In this second installment of Hallowed Sound, journalists from the USA TODAY Network examine the state of race in country music, scour the South in search of untold stories and shine a light on a new, eclectic generation of Black artists.
They hail from Texas, New Jersey, England, Quebec and beyond. They play banjos, belt out ballads and create global dance sensations. They sing about pervasive injustice, universal heartbreak or simply having a beer with buddies.
These 12 singular talents cover all corners of the musical map, but they've all been drawn to Nashville, Tennessee, where they've embraced the sounds, songcraft and traditions of country music – while expanding its horizons at the same time. Below, get to know just a few of the exciting artists shaping country music's "All American" future:
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For your playlist: “Worldwide Beautiful”
“At every show, I see my people,” Brown said on his 2020 single “Worldwide Beautiful.”
“They ain't the same, but they're all equal.”
Over the last five years, the 27-year-old singer has become one of country music’s biggest new stars, scoring six No. 1's at country radio. His first two albums have gone double platinum and platinum, respectively.
But Brown hasn’t just racked up sales – he’s built bridges. Through collaborations with John Legend, Camila Cabello, Khalid and Marshmello, he’s taken the modern country sound into uncharted territory.
“Worldwide Beautiful” did the same, as Brown performed it on stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for the 2020 BET Awards. One year later, the song’s music video made Brown the first Black artist to win Video of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
"You’re missing every color If you’re only seeing black and white,” he sings in the song’s chorus. “Tell me how you’re gonna change your mind if your heart’s unmovable / We ain’t that different from each other/ From one to another, I look around, and see worldwide beautiful."
For your playlist: “Freedom Was a Highway”
In 2016, Allen spent his "last $100" to see Charley Pride sing at the CMA Awards.
Four years later, he shared the same stage with Pride – singing "Kiss An Angel Good Mornin' " to honor the country music trailblazer.
In between, Allen has carved a name for himself as a country music superstar-in-the-making. In 2019, he became the first Black singer to send his debut single, "Best Shot," to No. 1 on the country radio charts; earlier this year, Allen took home the ACM Award for New Male Artist of the Year.
His summer and fall include tour dates supporting Brad Paisley, where they'll likely sing "Freedom Was A Highway," a duet the country singers released last year on Allen's "Bettie James" project. On the release, Allen enlisted Mickey Guyton, Tim McGraw, Darius Rucker, Nelly and, of course, Charley Pride. He released an extended edition of the album earlier this year, with collaborations from Babyface, Keith Urban, Little Big Town and more.
Allen named the album after his late father and grandmother.
“When it comes to music I love, I don’t really get wrapped up in boundaries or genres," he said at the release of his extended edition.
And his creativity doesn't yield with music. Allen designs his elaborative stage outfits – include the throwback tribute to Pride at last year's CMAs – and earlier this year, he released a children's book called "My Voice Is a Trumpet."
For your playlist: “Persephone"
Allison Russell built her career on collaboration.
She first found a stage singing Stan Rogers songs with local players at an Irish pub in her native Montreal. She toured extensively in folk outfit Po' Girl and launched the duo Birds of Chicago with her partner JT Nero before sharing stories of African American women's " struggle, resistance and hope" in supergroup Our Native Daughters.
Now, Russell steps out on her own for a stunning debut, the full-length "Outside Child."
An autobiographical album that chronicles an abusive upbringing in Canada, Russell sings of her traumatic youth with hope, triumph and stirring courage. She tracked the album in three days at Nashville's Sound Emporium studio, enlisting collaborations from Americana breakout Yola and gospel favorite The McCrary Sisters.
The album walks a fine line of soul grooves, jazz temperament and country-folk world-building. She doesn't cut corners on her story, nor does she lightly seek peace – moments of heartbreaking experience are met with a greater sense of uplifting hope.
"(I wanted) for the joy and the hope to be heard throughout," Russell told The USA TODAY Network, "despite having to head-on face and talk about and sing about hard things."
For your playlist: “Black Myself”
“I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me, ‘cause I'm black myself,” Kiah sings on her staggering blues-rocker, “Black Myself.”
