The number of Black artists currently surging into country music’s mainstream is unquestionably unprecedented; however, Black artists’ current success in country music is not. In taking a look back through the genre’s century-long history, Black artists have been at the forefront during numerous groundbreaking moments.
Moreover, if we consider these eras as trickles of acclaim that bore streams of excellence, the depth and scope of styles pursued by the present pool of rising Black country stars is logical. From bluegrass and roots to R&B and hip-hop (and beyond), the ingredients of how Black artists have found so much space to be creative are quite apparent.
In a conservative estimate, the impact of country music’s current crop of Black stars on mainstream country music could equal the combined success of their century’s worth of predecessors. It’s unknown what this trend could foretell about country music’s future, but imagining what could emerge is as intriguing as it is potentially exciting.
Keep reading to hear 12 essential country songs by Black artists that helped pave the way for current superstar Kane Brown, powerhouse vocalist Mickey Guyton, newcomer Reyna Roberts, crossover up-and-comer Breland and more:
Smith Country, Tenn., native DeFord Bailey was a childhood polio survivor who eventually became a bluesy harmonica player. Famously, he was the first-ever performer (and, thus, the first Black performer) introduced on the newly renamed Grand Ole Opry radio show, formerly the WSM Barn Dance, in 1927.
“Pan American Blues,” as the first recorded solo harmonica blues track, was another groundbreaking moment for the legend. Key to the song’s success is that, via a harmonica alone, Bailey mimics the sound of its namesake, The Pan-American, a Louisville & Nashville (L&N) Railroad passenger train operating between Cincinnati, Ohio, and New Orleans, La.
Two years into his mega-star turn as an artist on ABC Records, Ray Charles shockingly deviated from his jazz-laden soul success to release a double-album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. “[The album] transfigured pop, prefigured soul, and defined modern country & western music," noted famed critic Robert Christgau in the Village Voice.
Since his childhood in Albany, Ga., Charles listened to the Grand Ole Opry radio program. Presented 150 country songs from which to choose by producer Sid Feller, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” -- a Top 10 country hit that crossed over to the pop charts at No. 81 in 1958 for Don Gibson -- was one of Charles’ more recent Opry-performed favorites. However, the blind crooner’s cover version outclassed the original: It eventually became a gold-selling Billboard Hot 100, R&B Singles and Adult Contemporary chart-topper.
“Color Him Father” (1969)Linda Martell
A wholesome country take on the Winstons‘ Top 10 pop/funk song led Linda Martell and her gospel- and soul-bred vocal stylings to a Top 25 country hit, plus gave her the distinction of being the first Black woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. To the Tennessean, she recalls playing songs -- including Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” -- to what she described to “a rowdy group of Air Force men who dared her to play some country music.” During that performance, she became enamored with the idea of giving country music a shot.
Intriguingly, Martell's version of this song eclipsed the original’s popularity, to the point that R&B DJs flipped over the Winstons’ 45 single to discover the song "Amen, Brother." That track’s drum pattern -- known to hip-hop and electronic music aficionados as the “Amen Break” -- has become a staple of both genres.
Country Music Hall of Famer Charley Pride began his professional life slinging strikes for six seasons as a Negro League baseball pitcher. Eventually, he found himself in Helena, Mont., singing as an opener for -- and impressing -- touring stars of the era including Red Sovine and Red Foley while playing semi-professional baseball and unloading coal from railroad cars.
“Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” is Pride’s signature hit, and was a million-selling crossover single: No. 1 on the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, No. 7 on the Adult Contemporary chart and No. 21 on the all-genre Hot 100. Pride’s smooth, folksy tenor soothes as he sings peaceful, love-drenched lyrics by songwriter Ben Peters about his newborn baby, Angela. “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” landed Pride the Country Music Association's prestigious Entertainer of the Year and Top Male Vocalist awards.
“Don't Let The Green Grass Fool You” (1972)OB McClinton
From the same label that brought you Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Issac Hayes came OB McClinton, a Senatobia, Miss.-born preacher and farmer’s son. Signed to Enterprise Records, Stax Records' country affiliate, McClinton added a touch of twang to Pickett’s 1970 R&B hit, proving that country music is dressed-down soul music from a folkier perspective. McClinton's Top 40 country hit about a lovelorn mate’s last gasp at love presaged a career of solid Top 100 country singles that lasted until his untimely death from abdominal cancer in 1987.
