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The Role of Blacks in Country Music

Though their story is largely untold, blacks made significant contributions to country music.

[Editor's Note: This is an adaptation of the foreword and one profile from a new book on black contributions to country music.]

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Life magazine, in a 1994 tribute to the "100 most important" contributors to country, said of Ray Charles: "Charles took back what his people had given." While it is a stretch to say that black people gave the world country music, African immigrants and their descendants did give America's heartland music a range of musical style influences, one of its earliest dominant instruments--the banjo--its first recording using another of its dominant instruments--the steel guitar--and many of its earliest and subsequent practitioners, teachers and audience members.

Yet these and other elements of the African diaspora's country music heritage are known to relatively few people in the general public and even fewer in the country music industry. This is another of our stories that simply has not been cohesively told.

To be sure, every serious account of country music pays homage to the music's black influence. These mentions, however, are typically sparse, unemphasized and rife with other defects. They fail to explain the true nature of the relationship between black people and country; they tend to limit black people's offerings only to the musical genres the writers know as"black," i. e. blues, spirituals, jazz, ragtime, and rhythm & blues. But black people did not just contribute a narrow range of instrumental techniques and singing styles to country. And they did not contribute them only to white country practitioners, but are themselves significant country practitioners in a wide variety of styles.

The reality is that black people have been involved in every stage of country music's development and in every facet. We are 19th century fiddlers and banjoists, we are shower singers and square dancers, record buyers and road managers, artist managers and musicians, lead singers and backup singers, writers and record label owners and executives, radio station executives--and the buying and listening audience.

This is why I wrote my book, My Country: The African Diaspora's Country Music Heritage: to provide a basic understanding--and show highlights--of black people's endeavors in country. You'll not only learn how Ray Charles, Huddie Ledbetter and Charley Pride became the only black people to earn spots on Life's "100 most important" list, but also of the country music activities of more than 450 other black people. You'll learn what they've done in country, sometimes why they cherish country or how they have acted on that love, and how their experiences will influence continued black participation in country music.

Additionally, you'll learn how the culture and geography of the antebellum South provided fertile ground to develop the black audience for country--and how throughout the more than 70-year recording history of the music that audience has continued across the United States and around the world in Africa, the Caribbean and wherever else members of the African diaspora have found themselves. You will become familiar with media depictions of the relationship between black people and country and some of the obstacles many black people have faced in their effort to pursue their interests in the music.

You will learn why it is not an anomaly for Kango Laré-Lantone, a native of the tiny West African country of Togo, to have been nurtured on country. "When I was growing up in Lomé (Togo's capital), most people around me were listening to country music," Laré-Lantone says, "and when I came to the States to go to university, I had to send a lot of country albums back home to family and friends." Nor is the experience of Nashville songwriter Dwight Liles uncommon: that during a performance in Nigeria not long ago a crowd of several thousand Nigerians responded to his friend's question of whether they liked country music by breaking into "thunderous applause." Liles goes on to say that, "Not merely a few people said yeah or scattered clapping, but the crowd literally gave him an ovation. Then the audience just went crazy over the song he played. It was country. The one obvious thing I saw in the Nigerian audiences is that when they would hear the music of rural America, they resonated with it....When the indigenous Nigerian bands that played really syncopated, polyrhythmic music with the talking drums and everything would get on stage, almost all of them had a steel guitar player. And whenever that steel guitar player would get a solo, he would play that thing in the manner of Nashville music, in the manner that steel guitarists play in the country music industry and on country records."

In writing about the Don Williams song, "You're My Best Friend," which in 1975 became Williams' second No. 1 country hit, author Tom Roland says of Williams that "Even in Africa's Ivory Coast, he has been named that country's All-Time Favorite Artist." Williams, in the same Billboard Book of Number One Country Hits passage, explains his international black and other audience by saying, "We're basically all the same....(T)here's no difference. We all have the same feelings, the same desires and questions."

Country music industry journalist Jim Bessman wrote a similar account of a visit to Jamaica. "I was in this treacherous ghetto in Kingston and what is blaring out of the speakers but Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits. They just love the music."

