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Country music has traditionally been slow to acknowledge societal changes, and white performers have dominated the genre. Over the years, there have been a few stars of color, but in 2019, the real bomb dropped. “I think it’s pretty amazing,” offers documentarian Ken Burns, “that the number 1 country single of all time is by a gay Black cowboy.”
Burns is referencing “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X, a song that was then so controversial that the initial recording of the song was deemed outside the bounds of the genre and pulled from the country charts. It recharted soon after, when Billy Ray Cyrus collaborated with Lil Nas X on a new version.
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Today there is more diversity in country music than ever. Black artists include Jimmie Allen, Mickey Guyton, Kane Brown (who is biracial), Brittney Spencer, Willie Jones and Breland. Gay artists, including T.J. Osborne of the Brothers Osborne and Chely Wright, are also finding more acceptance. And Latino artists are expanding their country profiles beyond Freddy Fender, Johnny Rodriguez and Rick Trevino, particularly with Alex Garrido and Kat Luna, known as Kat & Alex.
Celebrating Country Music
When it comes to race, Beverly Keel, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, sees three main factors at work today. The industry has discovered that the audience will accept talented artists of color. The cultural effect of George Floyd’s murder prompted a sort of racial reckoning in America. And, Keel says, “there was an erroneous, widespread belief that African Americans weren’t interested in making country music.”
Country did have a Black radio star as far back as the late 1920s, in DeFord Bailey, a harmonica player and mainstay of the Grand Ole Opry for nearly two decades. But with the exception of Charley Pride, who had a long and successful career, Black artists would hit the charts in recent decades like pebbles in a pond, rather than crashing waves. From the ’70s through the ’90s, only a few Black musicians charted with singles.