On The Whiteness of Country Music
Pete Frame draws family trees.
More specifically, he draws rock family trees. He hand-sketches — in ultra-detail — page-long pedigrees of, say, The Beatles in all of their various pre-Beatlemania forms, or little-known British prog-rock bands like Camel, or the Madchester scene. I’m into these family trees, I tell you. They show progression and history, uncovering secrets — the “Evolution of the Beatles” shows seventeen (!) different lineups before they settled on Ringo as a drummer. They lay bare the weirdness of being in a music scene.
- “Little Cabin Home On the Hill” — Ricky Skaggs
- “(The Best Part Of) Breakin’ Up” — The Ronettes
- “Here Comes a Regular” — Cat Power
- “Scientifical Madness” — Jeru the Damaja
- “Supertwister” — Camel
- “Metaphysical (A Good Day)” — Handsome Boy Modeling School (f/ Miho Hatori & Mike D)
- “Those Anarcho Punks are Mysterious (Acoustic)” — Against Me!
- “Vitamin C” — CAN
- “Fallin’” — Teenage Fanclub & De La Soul
- ”Hialeah” — Jejune
- “I Wish I Had a Date” — Fishbone
- “Long Nights” — Piebald
- “Up With People” — Lambchop
- “Ready For the Times to Get Better” — Crystal Gayle
- “Stop Smoking” — Car Seat Headrest
- “Lost Ones” — Ms. Lauryn Hill
- “Yonder Comes a Sucker” — Charlie Pride
I spend a lot of time — definitely too much, if you ask my kids — talking to anyone who will listen about the history and lineage of different bands and musical styles. Every band and every genre has skeletons — issues with band members, key artists who pull in unneeded attention, cultural shifts — that have both hindered and helped the way the genre is perceived.
These skeletons are important, because music is messy and subjective. Taste evolves and fades. Bands and genres are as organic and fallible as the humans who create them, and in so are as important to remember.
To know your history is to know your mistakes. To keep these things at the forefront is to allow us to learn from those mistakes.
Two weeks ago, I attended a show at the Grand Ole Opry. It was legitimately amazing.
Despite spending summers with my grandparents, both of whom were dyed-in-the-wool traditional country fans, I never really grasped the concept of the Grand Ole Opry. I had always assumed it was a mix of concert and A Prairie Home Companion, and, in a way, that’s not far off: with its live-read advertisements and frequent act changes, it’s a relic of pre-internet radio scripting.
It’s also a literal history lesson. It’s a representation of country music history — an open door exhibition of every generation of bluegrass and country, both as a genre and as a movement. Our specific lineup included hall-of-famers from the 60s (Connie Smith), bluegrass traditionalists (Ricky Skaggs, Bobby Osborne), representation from the easy listening 70s (Crystal Gayle) and the neo-traditionalist 90s (Shenandoah), and modern country-soul and bro-country (Maggie Rose and Jordan Fletcher, respectively).
You can (please and thank you) keep the bro-country and the neo-traditional — the two genres that have historically lathered on the love-your-flag-like-you-love-your-mother aesthetic a little too heavy for my taste. You can also skim over Bobby Osborne, who struggled to keep up (which is to be expected at the age of 90). But even these almost-cringe-worthy moments were necessary for context: it was an incredible experience to see the straight line from Connie Smith to Crystal Gayle to Maggie Rose on one stage. You can imagine a rock version of this lineup, with small sets from The Kinks, Blondie, and Car Seat Headrest — a transition from classic to modern, an actual history lesson mixed in with a little something for the kids.
It was honest and it was real. So many genres and scenes feel slightly embarrassed about their own history, but I assure you: country music is not. It wasn’t embarrassed when neo-traditional country was ruling the charts with cheeseball lowest-common-denominator radio hits in the 90s, and it’s not embarrassed about its current obsession with bro-country and that style’s insistence on being hip hop while never mentioning hip hop.
And that’s kind of the thing, isn’t it? As amazing as the show was in showing the genre’s history, just like bro-country, there’s an underlying dissonance. There’s nothing new in the story of a white genre co-opting a black sound: rock ’n’ roll also built its legacy upon white people playing black music. This is why it shouldn’t be surprising that there was one added callback to the history of country music there at the Grand Ole Opry that night: there wasn’t a black act on stage at any point.
