be denied, though."

Towns' problem is shared by many black country singers.

In part, perhaps, it's a matter of economics. Six percent of a radio market isn't the strongest of incentives to invest millions of dollars into an unproven black performer. But when you realize industry executives make their decisions late in the game -- long after an artist's demo tape has earned enough interest to schedule an audition -- you're left with the impression something else is at play.

Music executives scoff at the notion of racism. They point to an already saturated market and contend a dwindling number of artists are being signed, regardless of race.

"Racism exists everywhere in our culture," said Bob Saporiti, senior vice president for Global Marketing at Nashville's Warner Brothers Records. "But no one is trying to deliberately keep anyone out of the industry. We look for quality and originality. I would love to have a black artist on our roster and an Asian artist, too."

Saporiti said not many minority artists have approached Warner Brothers in his 20 years with the company.

"The few that did didn't measure up to the standards we place on artists," he said. "We would love to have a black artist, but not for the sake of just having one. After all, this is a business."

Business imperatives aside, other executives openly question whether African-Americans are "country enough" -- as if authenticity and art have ever been a prerequisite for pop-culture success. Think Milli Vanilli or Vanilla Ice or any of dozens of others whose "authenticity" has been manufactured.

For that matter, think of saxophonist Kenny G, who has made millions as a pseudo-jazz artist. Singer Pat Boone made millions moving in and out of musical identities. One moment, he was covering pop songs; the next, he was appropriating R&B tunes. He even made a celebrated -- if unsuccessful -- foray into heavy metal a few years back.

And country music isn't immune to the phenomenon. When Canadian-born Shania Twain emerged on the country music scene in the mid-'90s, she was as far from traditional country as blues singer Bessie Smith was to bebop. But Twain, who was influenced by everyone from Waylon Jennings to the Supremes, quickly endeared herself to fans, enchanting her audiences with pop-country songs like "Any Man of Mine" and "(If You're Not in It for Love) I'm Outta Here!"

She is, some contend, a marketing marvel with limited, if any, traditional appeal. Slick videos, fanciful stage presentations and a Bo Derek-like persona have all helped to shape Twain's aesthetic.

Yet the very definition of traditional country is being used to question the authenticity of many black artists who feel they are as legitimate as the next singer.

Taking action

Rather than accept country music's closed doors, some performers of color are finding creative ways to pry them open.

Frankie Staton, a 45-year-old black country singer and songwriter from Nashville, grew up listening to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton.

"Growing up in High Point, N.C., I was the weird kid in my neighborhood," said Staton with a chuckle. "I grew up listening to all kinds of music. Twenty years ago, I moved to Nashville to pursue a career as a songwriter, but I've always felt I was peering at the music from the outside -- looking at it through a glass."

Peering into a glass can have a calming effect. With Staton, it had a galvanizing effect.

Tired of languishing in obscurity, in 1997 Staton organized the first black country music showcase at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe. A year later, she founded the Black Country Music Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the visibility of black performers, as well as providing a showcase for their talents. The organization now boasts 80 members nationwide and has showcased more than 60 performers in venues around Nashville.

"I think we need to make people aware of blacks' contributions to country music," said Staton, her pitched voiced filled with fire-and-country brimstone. "We are linked to Hank Williams, because Hank was taught to play the guitar by a black street musician named Rufe "Tee-Tot" Payne. Bill Monroe started bluegrass, but his influence comes from Arnold Schultz, a black guitarist from Kentucky.

"I got tired of the industry saying there were no black performers and ignoring the ones they could find. Finding black artists isn't hard."

In fact, African-Americans have always flirted with country music.

Pride grew up on country, and his authenticity -- except perhaps by members of his own race -- was never called into question. In the mid-1960s, he arrived on the music scene with such genre-defining hits as "Snakes Crawl at Night" and "Just Between You and Me." Ray Charles, with "I Can't Stop Loving You," and Al Green, with "For the Good Times," played the music with overwhelming credibility.

And, again, there is the case of Wheels and Triggs, the country recording artist from Louisiana who's slowly starting to make some hay in the industry.

But more times than not, the industry has given black singers a lukewarm embrace.

