Country Music’s Black History

rhiannon giddens and brittney spencer
Country Music’s Black HistoryLeft: Giddens by Serena Brown/ The New York Times/ Redux. Right: Spencer by Catherine Powell
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Country music’s popularity is at an all-time high in America, with the genre boasting a more diverse audience base than ever before. But the marginalization of Black performers was once an institutional part of the business. For decades, artists of color in the Nashville-centered music world were largely excluded from popular venues and circuits, and labels divided their releases into records for white audiences and “race records” for nonwhite ones.

It’s a subject that Beyoncé delved into headlong with the release this past spring of Cowboy Carter, which pays tribute to some of the trailblazing Black women who have helped shape country music. Among them: Linda Martell, the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry; author, educator, and award-winning songwriter Alice Randall, who released her memoir and accompanying album, My Black Country, in April; and singer and pianist Frankie Staton, who created the first Black Country Music Showcase at the Bluebird Cafe, a famed Nashville listening room, in 1997. The album also serves as a showcase for important contemporary talent, including Rhiannon Giddens, who plays banjo on “Texas Hold ’Em,” and Brittney Spencer, who sings on “Blackbiird,” Beyoncé’s version of the classic Beatles cut, alongside Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts.

Giddens, a founding member of the Grammy-winning Black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is one of the preeminent banjo players in the country and an educator on the West African origins of the instrument, which was brought to America through the slave trade. Giddens has released three solo albums and won
the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Omar, the opera she cowrote with composer Michael Abels. In 2017 and 2018, she appeared on the CMT series Nashville, which was set against the glitzy backdrop of the city’s mainstream country scene, portraying gospel singer and social worker Hannah Lee “Hallie” Jordan.

After years of working as a backup singer, Spencer released her highly acclaimed solo debut EP, Compassion, in 2020, followed by a headlining tour and spots opening for Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, Megan Thee Stallion, and Jason Isbell. In
January, she unveiled her first full-length album, My Stupid Life, which incorporates elements of rap and gospel and touches on subjects like friendship and new beginnings.

Giddens and Spencer recently connected to discuss their roots as country musicians and why they hope this is a pivotal moment for the music they love and the culture at large.

Brittney Spencer: I got into country music because of the radio. In Baltimore, where I grew up, I was on the school bus a lot when I was in middle and high school; our trips were long because I was studying classical music at this art school that was across town. The bus driver played an alternative station that played a little bit of everything. You would hear Mariah Carey and Prince and then Journey and Tim McGraw.

Rhiannon Giddens: Were you studying vocals or instrumentals?

BS: I played clarinet until the seventh or eighth grade. But guitar has all my attention now. It’s such a songwriting tool for me. I like playing it. It’s a comfort on stage, but I would absolutely not consider myself an instrumentalist. Not like you. I will never forget when I saw this video of the Carolina Chocolate Drops maybe four years ago. I had never seen anybody who looked like us just up there jamming out. Thank you for that, seriously.

birmingham, alabama february 10 brittney spencer performs at iron city on february 10, 2024 in birmingham, alabama photo by david a smithgetty images
Brittney Spencer performing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2024.DAVID A. SMITH/GETTY IMAGES

RG: I feel very fortunate to have that history, as hard as it was to be where we were. None of us are alone, but when we were first starting out, there was this feeling of isolation. There was [the blues musician] Taj Mahal and some other folks, but it wasn’t enough to get a momentum going. We needed community.

BS: How does it feel knowing how things were when you started versus where they are now?

RG: It took longer than we thought. My bandmates and I met our mentor, Joe Thompson, in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering [in Boone, North Carolina, which featured lectures, jams, workshops, and performances], and the Carolina Chocolate Drops started really being out there as a band in 2006. There have been some solo fiddle and banjo acts since then. But what’s happening in country now, it feels awesome. I feel a little sad because I left Nashville in 2018. But I also didn’t have the community around to help me stick it out. I’m super happy, but there is a little tiny bit of “We didn’t have that.” The only thing that makes me nervous is whether this is going to be sustained by systemic change within the country-music industry. I’m very interested in exploring how we can take this country music that we love and shake up the whole industry. It’s very focused on certain things that I’ve never really been interested in, in terms of looks, in terms of glitz and glamour.

BS: I can relate to both things you just said. I felt a little guilt when things started happening for me. I’ve met several Black artists and songwriters who wanted to do country, and their performing-rights organizations [which collect song royalties on behalf of songwriters and publishers] told them, “It doesn’t feel like Nashville is ready for Black country artists.” This was in the 2010s. I’ve been here for 11 years now, but there are people who got here long before me. So I’m right there with you in hoping that there is some sort of change that actually lasts.

RG: The thing that’s been my saving grace—because I never set out to be a country singer; country is just something I’ve always loved—is the banjo and my mission surrounding the banjo. That’s kept me centered and sane.

BS: I watched this video of you the other day, and you were talking about claw-hammering and, as you put it, “old-timing” with banjo. You also played the banjo part on Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ’Em.” My favorite thing about that song is hearing your old style of playing mixed with this really modern production approach. Where did you learn to claw-hammer?

