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The Real Story Behind Country Music

Is country music Good? Well before you can really answer that, you gotta know what country music is, where it came from, and where it’s going. In this article, I want to tell you the real story of country music and how the erasure of its roots in the music industry has contributed to the lack of diversity in mainstream country artists and audiences, which has caused a lot of people to feel like there is no place for them in the genre as a creator or listener. As more black queer artists of color have entered re-entered the grenre within the last few years, the landscape of country music is changing for the better. So if you’re first thought when asked about country music is that it’s not for you, my hope is that by the end of this piece you will have found a place for yourself in the past, present and future of country music.

So before I dive too deep into this, I want to say that there are some resources I found through researching this topic that goes into much more depth into the history and progression of country music, and lots talking about the technicalities of that music like chord progressions and scales and their development in country music. Those resources are linked at the bottom of this post for you to check out, I will be focusing on the concept and history of country music as an experience and as a feeling. Remember that genres and categories are supposed to be used as navigators in music, like a GPS. If this analysis of country music was a roadtrip, we are focusing on the pit stops and the cool stuff you see on the side of the road on the outskirts of country music town, the stuff that really makes you feel like you’re on an adventure. And for us, the adventure starts with a little instrument called: the banjo.

The banjo originated as a descendent of West African lutes that were brought to America by enslaved people. It became an integral part of African American music and culture in the south. Soon enough, it would be appropriated by white artists and audiences, spread throughout the mainstream culture through ‘minstrel shows’ which were blackface musical productions done by white people mocking the lives of enslaved people.They were singing songs of black experience and of black creation, and this progressed into a genre of music initially coined ‘hillbilly music’ which later turned into ‘country music.’ A lot of artists who are looked at as grandfathers of the country music scene were mentored by black artists, like Lesley Carter who taught A.P. Carter of the famous Carter Family. Or, Rufus ‘Tee-Tot” Payne who mentored Hank Williams. Or perhaps Gus Cannon, who trained Johnny Cash. As time went on, white artists, particular white men, became the image of what country music is to the general population. Even though black artists had originally written and performed the songs, developed the sounds and the instruments. Black artists shifted into developing the foundations for all the other genres we know and love today, like Blues, R&B, and Jazz.

When country music was rising to fame in the late 20s and throughout the 30s, surprise surprise , there were queers being erased from the genre as well. The first gay country song is thought to be ‘I Love My Fruit’ by The Sweet Violet Boys, more commonly known as The Prairie Ramblers.

In the latter half of the 20th century we got the rise of a category of anti-capitalistic, anti-governement country music sometimes called Outlaw country, because thats what the message was behind the music. This era of country music is called a lot of different thing but the main point behind all of it is that they were making music for regular people. They were making music for the working class, the poor, the people in poverty and the people who were not represented by the government or their communities. Willie Nelson is famous for his support of marijuana, Dolly Parton has been a huge advocate for the queer community for years. Johnny Cash built his entire career off fighting for incarcerated people and the systematic opression set forth by the prison industrial complex. Now there were black and queer artists here, like Charrley Pride who rose to fame in the 70s and a band called Lavendar Country, who released the first known and obvious gay album in history. Their most famous song is called Cryin’ These Cocksuckin Tears, a direct response to the homophobes who were fighting against the rights of gay people in America. Lead singer Patrick Haggerty laid the groundwork for artists like Trixie Mattel and Oriville Peck to rise into pop culture, as well as experience their own resurgance later, but we’ll get there. These artists were doing what country was made to do: speak up, tell the stories of the people, and put those stories out there to be heard and and felt by the world in a way that felt beautiful and accessible. This category of country changed and shifted throughout the 80s and 90s, but once we get to the 2000s the entire idea of country music was ripped away from its roots and began being used as a political tool on the opposite end of the spectrum.

