The Black vanguard in white utopias
Country music speaks to white sentimentality, but Black women pioneer ‘and continue to pioneer’
It is an unseasonably warm fall evening in Nashville, Tennessee, and I am too old, too Black and too sober to be on Broadway. The city’s main tourist artery is packed with drunk people, overwhelmingly young and white. They move as choreographed throngs in and out of supercharged commercialized honky-tonks. Not that the rural people who immortalized rustic social clubs of questionable repute would recognize these neon-illuminated monstrosities as such. Crossing Broadway is an obstacle course of unfortunate human choices. A woman next to me at a busy corner has the unmistakable visage of someone trying not to vomit in public.
Four bars on wheels pass during a single stoplight rotation with bachelorettes screaming country-rap music. They call these “pedal taverns.” Half of the town hates them. The other half is wrong. I don’t bother holding my breath as I walk uphill through a cloud of marijuana smoke. A perky blonde is selling colorfully packaged CBD from an ice-cream cart. I buy a $20 bag of gummies. It won’t hurt to be mildly anesthetized where I am venturing. Twenty minutes and two COVID-19 checkpoints later, I am finally squeezed into a wooden pew at the mother church of country music because Jason Isbell is very good at Twitter.
We were in summer No. 2 of the coronavirus pandemic when Isbell announced his return to live performing on the stage he considers home: Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The eight-night residency was a big deal because he is a big deal. Isbell is that rarest of musical black swan events: a beloved independent artist in a middlebrow art form with enormous commercial success and elite recognition. He is also an anomaly for country music. If you know who Isbell is, then you likely know what he believes. He is well known for having radical politics in a very conservative industry. That made his choice of opening acts both surprising and totally in keeping with his brand. Every one of the acts opening for the eight-night residency was a woman. Seven out of eight were Black women and three of them queer. For the bro-forward homogenous genre, it felt like a political statement.
Isbell’s opening acts are among music’s brightest talents: Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, Amythyst Kiah, Shemekia Copeland, Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun and Adia Victoria. It was a stunning lineup for an industry where white women are marginalized and Black women are invisible. A 2019 Mediabase survey of gender and radio play in country music determined that women only account for 10% of country music airplay. By the time you add in race, the data are the size of rounding errors. All Black artists combined make up less than 4% of commercial country music airplay, according to 2020 reporting by SongData. And, the handful of Black artists who get airplay are men: Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Darius Rucker, Breland and Blanco Brown. According to NBC News, only four Black female solo artists and one all-Black female group have landed on a country music chart since the 1920s.
Black female artists playing in an iconic Southern venue in a town with plenty of Black people would not be noteworthy in any other popular music genre but country. While elite tastemakers dismiss the genre, it is remarkably popular domestically and abroad. But, the genre’s conventions are rooted in the peculiar politics of its American foundation. Country music issues a promissory note to its white listeners. The promise is that no matter how much the world around them may be changing, a country radio station or concert will be a safe space for white sentimentality.
Country music insiders are fond of saying the industry is one big happy family. One look at country stages, programming and artists suggests that they take the biological implications of “family” literally. You can paint an Aryan pop art portrait gallery from country music’s favorite tropes: All the eyes are blue, all the hair is blond, all the romances are straight, all the roads are rural and the civil rights movement never happened.
Despite living on a fantasy island of its own making, the country music industry is struggling to ignore Black Lives Matter, especially the white reactionary response. Country artists, fans and critics are duking it out in culture wars over vaccines, critical race theory and conspiracy theories. The more country music ignores the social and political moment, the more disconnected from its fan base it becomes and the more culturally impotent it appears. The problem for country’s gatekeepers is that plenty of people still have a healthy appetite for the genre’s white utopianism. But that audience wants country music to reflect its political anger. A new, expanding audience dabbles in country’s artistry but detests its politics. That audience wants a country music product that does not traffic in conservative nostalgia.
Unsure of how to reconcile these competing demands, the mainstream country music machine’s playbook is erasure. Country radio systematically silences minority and women artists while Nashville’s centralized, top-down production machine makes it hard for those artists to develop social capital in the industry. As the women who opened for Isbell’s residency strode onto country music’s most consecrated stage, they were also striding into a decadeslong war for the soul of pop music’s last acceptable bastion of white identity politics.
