September 25, 2023

Top Country MV

Music videos for your life.

Black Country Is Not a Fad. It’s a Legacy.

Black Country Is Not a Fad. It’s a Legacy.

In 1962, the rhythm-and-blues singer and piano player Ray Charles attempted something new, unexpected, and potentially hazardous to his career. For his 17th album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, he recorded standards by such titans as Hank Williams and Don Gibson. But instead of pedal steel guitars and fiddles, Charles opted for big-band orchestration and opulent strings. His record label and colleagues at first disapproved of the concept. They argued that he’d confuse his predominantly African American fans, who were assumed to be uninterested in country music, and fail to attract white consumers, who might be put off by a Black man’s spin on the genre. However, Modern Sounds was an immediate hit, selling half a million copies in its first three months and earning a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. It proved that country music could be a ripe landscape for Black experimentation.

And yet, Black musicians weren’t welcomed as mainstays on the scene. With the exception of the 1960s crooner Charley Pride, country radio stations and charts remained virtually reserved for white people. By the early 2000s, spurred in part by a post-9/11 culture shift, song lyrics had become more aggressively nationalistic, and Confederate flags were a recurring sight at concerts (a trend that’s only recently shown signs of fading). In the past few years, some country musicians have criticized their industry’s regressive norms—even as, for instance, the singer-songwriter Morgan Wallen has continued to enjoy commercial success after exhibiting racist behavior.

But another pattern is also emerging. Sixty years after Modern Sounds, a new generation of Black artists is again challenging genre boundaries and embracing a country style that is fluid, not static. By blending traditional country elements with contemporary Black influences, including hip-hop, trap, and R&B, young artists such as Willie Jones, Rvshvd, and Breland are carrying forward the inventive spirit Charles celebrated in 1962. Country has long been known for its nostalgic odes and enchantment with the “good old days.” But these musicians are instead drawing inspiration from a less acknowledged yet equally rich heritage—one that reveals the Black predecessors who shaped the genre from its beginnings.

Willie Jones is at the forefront of this crossover renaissance, making songs that pull from country, trap, soul, and pop. Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, he grew up surrounded by country music; as a teen, he was drawn to the singer Josh Turner because of the star’s similarly deep baritone. In 2012, Jones received his first dose of national attention after performing Turner’s single “Your Man” during an audition for The X Factor. But as Jones’s career launched, he was disappointed not to find artists who looked like him. “I didn’t have too many other skinfolk to relate to, honestly, in the mainstream country realm,” he told me, “until I started really digging.”

Dig deep enough into the fertile soil of American music, and you’ll unearth a Black foundation. Rock and roll wouldn’t exist without the blues, which was itself preceded by Black spirituals and field hollers. Early country singers, too, were informed—and, in some cases, tutored—by Black blues musicians. The Carter Family developed their signature style after learning from the Black guitarist Lesley Riddle. As a young boy in Alabama, Hank Williams learned how to sing and play guitar from a musician named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. A young Johnny Cash was mentored by the banjo player Gus Cannon. “The root of country music is blues,” Jones said, “and it’s Black as hell.”

Although white country musicians have historically found fortune and fame by studying (or appropriating) the work of Black performers, Black artists have rarely had the same opportunity to experiment with genre. By leaning into playful, heterogeneous new sounds, Jones and his peers are establishing their place in one of country music’s oldest traditions.

Tracks such as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up,” and Breland’s “My Truck” showed audiences that Black songwriters could create catchy, country-influenced hits. In recent years, contemporary singers such as Coffey Anderson, the star of Netflix’s Country Ever After, have enjoyed attention from mainstream press, as have other relative newcomers—including the trio Chapel Hart, which specializes in tender harmonies with a rock tinge, and Reyna Roberts, who belts out tunes with full-throttle confidence. The pop-friendly singers Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown consistently top country charts and win prestigious music awards and nominations. A new collective of country, folk, and Americana artists called Black Opry is hitting the road this fall as a touring revue. These musicians are marked by both a fluency in the genre’s key tenets—storytelling, sincerity, no-frills arrangements—and an ear for creative interpolations of blues, gospel, and soul.

You can see this approach in the work of Clint Rashad Johnson, who records as Rvshvd and was born and raised in Willacoochee, a tiny rural town in southern Georgia. “We got two gas stations. We got two restaurants. Soon as you come in, you come out,” the 25-year-old told me, a hint of pride in his voice. In early 2020, Johnson recorded a country-music version of Mustard and Roddy Ricch’s “Ballin’,” mixing 808 trap drums with acoustic guitar and reworked lyrics (replacing the drink “lean” with “Bud Light,” for example). He uploaded it to TikTok, and it went viral, with more than 25 million streams to date across multiple platforms.

A spate of original material followed: the rock-country anthems “Raised Up” and “Never Change,” the hip-hop hoedown song “My Side of Town,” and “Dirt Road.” The last opens with a sample of a fiddle and an acoustic guitar before dropping into a minimalist rhythm of snares and hi-hats, cooked up by the renowned producer Troy Taylor. Johnson’s rich southern drawl delivers deeply autobiographical lyrics: “Might be hood but we country livin’ / Get on a dirt road and find some trouble to get in / I’ll take no handouts, go out and work / Get it out the mud, we was raised in the dirt.”

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and transcending social or financial hardships—“getting it out the mud”—is a familiar refrain in country as well as hip-hop. Johnson’s lyrics subtly reflect the kinship of these two genres, both of which developed as a means of expression for historically marginalized communities, whether in the rural South or in bustling coastal cities. Country and hip-hop have expanded beyond their street- and working-class origins to become two of the top-selling musical genres, but each art form still celebrates the primacy of personal experience.

Black country tells a story that’s as multifaceted as it is multigenerational. Last month, Daniel Breland (who records as Breland) released his debut full-length album, Cross Country. It’s a marked departure from his breakout single, “My Truck.” Rather than focusing wholly on trap influences, Cross Country is a collection of sleek pop refrains, slow ballads, and duets with stars such as Lady A and Mickey Guyton. The immensely danceable “Natural” is a tribute to the crossover melodies popularized by Shania Twain; “Praise the Lord” showcases Breland’s church upbringing; “Thick” and the Keith Urban collaboration “Throw it Back” recall the trap-country sound for which Breland first made a name for himself.

Cross Country affirms not only his versatility as a songwriter, but also the breadth of the genre itself. “Some of the songs on this project will introduce new sounds and ideas and instrumentation to people who might not be as familiar with it,” Breland told me shortly before the album’s release. In the weeks since, Cross Country has made it to the Billboard charts—in both the country and broader Top 200 categories. The industry is finally continuing what was set in motion by Ray Charles 60 years ago.

For Willie Jones, the disappointment he felt when he first set out on his career, seeking other Black country artists, has given way to encouragement and optimism. “It’s great to hear [about] Black folk who are just telling their stories authentically and using the instruments they want to use, the phrasing they want to use,” he said. “I feel like everybody in the genre right now, especially the young folk coming up, is unapologetically themselves.”