The stories culled together in this book come from several years of researching and gathering stories from such writers as Roland and Bessman, who have produced the printed material currently available on the subject of black people and country. Much of it is available at the Country Music Foundation Library and Media Center in Nashville. The hundreds of writers and resources used are credited in context. Separately, these stories could leave the impression that black contributors to country are somehow rare and anti-cultural, rather than prominent representations of the integral role country plays in the African diaspora's heritage. But taken together, they serve as a solid platform for a presentation of the broader picture of black people's relationship with country.

Many other bonds between black people and country exist. The links are too numerous to document and assemble them all. Still, I've tried to present definitive evidence of the close, long-standing and tumultuous relationship between the children of the African motherland and the musical core of the American heartland.

I am honored to help bring you this story. As a black woman who has enjoyed country music since my childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a journalist who has written about the country music industry since 1993, I feel it only natural that I should help chronicle for you this important yet largely overlooked aspect of black culture. The depth of feeling I have experienced over the years when I've listened to and sung along with my favorite country songs is difficult to explain. I don't have words that go as deep as my feelings.

One way to at least partially explain my relationship with country came to me several years ago. I was feeling self-centered and vain--and intuitively turned on a country song, as if I subconsciously thought of country as an antidote to focusing on myself. And indeed, it is such an antidote for me. The messages in the music tend to be expressed so clearly that listening to it is my way of feeling someone else's experiences as deeply as I feel my own.

In some way I hope this book helps to stimulate pride and validation in the many black fans of country music who have heretofore hesitated to share their musical tastes with others for fear of reproach. While I personally have not been so inhibited, I have learned many stories, and share some of them with you here in these pages, of black people who have. Some of the feelings of shame people have expressed are heartbreaking. It pains me to confront the reality that large numbers of black people look to their comrades in color and mass media depictions for cues on what they should do, not do, like or dislike, rather than accept their independent assessments, based not on color but on personal choice. Nonetheless, some black people will clearly be more comfortable embracing country, knowing that at least in some black circles, it's not only culturally acceptable but a source of pride.

So, for those who need that outside validation, here it is. For those who for other reasons want to broaden their knowledge of black culture to include information about our country roots and branches, again here it is. Regardless of why this information is important to any particular reader, the underlying reality is the same. Country music is part of black culture and it is a part in which many of our forefathers and contemporaries have taken and do take great pleasure. Berry Gordy

While the famed Detroit-based Motown Records label he founded is most associated with the 1960s Motown sound, Berry Gordy is also an avid country fan. His most notable expressions of this enjoyment are the five country record labels he operated as subsidiaries of Motown. He also has shown his country side in music he has loved, written, produced, and had recorded by Motown artists.

The roots of Gordy's affinity for country predate his record label days and are nestled in unconscious emotions that even he doesn't fully understand. In his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, he both embraces and feels a need to defend being emotionally stirred by country.

Talking of the 1950s when he was serving in the military in Korea, he says, "The only American song I can remember hearing became my favorite--'Mom and Dad's Waltz,' a country song by Lefty Frizzell. Yeah--Lefty Frizzell. So what! I was scared and lonely and this simple music spoke to my homesick heart."

The simple music no doubt also touched the heart of Gordy's father, who like so many ancestors of contemporary black Americans, grew up in the rural South amid the banjo- fiddle- and harmonica-playing black Southerners who contributed so much to country music's early development.

Perhaps the elder Gordy culturally disseminated that country tradition to his son (who was born in Detroit in 1929, so far from country's roots). For as young Gordy evolved into a prolific songwriter and producer and founded his first record company in 1959, his country soul began to find expression in a myriad of ways.