I spoke with Isbell, Russell, Victoria, Oladokun, Kiah, Spencer and Copeland over a week in Nashville’s Writers Studios. I set up house in the Hutton Hotel and turned myself over to the city. I did the Ryman shows, rambled around both Black Nashville and white Nashville. More importantly, I hung out in the studio, chopped it up backstage and talked about this moment in country music with artists who are saving country music’s soul from its worst white identitarian impulses. The revolution isn’t pretty, but it makes for some damn fine art.
Country has had Black musicians, some of them known. But that you can name them, rather proves the point. A 2019 documentary by PBS auteur Ken Burns, Country Music, is an example. Burns’ linear history includes country music’s debt to Black, Indigenous and Mexican people. But their presence is relegated to the most ancient history presented in the film. By the time country music becomes a multibillion-dollar popular music form in the mid-20th century, non-white artists all but disappear in both the film and in country’s self-promotion. Like the nation that produced the art form, country music is better at acknowledging dead Black people than living ones.
The promise is that no matter how much the world around them may be changing, a country radio station or concert will be a safe space for white sentimentality.
Charley Pride in the 1970s and 1980s was a notable Black breakthrough country artist, but he was an exception to the rule. Rucker, he of Hootie & the Blowfish fame, is in Pride’s mold and has a distinguished country music career. But his country success is partly due to his white Hootie fan base and, frankly, for how faithfully he hews to white male country singers’ repertoire of faith, love and dirt roads. In the 2010s, hick-hop and Gangstagrass trends merged hip-hop and country-pop with great commercial success. But the songs did not breach the racial segregation between the two genre’s cultures.
Rappers do not tour honky-tonks and there is no universe where one would see a white hick-hop artist play at a historically Black college and university homecoming. Kane Brown is biracial but codes as Black. He is also country’s first internet superstar and one of the bestselling artists in any genre. His specialty is youth-centric country pop inflected with hip-hop beats delivered in his booming baritone. But like Rucker, Kane Brown does not stray from pop country’s colorblind formula. In contrast to the men, Russell, Oladokun, Kiah, Victoria, Guyton and Spencer (Copeland is primarily a blues artist) are part of a cohort of minority and LGBTQ+ artists who merge Black experience and identity into their country music craft.
Isbell says he knows his audience is afraid to hear what Black women have to say in their music. Because country stars are notoriously terrified of provoking their conservative audience’s ire, I ask him if he is afraid. He laughs as if it is the most ludicrous idea he has heard that day. He points out that before he was a folk-country superstar, he was a punk in a punk rock band. “I have no problem making the audience a little uncomfortable.” He pauses for a minute and adds, “Just wait till they see Adia, if they’re squirming now.”
“Three chords and the truth.” That is how songwriting legend Harlan Howard described the new hillbilly music to puzzled middle-class audiences in the 1950s. But, from the start, this American art form had a problem telling the whole truth. It is a genre that owes its component parts to Black innovations like the drum, fiddle and gospel. But it avoids locating itself in the arc of Black creative production or even among the Black artists that make country music today. That avoidance was once rooted in formal segregation and later in de facto, or culturally enforced, segregation. The surgical excision of Black artists from today’s country music is not due to formal or de facto segregation of the races, but its impetus is just as ugly.
To see how ugly sonic segregation is in today’s country music, it helps to know where it started. While the genre has always been sentimental, country music used to acknowledge public problems like the Vietnam War and wage theft and corporate greed and political malfeasance and domestic violence and even the civil rights movement. But in the 1970s, a backlash to the 1960s’ progressive movements crystallized into a political ideology when Richard Nixon made overtures to white voters through an appeal to country music. Nixon declared the first Country Music Month in 1970, and his new “silent majority” strategy started a long courtship between Republicans, white voters and country music.
