Black creators were helping shape country music long before it had a name, whether it was introducing the banjo to America, building a corpus of gospel songs that rang down through the centuries, or spreading musical styles too alluring for white musicians not to copy or build on. Today their contributions surface in every aspect of the music.
The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, the two acts generally regarded as the founders of commercial country music through their recordings at the fabled Bristol Sessions in 1927, both owed much of their popularity to black influencers.
As The Encyclopedia of Country Music noted, “early jazz, stage show yodeling, the work chants of railroad section crews, and, most importantly, African-American blues,” all met and merged in Rodgers’ songs. In 1930, Rodgers recorded one of his famous blue yodel songs with an up-and-coming trumpet played named Louis Armstrong. Forty years later, the world-renowned “Satchmo” would again perform the song on national television with Rodgers fan Johnny Cash.
A. P. Carter, the patriarch of the Carter Family, relied heavily on musician and songwriter Lesley Riddle to help him find, remember, and arrange the melodies of many songs that would eventually become Carter standards. As a guitar player, Riddle is also said to have influenced Maybelle Carter’s seminal picking style.
Harmonica player DeFord Bailey performed on the Grand Ole Opry from the late 1920s until 1941 and toured with such Opry stars as Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and Uncle Dave Macon. He was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Rufus Payne, also known as “Tee Tot,” gave Hank Williams guitar lessons in the late 1930s, and Arnold Schultz, a Kentucky guitarist and fiddler, was crucial in developing the thumb-picking style later evident in the playing of Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Doc Watson and countless others. Schultz also served as a mentor and de facto teacher to bluegrass music originator Bill Monroe.
Producer and songwriter Henry Glover was a co-writer of the Delmore Brothers’ 1949 hit, “Blues Stay Away From Me,” later recorded by The Browns, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, and Jean Shepard, among many others. Glover produced popular records for the Delmores, Grandpa Jones, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas, Moon Mullican and others.
The legendary Charley Pride remains a commanding figure in country music. Over a period of 14 years, he scored 29 No. 1 singles and, at 86 years old, he continues to tour and charm crowds. Pride grew up in a sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta and absorbed country music through the Grand Ole Opry, the radio show his father favored. In the Army, Pride started singing country songs for his fellow troops and later became a local draw singing country hits in Montana clubs.
After his aspirations of pitching for a major league baseball team fell apart, Pride looked up a contact he’d heard about in Nashville. It took years to get signed to RCA, but that record label finally launched his groundbreaking career. Known for classics like “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” and “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
In 1962, a full four years before Pride made his entrance on the country charts, the great pop and jazz artist Ray Charles released two albums of country songs that exposed them to their widest audiences yet. Among the songs Charles turned into pop hits after they’d first appeared on the country charts were “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “You Are My Sunshine” and “Born to Lose.”
In the 1980s, Charles signed to Columbia Records’ Nashville division and recorded hit pair-ups with George Jones, Chet Atkins, Mickey Gilley and Hank Williams Jr. Charles’ 1985 duet with Willie Nelson, “Seven Spanish Angels,” earned him a No. 1 country hit.
Other pop singers such as Esther Phillips and O. C. Smith popularized a sheaf of country standards in the 1960s, including “Release Me,” “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” “Little Green Apples” and “The Son of Hickory Hollow’s Tramp.”
Meanwhile, aspiring country artists — notably Ruby Falls, Linda Martell, Big Al Downing, Stoney Edwards, Dobie Gray and Cleve Francis — were or soon would be making modest inroads to the country charts, never topping the charts but maintaining a steady presence.
It may be hard to believe, but Tina Turner’s first album, released in 1974, was called Tina Turns the Country On and featured such hillbilly favorites as “I’m Movin’ On” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
In 1978, Willie Nelson released Stardust, a collection of pop classics from the Great American Songbook. It was produced by Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the MG’s fame and would go on to become Nelson’s best-selling album, with more than five million copies sold.
After writing the song, Lionel Richie of the Commodores put on his producer’s hat and gave the world Kenny Rogers’ 1980 hit, “Lady.” Richie also wrote and sang on Alabama’s 1986 Top 10 winner, “Deep River Woman.” Then, in 2012, he issued Tuskegee, an entire album of duets with country acts, among them Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and Little Big Town.
Alice Randall, a Harvard-educated songwriter (and later novelist) co-wrote Trisha Yearwood’s insanely popular No. 1 tune from 1994, “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” after having had the cheek to contribute a song to Moe Bandy (“Many Mansions,” 1989) that begins with a line from Emily Dickinson. Talk about cultural cross-pollination!
In addition, Yearwood shares a 1994 Grammy with Aaron Neville for “I Fall to Pieces,” a highlight from the MCA Nashville collaborative album, Rhythm, Country, & Blues. Nominated for a CMA Award for Album of the Year, the project paired modern country artists with R&B legends Natalie Cole, Al Green, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Sam Moore, the Pointer Sisters, the Staples Singers, and Allen Toussaint. Neville also secured a 1993 Grammy nomination for his rendition of George Jones’ “The Grand Tour,” which marked Neville’s first appearance on Billboard’s country airplay chart.
And so the channels were opened for the stream of black recording artists, songwriters and producers that would permeate country music throughout the first two decades of the 2000s.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story appeared during Black History Month.
Pictured at top: Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Dobie Gray, DeFord Bailey, Aaron Neville (lower right corner)