Black people created country music. Full stop.
"In the antebellum South, banjos, fiddles, and harmonicas were the dominant instruments played in black culture. Unfortunately, history has distorted these facts to make people believe jazz, blues and spirituals were the staples of black culture at that time when, in fact, it was country." - Pamela Foster
Now there are a hundred reasons why people think country music is a white thing, some have to do with what people my age grew up seeing in country music on TV at the Grand Ole Opry or similar places (the CMAs are white as an event can possibly be), some have to do with an intentional shift away from country music many in the black community felt was necessary in the Jim Crow era because of the appropriation of banjos and country music by Jim Crow, and some have to do with intentional discrimination on the part of country music industry executives. In spite of that, here are a bunch of black country/americana artists who are absolutely worth your time:
Born into a family of eleven, Charley Pride's father was a sharecropper. He started as a baseball player in the NAL (that's the Negro American League, back before black people were allowed to play baseball in the Major Leagues) but stopped in Nashville on a trip, and everything changed.
Pride is the first African-American to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and has written hit song after hit song after hit song (after hit song after hit song after hit song). Here's a bit of his performance at the Opry:
Originally of the band Carolina Chocolate Drops (don't worry, they're next), Rhiannon Giddens is one of my personal favorites. She writes music that taps so deep into the history of black people in America, and her solo record Freedom Highway haunted me the whole ride on a trip out to Boston last year after I first came across her work on The New Basement Tapes.
That record, a collaborative album of songs written based off of newly discovered unused lyrics from Bob Dylan, had famed producer T. Bone Burnett calling on a group of incredible band leaders & songwriters to play on and write this album. Rhiannon Giddens was brought in along with Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons), Taylor Goldsmith (of Dawes), Elvis Costello, and Jim James (of My Morning Jacket). All that to say, she is an incredible writer and performer.
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Almost every member of this band has a solo project, they're all worth checking out. This band has an instrumental range that blows minds, utilizing beatboxing, every variation of banjo there is (and there are a lot of them), cello, acoustic & electric guitar, three and four-part harmony, fiddle, rapping, you name it they've probably done it.
This all comes together to make an incredibly diverse (and yet cohesive) discography of killer records.
When I studied guitar in college and mentioned that I'd like to master fingerstyle guitar, my teacher smiled and immediately pulled out a chart of Freight Train. I'm not sure that anyone has had a bigger influence on fingerstyle acoustic guitar in folk music than Elizabeth Cotten. She certainly has had a huge influence on my playing.
The phrase "cotten-picking" as a style of guitar (where the player makes an alternating bass line) comes from her, you know that style of playing that bounces back and forth on each chord? That's Elizabeth.
That's only a few of the incredible black country/Americana artists who deserve far more recognition than they've gotten. Here's a bunch of other black country/Americana/folk artists you should pay attention to:
- Amedee Ardoin
- Kamara Thomas
- JS Ondara
- Amythyst Kiah
- Fantastic Negrito
- Ebony Hillbillies
- Kaia Kater
- Dom Flemons
- Ray Charles (sure you know him, but he has a bunch of country music that slays)
- Richie Havens
- Blind Boys of Alabama
- Harry Belafonte
- The Woes
- Yola Carter
- Linda Martel
- Ruby Falls
Some great write-ups from Paste magazine and others on black country & Americana: