Jordan: I am far from an expert when it comes to country music, and I would have told you that even before I realized just how little I know about it. And I don’t hate country, I listen to it and I love some country artists. But I also have, or had, I guess, a very specific image in my mind of what country music is.
I would bet that most of you have that image too. That shouldn’t be surprising, that’s just how the music has been promoted and sold for decades. But it wasn’t how the music was born, and it’s not representative of the artists who make it today, either. And it’s only recently that we’ve started to notice that.
So what is the real history of country music? Where did that image in our minds that I mentioned, come from? What don’t we know about a genre that seems pretty easy to define? Well, a lot as it turns out.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Elamin Abdelmahmoud is the news curation editor at BuzzFeed, he also can be found writing about country music in Rolling Stone. Hello, Elamin.
Elamin: Hey man, how’s it going?
Jordan: It’s going really well thanks. And I found your piece, as somebody who listened to a lot of country music in my youth really eyeopening.
Elamin: I’m so glad, that’s a wonderful reaction to hear.
Jordan: Why don’t you start by just telling me how you fell in love with country music?
Elamin: Right. Well I didn’t work my way to country for some time. It’s really like in the last maybe four or five years or so that I became a country person.
I think I was one of those people who, when people are like, ‘Hey, what are you listening to?’ I often said like everything but country, which is like a thing that is very commonly said. And I took, I guess, like a circuitous route. I listened to Tom Waits. I love Tom Waits, he’s really important to me.
And then through that, I got into folk, through that I got into Americana. And I think probably the first album that was at least significantly country, was The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which is just like this beautiful country rock album.
Jordan: Now, when we talk about country music, what is the basic traditional stereotype for the whole genre?
Elamin: Well the thing about people who say the thing that I said, the people who talk about how they listen to everything but country, my suspicion is that they’re not distancing themselves from country, but about what it represents and its image kind of. No one says, ‘Oh buddy, no, I don’t listen to Ska, that is not my values’. But for some reason with country, there’s this sort of comfort distancing yourself from this idea of country. And I think this is because there’s this popular opinion that who listens to country and who makes it, evokes this image of poor, uneducated white people.
And sometimes there’s an association with unsavoury attitudes that come with that image. It’s like racism could only be found in country music fans, and poor uneducated white people, which is of course not true at all. But there is this idea that country is a domain of white people of white artists. And particularly working class poor white people.
Jordan: Now, this is the fascinating part, is explain to me where that came from.
Elamin: Well it’s a pretty intentional process. The impression of country as this white and poor thing was developed in a few ways. And one of them, one of the artists that I talked to for this piece, Rhiannon Giddens, was telling me about how Henry Ford, for example, would hold fiddle competitions. And he would intentionally exclude black people. Or folk festivals where these, kind of barely veiled attempts at trying to make this music appear as white poor mountain music. But a great deal of it has to do with the artists that get recorded and the artists that don’t get recorded, during this very pivotal time in the recording industry.
Because when you have the first country music recordings in the 1920s, race is largely used as a marketing tool. It’s like this is who to market this music to.
Jordan: So tell me how that process works, and as you’re doing it, tell me about Ralph Peer.
Elamin: Of course. So Ralph Peer is still one of the most influential figures in music history.
He was a record executive. His legacy is colossal. He recorded so many artists in so many different genres from RnB to blues, to country music. But it’s the way that he came about doing all of this. In the early 1920s, he actually oversaw one of the first blues recordings that’s aimed specifically at a black market. In the late 1920s you have these, what they call, ‘race records’, which is to say a whole brand of records that are targeted towards a black audience. And they’re beginning to take off. And so Ralph Peer goes to the South to find some talent to record, but what he finds is Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family.
And the reason this is huge, is because Jimmie Rodgers goes on to become known as the father of country music, which is quite a designation, and Peer in his process realizes quickly, even though what he found in the South was white musicians and black musicians doing the same kinds of music and sometimes doing the same kinds of songs, like doing the exact same songs, he realizes pretty quickly that even though the songs are the same, he could package the white artists doing it differently. So he called it hillbilly music. And after calling it hillbilly music, that was that. That was a name for country music up until the second world war.
He packaged that music as music to sell to white poor people. And that became his legacy. Country itself, country itself meaning the genre, is a tool to sell more records.
Jordan: What’s the original origin of the genre behind the white washing? What was going on in the South before Ralph Peer came down and discovered this?
Elamin: Well country music itself is this amazing marriage of the fiddle and the banjo and the guitar. But that music was being combined by black artists, by black string bands, and by lots of white artists who were learning from them. And it’s important to note that at the turn of the 20th century, about half of the string bands are black. But by the time you get to the 30’s, you have Ralph Peer sort of focused on recording all of these white artists.
