Country Music and Race: 6 Ways to Move Forward From Here

Black History Month

I am a black country music singer and songwriter.

Many people ask me if I am the only one. Well, of course not. Black people co-created country music a hundred years ago, and we've been singing it ever since. A black man and grandson of enslaved people, DeFord Bailey, was the original star of the Grand Ole Opry. He played the mouth harp (harmonica), banjo and guitar and was the first Opry performer to have his music recorded (listen here) in Nashville - that was back when the Opry was a traveling radio show. Like many black artists of that time, he faced difficulties finding food and accommodations because of the racist Jim Crow Laws. There are a few questionable accounts about why he departed (or was fired) the Opry in 1941. Many decades later, in 2005, he was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Now, a commemorative plaque bearing his name is perched in a tiny park in Nashville.

Black History Is American History

Historically, the early record labels pushed black country artists and musicians into blues and refused to market them as country artists. The record labels quite literally split the black and white audiences and marketed a different music to each. The Nashville recording industry said then, the same thing they say now: we don't know how to market black country artists.

Little progress has been made to produce talent-based, equitable opportunity for African Americans to recording deals and songwriting deals. Today, there's only one black female country artist on a major label and about three black males, who are restricted by the absence of room for ethnicity or originality.

I can tell you that the racial bias runs deep in Nashville. Around town, even at country music events, I've been asked, "What kind of music do you sing, R&B?" more times than I can count. My black friends would have a hard time not laughing at that question. I've been contacted by a producer (who didn't know that I'm a black artist) to ask if he could hire me "to sing black." I interpreted that to mean that he wanted to give the gig to a white female artist who could sound soulful.

Despite the fact that I had two songs in rotation in country radio in Canada, I was never able to break into the Nashville music scene beyond indie songwriters' nights. This is where a venue provides a stage for you to try out new material, but they don't pay you. Instead, you bring customers to them by promoting your "show," which amounts to about three songs on the 6x9 stage. It's really more about the hang and keeping otherwise empty bars in business. Touring is also incredibly difficult because of the economics. You simply have to book a certain number of shows within a geographic area to justify keeping a band out on the road. It's hard for any unsigned artist to do this, but doubly so for black country artists because there's no demand. If there's no demand for black artists, then no matter how well you sing or write, the most connected and accomplished writers in town have no incentive to write with you. Same for producers.

To be fair, I didn't know what I was doing when it came to the marketing. And it's true that breaking into the business is challenging for most people. It just makes a difference when fans and power-players are open-minded enough to give you a fair shot. It's no coincidence that the Black participation in the business - songwriters, producers, singers, radio play and performance venues coast to coast - is almost too small to measure.

After DeFord Bailey, another black performer wouldn't be inducted into the Opry until 1993, the late Charlie Pride. Today, there's only one black member of the Opry: Darius Rucker.

Will Country Music Have A Racial Reckoning?

People ask Black country artists why we love country music. I say, it's because we co-created it. It's not something for Black Americans to simply walk away from simply because some fans and power-players keep the commercial opportunity all to themselves and refuse to invite us to the dance. We'll keep making country music because we are country music, just like every other singer and songwriter in the business. Where would we be if Black Americans turned back every time we faced roadblocks? No, we persevere.

The country music problem is an American problem. But, little by little, people are awakening to the idea that we're greater when we're all included. A commitment to equal opportunity and diversity, equity and inclusion is the only solution. Despite the enormously talented artist and songwriter base, country music can never truly become great without that commitment.

The racial reckoning in country music will come when the country music community digs deep to demonstrate its ongoing commitment to making the greatest songs possible. It requires:

  1. opening the gates to welcome new, talented and diverse voices (producer, singers, writers),

  2. welcoming a black fan base and actively marketing to them,

  3. selecting the best of the best among artists and writers for songwriting deals and recording contracts,

  4. providing mentorship to talented black artists and writers who have been excluded from opportunities to learn that come from active participation in the business and in the writers' rooms,

  5. demonstrating commitment to unity by publishing songs by Black artists and securing radio rotation for them, and

  6. cease hoarding the money and the opportunity for a small group, for the things that you hold too tightly will one day wither away and escape your grasp.

5 Country Music Songs About Race and Equality

Black Like Me - Mickey Guyton / Songwriters: Mickey Guyton, Nathan Chapman, Fraser Churchill, Emma Davidson Dillon

Excerpt from Lyrics:

It's a hard life on easy street

Just white painted picket fences far as you can see

If you think we live in the land of the free

You should try to be black like me

March On, March On - Vince Gil / Songwriter: Vince Gill

Excerpt from Lyrics:

You came here in shackles

Picked the cotton in chains

That's the sin of my people

And I carry that shame

God knows you must be weary

You've been dreaming so long

You built this country

So march on, march

Preach on brothers

Sisters stay strong

Hearts are changing

March on, march on

400 years of history

Couldn't be more wrong

A reckoning is coming

March on, march on

Battleground - Shai Littlejohn / Songwriter: Shai Littlejohn


Grand moms and dads sailed in ships and boats

To Ellis Island and down the coast

Torn away from shattered homes

They cleared land they didn't own planting seed

Fought wars so we'd be free

Now we're keepers of the peace

They were on the winning side

May their dreams never die

Some say don't speak of politics

Religion turns away new friends

Keep your feelings to yourself

Don't stand up for anybody else

But when you see how far we've come

How freedom can come undone

Blown away without a sound

Get on the battleground

Fight on the battleground

Stand or we’re goin’ down

On the battleground

Undivided - Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard / Songwriters: Tyler Hubbard and Chris Loocke

Excerpt from Lyrics:

We're all the same to God

No matter what we get his love

I'm tired of looking left or right

So, I'm just looking up

I think it's time to come together

You and I can make a change

Maybe we can make a difference

Make the world a better place

Look around and love somebody

We've been hateful long enough

Let the good Lord reunite us

'Til this country that we love's


Words Are Medicine - Tim McGraw / Songwriters: Tom Douglas, David Hodges and Zac Maloy

Excerpt from Lyrics:

Words are medicine

Words are medicine When you're black and blue

You're broken and bruised Just hear my voice again Words are medicine

I do, I will I believe in you still I have a dream Imagine, a shiny city on a hill I'm sorry

Forgive me I love you I love you

Words are medicine

This blog is about grit and staying true to yourself. The doors that you want to open won't always open, but life has a way of changing your perspective and producing tremendous experiences that you had never even thought of dreaming about. Remember to always do what you do for your authentic self first. When you do, you can lead with heart, present your very best, and divorce yourself from the outcome to the extent that it cannot be controlled. Whatever happens, you'll be just fine in the end. Dream big.

Check out this recent article in the New York Times highlighting five black women in country music. Thanks for listening.


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© 2021 by Shai Littlejohn