Before recording it for her 2021 album, “Wary + Strange,” the East Tennessee singer-songwriter would sing “Black Myself” with her bandmates in Our Native Daughters. A roots music supergroup, OND is comprised of four Black women – all of whom play banjo, among many other instruments – offering a powerful reminder of the instrument’s African roots.
“Between the four of us, Black women, in particular, have messaged us saying, ‘I started to learn the banjo because of Our Native Daughters,’” she said.
“(We’ve heard from) people of color that didn't realize that they can listen to country music or folk music because of how segregation informed the recording industry and separated people by race. Just to see the difference that all this is making is above and beyond my wildest dreams.”
2021 has been a breakout year for Kiah as a solo artist. “Wary + Strange” arrived in June to rave reviews, and Kiah became one of the top nominees at the Americana Music Honors & Awards show, tying mainstay Jason Isbell. She also made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry.
“I’m starting to really understand (that) I'm the person that I needed to see when I was younger," Kiah said. "And I'm that person now for other people. It’s a big responsibility that I'm happy to take on.”
For your playlist: “Sober & Skinny”
On live television last November, country star Maren Morris dedicated her CMA Award for Female Vocalist of the Year to a handful of Black women in country music.
One of the names shouted out? Brittney Spencer.
"I was sitting on my couch in my pajamas. It sounds hilarious, but that’s actually what I was doing," Spencer told Apple Music Country earlier this summer, adding: "Honestly, it happened months ago, and I’m still not ready for it."
A Baltimore native who moved to Nashville in 2013, Spencer's ascent extends far behind a one-time recognition. Earlier this summer, she released a new single, "Sober & Skinny" – a showcase of tender-hearted storytelling that's sharp-penned and relatable.
She sings, "But in a perfect world/ You get sober, I get skinny/ We live all for more than pennies/ Write the checks that we can cash."
She's now logged writing room hours with Amanda Shires and Morris and spent time on the road with Jason Isbell. Spencer tours with Brett Eldredge later this year.
Last month, Spencer made her Ryman Auditorium debut at the ACM Honors. She performed the Martina McBride classic "Independence Day" for songwriter Gretchen Peters, one of the night's honorees.
In a show filled with established stars, it was one of the most buzz-worthy moments.
"I'm just excited," she told reporters backstage. "Being able to embrace this new chapter in my life, it's scary. But I'm gonna do it, anyway. Why not?"
For your playlist: “Good Love”
A decade ago, songwriter Blake “Shy” Carter was quickly making headway in the pop world. After receiving formative encouragement from Clive Davis, the Memphis native co-wrote Rob Thomas’ chart-topping 2009 hit, “Someday.”
But just as soon as he’d found his groove in one lane, the songs and sounds of Nashville came calling.
“I had heard some country songs that had so much soul, and organic instruments and R&B flavors, stuff that I grew up on,” he explained in a recent self-released video series.
Carter found his ticket back to Tennessee when he co-wrote “Stuck Like Glue,” a double-platinum smash for Sugarland in 2010. He’s been a fixture on Music Row ever since, penning hits for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Kane Brown and Billy Currington.
In the past year, Carter’s been making a splash as a solo country artist – and you couldn’t call his latest single, “Beer With My Friends,” anything but country. It’s an unabashedly old-school juke joint anthem, and the music video finds Carter and featured artists Cole Swindell and David Lee Murphy clinking beers while fans line-dance on a dive bar floor.
“I call my mama and my daddy least once a week,” Carter sings in a low, twangy tone, “To remember my roots, and keep 'em planted deep.”
For your playlist: “Cross Country”
As he’s started hitting the stage this year – opening for Dierks Bentley and appearing at various festivals – country-rap fusionist Breland has repeatedly received “kind of a weird compliment” from audience members.
“I've literally had multiple people come up to me and be like, 'Man, I hate hip-hop. But I like what you're doing,'” he said.
“I think that's a big win, just in helping to alleviate some of the tensions between genres, and the social implications of those boundaries.”