Then the 1980s arrived and a significant share of country’s audience got richer. More money attracted more political grift. I joke that all roads lead to Ronald Reagan, and in this case, the joke has more than a grain of truth. In 1983, Reagan hosted a reception for country singers at the White House at which he said the music was “one of only a very few forms that we can claim as purely American,” and its fans had a “deep-seated love of country, freedom and God.” The implication was clear. Hippies, communists, beatniks, feminists and traitors had corrupted other popular music forms. Reagan anointed country music as the purest American musical form. The industry’s political value became inextricably linked to its degree of whiteness. Country music did not merely get whiter as the nation integrated; it got whiter because the nation integrated.
Reagan’s is the same administration that so perfectly encoded what sociologists call “race talk” into mainstream political storytelling that they rewrote modern political strategy. Reagan operative Lee Atwater was the chief architect of the Grand Old Party (GOP) race talk. In 1981, Atwater explained how the Republicans could recode an incendiary racist word without enduring the backlash: “By 1968, you can’t say ‘n—–‘ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.” Coding for white racial identity in policy sounds like states’ rights and moral panics over critical race theory. In country music, it sounds like guns, nationalism and redneck revues.
The GOP became the unofficial political party of country music because much of the genre’s repertoire could be coded as “white” without saying, well, white. “Purely American” and “love of country, freedom and God” function the same way that “replacement births” and “immigrant caravans” marshal white identitarians’ racial emotions. The Republican Party was particular about its country music — they did not favor the kind that talked about poverty and the social problems that poverty creates. Reaganomics was about optimism, if you recall. A new dawn in America needed a soundtrack befitting its exuberant neoliberal nationalism.
The bag of country music tropes that we recognize today was born of Republican race talk and Reaganomics — sentimental and apolitical, colorblind and white identitarian, rural themed and economically urbane. To hold those contradictions together, the Republican Party refined a political language of white grievance. In election after election, from the top of the ballot to the bottom, that language jettisons intraparty differences by inflating the one thing their base has in common. The successful “new country” sound that fascinated me in the 1980s with its rock-pop riffs and drag queen aesthetic was a stealth reclamation of white identity politics.
Today, it has the same playbook as the GOP. Reduce the most racially, ethnically and class diverse geographies in the nation to three pablum themes that white listeners with little else in common can agree on: girls, guns and America. Whether new country courted the new silent majority to gain political favor or the new rights strategists seduced country music for cultural power, the deal was struck. Hillbilly music may have once been about three chords and the truth, but the Nashville machine was built by turning white demographic anxiety into a popular commodity.
Take, for example, three of the most played songs on Billboard’s country list at the end of 2020. Blake Shelton’s “Come Back as a Country Boy” swears that being a redneck is better than being rich. Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like” is a love song about chain restaurant Applebee’s and a paragon of fecund womanhood who is thrilled to eat there. Jordan Davis’ “Buy Dirt” promises that the one path to happiness is owning undeveloped land and marrying young. On their own and devoid of context, the themes are harmless enough. And that is what makes them dangerous. Country music is good at exercising race talk’s exclusionary power, and especially adept at doing so subtextually. That country boy’s work is backbreaking and “money has trouble makin’” ends meet, but there is no bad boss or a union. The economic conditions that make him a redneck — culturally marginalized and economically dispossessed — are divorced from anyone doing those things to him.
Country music did not merely get whiter as the nation integrated; it got whiter because the nation integrated.
Down the road at a nondescript commercial strip mall, a girl and boy love the “Oreo shake” at the depressingly mundane Applebee’s. But the servers never appear in the song, neither as laborers nor main characters in rural fiction. There is no service class in country music, even though ours is a service economy that has created an underclass of underpaid, politically marginalized workers. Those workers probably cannot afford to buy that dirt or the diamond ring for a high school sweetheart. There is no mention of the debt one goes into if they buy it, or the capital they will need to keep it. That is true not just of these songs but across the country charts.
Material conditions do not exist in country music for the same reason country music cannot platform Black voices. Race is materiality. Country tropes erase the who, what and why in their myth-making because those are directly tied to the racial conditions that country listeners are escaping. There is an Applebee’s but no taquería on a rural main street because there are no immigrants. Jobs are blue-collar but never service work because that work is racialized and gendered. There are no unions because unions have become female and non-white. There is no wage theft or cheating bosses because white country artists have more in common with bosses than workers. The country music racial repertoire is a soundtrack for an ethnoracial petite bourgeoisie that likes beer and agrees on who should not exist.
