One of the hardest things to do is to acknowledge that the thing you love isn’t just imperfect — it’s flawed.
For me, that thing is country music. I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember. There’s nothing better than the sweet sound of a steel guitar, and as a journalist, I’ve always been drawn to the music’s way with words. Storytelling is baked into the heart of country music, and I would argue that no other genre does it better. Unguarded and unapologetic, country music wears its heart on its well-worn flannel sleeve.
But ever since I heard Mickey Guyton perform “Black Like Me” at the Grammy Awards in March, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with the genre. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard Mickey Guyton’s name before, let alone her incredible voice. How has an artist who’s been signed to a major record label for a decade never put out a full length album? And why has country radio largely only played her songs in the middle of the night when no one is listening? The answer is easy: she’s Black and she’s a woman.
Worldwide origins of country music
This isn’t surprising to me. I’m well aware of country music’s apparent preference for white male artists. I’ve always just accepted it as part of the industry, a necessary evil to keep its conservative audience happy. And as an Asian American woman, whose ancestors didn’t grow up here, I never really felt like it was my place to question the genre’s white southern roots.
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But my impression was that there just weren’t many women of color in country music, that the industry skewed white and male due to its nature, not by its actions. I see now that I was wrong.
After reading about the music’s complicated history and the way the industry perpetuates racism through redlining in radio, I realized that the sound I’d romanticized as patriotism has, since its inception, been influenced and shaped by Black Americans and Native Americans, two communities that are still fighting for equality in our country today.
The banjo, which originated in West Africa, was popularized by minstrel shows. The steel guitar was brought to the mainland by Native Hawaiians. And the blues, the bedrock of country music, was invented by Black Americans. In the 1920s, the industry divided country music into “hillbilly” and “race” music. But if you listen to songs by Black and white artists from that time, they sound strikingly similar. That’s because they had the same influences.
In fact, a number of Black musicians even played on “hillbilly” records. This just goes to show how this distinction was simply a marketing ploy to repackage the same sound for different races.
Country music’s identity crisis
Nowhere is this separation more evident than in the comparison of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem.” The industry’s gatekeepers had no problem with Aldean infusing rap into his 2010 song, but they were quick to slam the door on Lil Nas X’s 2019 hit.
For years, white male country artists have flirted with other genres. So, you have to wonder: Was Lil Nas X cast out because he’s Black, gay, an outsider, or all of the above? Artists today are constantly switching and blending genres, so much so that words like “alternative” and “indie” don’t mean anything anymore. But while the rest of the music world is playing in a perpetual identity crisis, country music remains the most territorial.
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I’m guilty of this, too. I’ve been quick to judge anything that isn’t what I deem “real country.” But as a country music fan, I feel like it’s my responsibility to learn, to identify my own blindspots. And I urge others to do the same.
There’s obviously so much more work that’s needed to create real change in the industry, but we can all try to become more educated listeners. I’m intentionally looking for queer artists; Black, Indigenous, and people of color artists; female artists, because the stereotype of country music simply isn’t true. Its white image is an illusion.
Country music is diverse — its diversity has just been buried.
At the end of the day, I see this as a testament to how universal country music is. The stories resonate with everyone whether you’re Asian, female, queer or white. Country music is the heart and soul of America. But it’s time to do a little soul searching.
Josephine Chu is a producer/editor at USA TODAY. She is a Chinese American from Wilmington, Delaware. Follow her on Twitter: @jojochuchuuu