In the early '90s, Cleve Francis, a cardiologist from Alexandria, Va., traded in his profession and moved to Nashville to pursue a career in country music. But after three recordings for Liberty Records, he returned to his practice and hasn't really been heard from since.

Harmonica player DeFord Bailey was one of the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry and toured with many Opry stars in the 1920s and '30s. "I've been fighting for years to get Bailey inducted into the Hall of Fame," said country music scholar Charles Wolfe. "But the folks in Nashville will hear nothing of it."

Sure, he still performs in the Washington, D.C., area, but a once-promising country music career turned into frustration and now resentment.

"It's really terrible how country music remains the most segregated form of music," Francis said from his Virginia office. "The country music tree has shaken one time for blacks, and only Charley Pride has fallen. Does anyone really think Charley Pride is the only black country singer out there?"

Growing up in Jennings, La., the son of a janitor and a maid, Francis revered country music. At 9, he made his first guitar. It was crafted from wire mesh and a cigar box. Later, his mother bought him a guitar from a Sears & Roebuck catalog, but she made him promise he would study hard.

Francis didn't disappoint her.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled in Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., as a premed student. Four years later, he entered the medical school of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

"Medicine was my fall-back position," he said. "But country music is my heritage. I've always felt I had the God-given talent to perform this music. But I was made to feel like I didn't belong in the music. On some level, I suspect it's no different than the feelings that blacks had when they were trying to integrate golf and tennis clubs. We are relegated to a token level. I have as much right to perform this music as anyone."

Francis said it wasn't country music fans who scorned or questioned his authenticity.

"The fans couldn't care less what color you are," he said. "It's the people that are making the decisions ... record executives and radio consultants that are the problem. They expect black artists to bring the entire black race to the music. Did Leontyne Price [one of opera's first black divas] bring all of the black community to opera? Why should we have to carry that weight?"

Economics at play?

Scott Eversoll, a biracial country singer from Phoenix, isn't as hardened.

"There are a lot of ways to look at it," he said. "Randy Travis was turned down several times by every major label in Nashville before he was signed by Warner Brothers. Obviously, he had to deal with a lot of rejection. But he hung in there. I believe I have the talent to get a recording deal. But you never know what's in the minds and hearts of people."

Or in their pocketbooks.

"It takes somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million to break in a new artist," said Michael Kosser, president of Nashville's Gosnell Artist Management Group, a small publishing and management company. "Record labels have to be more selective about what artist they sign."

Economics aside, Kosser acknowledges -- but is reluctant to discuss -- the fact some in the industry allow race to inform their decisions.

"Things certainly have improved since I arrived here 30 years ago," said the soft-spoken Kosser, who also manages several singers, including Scott Eversoll. "When I first got here, there weren't many Jews on Music Row, either.

"The perception of some in the industry is that white folks might not consider blacks to be authentically country."

But Kosser sees that perception as a contradiction.

"Traditional country music isn't as sexy as it used to be," he said. "But when blacks try to break into the music and he or she doesn't sound traditional, they are considered suspect. The way I see it, is, a lot of black people come from an agrarian background. Maybe the industry needs to make overtures in that direction. It's been hard for black men to break into country. It's been even harder for black women."

Wendy Pearl, director of communication for Nashville's Country Music Association, takes a more corporate approach to explain country music's monochromatic landscape.

"I don't think racism has anything do with who gets signed to a contract," said Pearl. "I think, in many cases, it's a numbers game. For every demo tape sent by a black artist, record companies must receive a 1,000 from white artists. Many labels have their rosters set, and often they are shrinking."

Shrinking rosters or not, few can argue that it hasn't been difficult for minorities to break into the industry as writers and performers.

"I sent a demo to Nashville, and they thought it was good," said Kandy Lee, a black country singer from Elkhart, Ind. "At the time, I had been singing country music for more than 10 years. When I arrived for an appointment, they didn't believe it was me singing. How do you think I felt when they asked me if it was my voice on the tape?

"I believe I have what it takes to be successful in the industry, but not in Nashville. I've decided to deal with small independent labels."

Maybe it will take an independent label to do what the major labels have not -- break someone on the national scene who can, in turn, break anew country music's color barrier.

Until then, country music has its Pride.

But at least with regard to African-Americans, not much to be proud about.

Nate Guidry is a Post-Gazette staff writer who reports on music.

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