Country music — like every other kind of popular music, really — is deeply indebted to African-American traditions. Its roots are in blues and gospel, and how those genres informed and were interpreted by American folk. But, much as we forget that most indie rock bands are direct descendants from Bo Diddley, country music is positioned as a white genre.
The Grand Ole Opry reflects this down to its core. The organization extends membership to those it deems most important — those who can and will show up to play from week to week, a requirement back in the early years and more of a recommendation now. To say representation was lacking is an understatement. One of the original inductees, DeFord Bailey, was the only black member until his departure in 1941.
The next black inductee was Charlie Pride. In 1993. 52 years later! And, not only that, but it was two decades after he’d already proven his popularity: he was named Male Vocalist of the year in 1971 and 1972, and “Favorite Country Male Artist” in both 1973 and 1976.
The next black singer inducted was Darius Rucker in 2012. And that’s it.
Whether this lack of representation on the Opry stage is self-fulfilling — that, naturally, young black kids don’t dream of being country stars because country stars don’t reflect their culture — or an explicit issue caused by the systemic racism of country music as an industry isn’t necessarily worth debating. It’s both a symptom and a cause. It’s a deep part of the history.
What is worth debating — and something I often struggle with, at a personal level — is how much weight we put into fighting the system while still enjoying the art. For me, it’s an issue of acknowledgment. For me, it’s about whether the history is being laid bare and improved upon, rather than doubling down on defending past mistakes.
The differences between R&B and Country as traditional genres are slight and imperceptible, when you lay them side by side. In his book, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, Kelefa Sanneh noted an old observation by Billboard in the fifties: “Often, the difference between a country side and an r.&b. side is merely the use of strings as against the use of horns.” But even that is betraying an incredibly obvious difference between the two genres — both in terms of musical style, and in terms of public perception: rhythm and blues is black person music; country music is white person music.
Sanneh, who identifies both as half-white (“I am half-white, which means not white, according to the rules I learned soon after I arrived in America as a five-year-old”) and as a major-and-serious country music fan argues that this is actually okay.
“The idea of a predominantly white genre can sound offensive; all-white places in America have historically been restricted places, segregated places. But no genre truly appeals to everyone. Perhaps country music is merely more honest than rock ’n’ roll about the identify of its audience. Certainly the whiteness of country music has never seemed like a barrier to me.”
Country music is not alone in this. The explicit whiteness of country music is present not just in country, but in heavy metal, and in certain branches of indie rock. The issue, of course, has little to do with whether or not individual acts are repentant or even simply understanding of the complicated social structure their music is built upon — in fact, that’s a best-case scenario in many situations.
Instead, country music as an industry is often represented by a set of bad actors and a system too complex to unhinge in one fell swoop. It’s about those who continue to double down on the relevancy of the confederate flag, and it’s about the corporate machine that allowed it to fly front-and-center for so long. It wasn’t built in a day, and it can’t come down in a day.
Which is to say, you know, being a fan of country music — being in awe of the kind of spectacle that honors its past and celebrates the evolution of the sound — can also be an incredibly complicated undertaking when you take into account — waves around — the rest of this stuff.
Honestly, that’s the story of everything. In music and beyond.
There are things in all of our pasts that are embarrassing. Music. Culture. Society. They represent a bad decision, or they represent hardship or deep-seated repression. They represent stumbling blocks and changing societal norms. The point isn’t to say “Yeah, cool, that was fine then so let’s not talk about it.” It’s to address it. To understand the history, and move forward.
Right now, dozens of school districts are banning important books. Discussion of the nation’s complicated and horrible history of segregation and repression is being mandated out of our schools. History has become a weapon against itself, because it makes people uncomfortable. This happens, from time to time. Information and history always seem to win, eventually. We learn.
Which is to say: history is rarely forgotten. There were two people in front of me at the Grand Ole Opry who spend intermission searching for and savings songs from both Bobby Osborne and Connie Smith. Neither artist made a particular splash outside of providing historical context for the genre. They felt old fashioned and out of place. They were not in line with today’s understanding of the genre.
But there was an understanding that they were part of the history. They were boxes on the country family tree. If you erase them, you erase a part of the lineage, and in doing so you lose the ability to grow and build upon what worked. Warts and all, shaky voices and sappy lyrics, completely unhinged from modern music, they were to be remembered.
To learn from their example. More importantly, as with everything, to learn from their mistakes.