Arkansas-born and Tennessee-living Al Green was raised in an era in the American South when “race music” was played late at night and country music ruled the airwaves during the day. Thus, it makes sense that he’d cover Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” on his 1972 album I’m Still in Love With You.
“Fairytale” (1974)The Pointer Sisters
Arkansas-born Anita Pointer wrote “Fairytale,” a countrified, James Taylor-inspired breakup song about her San Francisco-based DJ ex-boyfriend, that the sisterly soul quartet recorded in Nashville. The hit touches many parts and pieces of the country and emotional spectrums, and it certainly feels momentous enough to be worthy of both the Grammy for Best Country Song and Best Country Vocal Performance By a Duo or Group, both of which it won in 1975.
Before 1974, the Pointer Sisters were professional blues-rock and disco background singers (for everyone from Boz Skaggs to Sylvester), whose voices already had the skill to dig into jazz, soul, funk and rock in equal parts. As Bonnie Pointer noted, "People think because we're always trying something different we're not sincere. Like country music. For us, it's no joke … we grew up singing country songs. It's part of us."
Nelly’s “surprising” duet with Tim McGraw could be characterized as “anything but.” The rapper is St. Louis’ favorite hip-hop son, but given that the Archway to the West is in the Ozarks, the city has a history with the genre dating back to its inception. As for McGraw, he’s earned a number of Billboard Top 40 crossover hits during his three-decade career, but via this duet, he landed his sole Top 10 Billboard rap hit.
Regarding the collaboration, Nelly told XXL, “[Fans and haters] gonna say what they are gonna say anyway, so at this point I might as well do what I'm gonna do because the more I succeed and prove to them that if my [country music song] is hot, the more I'm allowed to do whatever the f--k I wanna do."
The Big & Rich- and Gretchen Wilson-affiliated Cowboy Troy followed up a feature on Big & Rich's 2004 release "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" with this Top 50 "hick-hop" track. If you’re looking for a sense of precisely what a certain percentage of the country fanbase was thinking during the era -- and could still be thinking now -- look no further than when Cowboy Troy describes himself as a “big blackneck” whose success is “impossible, improbable and too radical.” Noting that he’s already wowed Tim McGraw and been on the red carpet at the CMAs, he promises that his “hick-hop sounds” will make crowds screams when he, entertainingly dropping a musical metaphor, “[makes] the train jump the track like that.”
Rissi Palmer grew up with parents who loved Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, so when iconic songwriter-producer team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis courted her, she decided to stay true to her country roots. Given that Jam and Lewis count Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Yolanda Adams, Mary J. Blige and numerous others among their collaborators, it’s clear that Palmer's gifted.
"Country Girl" reached No. 54 on the Hot Country chart. Palmer sings about “Georgia peaches from Savannah Beach” and “[having] kin from West Virginia” “[to] show the world you’re a country girl,” and she noted to Country Music Weekly that the song is “about how you don’t have to be from the South to be a country girl. It’s a set of values and morals you grow up with.” The song established a cross-cultural connectivity in the country experience that continues to expand across racial lines in the modern era.
Folk-rocking country met the expectation of how former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker would meld his pop audience with his country foray. “Alright” was his third No. 1 single from his debut country album, 2008’s Learn to Live. Impressively, Rucker kicked off the country half of his performing life as the first country music singer since Wynonna Judd to have their first three singles ascend to the top of the country charts. Described as melding the styles of Merle Haggard and Rucker’s former band, its steel guitar keeps the song deeply based in the country tradition.
Refitting Blu Cantrell's then-decade-old pop/R&B crossover hit as a banjo-lead dance tune was par for the course for Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson's attempt at reclaiming the banjo's African-American roots in folk, bluegrass, roots and country music. Buoyed by this pop-familiar song with folk-country adaptability, the album from whence it came -- 2010's Genuine Negro Jig -- won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Regarding the key to the track’s unique connective energy, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke noted, “The basic rule of the Drops’ repertoire is that everything has some black and country in it, and you can work a jug and the clacking of cow-rib bones into almost anything. Gidden’s plaintive fiddle, Flemons’ rattling bones, and the heavy-march rhythm captured the powerful memory and sorrow of a people dancing under the weight of history, not of their choosing.”