When we talk about polarization, we think about electoral politics or economic fortunes. But there is always a cultural dimension of any political conflict where people practice, perform and refine the identities that condition their political beliefs. Country music is a cultural space where many white listeners learn and reinforce the rules of being white. Country music’s “come-to-Jesus” post–Black Lives Matter conflicts have troubling implications for if or how white people who crave the sonic safety of country music can be expected to change.
Country music’s vanguard is Black, Native American, Indigenous, Latinx and queer. Listening to mainstream country and even “alternative” country is like standing in a wax museum — a bunch of two-dimensional representations that only vaguely resemble their three-dimensional referents. The vanguard is not making perfect music, but they are making interesting music. There are new sounds, old traditions, class consciousness, political urgency and unsentimentality. While those artists have been busy broadening and deepening the genre, mainstream country music has tried to pretend none of it is happening. The willfully ignorant center and challengers from the margins are on an inevitable collision. Morgan Wallen is the first crash at the scene.
Last year, Wallen was poised to be the next big thing in country music. He had industry bona fides and an audience from his stint on the reality competition, The Voice. His unironic mullet screamed the kind of cultivated authenticity that country music favors. He had a few run-ins with public bad behavior, lending an air of rural bad-boy chic to his brand. His double album was getting the full treatment — special drops to country radio, specials and even a spot as a Saturday Night Live musical guest. Then, a videotape of Wallen screaming the N-word was released to the public. Two years earlier, the machine could have covered for him. But this was 2021. Black Lives Matter had roiled the nation. White police violence was playing on social media loops almost every day. Donald Trump and Fox News had infiltrated the deepest core of white reactionary politics in millions of voters. Wallen’s racist faux pas could not be covered up by the industry and the white fan base wasn’t in the mood for racial reconciliation.
For almost nine months, it looked like the industry would hold fast. There were cosmetic attempts to diversify country industry award shows and some country radio programming. Black country musicians and media personalities such as Guyton and Rissi Palmer and Allen were elevated to, well, everything: high-profile, guest-hosting posts; appearances on industry panels; award show performances; video music announcers; and opening acts. Maren Morris dedicated her Country Music Association music award to the “many amazing Black women that pioneered and continue to pioneer” the genre: Yola, Spencer, Guyton, Linda Martell, Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens.
As yet, few of these artists break through on the radio. None of the Black women enter the country charts. Broadcast and satellite radio are king in country music. Social media disrupted the music industry 30 years ago, but country audiences have remained loyal to the distribution model that favors radio and music labels. Not until the pandemic did internet distribution take off for country music audiences. Without radio support, Black women are reduced to the nominal and cosmetic display of diversity anyone who has ever attended a corporate Black History Month celebration will recognize.
The Country Music Television awards show was more diverse than country radio, but nowhere near revolutionary in 2021. Soul legend Gladys Knight and R&B phenom H.E.R. performed. They both looked and sounded great but they were having a different show than the one that was scheduled. Producers also highlighted Breland and Blanco Brown, two young, hip-hop-infused Black country artists. Neither of them performed on the show, but the camera cut to them so often in the audience that you would be forgiven for misremembering them doing so. It was all apolitical window dressing and still too much for many fans, who pushed back on what some of them called “woke country.” John Rich, of the canonical country duo Big & Rich, called out the 2021 Country Music Television awards for kowtowing to “leftist ideology” — and he was speaking for a lot of fans, who were angry that Wallen had been effectively barred from the nomination process because he was not played on radio. They decried political correctness gone amok.
But the refrain “this is not country music” is not new. Dolly Parton may be a saint today, but in the 1980s fans turned on her for going pop, proclaiming that she was not making real country music. Over the years, fans have said it about performers as diverse as Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line. All of that was before MAGA. “This is not country music” has a different meaning when Fox News and Newsmax and conservative pundits weaponize a constant stream of xenophobia and racism for audiences that cannot get enough. The anti-woke country audience made Wallen’s album a top seller on streaming platforms. They also make T-shirts and memes and angry calls to radio stations. Some country music stars appear to push back, too. Luke Bryan has Wallen on tour and Good Morning America airs his official image rehab interview. Last month, fans finally pulled Wallen out of country radio purgatory. He announced a world tour for 2022 that promises to more than make up for 2021.
