A Reckoning

by Rhiannon Giddens

Photo: Amiee Stubbs

It’s been twenty-five years since the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum put out the incredible boxed set From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music, loaded with wonderfully written context and a mixture of well-known and scarcely heard recordings. We are getting a bit better at talking about the African American co-creation of country music and absorbing the idea of a creolized culture of the South rather than pockets of white and black that only met in violence. It’s not so much of a surprise anymore that there is a common American musical language that lies at the heart of so many different genres.

When I was asked to write a new introductory essay for the reissue, I was honored, and immediately said yes. I almost just as immediately reconsidered that acceptance; there are eminently more qualified people than me to talk about country music, even the historical African American contribution to it. Indeed, the essays written for the original set—by Bill Ivey, Claudia Perry, Bill C. Malone, Ron Wynn, and John Rumble—more than adequately cover so much important ground: from DeFord Bailey to Linda Martell, from stringbands to modern commercial radio country, from rural Appalachia to inner-city Detroit.

I’m well known for my hatred of genre, my cantankerous and grudging acceptance of the need to talk about it, and my pedantic and obsessive focus on the banjo as an emblem of American culture. What could I bring to this set that would be worth reading? I can only say in contemplation of this assignment, I have felt intensely connected to a larger question that becomes more and more central to my existence the older I get, and for me, lies at the heart of any talk about any art form.

Why do we make music? This is not an idle question meant to be discussed desultorily before a dying fire after a day on the slopes, accompanied by a cup of steaming tea held with a lazily crooked pinkie. Quite the contrary, I find this question is incredibly urgent to us at this very instant. Technology has changed our lives faster than at any other point in human history, and it behooves us to think hard about what we have given up. What is the purpose of our music today as opposed to a hundred years ago? What reason do we find to put sounds to sentiment, to write dark marks on paper that signify a particular note with a particular word, and to make electrical impulses that somehow create a record of a moment frozen in time, never to be repeated? What is it all for? This question has been chasing itself in circles around my brain as I contemplate the state of country music, for before we talk about genre, I think we should talk about function.

For the largest part of human history, music was neither the massive economic engine nor the complicated industry that it is now. Music held a different place, in different flavors over different millennia and in different cultures. It emerged from various influences: environment, empire, psychology, driving change/transformation. The one constant in human history throughout all of this has been movement. An empire advances, bringing with it the arts that it values; people fleeing the empire take theirs, but the interaction changes both groups. A drought causes a mass movement of people who then slowly collect influences from the lands through which they walk. Economic devastation and religious persecution drive mass immigration and the creation of the music of the displaced. People are brought and bought wholesale to an entirely different part of the globe, bringing instruments, tuning systems, and melodies with them.

Each of these things, every single one of them, is represented in the United States, an unbelievably complicated cauldron filled to the brim with people from the far-flung corners of the earth. The music that has come out of that cauldron has, at times, taken over the world, because everybody on earth can see themselves in American music.

And before the advent of the current music industry, the functionality of music was wide, varied, and important. There were countless lullabies murmured to fretful babies, work songs sung to lighten the load, and dance music played to move the body and call the spirit for time immemorial. So how has the function and cultural specificity of country music changed?

When merchants of the Triangular Trade took people from the continent of Africa and brought them to the shores of what we now call the Caribbean, none of those unwilling immigrants were blank slates. Generations of knowledge of highly skilled music-making met the violent insanity of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in a place forever separated from the homeland by a vast ocean. What came next was an intense creolization that produced the beginnings of an Atlantic African diasporic culture and what became the first uniquely American instrument: the banjo. Looking at this instrument, we can see the patterns that affected and still affect country music, because the banjo is inextricable from its history.

The banjo was an unassailably Black instrument for at least 150 years before people from Europe—themselves displaced by religious and economic warfare—adopted and adapted it. The back and forth reflected in its physical form is also apparent in the music it inspired: the rhythms and tunes of a pan-African aesthetic mixed and mingled with the chordal, narrative vibes from the global north. It’s not at all as easy as “African banjo meeting European fiddle”; this music was formed from bits and pieces of cross-cultural musical meetings a thousandfold in rural and urban places all over the Eastern Seaboard.

From serving as a Black cultural touchstone and ancestral connector, the banjo also became an important piece of rural white identity as a dance instrument and an accompaniment to ballads. Used initially for music that was spiritual and ceremonial, it crossed over to the commercial world in the mid-1800s with the explosion of blackface minstrelsy. Almost simultaneously, a recognizable American music industry emerged with the publication of sheet music and further changed the role of the banjo.