After 9/11, country music was the vessel for blind and loyal nationalism. You get the rise of what has become known as ‘stadium country’ or ‘bro country’ , which focuses on the idea of a good ol’ american love for your country, trucks, beer, and hot sexy ladies, now excluding the necessary critisism and social commentary that had established and carried the genre for upwards of a century. The genre focused so heavily on pushing the idea of our fantastic patriotic country that inherently the genre became only accessible to a demographic of artists that benefiited from the nationalistic image of the United States. Historically and still now, our America system is not built to benefit people of color, or queer people, and the mainstream country pipeline wasn’t built for them. This is not to say that all of the music categorized as ‘stadium country’ is bad music, or offensive at it core, but it is exclusive to a demographic of people that have benefiited from a system that was literally built for them to succeed. Hunter Hayes, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift 9who has obviously evolved, but started in this genre) all artists that I love and that have some incredible lyricism, and some patriotism in there that even I can relate too as a very harsh critic of our country, especially now. They also write about experiences that evryone can relate too, love stories, and heart break and loss and grief. But the cloud of exclusivity hinders a diverse audience from feeling welcome into those albums, at least in a public way. The image of a patriotic america was now the image of country music, and for the last 20 years that has been the standard. Artists like Luke Bryan, Florida Georigia Line, Blake Shelton, all took over the forefront of country music and anyone who went against the patriotic american country grain was pretty much exiled to the abyss of traitor land in the eyes of the general public. For example, the Chicks. Their career was basically ended (temporarily) after they spoke out against Bush and the war in the middle east. Now here we are 20 years later, and look at the state we are in. Politically, globally, we are yet again at another place of divisiveness in our country, and since country music is perceived as Americas Genre a lot of the time, the genre is reflecting that into the industry. BUT!! The face of country music does not equal the base of country music. The foundation, the pillars, the insulation, the elctricty, that is the base of country music and it is DIVERSE. There is a divide in the genre, in that valley lies the diversity and artistry that country music was built on. It is there, it’s just been hidden away into sub-category-country until the last few years.

As you go through the 2010s, artists began to rise on the scene like Kacey Musgraves, Orville Peck, YOLA, Chris Stapleton, Trixie Mattel, and Mickey Guyton, and Kane Brown. And of course, the resurgance of iconic gay country group Lavendar Country, who is still touring and advocating to this very day. These are just a few of many musicians that are bringing us back around to what country music was always supposed to be. They are making music for the working class. They are making music for their diverse fan bases. They are creating songs that are directly critical of the governmental bodies that were partially responsible for the downfall of country music to begin with. Mickie Guyton is a particular artists that is bridging the gap of what the face of country music is vs what the base of country music is, with her song Black Like Me. In this song she speaks to the mainstream country audience directly about her experience as a black person in America, which had been amplified into her experience as a country artist. Yola, a Black Americana artist who is merging pop and folk and soul music into what i can only describe as an out of body experience. This week on Rupauls Drag race, the final four were challenged with creating a country song that represented America, and at first I was like no thank you. But as I watched it I realized that the patriotism I am looking for and the pride I have in my country is still alive in country music. Here you have a 5 draq queens and, all of completely different backgrounds but all marginalized in America, reclaiming their stake in a country that has tried their best to erase them from it. And TANYA TUCKER, another incredible voice in the community is using her longtime established credit in the industry to put these voices on the forefront of country. If country music is Americas Genre, this is what I want to see and what I think we will continue to see as we go into the duture of Country Music.

In order for country music to continue on this path of growth and change, breaking down barriers of exclusivity, there has to be an audience there. If you are someone who in the past has not felt as if you could find yourself in country music, I promise you there is an artist somewhere in the wild wonderful world of country music who has created their music specifically with you in mind. As a lifetime fan and critic of country music, this is what I believe country music was made for. To speak to the unspoken, to sing for those without a song, and to represent what the mainstream wants to put into a closet. Now the question is… Is Country Music Good? My answer is… Country music is EVERYTHING. Country music is queer. Country music is Black. It’s funky, and traditional. It’s anything you want it to be if you remove the face of country, and you look at the base. Still doesn’t mean you have to like it, music is subjective and up to interpreatation but I feel like a lot of people don’t like country because they have only been shown or have only experienced pieces and parts of it without understanding the big picture.

If you are looking for an intro to country playlist, check out my Your First Rodeo – New Generation Country Playlist. I just know there is something in there you’ll like.

Here are some other sources you should check out if youre interested in learning more about country music!

Queen Esther x Ted – The Origins of Country Music
How Black People in America Shaped Today’s Country Music – Buzzfeed
Sound Field – Is Blues the Mother of All Modern Music?
How Country Music Descended from Black Culture – NowThis News

By Victoria Shell

Epileptic Singer-Songwriter & Independent Music Journalist.

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