Although the African American presence has been part of country music from the very beginning, many black artists, songwriters, musicians and producers have established themselves solidly in the modern country music community, too — ranging from radio stars like Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, and Darius Rucker, to collaborators such as Rhiannon Giddens, Lil Nas X and Lionel Richie.
With “Homesick,” Kane Brown landed his fifth consecutive No. 1 single at country radio, following “Good as You,” “Lose It,” “Heaven,” and “What If.” Just a week before it rose to the top for two weeks in March, Allen claimed the chart pinnacle with “Make Me Want To.” The Delaware native earlier distinguished himself as a recording artist with the No. 1 single, “Best Shot.”
Other rising black creatives include Steven Battey, who co-wrote and co-produced Luke Combs’ “One Number Away” and received a 2019 ASCAP Award for Country Song of the Year. Jamie Moore, who surfaced as a major songwriter by co-penning the Florida Georgia Line-Tim McGraw hit “May We All,” claims another chart triumph as a composer of Morgan Wallen’s newest No. 1 single, “Chasin’ You.” Shy Carter has written songs that have graced albums by Keith Urban, Kane Brown, Billy Currington, Sugarland, and Tim McGraw & Faith Hill.
It is a bright rebuke to a dismal start. At the turn of the 21st century, black artists had all but disappeared from country radio. Charley Pride had not charted a single since 1989. Ray Charles had not released a country album since his 1984 Friendship collection. Cleve Francis last entered the charts in 1993.
However, the black influence was still present. Anthony L. Smith was a co-writer on Lonestar’s wildly popular “What About Now” that topped the country singles chart for four weeks in 2000. Smith would continue to supply songs to some of country’s biggest stars, among them Chris Young’s 2011 No. 1, “Tomorrow.” Smith also went to be a creative force as a board member of Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Pianist and songwriter Thomas Cain welcomed the new century as a top executive in BMI’s Nashville office, where he held the post of senior director of writer-publisher relations. And he was a songwriter, too, who boasted cuts by Diamond Rio, Ronnie Milsap and Kenny Rogers.
Vocalists such as Robert Bailey, Vicki Hampton, Donna McElroy, and the McCrary Sisters seamlessly bridged the centuries by recording and performing with such major acts as Garth Brooks, Wynonna and Trisha Yearwood (Bailey), Thomas Rhett, Reba, Dolly and Josh Turner (Hampton), Charlie Rich, Kenny Rogers, Dottie West, Garth and Reba (McElroy) and Carrie Underwood and Margo Price (the McCrary Sisters).
Louisiana native Trini Triggs snagged considerable publicity and airplay at the turn of the century, charting four singles, the most prominent of which was his debut, “Straight Tequila.” Just as Triggs was leaving the country chart scene in 2004, the rapper Nelly teamed up with Tim McGraw to create the pop hit “Over and Over.”
A year later came Cowboy Troy’s lone chart single, “I Play Chicken With the Train.” Troy was a member of the celebrated Muzik Mafia that had given rise to Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich. His “Black in the Saddle” was written by Michael Bradford, the African American musician and producer best known for his work with Uncle Kracker and Kid Rock. Meanwhile, Nelly reappeared in 2013 with a remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.”
A singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and actor, Rhiannon Giddens first attracted notice as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops old-time string band. She sang on Eric Church’s 2016 Top 10 single, “Kill a Word,” and had a major role in the last two seasons of the TV series Nashville. Also in 2016, she won the Steve Martin prize for excellence in banjo and bluegrass.
A host of young black women made modest inroads into country consciousness in the early 2000s. Rhonda Towns released her debut album of songs by country writers, I Want to be Loved By You, in 2006. Rissi Palmer charted three singles in 2007-08, including “No Air.” Roots artist Valerie June won raves on the 2013 ACM Awards via her backup performance with Eric Church on “Like Jesus Does.” In 2010, she recorded an EP with Old Crow Medicine Show called Valerie June and the Tennessee Express.
Mickey Guyton charted three singles in 2015-2016, including the defiant “Better Than You Left Me,” which she co-wrote and debuted on the Grand Ole Opry. This year she released a new single, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” on UMG Nashville. Alabama native Tiera was championed by Shania Twain on the 2019 USA Networks series, Real Country, and is among the new class of CMT’s Next Women of Country.
But it was Darius Rucker who returned black prominence to the Charley Pride level in terms of hits, record sales, ticket sales and public acclaim. Because of Rucker’s fame as lead singer for Hootie and the Blowfish, there were skeptics when he signed as a solo artist to Capitol Records in 2008. It didn’t take long, though, for Rucker to prove he was the real deal.
His debut country album, Learn to Live, rocketed to No. 1 on the country charts the year of his signing and went on to sell more than a million copies. His three subsequent studio albums also reached No. 1, with each of them achieving gold status.
Rucker’s first single, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” topped the charts in 2008, as have eight of the ones that followed. In 2009, he won the CMA award for new artist of the year. Rucker was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2012, the first African American artist to take that honor since Pride ascended to the Opry in 1993. In 2013, Rucker won a best country solo performance Grammy for “Wagon Wheel,” which earned him an eight-times platinum certification this year.
Tony Jackson, a former Marine and IT specialist, made his breakthrough singing at the reconstituted Old Dominion Barn Dance, where his cover of George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” even dazzled Jones fans. He released his first album, Tony Jackson, in 2017 and has since made several appearances on the Grand Ole Opry.
After making country waves in the 1980s by writing and producing Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” and writing and recording “Deep River Woman” with Alabama, Lionel Richie returned to country pastures in 2012 with the release of the album Tuskegee. It featured duets with Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain, Little Big Town, Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Jimmy Buffett, and more.
To almost universal surprise, the young rapper Lil Nas X paired up with veteran country rocker Billy Ray Cyrus to create the pop hit of 2019, “Old Town Road.” The track earned an ACM Award nomination for Music Event and won Grammys in the duo/group pop performance and music video categories.
Wendy Moten, who got her start as a pop singer, is the newest member of the fabled all-star country and western swing band, The Time Jumpers and a backup vocalist for Vince Gill. Her new album, I’ve Got You Covered, presents her stylized readings of nine country standards, including “Ode to Billy Joe,” “Driving Nails in My Coffin,” “Don’t Touch Me” and “Til I Get It Right.”
And although he is primarily a blues musician, Nashville artist Keb’ Mo’ won a best Americana album Grammy in 2020 for Oklahoma, with Rosanne Cash singing with him on the single, “Put a Woman in Charge.”
It has certainly taken long enough but African American presence and sensibilities are now as deeply planted in country music as the fiddle and steel guitar.
Editor’s Note: A version of this story was posted in February 2020 for Black History Month.
Pictured above (L-R): Mickey Guyton, Darius Rucker, Wendy Moten (below), Lil Nas X, Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown