The Blues of Black Country
So, I was feeling kind of snarky this morning and posted that on Facebook. It's generated a few laughs and likes, but it still underscores kind of a sad fact; that country music is behind the times. In mainstream country, names like Charley Pride, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Cowboy Troy have been floated high as an example of inclusion in Nashville but, of those three, only Charley Pride has received anything close to true acceptance and that weren't easy, as they say. (Besides, Gatemouth does more than country in other styles and Troy, well, I'm not sure that Troy really does country.) Guys like Cleve Francis have been around awhile and Darius Rucker is now in the game, though he comes by way of a successful recording and performing career with Hootie and the Blowfish.
When you do a search on "black" and "country music", up come a lot of old-school names like Lead Belly and DeFord Bailey, Ray Charles and even Lionel Ritchie (and yes, those last two have released full-scale country albums.) But where are the honest-to-goodness representations of country music for black folks? Some would say that the term "country" has been hijacked by the mainstream white establishment to portray the cowboys and good ol' boys that we normally associate with the genre. What you may not know is that the genre of country blues has existed since before this whole country music thing got into the swing of it and country blues referred to "poor, uneducated, raw" performers from outside the city. Guys like Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Son House, Charlie Patton, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough often had a sound that was nothing like contemporary blues music, rooted in stories, guitar-driven melodies and a front-porch picker vibe that rivals the most authentic country music. In the great civil rights shuffle, this music was relegated to the backroad juke joints and kept far away from country radio where a predominantly white audience ate it up (and Nashville continued to punch up the formula, ironically taking it further and further away from country's very real roots.)
Country music is just that; the music of a country. The music of a people. The cultural remains of folks - or, folk music. It all starts there with the songs that have been passed down from generation to generation to people all over the world. In the United States, that music was a collection of music from various locations and, sometimes, it was inspired by pure inventiveness on the part of settlers to this new land. There are shards of that kind of musical truth in mainstream music but, for the most part, if it's on the Billboard charts, it's probably not terribly connected to anything remotely folk at all.
I am not a country artist. I'm a folk artist. I enjoy the hell out of writing and performing country music (the older, the better) but I also enjoy blues, rock, Latin, showtunes and metal. You can find folk roots in any one of those genres or make it happen. There is no limitation to folk music because it's the music of our past, considered in the present, and intertwined with our future. The foundations of folk exist on their own terms while we build upon them the houses in which we wish to live. Tear down those structures and the foundation remains.
So, Nashville is having a bit of a demolition this week as cracks in the building have really started to show. My snarky jibe on Facebook this morning basically says, "why is this news?" But I know full well why. Because being gay is not part of the structure that Nashville has built for itself over the years. It just might be the last music genre with no high-profile gay artists, but that is no longer true and Nash Vegas will have to roll with it, baby. Still, and no disrespect to Darius, that's TWO more anomalies in the system where it's still terribly rare to see a black man onstage singing country music on the CMAs. Where even Darius was targeted in a tasteless race-inspired joke at the awards show one year by Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. (It involved Julianna Hough - do the research.)
I'm not pounding down country's door because there are a lot more doors that I've been able to easily walk through with my music. Still, the astonished looks that I get when I rip into a Hank Williams Jr. song onstage says oodles about how far the establishment needs to go before we stop freaking out about what's different between us and accept that which is similar between us.
Still, watching the fireworks fly over Broadway is going to be fun for awhile.