The 26-year-old has been doing just that ever since he exploded onto the scene with his 2019 hit “My Truck.” The song followed Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” but while Nas soon veered into pop, Breland dug straight into Music Row. In the past two years, he’s collaborated with Keith Urban (who sings on Breland’s “Throw It Back”), Bentley, Mickey Guyton and Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts.
On top of his way with a country-inspired hook, Breland proved to be a socially conscious artist on his 2020 EP, “Rage & Sorrow.” It was released on Juneteenth, in the thick of national protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
“I could have stayed quiet,” he raps on “A Message.”
“Could have probably acted like I wasn't phased by it/ Posted 'bout the new project while they riot/ But that ain't the type of thinking that'll change climates.”
In the country world, Breland had more than a few peers that stayed quiet that summer.
“Everyone is on their own journey of discovery and growth and education,” he said. “So I think because I had the education, the only responsibility that I have is to do what I can to get certain messages out there. And I hope that I can also advise some of my peers to do the same when they're ready.”
The War and Treaty
For your playlist: “Take Me In”
He’s an Iraq war veteran who discovered music’s healing power while writing songs for his fallen comrades. She’s a lifelong singer who was on the verge of stardom in the 1990s.
Together, the husband and wife duo of Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter has quickly become one of the most invigorating acts in Americana and roots music.
After their 2018 debut made them a sensation in those circles, the duo flexed serious range on the follow-up, 2020’s “Hearts Town.” Whether belting over a classic Memphis soul groove, string quarte, or a lone acoustic guitar, the Trotters’ chemistry is a constant.
“You're the kind of joy that I need,” they sing to one another on “Jubilee.”
Their sound, unsurprisingly, has appealed to a wide range of audiences. The duo has opened for John Legend on tour, performed U2’s “Pride (In The Name of Love)” alongside Dierks Bentley at this year’s ACM Awards, and stood in the famed circle of the Grand Ole Opry.
After their second appearance at the Opry this past summer, the duo wrote that they were “whisked away” by the applause and that they weren’t just reminded of country legends like Minnie Pearl, Charley Pride and Dolly Parton, but of “our own heroes who never got the chance to grace the Opry stage.”
Along with the duo finally getting back out on the road, the songs of “Hearts Town” are still on a journey. Last month saw a new music video for the standout “Take Me In,” which premiered simultaneously on CMT and BET.
For your playlist: “All American”
Though she’s been a bright light on the scene for the past decade, in 2020 Mickey Guyton emerged as one of mainstream country music’s most compelling voices.
It began with her song, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her,” inspired by her experiences as a woman in the male-dominated country music industry. Next, one week after the death of George Floyd, Guyton released “Black Like Me” – a deeply personal ballad unlike anything else on Music Row’s landscape.
"If you think we live in the land of the free/ You should try to be black like me," she sings in the chorus, over a blend of piano, handclaps and pedal steel.
"I was just writing from the heart," Guyton said of her new songs. "Literally, from my truth because it was something that I needed to personally do for myself versus worrying about how to write something that will get on the radio.”
That fearless approach has led to a professional breakthrough for the Texas native, coming a full decade after she first signed her record deal. Last year, “Black Like Me” was nominated for a Grammy, making her the first Black woman to be nominated for Best Country Solo Performance.
Her journey culminates with the Sept. 24 release of her debut album, “Remember Her Name” – a title partly inspired by Breonna Taylor. In a similar spirit as “What Are You Gonna Tell Her,” the title track urges listeners (and Guyton herself), “Don't let go of that wide-eyed innocence. … Remember the girl that didn't let anything get in her way/ Remember her name.”
For your playlist: “Nobody’s More Country”
Blanco Brown creates music with a smile.
Need proof? Listen no further than “The Git Up,” his breakout 2019 single that blends modern country-pop twang with Southern hip-hop sensibilities. The song, and a subsequent dance that spread like wildfire on TikTok, gave listeners a first taste of what to expect from Brown – joyous tunes that ignore traditional genre boundaries.
