My Black Country

Beyoncé’s new album, Cowboy Carter, has sparked a sometimes contentious debate about the nature and identity of country music. It’s an invigorating topic that has long been explored by writers and scholars. A number of excellent books, such as Charles L. Hughes’ Country Soul, Francesca Royster’s Black Country Music and Daphne Brooks’ Liner Notes for the Revolution, have contributed deeply to the conversation about race and country music. Now, acclaimed songwriter, producer and novelist Alice Randall (Black Bottom Saints, The Wind Done Gone) provides a detailed and far-reaching account in her mesmerizing My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music’s Black Past, Present, and Future

Part autobiography and part music history, Randall’s sprawling yet tightly controlled text uncovers the roots of Black country and reveals its future in the work of contemporary country artists such as Miko Marks, Rissi Palmer, Rhiannon Giddens, Mickey Guyton and Allison Russell. Randall reveals that Black country was born on December 10, 1927, when banjoist DeFord Bailey played “Pan American Blues” on “Barn Dance,” a radio show out of Nashville, Tennessee; Bailey became the first superstar of the Grand Ole Opry. In addition, as Randall points out, other Black performers stood at the forefront of country music. The eight-fingered Lesley Riddle, who created a new three-fingered picking technique for playing the guitar, taught songs to the folk group the Carter Family, and pianist Lil Hardin, who would marry Louis Armstrong, was the first Black woman to play on a hillbilly record—Jimmie Rodgers’ Blue Yodel No. 9, also known as Standin’ on the Corner

In Randall’s brilliant genealogy of country music, “DeFord Bailey is the papa, Lil Hardin Armstrong is the mama, Ray Charles is their genius child, Charley Pride is DeFord’s side child, and Herb Jeffries is Lil’s stepson.” As Randall reiterates, “Black Country is a big tent with many entry points.” For example, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner can be considered Black country because their songs meet some criteria on the generally accepted country checklist: influences of Evangelical Christianity, African music and English, Irish or Scottish ballad forms; “concerns with female legacy”; offering advice, using “banjo, fiddle, steel guitar, fife [and] yodeling voice,” to name just a few. Randall adds that these qualities aren’t a litmus test, but “a likeness test. It’s a way to educate your ears and your eyes. Is there Blackness you have refused to see and hear?”

Randall’s songs have been recorded by artists Glen Campbell, Radney Foster and Justin McBride. Trisha Yearwood scored a number one hit with Randall’s song, co-written with Matraca Berg, “XXX’s and OOO’s.” Yet, as she writes, “I had been so whitewashed out of [my songs], the racial identity of my living-in-song heroes and sheroes so often erased.” Randall devotes a portion of My Black Country to documenting the recording of an album released at the same time as the book, featuring Randall’s songs as reimagined by her “posse of Black Country genius,” which includes, among others, Marks, Giddens, Russell and Randall’s daughter, Caroline Randall Williams.

My Black Country is a landmark book and an essential starting point for conversations about the nature of country music. It is true that mainstream dialogue comes late in country’s history, but coupled with Cowboy Carter, My Black Country feels right on time.

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