That Ain't My Song on the Jukebox
By Bill Friskics-Warren
SEPTEMBER 2, 1997: Last Tuesday, a group of aspiring country singers gathered at The Sutler to take part in a showcase. In many ways, it was like any other showcase in a Nashville club. There was the usual slate of talented, and not-so-talented, performers hoping to land record deals. Charlotte, Tenn., singer Cynthia Mae Talley sang like a honky-tonk angel, while Washington, D.C.-area transplant Kandy Lee suggested a cross between Trisha Yearwood and Mary-Chapin Carpenter. And even if Terry Lee Jones' pitch wavered from time to time, it was obvious why the Albany, Ga., native's deep, rich baritone has been sparking interest among A&R scouts on Music Row.
Twelve artists took turns at the mic before the night was over. In the end, only one thing made Tuesday's lineup different: Every performer who took the stage was black. While such a scene might seem strange to anyone familiar with country music--an idiom perhaps too commonly associated with rural white Southerners--the Sutler showcase proved, without a doubt, that some African Americans embrace hillbilly music, and that they embrace it deeply. Indeed, when organizers solicited audition tapes for a black country music showcase at the Bluebird Cafe in February, they received more than 30 submissions, as well as phone calls from all over the United States.
This enthusiasm isn't some sort of anomaly; it simply confirms Country Music Association research indicating that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the nation's black population listens to country music. Nor is it a recent development. Charley Pride, the first and only black superstar in the history of country music, cut his teeth listening to WSM-AM's Grand Ole Opry. So did Swamp Dogg, the iconoclastic soul singer who wrote "She's All I Got," a No. 1 country single for Johnny Paycheck in 1971 and a Top 5 hit this year for Tracy Byrd. So did countless other African Americans.
The Sutler showcase may have been different because of its all-black lineup, but it was also highly promising. Talley, Lee, and Jones weren't the only notable voices. Missy Green, a statuesque Florida native with pipes and stage presence to spare, brought the audience to its feet. Murfreesboro's David Wayne plied his big, supple baritone to striking originals, while former Houston Oilers pep squad choreographer Tammy D delivered a tune, "The Cowboy Walk," that had line-dance hit written all over it.
Granted, not every singer on the bill was ripe for a record deal--Detroit native Zack Wallace sounded like a pale imitation of Bryan White. Yet whatever else it might have accomplished, the Sutler showcase confirmed just how much the country music industry underestimates the diversity and openness of its audience. Judging by the rowdy enthusiasm of Tuesday's crowd--half of it white, the other half black--country fans listen for emotional and musical conviction, not for skin color.
Of course, try explaining this to Music Row--ironically, the very institution that made Charley Pride a star. In an interview with The New York Times last November, MCA Nashville president Tony Brown was quoted as saying, "Country basically is white music. Why would black people want to sing those straight notes...? To me black music is about feeling and white music is about no feeling." Given his remarks, one might think that the MCA exec has written off the possibility of signing an African American singer to his label (not to mention the possibility of signing any country performer with an iota of soul). The New York Times story went on to find Brown bemoaning his unsuccessful search for a black singer worthy of a country record deal. "It'd either be some black kid trying to sing like Charley Pride, only a really bad version of that. Or it'd be somebody who really sings like James Ingram, who decided he couldn't make it in pop music so he could make it in country."
Brown was unavailable to the Scene for comment, but God only knows where he's been looking. If he'd been at last Tuesday's Sutler showcase, there's no way he couldn't have been knocked out by Talley. Gorgeous, poised, and possessed of a soprano as unreconstructedly country as Dolly Parton's or Loretta Lynn's, she delivered an all-too-brief set of traditional honky-tonk that had listeners in the moderately full house shouting and clapping their hands. It doesn't take a genius to see that Talley, given a fighting chance and enough major-label support, could become one of the premier female country singers of the next decade.