Listening to mainstream country and even “alternative” country is like standing in a wax museum — a bunch of two-dimensional representations that only vaguely resemble their three-dimensional referents.
Wallen’s fans are not Isbell’s audience at The Ryman, but the impulse that makes them country music’s most desirable demographic still casts a long shadow. Nashville media seems unsure of what to make of Isbell’s Ryman residency. Journalists such as Marissa Moss, who has covered the women of country music for years, know that Black women opening for Isbell at The Ryman during the woke country identity crisis is important. But other media makers who do not want to go on record worry that their readers are over “diversity” stories about country music. While the audience may be tired of diversity, Isbell invited these seven artists to open his celebrated residency for a very good reason: They are lifting a tired genre beyond its raising. It is good allyship but it is also good business because these women were more than ready for their Ryman debut.
Spencer, a classically trained musician from Baltimore with a business degree, did not fall into country music. She chose country music. “Any industry that doesn’t broaden its horizons fails,” she told me, sounding like both an artist and a marketing major. Spencer rejects the idea that Black people do not like country music. “As you diversify, the show runs, as you diversify the artists that are on the lineup, you are going to start seeing the audience become bigger. You start to see the demographic change a bit.”
Just like I do not feel safe in real honky-tonks, Spencer is betting that thousands of other fans feel the same way. Seeing her take up space on a country music stage, with a guitar and a shiny satin skirt, is her way of signaling to Black listeners that there is space for them. Like Spencer, Kiah has no problem taking up space in country music. And the audience is following her there. “I’m definitely noticing more and more people of different walks of life, more queer people, more people of color saying that they love what I’m doing.” Still, she is overwhelmed by what Isbell created with this run of shows. “I never thought I would see anything like this.” On the festival and live music circuit where young acts cut their teeth, it is a big deal for one Black artist to be booked — by booking seven Black women for one show, Isbell bucked the idea that diversity means tokenism. “It’s not like it’s a competition or like only one Black woman can be here,” explained Russell.
Victoria knows what it is like to be “courted as a token” and to embody a country industry booker or producer’s entire diversity initiative. She has taken both country music and its genre cousin, Americana, to task for trying to “coopt me and their diversity.” The Ryman residency “feels different, because that spirit of abundance has been extended to us in this moment,” she said. Russell has felt the same sting of tokenism that Victoria rebels against. “Those of us working in these rootsy, Americanish [genres] have been so tokenized and fetishized and isolated for so long,” she said. Those kinds of baseline industry experiences make it easy to be a white savior in country music.
All it takes is a speech or a “prayers and thoughts” social media post to appear radical. Russell adds that the spirit of abundance Isbell has created is not just performative. “Jason is like a white man decoy to make people listen to us. He is paying us all really generously and giving us a real 45-minute set.” It is an implicit critique of what the industry has not given these artists before: pay, time and respect.
Night after night during The Ryman residency, the opening acts rewrite country music’s repertoire by performing really good music. They weren’t just Black voices but fully inhabited Black bodies interpreting country music on their own terms. Oladokun embodies cool. She transforms the country singer-songwriter mold into something fresh and modern. There are strains of the 1990s pop-soul music that Oladokun prefers — “No music made past 1997 in my studio!” — and a world music melange of reggae, Afrobeat and roots.
Spencer is so dynamic that the audience never stands a chance. Reticent of new-to-them artists, an audience can be polite if fickle for opening acts. Audience members on their way to the concession stand are pulled back into the auditorium when she starts singing. Like all the opening acts, Spencer takes a turn with Isbell onstage. They perform his rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and her vocal training is on full display. She rides under the groove and then in its pocket. By the end of the performance, she is leading the band, pulling them deeper into soulful runs.