And you have almost complete erasure of this black string band history, just by the sheer fact of what gets recorded and what gets remembered. Because over about a 20 to 30 year period, by focusing on the white artists who were making this music, in order to sell it to white audiences at the very early history of this recording music period, you have this idea that these are the people who have been making this music all along.
When in fact they were just learning from black string bands.
Jordan: I want to ask you about, cause you touched on it briefly with Jimmie Rodgers, about the faces of country music. Because you know, again, as I mentioned off the top, I’m somebody who grew up with that impression of country music that you described.
And for me country began with the Carter family. And you said in your piece that you probably know the Carter family as some of the fathers of the genre, but that this piece might be the first time I read the name, Lesley Riddle. And you were right. So tell me, who was he?
Elamin: Right. To explain the significance of Leslie Riddle, I think we have to talk about the Carter family’s massive generational legacy. I mean, they are so influential. They’re definitely in the pantheon of country music, and June Carter Cash is of course a member, was of course a member of the Carter family. The band and also the family. So they have this prominent place in country history. But the thing is, A.P. Carter who led the band, god bless his heart, couldn’t couldn’t write music. So all the incredible gospel music that they performed, AP would go to churches to collect it. And he took Lesley Riddle, a black man with him, and Lesley would memorize the melodies while AP wrote down the lyrics.
So you have this massive catalog that gets recorded by the Carters, that wouldn’t be possible without Riddle, who himself was an incredible musician and who could take AP to black churches so they could gather those songs as well. And then while AP was writing down the lyrics, Lesley would memorize all the melodies and then recount them back to AP so that the Carter family could then record them.
Jordan: How does that perception of country music become so ingrained as the decades go on? And I’m going to ask the question why as well, but I can suspect that the answer is obvious.
Elamin: Well, I mean the legacy of radio to country music is massive. Whether the genre was advanced through the Grand Ol’ Opry. It’s still to this day, this genre that relies very heavily on radio in order to get big. I think radio has an outsized influence on country in a way that it doesn’t actually affect other genres right now. So the artists that radio begins to play and recognize, end up being these white artists who are getting recorded and everybody else is getting forgotten.
So over a pretty short period of time, you have that cementing of this idea that it’s mostly white artists or entirely white artists, who do country music. This has actually never been true. For pretty much every period of country, there was a deeply influential black artist in it.
We were there at the founding. There was Deford Bailey, who was the first black performer to play the grand Ole Opry. And then like you can go through every decade from there on, to discover a deeply influential, black artist. Whether it’s Ray Charles, who put out Modern Sounds in Country and Western. This album is incredibly influential to country, is considered one of the most important records of all time. And someone who cites that record as an influence is this little Texan musician you might know, Willie Nelson. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him or not. There’s Linda Martell, who’s the first black woman to play the Opry.
There’s this continuously long history, but it’s increasingly seen as kind of an oddity. Kind of like there’s this novelty, that every time a black artist pops up, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is like a black person in country’, even though we’ve just been there the whole time.
Jordan: Why is it with country that we don’t really know this history? And I say that because I think most people who really care about music and who care about rock and roll, at least know the origins of the genre, and how it came from black people and was co-opted by white artists. If the story is so similar in country, why don’t we know that history?
Elamin: I think it’s because there’s a romance with this sort of narrative of country. The quote that keeps being bandied about, is that it’s the white man’s blues. It is the same way that those folk festivals were important in creation of the idea of a white ethnicity, country kind of plays into that as well.
Like it’s sort of intimately tied. And they’ve been intimately tied throughout the decades. Like that narrative gets reinscribed and reinscribed. And over time, even though you see artists who could blur the boundaries between genres, and have done so for decades. That commercialism, that capitalist perspective, ends up kind of reinscribing the boundaries. You have these artists who could fit into country, but could also very easily fit into R and B. But if they’re black, radio says, no, you will be played on R and B stations, and then you won’t get any play in country radio. And you saw that happen literally last year with Old Town Road, from Lil Nas X, which became one of the biggest charting hits of all time.
But at first, it began to naturally climb some country charts until the country charts put an end to it and said, this isn’t country enough. And so country’s always had this kind of identity crisis of like, ‘Oh, no that belongs in another category’. And it’s oftentimes been a pretty thinly veiled code for race.
Jordan: I was going to say, it sounds like a pretty lame excuse. What is going on in the country music scene right now? I mean, we’ve seen artists of all genres, blend their sound and also wrestle with racism in the music industry. And is that happening in country?
Elamin: I think country is learning to grapple with these things, but learning very slowly.
And so one of the things that I get into very briefly in the article is this story about Tomato Gate, which was this incident that happened a few years ago, where someone who’s pretty influential in the country radio environment said, ‘Oh, like, women are the tomatoes in the country radio salad, which is to say, you shouldn’t have too many of them’.