Brown may dismiss black country music hopefuls as failed R&B singers, but he couldn't be more wrong. Like Charley Pride himself, several of the performers at the Sutler oozed down-home credibility--far more than some acts currently topping the country charts. "My dad's a farmer," Talley explains in her languorous, backwoods drawl. "We raise tobacco and slop hogs. If I go to the city, I have to watch my diction. But with country music I don't have to pretend to try to get words out. I just sing 'em the way I sing 'em. It doesn't matter how country I sound."
Candi Staton, a Grammy nominee for her 1970s recordings of "Stand by Your Man" and "In the Ghetto," comes from a similar background. "I'm a country girl from Alabama," she told the audience at a May showcase of black songwriters. "My family used to listen to Roy Acuff and Tennessee Ernie Ford. We had an old battery-operated radio. Most of the time it didn't work. When the battery was almost gone, we'd lay by the floor just trying to get that last bit of Roy Acuff out of the radio."
Black people have been listening to, and making inspired contributions to, country music at least as far back as 1926, when harmonica ace DeFord Bailey debuted on the Grand Ole Opry. Besides Bailey and Pride, some of the best-known African American country artists are Henry Glover, Ray Charles, Ivory Joe Hunter, Ruby Falls, Herb Jeffries, Stoney Edwards, O.B. McClinton, the Pointer Sisters, Big Al Downing, Aaron Neville, and Cleve Francis. While it's true that a few of these artists have only dabbled in country music, others have had full-fledged careers. Yet except for Pride--who among RCA artists was, at one time, second only to Elvis Presley in record sales--the country music achievements of these black men and women remain largely unrecognized. For example, most people don't even know about the African origins of the banjo. The Black Country Music Association (BCMA), a newly formed Nashville-based nonprofit, plans to change that. By sponsoring events like the one last Tuesday at The Sutler, the BCMA is working not just to heighten the visibility of African American honky-tonkers, but also to assert the viability of country music as part of the African American experience. "Many black people love country music and were profoundly influenced by it," says BCMA founder Frankie Staton, a veteran Nashville songwriter and performer. "Just because we're black doesn't mean all we listen to is jazz, R&B, and blues. A lot of us live the lyrics of country songs. The person who influenced me most in my younger years was Dolly. Being poor, I could relate to `Coat of Many Colors' and `Me and Little Annie.' The way she sang those songs just really tore me up."
Singer Kandy Lee echoes Staton's feelings. "It has been joked," she said during a rehearsal break at the Woodshed in East Nashville, "that if you play a country song backwards, you can get your car, your wife, and your dog back. Country music's got emotion--and everybody with a pulse has emotions."
Granted, people of different ethnic backgrounds can relate to country music; it is, after all, popular the world over. But what's so significant about the black country phenomenon is the degree to which African Americans in particular embrace this music. Some identify with it completely. "Country music is my whole life," says J.J. Jones, a Greensboro, N.C., native who has been working as a country artist in Nashville since 1971. He even cut an album for the ABC/Dot label in the early 1970s that never got released.
Jones credits Ray Charles with getting him started in country music. "I met him in Houston in 1962," the singer remembers. "When I told him I wanted to be a genuine country singer, he said, `There ain't nobody black doin' that. I'm not a country singer. I just like what they write.' Then he said, `Go study some Hank Williams and find out how to sing a country song.'
"Today, I tell people to go study George Jones. He'll show you how to sing a country song."
Much as the BCMA aims to educate the public about the significance of country music in African American culture--a manageable goal--the organization also hopes to open Music Row's doors to more black artists--and that's a considerably more difficult proposition. "This is truly a response to that article," explains Staton, referring to the November New York Times piece in which Tony Brown and other Music Row execs said there was simply no market for blacks in country music. "That article pissed a lot of people off," she continues. "I mean, here is the CMA Producer of the Year. This man has the power to open doors for us, and this is what he thinks? Does he really believe that in the past 30 years Charley Pride was the only black man who could sing country music or really wanted to sing it?