Spencer is a proudly independent artist and an example of the significance that travels with Black sound as it moves through white sonic spaces. Save for the event’s truest traditional country-pop star, Guyton, Spencer is the most mainstream of all the opening acts. Her songs rival anything female country music darlings Carly Pearce or Gabby Barrett has put out over the last two years. But Spencer brings something to country music that her white peers do not. Her set is the best example of the entire residency of why Black women country artists, moreso than men or other racial minorities, challenge country’s genre conventions. Black women sound Black.
Spencer has that voice. Even when her melodies are pretty or her vocal delivery is light and airy (as it is on “Sorrys Don’t Work No More”), Spencer’s voice has the richness of a Black female vocalist. There is a bottom range to her high notes that do not whistle with inconsequence. Even as they float, the notes seem tethered to something solid. Writing on how we assign racial meaning to music, UCLA musicology professor Nina Sun Eidsheim says that what we hear in vocal performances is not merely biological but also cultural. And, if a culture assigns significant value to racial difference as ours does, then the culture works hard to find racial codes in voices. Consider the odd preoccupation with whether one “sounds” white or if an artist has “appropriated” the cultural stylings of an ethnic group. Your ears may be agnostic, but your brain really wants you to figure out the racial identity embedded in a musical performance.
In country music, this presents a spectacular challenge. No one blinks twice at a British soul singer or an Irish hip-hop artist or a Black American rock band. Only in country music is the presence of Black vocal performance so anachronistic that it invites odd fascination. Black country singers stand out in country music because the sonic landscape codes white identity, white American values and white vocal performances into a sound. That sound’s marketability is predicated on this very quality.
Just about anyone being honest would code hip-hop as “Black” and “country music” as white, for instance. The racial coding for hip-hop is so strong, as Pratt Institute associate professor of media studies Mendi Lewis Obadike observes in her book Low Fidelity: Stereotyped Blackness in the Field of Sound, that hip-hop music conjures the idea of a Black body even when the hip-hop artists and audiences are not Black. Victoria says that country music makes a deal with its audience. “[White country artists] understand psychologically the people that they are dealing with. They make a deal that if you buy my art and I’m brought into your home, I’m not going to threaten the ambiance of that home.”
As a Southerner, Victoria says she knows the ultimate threat to a white conservative audience’s domain is the specter of Black people. And a woman’s voice also carries the threat of gender, which makes Black women a very particular threat to country’s sonic whiteness. Even the most anodyne country performance takes on a character that challenges the genre’s entire reason for existing. If this new Black female vanguard cannot be “real country,” then the only real truth about country music is that it must be white to be country at all.
What feels like a threat to country audience’s sonic safety makes for some fine music for the rest of us. If these women’s voices and musicality did not make it clear that they are unafraid, many of their song choices did. Copeland played her song “Clotilda’s On Fire.” Named for the last slave ship to dock in the United States, and the subject of Zora Neale Hurston’s 2018 book Barracoon, the song is wailing communion with white violence and Black survival. Isbell plays guitar on the track and joins Copeland for the live performance. At one point during the first bridge, the petite blueswoman saunters over to Isbell, taking the spotlight with her. He has been just offside, playing with the band rather than with Copeland. She welcomes the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, boy right as Clotilda’s lyrics hit the Alabama shores.
Like Copeland, Victoria’s set selection takes no prisoners. Her cover of “You Was Born to Die” is a duet with Isbell’s guitar. She also brings out Margo Price to sing backup. With her flowing prim white dress swirling around her cheeky red cowboy boots, Victoria is like a fairy sprite onstage as her body interprets the song’s melodic pain. Her performance is easily as country as it is indebted to West African percussion and movement. In their different styles and performances, each opening act has invoked what frightens country music: Everything they sing sounds country but feels like so much more because of who and what they are. They are Black and they are country. Country is better because of it and it is hard to imagine that the core country audience will be happy about that.
Country music’s not-so-silent majority is fighting the tide of social change like a drowning man fights the ocean. Watching the opening performances at Isbell’s residency, I am reminded that only a fool would bet against the ocean. These women blasted sonic Blackness into and through tired country music tropes. They sang their own material. They sang covers. They played guitars. They led their bands. They sang about slave ships and heartbreak and white violence and sexual abuse and freedom and getting some therapy. They laughed and danced and cried and rejoiced with a fullness that not even R&B or hip-hop shows allow Black women. They seduced the hell out of the audience and more than a few times gave Isbell a run for his money.
