Best buddies Jackie Trantham and Gwen Kerrick have shared thousands of laughs and interests over the course of a 35-year friendship that has included traveling to Amsterdam and listening to the sounds of Dutch opera houses. Music enthusiasts by all measure, Trantham and Kerrick are also country music fans, who happen to be Black. In what music blogger Darlene McIver calls a “cultural emigration,” Black artists and fans of country music are embracing the genre’s connections to their history.
Mickey Guyton, a young rising country music singer from Texas. (Courtesy photo)
“African-Americans have never been completely separated from country and western music, but tended to have the sound labeled as blues or even rock in the hands of radio stations and promoters in order to keep Blacks out of white venues or off white radio stations,” McIver told the AFRO. “But when you begin to see young country and western performers like Mickey Guyton and Milton Patton hit traditional and contemporary country sounds successfully, race becomes less important than sound.”
McIver likens the move back to country to the late 1970s embrace of popular southern culture ushered in by the television series Dallas, which saw millions of Black viewers don Stetson hats, Lucchese cowboy boots, and celebrate “rough and tumble” living.
Artists like Willie Nelson, Kenny Chesney, and Tim McGraw have found themselves sharing the stage of late, with a new batch of young Black performers, including Guyton, whose popularity garnered both Grammy and Academy of Country Music Award success. She has also performed at the White House.
Guyton’s debut single and record-breaking hit “Better Than You Left Me” set the country music world abuzz, and caused many music industry insiders to speculate why so few Blacks had ventured into similar waters.
DeFord Bailey, the legendary harmonica player, performed at the Grand Ole Opry stage from 1927 until 1941, Charley Pride, probably the most successful, had 39 songs reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and among Black female artists, only Linda Martell, the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry in 1969, earned a Top 25 spot with a cover of The Winstons’ R&B smash “Color Him Father.”
But with the new rise in popularity among young Black performers and fans, country may be officially on the comeback.
“Sometimes you want to wallow in your misery after you lose a woman, or you’re living like a loner with a woman in every other city – that’s Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings territory,” country music fan Junious Caston told the AFRO. “I’m only in my 40s but this is what I used to listen to growing up in South Carolina and riding in my uncle’s old pick-up truck. This music is as much my life as rap or soul is to those in other regions. Now that I’m living in Ward 8, that doesn’t change.”