It is expressed in a number of songs Gordy has written and first came to significant public light on one of the early records he produced. The record is performed by Eddie Holland (of the hit Motown writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland) and was released in 1958 on Mercury Records. Its B side is a country song called "Little Miss Ruby," credited as originating from the soundtrack of the movie Country Music Holiday. Gordy's country side again came to light in a big way in 1961 when his subsidiary label Miracle began focusing on country songs. Then, in February 1963, after releasing four R&B records, the Motown subsidiary label Melody (sometimes printed Mel-O-Dy) also changed its focus to country.

This refocused label's first country record was by an act called Chuck a Luck and featured the single, "Sugar Cane Curtain," on its A side and "Dingbat Diller" on its B side. The label would go on to release 13 more country records by Jack Haney and Nikiter Armstrong, Howard Crockett, Gene Henslee, Bruce Channel, Dorsey Burnette, Dee Mullins and the Hillsiders. None of the releases was much of a commercial success, however, so the label folded after its April 1965 release.

But intent on becoming a country powerhouse, Gordy in 1974 again started a country record subsidiary of Motown. This one was called Melodyland Records and snagged the legendary Pat Boone as the first among the 15 artists who released 30 singles and two albums between October 1974 and March 1976. Melodyland's debut record featured Boone singing "Candy Lips" on the A side and "Young Girl" on the B side; Boone would go on to also record for the next two Motown country labels.

Melodyland's office was in the same Nashville building as Atlantic Records, and that proximity provided the opportunity for the label's greatest coup--the launching of the career of country star T. G. Sheppard.

Sheppard had been trying unsuccessfully for years to become established as a singer and had nearly given up. But then he came across a song called "Devil in the Bottle" that he wholeheartedly believed in and knew he could turn into a hit. He pitched the song to nearly every record label in Nashville and got turned down 14 times, including once after the song was already a hit.

But Sheppard tells writer Tom Roland that as he was pitching the song to Atlantic, Melodyland executives heard it through the wall and stopped him on his way out, saying, "Wait a minute; that's a hit." Indeed, after Melodyland released it in November 1974 as the label's second record, "Devil in the Bottle" not only was a hit, but a smash hit, reaching the top of the Billboard country chart in February 1975.

Four months later Melodyland's second Sheppard release, "Tryin' to Beat the Morning Home," also shot to the top of the chart and Melodyland had established itself as a country label to be respected. It had two more top 10 hits with Sheppard: "Motels and Memories" and "Show Me a Man." Seeing that he did indeed have a country music career to look forward to, Sheppard gave up his $200,000-a-year job promoting records and has been recording them instead ever since.

But as Melodyland was putting out hits, one such hit led to its grounding. That song was "The Biggest Parakeets in Town," by Jud Strunk, released in May 1975. The song came to the attention of the Melodyland-Christian Center Church, which had been releasing gospel recordings under the Melodyland Records name. Though the church had not registered the use of the name, it challenged Motown.

"Motown could've probably won the rights to the Melodyland name in court, but it would've been a publicist's nightmare," says writer Don Waller in his 1985 book, The Motown Story. "(S)o they simply said the hell with it and, in 1976, rechristened their country subsidiary Hitsville Records."

Hitsville thus became Motown's fourth country label and put out 21 singles and three albums between May 1976 and March 1977. Then Gordy decided that hits notwithstanding, the label just wasn't profitable enough. But his desire to be a force in country was strong enough that he tried a fifth time.

This time the label was M.C. Records and it put out 15 singles and three albums between September 1977 and August 1978. To head the label, Gordy tapped another respected record business mogul, Mike Curb, who is a former lieutenant governor and major Republican operative in California. Curb would go on to found Curb Records, which now is a Nashville heavyweight, boasting among its artists platinum-selling country star Tim McGraw.

But the Motown label that bore Curb's initials would not fare well at all. Like Hitsville, it was out of business within a year. A telling clue that something was seriously wrong with the label is that beyond its three released albums, another nine were recorded but never released. And Curb refused to talk about his experience with the label.

Still, Gordy has left a mark in country music history. It is a mark the many fans are glad he made and one that simply cannot be erased.

Pamela E. Foster is a much-published Nashville journalist and author of the new book, My Country: The African Diaspora's Country Music Heritage

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