"I don't see how anybody can tell us we can't sell country records if we don't have a slot. If you put us on tour with Garth, or let us open for Reba, people are gonna hear and love us. I have no doubt about it. The BCMA is our way of saying we're out there."
But Staton and her cohorts aren't simply looking for record deals. They want to be part of the industry, to work as writers, as producers, as engineers, as publishers, and as executives. Currently, Music Row has no high-ranking black executives, while Alice Randall is the only African American songwriter to pen a No. 1 country single in recent memory (Trisha Yearwood's "XXX's and OOO's," which she cowrote with Matraca Berg). And until earlier this year, none of the major labels here had a single black performer on its roster.
But there are signs of change: Asylum Records has signed Wheels, the first black band in country music history with a major-label contract, and Curb has inked a deal with solo artist Trini Triggs. With any luck, not to mention adequate label support, Wheels and Triggs will join the 32 blacks who've charted country singles since the end of World War II. But if the experiences of their predecessors are any indication, these Music Row newcomers face an uphill climb.
Like the very question of how blacks fit into country music, the issue of racism and race consciousness in the music industry is a complex one. Sure, there's racism on Music Row and throughout the business. How can there not be? It's a problem that pervades every aspect of our society. And yet, at the same time, it's not always clearly delineated. Charley Pride, for one, downplayed the race question in a recent interview with the Scene. "People thought it was gonna be hard, but it wasn't," Pride says of the racial barriers many assumed he'd confront when he embarked on his country career. "I never got any flak or anything. And that's what's been astonishing to most reporters, especially since I came along at the height of the sit-ins and bus boycotts."
Pride's autobiography tells a somewhat different story: "The racial element was always there," the singer writes. RCA, his first label, suspected it would be. The record company held off mailing publicity photos to journalists and DJs in hopes of gaining support for Pride's music before audiences could become aware of his skin color. Even after the disclosure of his racial identity, the singer writes, he often had trouble getting bookings; he also endured the indignity of being called "nigger." Perhaps that's why, like O.B. McClinton, he diffused racial tension at his shows with light-hearted references to his "permanent tan."
Without a doubt, racism persists today. Just ask any member of the BCMA. "I sent a lot of demos out all over Nashville and got a lot of good responses," Kandy Lee recalls. "It was always funny to see the looks on their faces when they finally met me, 'cause I never told anybody I was black. They'd come out to where I was sitting, and they'd be really excited to talk to me, and they'd go, `Oh...you're Kandy.' I've even had people ask me to sing on the spot to prove that it was my voice on my demos." It's hard to imagine that John Michael Montgomery or Faith Hill was ever put to such a demeaning test.
But, as Frankie Staton relates, these experiences are far too common. "I remember the first appointment I had in Nashville," she says. "The person that was listening to my music didn't know I was black. The girl that set it up worked with me, and she didn't tell him that I was black. So when we came in together, they went down the hall, and I stayed in the front office. Well, he listened to my music, but his response was, `I don't believe you wrote the song, and I don't believe that's you singing it.' "
For those African Americans who've actually managed to get their songs cut and their records released, it would appear that record-label concerns about race have tempered their success. Big Al Downing charted three Top 20 singles for Warner Bros. between 1978 and 1980, but his label never committed to financing an entire album. "Alive and Well," Nisha Jackson's debut single for Capitol Nashville, hit the national charts during the late 1980s, but the label never released any of her other material. In January 1990, she was dropped from Capitol's roster.
Perhaps the most telling story about the country music industry's seeming unease with African Americans comes from songwriter/producer/singer Swamp Dogg (neé Jerry Williams Jr.). After Johnny Paycheck's version of his song "She's All I Got" topped the country charts in 1971, the Country Music Association named Swamp Dogg its 1972 Songwriter of the Year. The only problem was, Swamp learned that he won the award only after it had arrived in the mail with a note from then CMA president Frances Preston, who expressed her regret that the songwriter was unable to attend the CMA awards ceremony.