He’s the type of artist who can bounce from collaborating with EDM artist Diplo to a guest spot on Parmalee’s feel-good radio chart-topper “Just The Way.” Most recently, he teamed with Nelly for a new single, “High Horse,” which doubles as the “Country Grammar” rapper’s introduction to a new country-tinged project, “Heartland.”
Still, his new single, “Nobody’s More Country” – featuring acoustic guitar, layered harmonies, touches of banjo and trap beats – may offer his most definitive musical statement yet. In the chorus, he sings: “I been back and forth from here to Georgia/ Carolina to California/ Cross the hills of Middle Tennessee … Seen some things/ But one thing I know/ No one loves the country more than me.”
And despite a debilitating motorcycle accident last year that left him in a hospital bed for nearly a month, Brown told the USA TODAY Network earlier this year that he wants to keep bringing "the excitement, the joy, the fun" he's known for delivering on and off stage.
"I definitely will be addressing a couple things I felt during this process and learning how to walk again, but I didn't change the whole project," Brown said in March. "The purpose is still there. The type of music I love to do is going to come first."
For your playlist: “American Dream”
In one of the year's most powerful country songs, singer Willie Jones delivered an "American Dream" through his eyes.
The Louisiana-raised artist belted lines about Colin Kaepernick, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., singing that he's "proud to be a Black man/ Livin' in the land of the brave and the free/ Yeah I'm all-American/ And that American dream ain't cheap."
He began writing the song last year, days after George Floyd's killing and protesters marching against racial injustice. He said the song derived in part from a moment in 2020 when he balked at wearing red, white and blue on Independence Day.
On the song, he's "still reppin' the country, but through my eyes the time that I wrote it," Jones said.
"We all in America and we hope for better," he told The USA TODAY Network. "This is where it came from."
And his growing catalog of country-hip-hop doesn't stop with a civil rights anthem. Jones released his debut album, "Right Now," earlier this year. It's a musical blender of polished pop-ready production with country imagery and rap influence. The album finds Jones bringing the party – especially for nights in downtown Nashville with "Bachelorettes on Broadway" – and toasting to low-key moments at home, on the timely "Back Porch."
No song may introduce Jones' line-blurring delivery better than "Country Soul," an album opener that name-checks Tim McGraw, T.I., Marvin Gaye and Aerosmith.
"A lot of times people try to box me in as far as my sound, but I'm bigger than what people think of me," Jones said. "This is one of them statement ones. ... This is my love for music."
For your playlist: “Stand For Myself”
Yola's voice – born out of a disapproving childhood, homelessness as a young adult and years of unjust career opportunities – stands today as one of the most authentic and vital in Nashville, period.
After years of creative struggle, the British daughter of a Barbadian immigrant – raised on a transatlantic mixtape of Elton John, Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin – found a creative home in Nashville with Easy Eye Sounds and ace producer-Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach.
She released her debut album, "Walk Through Fire," in 2019, crowning herself the queen of country soul – a worthy title for a collection of sophisticated stories that Yola spun with touches of roots and R&B between the aforementioned country soul. The album earned praise from John, led to Yola sharing a stage with Parton and scored her four Grammy nominations – including one for all-genre Best New Artist.
But it was only an opening act for a headlining performance waiting in the wings. And that's no easy task.
On her sophomore album, "Stand For Myself," she graduates to a sonic shapeshifter, steering a time-traveling jukebox through traditional pop, soul, disco, rock 'n' roll and touches of country music. The album delivers on what standout songwriters do best – deeply personal stories with a universal hold.
A 12-song effort produced by Auerbach and featuring a rotating cast of top-notch Americana and country collaborators, "Stand For Myself" details her experience as a Black woman – from struggles with tokenism to stories of allyship, finespun romance and finding creative freedom.
"I wanted the story of Black femininity to be nuanced. We don't get nuanced stories," she told the USA TODAY Network.
"We get so fewer incarnations of the dark-skinned Black woman who's just had a nice time. Or had a normal time – had some trial and tribulations – but they're entirely normal."
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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: 12 Black artists shaping country music’s future