This Is My Country

by Ron Wynn

My first musical heroes weren’t Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, or Aretha Franklin; they weren’t even jazz musicians, soul wailers, or gospel belters. Rather, they were pickers and singers, banjo players, honky-tonk moaners, and crying-in-your-beer confessors. For anyone who thinks growing up African American automatically means instant and lifetime immersion in traditional “Black music” forms, they didn’t live in East Tennessee during the 1950s and early ’60s. Until James Brown bought a low-power AM station in the late 1960s and converted it into WJBE, there was no major radio outlet in the region for R&B, soul, or Black gospel, except for specialty shows on weekends and in the early morning. If you loved music, your menu was country and bluegrass, courtesy of everything from the Cas Walker Farm and Home Show on sunrise television to syndicated programs featuring performers such as the Wilburn Brothers, Porter Wagoner, and Dolly Parton. Since music was far from my parents’ first (or second or even third) interest or priority, I had no one to tell me that being Black meant you didn’t or couldn’t find drama, passion, and beauty in the songs of George Jones or Merle Haggard.

Maybe it was pre-civil rights naivete, but it never occurred to me as a youngster that color and music appreciation were interrelated or genetically interdependent. That doesn’t mean I grew up ignorant or unaware of discrimination and racism; the “colored” signs on water fountains, restrooms, and movie houses were very evident in Knoxville and throughout East Tennessee during this period. As the son of two professionals who directly benefited from the changing political landscape of the LBJ era, then as the first African American student at a previously segregated, exclusive white private school, I experienced my own generous taste of backlash and lingering racial hatred as the 1960s evolved. In addition, because I was both an avid record collector and aspiring pianist, my tastes broadened; jazz in its myriad forms, blues, R&B, soul, gospel (both Black and white), then international sounds like reggae, salsa, Afrobeat, juju, soca/calypso, and many others struck responsive chords at various times.

Still, I never lost touch with or interest in country, even as it went through its own stages and phases, even the abysmal “Urban Cowboy” era. With the coming of Black Studies courses to college campuses in the early 1970s, I became an avid student of African American history and culture, including music. It never failed to puzzle me why so many people on either side of the color line refused to hear the similarities between musical forms. How could anyone who loved the vivid complexity or jagged fury of a Coltrane or an Ornette Coleman not be equally impressed with the instrumental mastery of a Chet Atkins or an Earl Scruggs? If you couldn’t hear the deep country influences in the stylings of an O. V. Wright, Bobby “Blue” Bland, or even Muddy Waters, it seemed to me like simple denial or onrushing deafness. Likewise, it would bother me when country artists like Sonny James or Barbara Mandrell recorded R&B songs and disc jockeys wouldn’t credit the originators or even cite and discuss the connections.

Yet for one brief moment, it seemed like a revolution was in the offing. This was marked by the emergence of Charley Pride as something much greater than a token or an anomaly. For many years, Pride was RCA’s biggest-selling country artist. He wasn’t a country singer who happened to be Black, he was a Black country artist who had hits, appeared all over the world, and didn’t (at least once he became a success) downgrade his Blackness. Pride wasn’t exactly a poster boy for the Black Panthers, but he didn’t hesitate to let anyone know he’d grown up in the South, was proud of his heritage, and hadn’t surrendered any racial loyalty or esteem by opting to sing country songs. Once, while working nights to pay tuition for graduate school, I got this succinct critical assessment of Pride from my supervisor: “He looks like you, but he sounds like us.”

Still, Pride was quickly added to my pantheon of heroes and remains in my eyes just as big a star and as important a figure as anyone you could ever name in African American culture, whether it’s Louis Armstrong, James Brown, or Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey. He wasn’t a great songwriter and probably doesn’t merit innovator status, but no one overcame more obstacles or broke down more stereotypical barriers. When he won CMA Entertainer of the Year honors in 1971, for a fleeting moment I even entertained the foolish notion that perhaps soul stations might begin to add his records and those of others like O. B. McClinton, whose work musically met all the supposed criteria for inclusion on soul and country playlists. Unfortunately, in much of the African American community of the 1970s, Pride’s music was ignored or vilified, mainly because too many people confused cultural solidarity with ignorance and questioned, since white radio was excluding all types of Black artists, why Black radio (and, by extension, Black society) should accept and reward someone who was championing someone else’s music.

When Charley Pride didn’t get airplay or community acknowledgment, it followed that no one else would either. Except for Ray Charles’s landmark Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums, the powers that be in the African American cultural community turned a deaf ear toward country efforts by Black performers, even notable ones like Stoney Edwards and Ruby Falls. There were also some misguided efforts by Motown to form a country division and the release of woeful country albums by Tina Turner and Bobby Womack. Still, if you ever attended any shows by Little Milton, Lazy Lester, Denise LaSalle, or dozens of other soul artists, many held in all-Black clubs, you’d seldom go a full set without hearing them include a couple (or more) country songs.

