Hidden in the Mix: The African-American Presence in Country Music
Hidden in the Mix: The African-American Presence in Country Music

Country music is white music. Its performers are white; its repertoire is white; its audience is white. That’s the genre’s image, anyway. But it’s largely a myth, debunked decisively in Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, a new collection of scholarly essays. The book finds African-Americans throughout country’s history, from early black musicians like DeFord Bailey, on 1920s and ’30s hillbilly records, to Ray Charles’s massive 1962 hit (and the first million-selling country record) Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Country has drawn on African-American styles like banjo and blues; it’s contributed to the musical amalgamations of Muscle Shoals and King Records. There’s nothing innate in country music that makes its audiences automatically be white. As one fascinating essay by Jerry Wever points out, in the Caribbean nation of Saint Lucia, country music from George Jones to Jim Reeves is a passion of long standing.

To some degree, the proof of country’s integration is a welcome coup for the genre. Country music has been denigrated as racist; the black presence seems to refute that charge. In her chapter on Ray Charles, book editor Diane Pecknold notes that his success was used by Nashville promoters as a way to advertise the genre’s newness and modernness—its appeal to a cosmopolitan audience, rather than to a regional backwards subculture. Similarly, Erika Brady points out that scholars of western Kentucky guitar styles have been fascinated with an African-American performer named Arnold Shultz; they’ve made some effort to turn him into a Robert Johnson-type figure, one who’ll cast an aura of authenticity on the regional thumb-picking style.

Sometimes country’s institutions, performers, and audience have promoted and celebrated this integration. But they’ve also tiptoed around it, elided it, or actively denied it. Patrick Huber, in his essay on black participation in early hillbilly-music sessions, writes that in some cases label executives appear to have deliberately obscured performers’ racial identities, so that audiences wouldn’t know the recordings included African-Americans.

Half a century later, the interracial sounds coming out of Muscle Shoals and Memphis profoundly influenced both soul and country—yet there remained little space for black country performers. “One by one,” Charles L. Hughes writes, “the whites who helped produce, play, and even distribute southern black music moved toward a distinctly country base, and African American soul veterans found themselves increasingly marginalized, even as their styles and songs remained popular fixtures on country radio.” Country has always been both black and white—but it’s also, since its inception, tended to define itself as white despite its blackness.

The issue here isn’t theft. The issue is segregation, in the context of which the frame of “theft” is itself part of the problem, suggesting there was a black music to steal in the first place—and a white music to steal it. Pecknold gets at this in her introductory essay when she writes that “music helps to constitute race rather than expressing an essence that precedes it.” It’s also what other contributors get at when they quote from Geoff Mann’s important 2008 essay on country and whiteness. Mann argues that country does deliberate ideological work in creating whiteness—that as a genre its purpose is in part to “recruit white people to their ‘whiteness.'”

Which makes sense, since genres are always about recruiting people to themselves, or about creating those selves. If the nation is an “imagined community,” as Benedict Anderson argues, then genre is an imagined audience—a kind of myth. When record executives separated hillbilly records from race records in the 1920s, they weren’t trying to describe the music they were curating. Rather, they were trying to solidify an audience, a community, and an identity for which their product could become a necessary element. The identity they did create was based in part on class and in part on region, but it was also based importantly on race. And—if Brad Paisley warbling “I’m just a whiiittttee man” on the song “Accidental Racist” is any indication—it still is.

The title Hidden in the Mix suggests that black people in country are obscured—which they sometimes are. But, as Pecknell suggests in her opening essay, they can also be hypervisible—as representatives of other traditions (like LL Cool J in “Accidental Racist”); as exceptions that prove the rule (like Charley Pride); or as deliberate scandals and disruptions (like Cowboy Troy). But visible or invisible, present or absent, blacks continue to be outsiders in American country music—because country, despite its actual demonstrable blackness, nonetheless remains in many ways a myth of whiteness. Which is why, despite its erudition and insight, Hidden in the Mix is not necessarily a hopeful read.