Overturning “the Lie that Has Made Country Music Bad, Boring and Fake”

Brittney Spencer performing under multicolored stage lights
Brittney Spencer performing in Nashville

Laurie and Debbie say:

The incomparable Tressie McMillan Cottom has a long read, The Black Vanguard in White Utopias, up at The Undefeated. Like everything Cottom writes, the whole thing is worth your time and attention. We especially appreciated her analysis of the racial history of the country music scene and how that is playing out in the 2020s, which is not to undervalue her writing about the music, the venue, or the Jason Isbell concert that sparked the piece.

Isbell, who is white and male, has a radical political stance which is out of keeping with the country music industry. One way this shows up is that he regularly features women, especially Black women as opening acts. The eight women featured in the 2021 Nashville concert series Cottom attended were Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, Amythyst Kiah, Shemekia Copeland, Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun, and Adia Victoria.

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.

Cottom’s piece combines historical research, interviews with Isbell and many of his opening performers, and incisive commentary.

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.

And …

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.

Cottom goes on to brief profiles of the various opening performers. She particularly name-checks Shemekia Copeland’s “Clotilda’s on Fire,” about the last slave ship to land in the United States. The images in the video are well-tuned to the subject matter.


Cottom’s conclusion?

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.


Thanks to Marcia C. for the pointer.

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