It is easy to see some of the same shapes when you think of the journey country music has made from its stringband origins, which were rooted in the music of the working class, to the explosion of commercial success it had after the advent of the Grand Ole Opry and the rise of the first country music stars. Country music served important cultural functions. It was a ubiquitous element of people’s domestic and communal lives, and then, in the early twentieth century, musicians began playing in their Sunday best for the first radio shows. They changed their attire to that of caricatured hillbillies as the commercialization of music took off. Finally, some of those same people who lived the life that the music talked about began singing in elaborate sequins on a huge stage. In America, the commodification of music in general became a fine art, with record company executives and managers buying, selling, leveraging, and using technology to transform music into something that, once prized and valued to a high degree, is now available for free at the click of a button. Country music, despite its protestations of authenticity and rural charm, is as guilty of this as any other genre.

Throughout this transformation, awareness of the true role of African Americans in this art form gradually faded into obscurity; mainstream culture forgot it. It managed to survive only in pockets, among those Black folk who shamefacedly admitted how much they loved country, the Black elders in the South in ever dwindling numbers who still created, and the occasional Black star who engaged with country music. The latter rarely got widespread attention, unless they were viewed as a rare and anointed unicorn. I adore Charley Pride, but he wasn’t the only Black country music maker.

All of this has undergone a remarkable reversal in the twenty-five years since the initial release of this boxed set. Musicians of color are “reclaiming their time,” as Congresswoman Maxine Waters put it, in a genre that has spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to keep them out of it. Den mother and shoulda-been-and-maybe-still-can-be Black country star Rissi Palmer has reinvigorated her career, Beyoncé has embraced her Texas backstory, Our Native Daughters are reclaiming banjos and roots-Americana, and Mickey Guyton is carving out space for Black country pride. In case there was any doubt, Lil Nas X and his “Old Town Road” were removed from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart as recently as 2019.

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 brought the idea of a racial reckoning to the American psyche, and massively talented Black artists who hadn’t been given the time of day were suddenly in the spotlight. Nowhere was this more obvious than in country music and Americana. It remains to be seen whether this is a cosmetic, performative, and brief change, or a more systemic and sustained one—but artists of color have always been well able to make hay while the sun shines.

And all of this is happening also during a reckoning of function. What is commercial country music, anyway? Who does it speak to? Who is doing the speaking? How does an art form maintain integrity when it has flown so far away from its nest? The only thing that stays the same about art and tradition is that it changes; how it changes, how quickly, and to what end are still open questions. The entire Americana genre emerged as an attempt to create a home for music that the commercial country world did not deem successful.  Music that was born to be sung in a cabin amongst family, or played in the field for a communal dance, or adapted to reflect the social changes that were bewildering an older generation is now more often produced to make money, earn prestige, win awards, and get streams. But then again, Dolly didn’t play for free, Charley had bills to pay like anybody else, and people have been complaining about country music selling out for decades. The truth is that there will always be folks with a genuine story to tell, and folks who know how to showbiz—and occasionally, you get them both in one artist. The pressing question, and one I’m not qualified to answer, is what do we, as a listening public, value?

The most beautiful thing to me about the Black country renaissance is that its stars, who are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve, are truly using country music the way that, to me, it was born to be used. Their music reflects and highlights a cultural viewpoint that has been traditionally suppressed, shows the best of the American narrative, and, in the end, tells the important stories of now, for the generations of tomorrow.

“In South Louisiana, where I grew up, you heard everything basically from country to gospel music. I mean, there was nothing that you couldn’t hear down there every day. And everybody had a radio. I was a blank slate. In Louisiana, I got stamped with blues, gospel, and country. I heard Hank Williams a lot and was introduced to Hank Williams by my father. I mean, Hank was his favorite singer. Singing ‘My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It’ and ‘Hey, Good Lookin’.” My father was a big Hank Williams fan. So what happened, I just heard all these different sounds and sort of put them together rather than choosing any specific one. My number-one idol in terms of singing in the whole world was Sam Cooke—and then Brook Benton. It was just their vocal style. Even now my style, it’s very clear, the enunciation. And because country music was basically a vocal style, that’s probably why I gravitated to it. It was basically a vocal storytelling thing.”

—Cleve Francis, interviewed by Paul Kingsbury, July 1996