RG: I graduated from school [at Oberlin College in 2000] and then went back home to North Carolina and started hearing old-time banjo. I was like, “That’s funky. I want that.” I was a square dancer, so that’s where I heard it. I was a caller; I used to call dances even before I knew that Black people invented calling. Then I bought a Deering banjo and locked myself in my room and sounded really bad for a while. I took a couple lessons, and I’d go to jams. Then I started playing with Joe Thompson. He was an older traditional Black fiddle player from North Carolina, and that’s where I got my vibe. I’d play with him for hours and hours and hours.

birmingham, england february 22 rhiannon giddens performs at birmingham town hall on february 22, 2024 in birmingham, england photo by steve thorneredferns
Rhiannon Giddens perfomring in Birmingham, England, in 2024.STEVE THORNE/REDFERNS/GETTY IMAGES

BS: The first time I ever learned about the origins of the banjo was watching you on Nashville. I became obsessed. At that time, Nashville didn’t talk about race. So when I saw you on the show, that was a huge deal for me. I was like, “Who approved this? And can you all do more?”

RG: I thought the showrunner of Nashville was incredibly cool because I went to my interview with my banjo and I was like, “This needs to be in the show.” I played him a song and he was like, “You know what? You’re right.” They wrote it into the script. I told him about the Chocolate Drops, and those two guys [on the show with me] were actually former Chocolate Drops. When it aired, there were crickets. Nobody said anything.

BS: It made a huge impact—and I’m sorry you had to wait almost 10 years to hear that. I was actually an extra on Nashville for two episodes. Around that time, I sang in a choir at the CMT Awards behind Carrie Underwood. I think it was 2016. But it was then that I started noticing a lot more Black faces in the backgrounds in country music.

RG: Nashville has always used Black music, and it’s always used Black musicians and singers.

BS: Who are some of the integral Black country musicians everyone should know or have influenced you?

RG: I’m into the old-time and string-band stuff, so Libba [Elizabeth] Cotten and Etta Baker. Those two Black female instrumentalists—they didn’t sing—were very influential in American music. People studied Libba Cotten’s guitar style. A lot of them know her because of [her song] “Freight Train,” but not as many people know Etta Baker. They’re both also North Carolina gals.

BS: My family’s roots are in North Carolina. My grandmother, her and her family got chased out of North Carolina because my great-grandfather was selling moonshine. The police told my grandmother if he ever came back, they were going to shoot him dead. He went to Baltimore and set up roots. That’s how my family ended up in Baltimore.

RG: Oh my God. My great-grandfather was a moonshiner too. Maybe our great-grandfathers knew each other. I wrote a song about it called “Moonshiner’s Daughter.” I created a little fantasy around my grandmother because she was literally Bible-reading. She didn’t drink anything.

BS: I’m going to check it out and send it to my grandmother. She’d get an absolute kick out of that. But going back to the momentum point you were talking about, I see us coming up in big waves now. So many artists are forging their own paths musically and creatively and not letting the current status of the industry define their sound. When I look at the makeup of Black country artists right now, there are not too many of us that are like one another.

RG: What industry and commercialism tend to do is create these models. An artist becomes famous, and then they want to make more of those. As tough as it’s been to be a Black person in country music—and while there haven’t been very many of us who’ve achieved visibility and success in that genre—we have a lot of freedom. There’s no “You have to be like this person.” It’s “You be yourself.” And it would be great to hold on to that and that energy. Because I think in the music industry in general, there’s too much of that and it kills the individual spirit.

BS: I agree. I think about Cowboy Carter. Beyoncé put me and three other female country artists on the song “Blackbiird.” What I love so much is that our voices are all so different. Each of us makes very different kinds of country music. Throughout my career, I’ve said, “I don’t look like anybody in this genre.” Not even just in terms of my complexion; there aren’t many plus-size women. But when you aren’t the status quo, there is no pressure for you to live up to some sort of expectation that’s always been in place.

RG: Who were some of the country artists who really made you go, “I want to do this”?

BS: I would say my all-time favorite band is the Chicks. They were my introduction to country music. I loved their stories. I loved their harmonies. They sounded like church to me, which is where I came from. I sang in church, and that’s where my foundation was. I also loved listening to a lot of ’90s country, like Faith Hill, Tim McGraw. I loved Shania. I’m a big Reba and Dolly person. I love Sara Evans. I feel like it was around the time of Taylor Swift that I started to think that I could do country. There was something about her being from the Northeast, like me. She didn’t have a twang. She was really poetic, and she was not afraid to be emotive. She had some really cool pop sensibilities in her melodies, and I enjoyed that. When I got to Nashville, it was Chris Stapleton and Maren [Morris] and Kacey Musgraves. I didn’t have just one hero. I had to find parts of myself in a lot of different people. I’ve had a lot of influences, but I always wanted to make sure I was my biggest one. … Being on the road as much as I have for the last four years with a lot of different kinds of artists, I’ve learned so much. I’ve opened up for Willie Nelson, Grace Potter, Megan Thee Stallion. I’m like, “Yo, all this stuff is just connected and threaded together.” I understand why so many artists hate the concept of genre.

RG: One positive from all of this is that we get to talk about the history. We get to talk about the people who came before us, the people upon whose shoulders we stand.

BS: I think that’s so vital. We are watching people knock down doors in real time. It’s important to know what was being done back in the ’60s because a lot of those people are still here. I did a documentary with Frankie Staton [who began singing in the late ’70s] that came out in 2022 [For Love & Country, on the contributions of Black artists in country music]. I remember crying after hearing Frankie say that record executives used to tell her, “Well, you know Charley Pride, don’t you? Why don’t you go see if he’ll give you a record deal.” And she’s like, “I don’t think he has a label.” The way people were pushing her off—it’s important to know that that happened.

RG: I think we have a big opportunity right now to do something with this community that’s coming along and this focus on the history and on the responsibility that we have to the people who came before us. I think that it’s really good timing that Alice Randall had her book and album come out in April because that’s history. We’ve got to turn this moment into a movement, into systemic change. That’s all I want.

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