In the CMA's defense, Preston says that Swamp Dogg got his award in the mail simply because he never showed up for the awards show. "If he was a nominee, I'm sure he was invited, because we didn't know the names of the winners until the night of the show." As for the allegation that racism could have been involved, she earnestly denies it. "I don't remember anything to do with it, honestly. But I can't imagine that [there was racism] because the CMA had open arms for Charley Pride.... In fact, Charley Pride was on our board at that time. I think everybody thought it was a wide-open door and a wide-open era."
All Swamp Dogg knows is that he never got an invitation, nor did anyone ever call to confirm that he'd even received one. "I'm not going to accuse anybody of racial prejudice," Swamp Dogg says of the experience. "But it's like if a real light-skinned black man joined the KKK and they made him Grand Dragon, only to find out they were in love with a black guy, one of the nicest niggers they'd ever met."
Fifteen years later, Swamp Dogg cut a country album for Mercury only to have it languish in the company's vaults. All the singer would say about the record is that the label "got cold feet." Granted, plenty of people fall by the wayside in the country music industry, but Swamp Dogg is as visionary an artist as has ever managed to get a foothold, however fleeting, in the business. Given the experience of other blacks in country music, it certainly seems as though his color played a large role in his ill-fated country career. It didn't help that he was 45 at the time, or that he had a reputation as a maverick.
A more recent case is that of Cleve Francis, the cardiologist-turned-country-singer who released three albums and several successful singles for Liberty Records--Garth Brooks' label--during the early and mid-'90s. Even though the singer had experienced considerable popularity, the label dropped him in 1996. "I don't think they knew what to do with me," says Francis, speaking of the label's ineffective marketing efforts. "I basically toured by myself. Garth could have put Mickey Mouse on his show and it would have sold, but I never got a chance to open for Garth. In fact, I never did a show with any of my label-mates. What does that mean?"
This isn't to suggest that racism is the only obstacle that prohibits black people from enjoying prosperous careers in country music. Contrary to the popular racial stereotype, not all black people can sing and dance; some simply may not have what it takes. But even if they do, that doesn't mean they're guaranteed a shot at success. Plenty of aspiring white performers find Music Row just as unreceptive to their talents. Nonetheless, according to virtually every African American interviewed for this article, incidents of social and artistic marginalization are all too common for black artists. Along with Tony Brown's near-infamous remarks, this reality is ultimately what persuaded Frankie Staton to establish the BCMA. Yet while some may applaud Staton's courage and initiative, others might ask why she and her colleagues don't just join the CMA, an organization with a long-standing commitment to promoting country music.
Staton explains that no one in the business, not even a large organization like the CMA, has made a priority of creating opportunities for blacks. "Nobody else is doing it," she says flatly. "We have a saying in the BCMA that people hear with their eyes. People hear what they see."
In other walks of life, blacks have had to establish institutions that parallel those established by the dominant white society. Look at the Metro Police Department, which has two professional organizations, the mostly white Fraternal Order of Police and the mostly black Nashville Peace Officers Association. In much the same way, the BCMA is a vehicle for African Americans to create opportunity and community despite undeniable societal barriers.
"If, over time, groups like the CMA prove that they're not serving black artists, then a group like the BCMA is necessary," Francis says. "You have to create your own space. It would be great if the CMA sponsored a black country music showcase, but have they done it? No. Will they do it? Probably not. The CMA represents the industry, and I say that as a card-carrying member of the CMA.
"As someone who loves country music, I'm ashamed of the way the industry has used Charley Pride as a poster boy to prove that it's not racist. You can't shake the music tree and, in 75 years, have only one black man fall out who can sing country music. I think that until the hierarchy questions the moral wisdom of what it's doing--until the Tony Browns and the Tim DuBoises change their attitude and stop treating the country music-buying public like racist bigots--things aren't going to change."