Of course, these were political rather than musical issues, as anyone gifted with any cultural sophistication could quickly grasp, and ultimately, I had to bite the bullet and acknowledge that bitter truth. I am hardly unique, though. There are any number of African Americans who grew up in parts of the South with little or no intense or consistent Black music coverage who heard and, in many cases, enjoyed country and/or bluegrass. Some will only reveal it to their closest friends and, then, only behind closed doors. Others will utter the harshest putdowns of “bigoted, twangy redneck crap” in public, then show you the Willie Nelson albums they have hidden in their closet.

This hardly means there are millions of African American country fans, but there is a sizeable number of Black country fans like me. For us, our lives were uplifted just as much by the musings of Waylon Jennings, the stark defiance of Loretta Lynn, and the simple elegance of Dolly Parton as by the eclectic magnificence of Ray Charles, the incredible range and energy of Aretha Franklin, and the shimmering intensity of B. B. King. Without my country roots, there is no way that my ears would have ever been opened wide enough to appreciate anything and everything from South African choral singing to Sun Ra’s avant-garde adventures. Hearing Esther Phillips doing “Release Me” or Johnny Adams performing “Reconsider Me” was made even more enjoyable by being able to hear the antecedents and connections with country; the same held true of when Ivory Joe Hunter and James Brown appeared on the Grand Ole Opry or when MCA gathered country and soul stars for the Rhythm, Country and Blues project in 1994.

Today, the nation seems more culturally and racially divided than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, despite all the advances in social legislation and the emergence of an African American professional and middle class. Music, once arguably the greatest unifying factor in this society, seems to be suffering from this same malady, no matter how many hip-hop songs may make the Top Forty. Country’s public profile is much higher than it’s ever been, yet it seems too many of its fans have no understanding of its roots, its unique place in American cultural history, or its link with African American forms. For all the lip service paid to the Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers legacy, many people would do well to really listen to them and hear what their songs and words echoed.

Nashville has for too long ignored both its African American links and that portion of the Black community that enjoys country. While no one would dispute the point that the core country audience is white and conservative (for years as a music reporter, I would frequently be the lone Black face, excluding security, at a country concert), there are certainly those artists who have more than a passing following among Black fans. Marty Stuart, Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, and Lee Roy Parnell are a quartet among the contemporary crew whose sounds have elicited favorable responses in some Black homes; likewise, you’ll always find lovers of Jones, Haggard, Williams, and Nelson, as well as Mandrell and Parton. There are also jazz types who enjoy bluegrass and western swing; I still remember the strange expression that emerged on the faces of jaded East Coast jazz journalists during a mid-1980s swing when Joe Henderson mentioned his love for country as well as for blues and soul.

There is no doubt in my mind that country was the reason I became a music junkie. If not for the cheatin’ and drinkin’ songs and breakdowns, it’s doubtful that I would have ultimately chosen to be a writer rather than a basketball player, notwithstanding the fact I wasn’t tall enough, quick enough, or fast enough to make even a passable Division III starting unit. Even now, there are remarkable country tunes from the past that give me a lift I can’t get anywhere else, though it’s also true that I don’t listen to country radio anywhere near as much as I once did or keep as closely abreast of current stars and tunes. But there will always be a prime place in my heart for country, and I’ll never accept the contention that country is “white folks’ music,” at least not from the standpoint that only they should sing and play it.

This project has been a long time coming, and it’s most welcome. Sadly, some, like O. B. McClinton, Stoney Edwards, and Ruby Falls, are no longer here to possibly reap some long-awaited and deserved publicity, but maybe it will lead to newfound respect and awareness for Big Al Downing and lots of others. Perhaps it can convince some among the jazz, blues, R&B, and soul legions that there is much more to country than rebel flags and drunken louts and John Birchers hollering “The South’s gonna do it again.” Maybe it can jumpstart the sizable education process that’s so badly needed in this country and help some of us who’ve been arguing for years that cultural awareness and sensitivity are not code words for isolation, segregation, and bigotry.

“The country people, they know Al Green from cutting ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’ ‘For the Good Times.’ I’ve cut quite a number of country tunes because I have a natural connection with the Williams family—Audrey Williams is where I got that from. And that’s why I got familiar with the country & western. I never would have cut some of the country tunes that I did. Audrey Williams used to come to Memphis because she was a friend of the Continental Artists group that booked artists and show-business people. And seeing that I was a new artist at the time, she was interested in me doing some country. You know: ‘I heard your music on the radio, you’re sounding great, and how about doing some country music?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I suppose it would be okay, you know.’ And she says, ‘Why don’t we get together at the studio and play some for you?’ And we went to the studio in Nashville, and they played all these country & western tunes and all these songs, and they played so many I just couldn’t pick one. I waited until I got back to Memphis, and I picked ‘For the Good Times,’ a good one, and we recorded that. You see, every R&B record you hear is not necessarily an R&B song. It might have derived from country music as well.”

—Al Green, interviewed by Paul Kingsbury, February 1994