Kiah, shy and muted when we talked, transforms into a rock star onstage. She sings love songs about her girlfriend and launches into “Black Myself,” her signature song which critics credit for Kiah finding her voice. She tells me that coming out in country music while playing roots music with the all-Black female Our Native Daughters is how she actually found her voice. “I stopped doing that thing country musicians have to do, that ‘shut up and sing.’ ” Like Kiah, Oladokun does not gender-switch the pronouns in her love songs. She is a mellow presence before the show, joking about being outside the country house she shares with her partner. She is equally at ease on The Ryman’s stage. Dressed like herself in dark jeans and a graphic tee, she belts the house down without seeming to ever raise her voice. It is so Black that I giggle in recognition. The white woman sitting beside me has a different reaction — awe. “It’s like Tracy Chapman. Or an angel!” she says to no one in particular.
Spencer is styled like a Grecian goddess with big hair and a guitar. She sings her own material and covers The Highwomen’s “Crowded Table.” The song is the kind of counter-narrative that subverts a country trope just by virtue of Spencer singing it. Whereas the country music standard longs for a white patriarchal nuclear family, this song honors a more expansive definition of family, including friends and the people we collect along life’s journey. It is the kind of story an LGBTQ person might write because their chosen family harbored them when their biological family did not. In Spencer’s voice, it is a song about Black social institutions like family reunions and church anniversaries and cookouts.
Copeland performs “Clotilda’s On Fire,” a story about the blues that should trouble white folks, because, as she intimates, 1860 is not so long ago and you are here because Clotilda was once here. Victoria, a former dancer, brings her Southern gothic mystique, not merely singing about magnolias and Southern ghosts, but performing them with graceful bends and twirls. Wearing a sequined gown, Russell looks like an Oscar statuette when she dedicates a song to the young female lover, Persephone, who helped her heal from her father’s sexual abuse. This is country music for people seeking succor rather than safety.
If there is good news to be found beyond the good music — and that really would be enough — it is that Isbell is an exception to a rule that bends, even if it does not break. His Ryman residency is a sign of progress not because he invited them but because there were so many Black female artists ready for that stage. They were ready because they have been working, in the studio, on the road, and they have found an audience. Not to overstate things, but these artists have found receptive audiences, much of them white, who feel just as alienated by country music’s sonic whiteness as other people feel comforted by it.
An entire cottage industry has exploded to get sonically diverse country music to the exiled country tribes that want it. Palmer’s Color Me Country and Kelly McCartney’s Southern Craft Radio and Record Bin Radio — all on Apple Music — showcase radical reclamations of country music’s whiteout. They feature Black, Indigenous, Latinx, queer, feminist musicians and music building a progressive sonic repertoire. The Black Opry nurtures young Black country musicians the way Atlanta’s Bankhead area nurtured Southern rap music in the 1990s. Artists such as Giddens and Miko Marks round out an older cohort of women who know the lay of the land and are willing to guide new artists through it. No one would call their success mainstream, but their careers demonstrate that there are more types of country listeners than Nashville can ignore forever.
Whatever the country music machine chooses to recognize, this Black country vanguard in cowgirl boots, Afro puffs, sequins, purple velvet, blowouts and graphic tees made beautiful music at The Ryman. Each night served a different slice of Black female interiority that is rarely seen in country or anywhere else. It was Black music and it was undeniably country. “Hell, yes, I make country music. Black people make country music,” Victoria told me. “But we cannot sell white people the nostalgia for a romantic white past.” Black country artists cannot sell white nostalgia because being Black is evidence of country music’s most sacred lie.
It is hard to mythologize millions of white Americans’ desire for a sonic landscape where the civil rights movement never happened and Oliver Brown never integrated public schools, and Marsha P. Johnson never threw a brick through a plate-glass window and Eric Garner wasn’t choked to death and Breonna Taylor wasn’t killed as she slept in her own bed. Maintaining that lie has made country music bad and boring and fake. The irony is that Black artistry troubles the lie with truth that would save white mediocrity from itself, if whiteness could stop drowning long enough to let it.