In 1927, following an hour of classical music on WSM radio in Nashville, harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey took to the microphone as the first black performer on the WSM Barn Dance. Station director George D. Hay announced his performance, explaining, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera. But from now on, we will present the Grand Ole Opry.”
Bailey, a 2005 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, would go on to become one of the most popular members of the now-legendary Grand Ole Opry program. But his career was plagued by Jim Crow-era restrictions that dictated where he could eat and sleep while touring, and he was rarely shown in WSM publicity photos.
Bailey’s story attests to the enduring contributions black artists have made to country music. Country is often viewed as a genre around which racial lines are neatly drawn, but black artists’ influence on country can be traced back to the origins of broadcast music itself. Beginning with the very first “hillbilly” records in the 1920s and 1930s, black singers and musicians have been involved in the creation, performance and recording of this genre as it attempts to capture the essence of daily life and aspirations of ordinary Americans.
Early black figures in country often saw their efforts made invisible. Black guitarist Lesley “Esley” Riddle traveled the southern United States with A.P. Carter, a founding member of the first mainstream country band, the Carter Family. Together, the two musicians collected songs from communities they visited. Riddle would learn the music, then teach the Carters how to play it for recordings and live performances. While this collaborative effort canonized a large volume of music that might have otherwise been lost to time, Riddle was almost entirely written out of the Carter Family story, as well as the band’s publishing and recording credits.
Other early influencers include Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a blues guitarist and mentor to Hank Williams, Sr., and Arnold Shultz, a fiddler and guitarist who had a profound influence on guitar greats Merle Travis and Ike Everly (father of the Everly Brothers). Bill Monroe, the “father of bluegrass,” credits Schultz for his first paid gig as well as being a major influence on his playing style. And the banjo, ever prominent in bluegrass, was originally brought to the U.S. by enslaved Africans.
As time marched on, so did the cross-pollination of musical styles across racial boundaries. Amid the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the first country album to sell a million copies was none other than Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962. An iconic collection of R&B takes on country standards, the album brought country music, and Charles’s unique interpretations, into the homes of country and non-country fans alike. The album reached number one on the country charts in record time and produced several pop hits, but it never gained acceptance from country radio.
Charley Pride arrived in 1966 and became the first black American artist to experience country radio success. He is now a bona fide legend, with more than 70 million records sold, 29 number-one hits and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy. Pride was the first black country singer to perform on the Opry, closely followed by Linda Martell, the first black woman and a regular performer over her five-year music career, in 1969. Around the same time, Oklahoma native Stoney Edwards began a career that produced 15 charting country songs. He achieved his lifelong goal of performing on the Opry in 1971.
The following decades featured highly acclaimed country crossovers from artists like Al Green, the Pointer Sisters, Tina Turner and Lionel Richie. Probably the best-known of the bunch was Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You,” originally recorded by Dolly Parton and written about her professional relationship with Porter Waggoner.
Multi-genre collaborations abound in today’s mainstream country scene, including efforts from Kacey Musgraves and Miguel, Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson, Jason Aldean and Ludacris and Brantley Gilbert and T.I. And the biggest highlight from 2016’s CMA Awards, sparking both controversy and high praise, was Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks performing the country-leaning “Daddy Lessons” from Beyoncé’s album Lemonade.
A perfect modern-day example of artists and their influences exchanging musical ideas is Darius Rucker, the third African-American inducted into the Opry, who landed a smash hit in 2013 with his version of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.” Though the song was originally written and recorded by Old Crow Medicine Show, it was based on a chorus written by Bob Dylan, who in turn credits the words “rock me mama” to Delta bluesman Arthur Crudup. Crudup was possibly inspired by blues legend Big Bill Broonzy. Furthermore, Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor counts country-blues legend Mance Lipscomb high on his list of influences, and the band’s signature banjo-and-washboard sound leans heavily on blues and old-time traditions that are reflective of rural black culture.
Rucker, who won a Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance with “Wagon Wheel,” exemplifies the continued impact of black artists on country music. Acts like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and their frontwoman, Rhiannon Giddens — who was recently named a MacArthur Fellow for her work “reclaiming African-American contributions to folk and country music” — preserve traditional and old-time styles. Meanwhile, black artists continue to become rising stars in contemporary country, as evidenced by Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Tony Jackson and Pandora Country Artist to Watch Jimmie Allen. From sidemen to superstars, the talent and drive of these and other new artists continue to prove that their participation in country music is anything but an anomaly.