Lil Nas X © Tanima Mehrotra
Lil Nas X © Tanima Mehrotra - © Tanima Mehrotra

Country gets its groove back

At the recent Gram­my Awards, the rap­per Lil Nas X began by wal­king the red car­pet in a can­dy pink cow­boy out­fit, before per­for­ming his hit “Old Town Road” with the coun­try sin­ger Billy Ray Cyrus. The 20-year-old gay Afri­can-Ame­ri­can had been the sub­ject of contro­ver­sy a year ear­lier when Bill­board had remo­ved the song from its Hot Coun­try Songs Chart – in which it was 19th at the time – on the pre­text that it “does not embrace enough ele­ments of today’s coun­try music”. Mixing ele­ments of trap (bass) and coun­try (ban­jo), the song still broke the record for the num­ber of weeks at the top of the charts, pre­vious­ly held by Mariah Carey. In spite of that, the song did not make it back to the coun­try music fami­ly fold, famous­ly des­cri­bed by the sin­ger Har­lan Howard in the 1950s as brea­king down to “three chords and the Truth”.

 

 

The “Old Town Road” affair is not inno­cuous in an Ame­ri­can socie­ty consti­tu­ted by racia­li­sa­tion. Since the 1920s boom – in the context of the segre­ga­tio­nist Jim Crow laws – and as recent­ly as the late 1940s, the music indus­try even cate­go­ri­sed as “race records” all blues, jazz and gos­pel tar­ge­ted towards Afri­can-Ame­ri­cans, whil­st coun­try music – then label­led “hil­l­billy music” – was impli­cit­ly addres­sed to a white audience. This demar­ca­tion is still fixed in minds and facts, a cen­tu­ry later. Apart from the absur­di­ty of its pre­cept, it has no his­to­ri­cal basis, as ham­me­red home by Rhian­non Gid­dens with the eru­di­tion of an eth­no­mu­si­co­lo­gist at all her concerts. Born in North Caro­li­na to a white father and a black mother and author of the won­der­ful album There is no Other with Fran­ces­co Tur­ri­si in 2019, the sin­ger also plays the ban­jo, an ins­tru­ment whose ori­gins, she reminds us, are Afri­can (its ances­tor is the akon­ting, a West Afri­can lute). Com­bi­ned with the 19th-cen­tu­ry vio­lin by Euro­pean colo­nists, who them­selves impor­ted various tra­di­tions, the ban­jo is an impor­tant fac­tor in the ori­gi­nal creo­li­sa­tion of North Ame­ri­can music. “Musi­cal and cultu­ral ideas have been cros­sing over fore­ver”, Rhian­non Gid­dens told The Guar­dian. “My pro­jects are all going towards the theme : ‘We’re more alike than we’re dif­ferent’”. 

 

 

Coun­try Music, the recent at length docu­men­ta­ry (16 hours) by Ken Burns fea­tu­ring Rhian­non Gid­dens, was broad­cast on PBS at the height of the Lil Nas X debate. It tends, above all, to show how the “white” indus­try has done away with the “black” roots of spi­ri­tuals and wor­king songs. In the South, exploi­ted whites and oppres­sed blacks rub­bed shoul­ders with the same mise­ry in which cultu­ral poro­si­ty was at work. For example, Ken Burns shows that the black gos­pel song “When The World is On Fire” became “Lit­tle Dar­ling, Pal of Mine”, a coun­try hit for the (white) Car­ter Fami­ly in 1928, then “This Land is Your Land”, a folk anthem by Woo­dy Guthrie in 1940. Also keep in mind that it was Afri­can-Ame­ri­can gui­ta­rists who men­to­red the Car­ter Fami­ly (Les­ley Riddle), Hank Williams (Rufus Payne) and John­ny Cash (Gus Can­non), among others – the cases are legion. In the form of exchange, theft or paro­dy, Ame­ri­can music has eva­ded segre­ga­tion. But the recor­ding indus­try, moti­va­ted, in par­ti­cu­lar, by mar­ke­ting consi­de­ra­tions (racist inten­tions can­not be ruled out), has put genres into boxes and exclu­ded black artists from the sto­ry they hel­ped write, redi­rec­ting them towards rhythm’n’blues and its off­shoots. In an inter­view with The Bit­ter Sou­ther­ner, Ken Burns notes that coun­try itself has fal­len vic­tim to this trap, to the point of being mocked for the cli­chés it conveys : “We make fun of it. You know, it’s about good old boys in pickup trucks and hound dogs and six packs of beer, when, in fact, it is actual­ly dea­ling in a very simple but very direct way with uni­ver­sal human expe­riences”. 

 

 

In his book on the mat­ter, Coun­try Soul – Making Music and Making Race in the Ame­ri­can South (2015), Charles L. Hughes details the rela­tion­ships bet­ween black and white musi­cians in the stu­dios of Mem­phis, Nash­ville and Muscle Shoals from the 1960s. Besides the pio­neer DeFord Bai­ley, Louis Arm­strong col­la­bo­ra­ted with the coun­try star Jim­mie Rod­gers on “Blue Yodel Num­ber 9” as ear­ly as 1929, before many Afri­can-Ame­ri­can musi­cians tack­led the genre suc­cess­ful­ly, from Char­ley Pride to Ray Charles (nota­bly on his album Modern Sounds in Coun­try and Wes­tern Music in 1962).

 

 

In the 2000s, it was the turn of Darius Rucker, while Beyon­cé sang “Dad­dy’s Les­sons” (from her album Lemo­nade) with the Dixie Chicks on stage at the 2016 Coun­try Music Asso­cia­tion Awards. The per­for­mance may have ear­ned her racist insults on social media, but it also hel­ped open the door through which Jim­mie Allen and Kane Brown rushed, bag­ging top spots in the Bill­board single (“Best Shot”) and album (Expe­riment) charts in 2018. While both have also denoun­ced the obs­tacles put up against them because of the colour of their skin and condes­cen­ding remarks about their suc­cess, the lines clear­ly seem to be shifting.

 

 

Coun­try music is get­ting its groove back, at odds with rein­vi­go­ra­ted white supre­ma­cism, heck­led by a black rap­per with a pink hat.

 

Eric Delhaye

Eric Delay
Eric Delhaye

 

Journalist Eric Delhaye focuses on culture, in general, and music, in particular.
He is interested in the historical, territorial social and political issues these matters encapsulate.
He regularly works with TéléramaLibération and Le Monde Diplomatique.

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