And there was this great uproar, but of course, country radio is very largely male. And since then, the conversation started, but there’s been very little progress when it comes to having more women on the radio. Similarly, there have been people throughout the decades, who’ve written about country’s black origins, and the debt that it owes to black artists, but the perception hasn’t really shifted. Country still hasn’t made enough space for these artists to be seen as anything more than just one offs and, and recurring novelties. And so right now you have some amazing artists who are accomplishing amazing things. Kane Brown is one of the biggest names in country right now, and Kane is mixed race. And there’s Jimmie Allen who’s doing great. There’s Mickey Guyton. There’s Yola, who I talked to for this piece, there’s Rhiannon Giddens. There’s all these names who are pushing the genre itself forward, and having pretty decent chart success when it comes to it. It’s just that it’s not bleeding into that foundational story of what country is. Their still sort of seen as like these one off moments.
Jordan: When you talk to artists today, like Rhiannon and Yola, what do they see out there on tour? What do they want to see change in the genre and are they seeing progress?
Elamin: Well, those two artists, it’s interesting, I think they approach it pretty differently. Yola is this British black woman, who’s an incredibly talented artist. Her approach to it is like, she’s pretty grounded in the history of the genre. And so I talked to her and she said to me, whether I’m playing a jazz festival or a blues festival or a country festival, I’m pretty rooted in the fact that the history of these genres belongs to black people and when audiences are there, like there is no blacker space.
And to me that was like a pretty remarkable, amazing thing. To be sort of secure in that history. Rhiannon comes at it from a different perspective, in the sense that a lot of her work has been about the history of the black experience in America. She’s written stories that were inspired by slave narratives, she’s written a lot of protests anthems. So for her, she’s trying to bring to life histories. She’s trying to actively bring to life, these histories on stage. And a lot of people, she said, will come up to her and be like, this is really cool, and sort of be taken by the novelty of it.
And she has to return to the space of being like, no, like this is our music, this is the music that we created. And you have to be grounded in that.
Jordan: What about for yourself, as a black man who loves the genre. And I know you go to country shows, what’s that experience like? Is it different from going to other shows?
Elamin: You know, last year I went to boots and hearts country festival. That will not be happening this year because of the pandemic. And a very funny experience, just in the middle of a Miranda Lambert set, somebody behind me tapped my shoulder and I turned around, it was another black man.
And he was like, look, I have to give you a hug, I’m sorry. And I was like, sure, man, let’s do it. And it was kind of a telling episode, of just how maybe lonely it feels, for black country fans who talk about country often, who want to attend country shows who don’t see as many faces there. I think once you start to go into the history of the genre and connect the thread of the past to the present, then you start to think like, ‘Oh, the reasons why I don’t feel at home in this genre are entirely manufactured’. In some cases, entirely manufactured to sell more records and to tell an incorrect story about the history of white people and black people. And I think there’s a power to that. There’s a power to knowing that you’re rooted in your own history when you listen to country music.
Jordan: Before you go give me, first of all, but also other people who may have been raised on a whiter history of country music, a couple of places to start. I’m interested in finding some black artists who were making country music back when I would have assumed the genre was exclusively white.
Elamin: Well, I mean, the first and biggest thing that comes to mind is of course, Charlie Pride. And Charlie Pride is sort of seen as the North star of black people in country. And his accomplishments honestly are staggering. I think people now remember him for being that black man who was a star in country music, but between 1969 and 1971, Pride had eight number one songs.
I don’t mean eight songs on the chart, which would be amazing on its own. He had eight number one songs in two years. That is so wild to me. And so impressive to me that I just don’t understand why we don’t mention him among the greats of country music, but also just any music whatsoever.
I mean, Drake could only dream of having eight number ones in two years. That’s wild. And so you know, Charlie probably would be the starting point. Honestly, go back and check out that Ray Charles album Modern Sounds in Country and Western, just so you can see the influence that it had. Of course one of the biggest black country artists of the moment, is Darius Rucker.
And he’s largely the reason why most people know the newer version of wagon wheel and why you hear it at every wedding. So that is Darius Rucker’s fault, so take it up with him.
And check out that Yola album man, it’s just such a beautiful, beautiful record.
Jordan: Elamin, thank you so much for walking us through this. As I said, It’s possibly my fault that I didn’t know this, but I’m really glad to know it now.
Elamin: My pleasure.
Jordan: Elamin Abdelmahmoud, editor of news curation for BuzzFeed, occasional writer for Rolling Stone. That was The Big Story. If you would like more, including another episode on country music, this one hosted by Sarah Boesveld, you can find them at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter @TheBigStoryfpn. And of course you can find us in your favourite podcast player, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify.
Doesn’t matter, we’re there, leave us a rating, leave us a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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