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Changing Nashville

As America becomes more diverse, so does its music

spinner image country music stars darius rucker mickey guyton and t j osborne
(Left to right) Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton and T.J. Osborne
Peter Yang/August; Denise Truscello/Getty Images; Robby Klein/Contour/Getty Images

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.

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.

spinner image country music stars brittney spencer the duo kat and alex and jimmie allen
(Left to right) Brittney Spencer, Kat Garrido and Alex Garrido of Kat & Alex and Jimmie Allen
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It wasn’t until 2008 — when Darius Rucker, the former lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, came over to country — that Nashville had another bona fide Black star. “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” made him the first African American to hit number 1 on the Billboard country singles chart since Pride in 1983. Still, Rucker remained alone as a modern Black country hitmaker until 2018. That’s when Jimmie Allen became the second Black country artist to see his debut single (“Best Shot”) hit number 1. In 2021, he won the Country Music Association award for new artist of the year. “From my vantage point,” says Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association, “I see the industry expanding its own lens, which is allowing a more diverse range of stories to be told by artists from all backgrounds.”

Kane Brown might be the modern distillation of it all. His mother is white, and his father is African American and Cherokee. He was raised by a single parent and was sometimes homeless. Now he’s a multiple-platinum-selling artist who made Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people last year.

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“It’s 2022. I think people are opening their eyes, ears and hearts,” Brown says. “There is absolutely room to make more progress. But the truth is, this has always been a format with fans that looked and are diverse, but the industry hasn’t always fully reflected that. I am hopeful that by the time my daughter is a little older, she sees herself when she looks at all areas of entertainment, including country music.”

For gay artists, the road has been similarly bumpy but is starting to smooth out. In early 2021, T.J. Osborne came out, saying, “I’m ready to put this behind me.” In so doing, he became the first mainstream country artist to make such an announcement while in the prime of his career.

Chely Wright, best known for the singles “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female,” took it on the chin when she came out in 2010. She says the distress over her sexuality and career nearly drove her to suicide. After the publication of her memoir, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, the work dried up. By then she was heavily into activism.

“In terms of Black and brown people or queer people or gender nonbinary folks in country music,” Wright assesses, “anyone who tells you that who you love or the experiences that you’ve had in the past shouldn’t be high stakes for people either lacks an empathy bone or an education bone, or just isn’t paying attention.” In 2019, Wright was surprised to be invited back to play the Grand Ole Opry House, where she had made many appearances before her career stalled. “I can’t tell you how that fed and watered my spirit.”

Last year, Trisha Yearwood made an Opry appearance with the out singer Brooke Eden, modifying the title of a Yearwood hit to “She’s in Love With the Girl.” “It was a little scary,” Yearwood remembers. “I didn’t know how it would be received. But it’s just time.”

Alanna Nash is the author of 10 books, including Behind Closed Doors: Talking With the Legends of Country Music. She has also written for Vanity Fair, People, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, and is a winner of a Country Music Association Media Achievement award.

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