Digging Country's Roots

By Claudia Perry

True story. It’s a hot night in Belleville, Texas, and Gary Stewart is performing a Jimmy Reed song for an audience of central Texas denizens. As the show wears on, several patrons ask me, the lone Black fan present, what I’m doing there. “Digging the music” is my standard response, which seems to send people back to their beers with enough information to keep them from asking again.

Another true story. Every January at a Houston nightclub hard by one of the city’s many freeways, the Southwestern Trail Riders Association has its annual dance. About 3,000 cowboys and cowgirls are in attendance in full western regalia. They dance most of the night to the music of Larry Callies, a Black country singer who has played the event for five years in a row. Callies is a former cowboy who loved the music in secret as a kid growing up west of Houston. Callies has said he couldn’t tell either his Black or his white friends that he loved country music.

“If you admitted it, you would have been outcast,” Callies recalls. “You couldn’t win on either side. It’s still hard, but it’s also a lot easier now.”

“Out in Pasadena one time when I first started, a drummer friend asked me to come and sit in with him,” Callies recounts. “It was kind of ‘redneck’ over there. He didn’t tell anyone before I came that I was Black. As soon as I was in the door, one big guy met me at the door and said, ‘Uh-unh. We ain’t gonna have no jungle music in here.’ I had my guitar in my hand, and I said, ‘Jungle music? Hey, man, I come to sing some Charley Pride.’ His whole face changed. He said, ‘You sing some Charley Pride? You better be good.’ After I sang a few songs, he was the main person buying me beer and stuff.”

African Americans who like country music are forced to confront many such questions whenever they get involved with what most people think of as a strictly white—specifically “redneck white”—musical form. It’s ironic how country and rock musicians routinely boast of their deep immersions in the blues, gospel, or jazz, while few Blacks feel comfortable speaking as reverently of the first time country took hold of their souls. It’s yet another love that dares not speak its name.

This boxed set is a long-overdue attempt to corral the Black artists who left their mark on the music from its early years to the present. Although there have been Black country fans and performers since the beginning of the music, there has been little or no attempt to document the influence Blacks had on country music and vice versa. To some casual music fans, the topic might seem almost humorous. Those same fans are usually unaware of the contributions of Blacks in the settling of the West (after all, the music used to be called country & western), not to mention the obvious debt country music owes to blues and other forms of music that Blacks pioneered. In fact, country music would hardly be the robust art form that it is today if not for cultural cross-pollination. Jimmie Rodgers, long known as “The Father of Country Music,” borrowed heavily from jazz and blues in shaping his blue yodel. The first recording Bob Wills ever made was a cover of a Bessie Smith blues song. Bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe spent a valuable apprenticeship playing dances with a Black guitarist and fiddler from Kentucky named Arnold Shultz. Hank Williams had a similar experience in Alabama, under the tutelage of Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. And, of course, by the time that rockabilly cats like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins came along, the African American influence was obvious and openly acknowledged.

Black folks were at the dance even before country music first hit the radio in the early 1920s. Rural communities in the South often found Blacks and whites playing in stringbands—sometimes together in the same ones, even though it wasn’t the social convention of the time. Some groups, in fact, mixed Black and white members as easily as they mixed blues, ragtime, and traditional stringband music. Though few stringbands were widely known outside the areas where they played, the existence of acts like Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, the Dallas String Band, and Andrew & Jim Baxter places Blacks at the very heart of early country music.

While these stringbands were finding integrated audiences around the South, DeFord Bailey was performing nearly every Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry, whose radio signal covered much of the eastern U.S. With these appearances, Bailey became the most prominent Black person in country music in the 1920s and 1930s, not to mention one of the Opry’s biggest stars.

Of course, during the era that Bailey was on the Opry, there was a gulf between radio performers and the local bands and street musicians of the rural South. Most of the music included on Disc 1 of this set was made by regional bands that never gained national prominence.

With the growth of the recording industry before World War II, country music spread across the country. It was the music of working people, and working people were everywhere. So-called “race” records and “hillbilly” records found their way to southern listeners of all races on home phonographs and jukeboxes through the same distribution channels. The records may have been intended for different audiences, but they were heard by all kinds of people. Just as white Major League Baseball players abandoned their sport’s official segregation policy to compete against Negro Leaguers in the off-season, country musicians, white and Black, came together to trade licks and compare notes.

This cross-pollination was at the center of postwar musical developments, including rockabilly in the 1950s and the Memphis soul sound from the Stax and Volt labels in the 1960s. Rockabilly was inspired just as much by the revved-up rhythms of jump blues and the motormouth disc jockeys on Black radio as by bluegrass’ lively, melodic inventiveness. Likewise, the Stax-Volt sound later manipulated some of those elements with different emphasis. The records put out by Stax and Volt were more downhome and countrified than most of the Motown soul recordings that were popular in the early 1960s, but they sold just as well to whites and Blacks alike. It is worth noting that even Motown czar Berry Gordy explored the potential of the country market. The Supremes recorded an album entitled The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop, but it wasn’t very successful, selling fewer than 40,000 copies in 1966.

