Music News: Country music faces racial reckoning

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The Current Music News for June 30, 2020 (MPR Video)

Last week, the band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks changed their name to simply "the Chicks," saying they want to "meet this moment." But what, exactly, does this moment mean? There's a racial reckoning across America, and across the South emblems of the long-gone but far from forgotten Confederacy are coming down. So there aren't bands of country stars with the words "Dixie" or "antebellum" in their names any more. Can change in the country music world go deeper?

Racism and white supremacy have plagued the entire music industry for generations, but the exclusion of Black Americans has been maybe most egregious in the genre of country music, a genre that flows out of both Black and white musical traditions but that became defined by the music industry as a space almost exclusively for white people — especially white men.

The Chicks are no strangers to how narrowly defined country music has been — even as it rose to be one of the most popular, profitable genres in American music. Famously, of course, the Chicks were essentially banned from country radio after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized former President George W. Bush onstage in 2003. They might have been given more chances with country music programmers if they were men, but if they were Black, they probably wouldn't have been on commercial country radio in the first place.

Of course there have always been exceptions, with Black country music stars including the legendary Charley Pride and, recently, Darius Rucker. But as writer Elamin Abdelmahmoud puts it in his article on Black country in Rolling Stone, "Pride seemed to spend a great deal of his career trying to have as few conversations about his race as possible." The Associated Press talked with singer Rissi Palmer, who said that when she spoke to her own Black experience in her 2007 single "Country Girl," her record label made her change the lyrics before the song was released.

More recently, there was "Old Town Road," which started to rise up the country charts last year before Billboard decided the Lil Nas X song didn't have "enough elements of today's country music." That reminded many fans of when the Recording Academy reportedly refused to consider Beyoncé’s song "Daddy Lessons" in the country category. It sure looked like there was something more than music being considered when institutions were deciding what counts as "country music."

Of course, "Old Town Road" went on to become one of the biggest singles of all time, but it never got a ton of country radio airplay. Shortly thereafter, though, Black artist Blanco Brown had a number one country hit with his dance number "The Git Up." Breland, a Black country rapper, has had a hit with a song called "My Truck," and he tells the AP that he thinks "there is an audience of country music listeners under 30 who believe Black Lives Matter" and are ready to move beyond the genre's history of exclusion.

Rhiannon Giddens is a singer-songwriter and a scholar of music who received a MacArthur "genius grant" for her work. When Giddens visited The Current for a session last year, she talked with host Bill DeVille about the way folk and country music have been defined in a way that isn't really about the music.

The thing is, we don't have the lockdown on folk music in America. This is the problem with some of the terminology that we've taken into, and the way that we've written the history. "Folk music" evokes a very narrow definition of...kind of a white guy with a guitar or banjo, and even leaves out people of color in our own country. And then when you consider that what folk music is, is music made by people. It can be influenced by commercial music, it can turn into commercial music, but at its core, it is people picking up instruments and that is the way it goes all around the world. But we've separated it into this kind of, "Well, folk is American white folk and 'world music' is everybody else's folk." It's just this weird thing we do, and it's really divisive. That's why we have to challenge these categories, which is part of what our record does.

I think more categories like, "Okay, this is acoustic music, this is electric music." And then there's some really basic things, like, "I think this is dance music, this is performance music." I think there's categories and it makes sense to want to group things, but the way that we've done it is very racialized and it's very nationalistic, and that's where the problems come in.

We're going to leave you with a tribute to Bonnie Pointer, who died on June 8 at age 69. Even if you're a fan of the Pointer Sisters, you may not know that they were actually the first African American vocal group to play the Grand Ole Opry. That's right, they had a country hit in 1974 with a song called "Fairytale," co-written by Bonnie and Anita Pointer. In an interview, Bonnie Pointer said that even though it was different from most of the Pointer Sisters' music, she didn't think of the song as a novelty. She said, "It's no joke...Our folks came from Arkansas and we grew up singing country songs. It's part of us."


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