Perhaps the most fundamental irony in the struggle of today's black country artists is the fact that American music is completely based on the fertile exchanges of ideas between whites and blacks. Indeed, there would be no country music without the influence of black performers. Listen to the incredible streaks of blue notes that run through the songs of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, to name only two of the most obvious examples. Listen to Bill Monroe and Hank Williams, who received their first musical training from African Americans--and who today continue to be invoked as definitive country stylists. In other words, such cross-pollination isn't an aberration; as Francis and others point out, it's precisely what country music needs to survive its current creative slump. What's more, there was even a time when labels used to market country and R&B together. A case in point is the Cincinnati independent label King Records, which during its heyday in the 1940s and '50s issued hundreds upon hundreds of records by hillbilly and blues artists alike. A release by jump blues singer Wynonie Harris might be followed by one from country boogie duo the Delmore Brothers. A James Brown recording might be followed by one from the Stanley Brothers.
Even if the A&R offices on Music Row don't see this connection, at least those in the business of reissuing historic recordings do. An upcoming release from Warner-Reprise and the Country Music Foundation, The Black Experience in Country Music: From Where I Stand documents the many contributions African Americans have made to country music, showing the ways that blacks have shaped the music's formation. Developed at the urging of Cleve Francis, the three-CD collection assembles 60 recordings made over the past 70 years.
"It is my hope that these recordings inspire many who are being left out to continue to pursue their dreams in this industry," Francis says. He also believes the project will "educate others who did not know the truth to accept these African Americans as being a true and genuine part of the industry."
Some people argue that Music Row's doors may in fact be opening to more black country singers; they point to the recent signings of Wheels and Trini Triggs, along with the flurry of activity generated by the BCMA and the emergence of a Minority Country Music Association. Others, like Valierie Ellis, a Christian country music hopeful who wowed the audience at last Tuesday's Black Country Showcase, simply believe that the pop music market is becoming more fluid. "I just think now is a prime time," Ellis says. "I think about what Hootie & the Blowfish and Living Colour have done in mainstream and progressive rock. And I think about that R&B song by Kevin Sharpe, `Nobody Knows' [originally recorded by the Tony Rich Project]. If it's R&B, and you can put a steel guitar to it and change the drumbeat and make it country, and it still appeals to blacks and whites, that's a major step right there.
Kandy Lee agrees. "Music fans have become increasingly more eclectic," she observes. "No one's just buying all rock or all country in record stores today. If people can cross stylistic barriers," she argues, "surely they can see beyond issues of appearance." While what Lee says may be true of some record buyers, music formats are becoming increasingly niche-driven and restrictive. This, in turn, makes A&R types more cautious and less willing to take chances on unproven artists and markets.
"Good songs will always come though and cross over between formats," insists SESAC president and CEO William Velez. "The limitations that the business side puts on it--that's what [the BCMA] is up against. It takes a little bit of guts and courage for some of these guys at the record labels to break with what's comfortable. But if ever the timing was right for somebody to stick their neck out, it's now."
Kyle Lehning, copresident of Asylum Records, the label that signed Wheels to a seven-record contract, concurs. He also suggests that it's time the industry started acknowledging and repaying its debt to African American musical idioms. "I think the fact that there's kind of a quiet relationship between country music and black people is an absurdity. And yet I understand it. At this point, there aren't any real strong black artists in the business, but it's something that has to be addressed, and we're gonna do that."
Indeed, as Lehning introduced the members of Wheels to their Asylum labelmates this year at Fan Fair, one couldn't help thinking how different 1997's lily-white stage will look when the all-black band electrifies the crowds at next year's event. "If black America and country America can come together and support Wheels," Staton says, "then we're just totally in for a whole new era. And we're ready. We want to take our show on the road."
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