Another contributing factor to the spread of country-style music and blues was the northern migration of southern Blacks looking for factory jobs and a better life. This migration and subsequent assimilation may have contributed to various performers’ reticence about claiming country music as an influence or passion. After all, you were supposed to forget all about that ’Bama stuff and get with the program once you settled in Chicago, Detroit, or Los Angeles.

But country music found a place in the lives of newly urban Blacks, and it did so in a way that fit in with the urban assimilation experience. In the same way that Chicago blues was an electrified version of the Mississippi Delta style, the country songs performed by various soul performers were heavier on blues than twang. But it’s not surprising that the corrupting big-city themes of songs like “Detroit City,” sung in this collection by the late Arthur Alexander, resonated as much with Blacks who had come north seeking work in the automobile factories as it did with whites who made the same journey.

The country songs that many R&B singers chose to perform found favor with audiences quickly. Etta James, who recorded the country favorite “Almost Persuaded” in the late 1980s, stated that she wanted to show that country music was part of a larger mix of American music and culture that also included blues, soul, jazz, and rock & roll. The times were right for Blacks to embrace more honest identities as the laws of the country changed to acknowledge equality and provide more equal opportunities for all. Generations of Black performers who listened to country music had the best evidence that country could have soul and expand beyond stereotypes of “hillbillies,” “cowboys,” and “rednecks.”

Charley Pride’s background in Negro League baseball and the minor leagues was good preparation for his becoming a country star. Though Pride was signed to RCA by Chet Atkins in late 1965, the record company initially kept his race a secret, withholding the usual promotion photos normally sent to trade papers and DJs. Once Pride started scoring hits, however, he was treated like most artists who made money for their labels. Pride was country music’s first Black star, logging twenty-nine #1 singles between 1969 and 1983.

Pride may have been “the Jackie Robinson of country music,” but his success and acceptance didn’t exactly open the major-label floodgates. Although Big Al Downing and Stoney Edwards were subsequently signed to Warner Bros. and Capitol (respectively), neither artist approached Pride’s commercial success. Cardiologist Cleve Francis, who had grown up in Jennings, Louisiana, listening to Hank Williams and gospel music, was signed to Liberty Records in 1991. (By then, incidentally, Pride was without a record deal.) Francis released three albums for Liberty but grew frustrated and resumed his medical practice in 1995.

“If you look at it, the African American influence in country music is enormous,” Francis said. “Elvis Presley, Hank Williams Sr. and Jr. were heavily influenced by Black musicians. There was DeFord Bailey at the Grand Ole Opry. People don’t realize this man toured, he was a big star at the Grand Ole Opry and played harmonica. We were there in the beginning when this whole thing started.”

Black performers remain an integral part of country music. Pop artists like Aaron Neville and the Pointer Sisters have proved time and again that Black performers can take country songs to a wider audience. Neville’s version of “The Grand Tour,” first a hit for George Jones, made the country charts but also won fans who weren’t regular country listeners. In communities across the South and Southwest, regional artists such as Mary Cutrufello (who gained national attention during a tour with Austin singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore), Larry Callies, and Carlos Washington continue to find fans at rodeos, trail rides, and honky-tonks.

This boxed set isn’t intended to chronicle every signpost along the road of Black artists’ participation in the genre. What is hoped is that listeners will realize that the picture of country music can be painted using more than one color. With any luck, as more Black fans enjoy the music, they won’t have to endure confrontations with listeners who don’t understand why they are listening. Just dig the music. It will all make sense pretty quickly after that.

“That was a school [the Opry]. An experience, you might say, in the university of life. We’re all in a school, but that particular school was a different school. Because of the fact of my environment, the teachers that were there. Once again, you’re talking about Red Foley, Uncle Dave Macon, Hank Williams Sr.—who was a gentleman. Oh, definitely. That’s the man [Williams] that told me, he says, ‘Now, son, when you write a song, sit down and write it as if you were writin’ a letter. Just like you’re writin’ a letter, just tell me the truth, just like it is. If it hurts you, tell it just how it hurts.’ Put his arm around me. His guitar was on the left-hand side of him, and his right arm was around me. I was just a little boy. And he talked to me that way. I was talking about writing, and I can remember me asking him, ‘Well, what’s a good song for me to make it with? I need a real big one.’ And he said, ‘Just keep singing that ‘Cold, Cold Heart.’”

—Bobby Hebb, interviewed by Daniel Cooper, August 1996