My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music's Black Past, Present, and Future

Image of My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music's Black Past, Present, and Future
Release Date: 
April 9, 2024
Black Privilege Publishing
Reviewed by: 

There’s absolutely no doubt that African Americans played a huge role in the creation of what we now know as country music, and that this history has been largely whitewashed. The banjo is, after all, an African instrument, and it shows up in 18th century paintings of Southern slave gatherings. There were many important and influential black string bands, and many integrated ones as well, but a recorded legacy is lacking.

Blame the music business. When country music was first recorded commercially in the 1920s, executives deliberately segregated the music. White country bands were recorded, as well as black musicians who were relegated to the blues songs labeled as “race” music. But there’s ample evidence that Robert Johnson and other blues musicians had wide repertoires.

The early Grand Old Opry was a white institution, with one notable exception—a virtuoso harmonica player named DeFord Bailey, who appeared regularly between 1927 and 1941, when he was fired. After this, things get a little sketchy. There are 146 members in the Country Music Hall of Fame, but as of 2022 only three of them are Black (starting with Charley Pride, a major hitmaker, in 2000).

Credit must go to Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, Hubby Jenkins, Leyla McCalla, and other members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops for working tirelessly to expose the African American roots of country. And finally those roots are becoming better known and Black country artists, from Little Nas to Darius Rucker, Beyoncé to Mickey Guyton are making lots of headway. Guyton was nominated for a Grammy and was the first Black female artist to play at the Academy of Country Music awards.

Current Black string bands are taking the music in a new direction. New Dangerfield features Afro-futurist fiddler Jake Blount, old-time banjo players Kaia Kater and Tray Wellington, and bassist Nelson Williams.  

With that background, we have songwriter Alice Randall’s My Black Country, a very personal take on those African American roots, accompanied by an album of her songs sung by Black artists (including Giddens). Randall’s biggest hit is a co-write (with Matraca Berg) of “XXX’s and OOO’s,” which became a country number one in 1994.

This is not a history book. Randall has her own heroes, including singing cowboy Herb Jeffries, Ray Charles and—unusually—Lil Hardin and The Supremes. The latter two have modest claims to Black country honors. Hardin, who was married to trumpet player Louis Armstrong at the time, recorded exactly one song that could be called country, “Blue Yodel #9” with “singing brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers in 1930.

Randall’s claim for The Supremes is their recording of Jody Miller’s “Queen of the House,” the answer song to Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” On YouTube, it sounds more supper club than country. And that “Blue Yodel” is, well, really a blues song. Scott Joplin’s mother, Florence, apparently played the banjo and sang, but that’s about all we get here. The Bohee Brothers played dueling banjos when Edison cylinders were the medium, but their recordings are lost. Saxophonist Charlie Parker liked Hank Williams, but he’s not in the book.

Jeffries and Charles occupy higher ground. Vocalist Jeffries, who was of mixed race, rode the range in four western musical films. But the music—even in songs sung in the corrals—was far more reflective of the popular jazz and blues of the period (in a Billy Eckstine mode) than actual country. Jeffries, who was discovered by Louis Armstrong, worked with Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and other jazz performers—and lived to be 100. Charles, though, made the highly influential Modern Sounds in Country Music in 1962 (there was a second volume too) and deserves to be on any country pantheon.

Randall suggests that the Carter Family’s Maybelle Carter learned guitar from a Black man, Eslie Riddle. Carter brought us the famous and very influential “Carter scratch” guitar technique, but was Riddle its originator? Unfortunately, Riddle died in 1980, the Carters (also gone) didn’t talk about it, and the case doesn’t go beyond speculation. Randall tends to go from such supposition to virtual certainty.

Russell’s take on these musicians is more emotional than historical, and it takes a back seat to her personal story. She visits Deford Bailey’s old haunts, travels to Los Angeles in Lil Hardin’s footsteps, but skimps on the details of their lives. That’s okay, but someone else is going to have to take us on the definitive “journey through country music’s past.” The history of early and mostly unrecorded black string bands is crying out for some serious research.

Randall says that most classic country is “Black Country because of the African-musical influences. . . . Country is ‘Black as the sky on a moonless night.’ Knowing that has everything to do with when, where, and to whom I was born.” Maybe, but we need to dig down deep and uncover the roots that, without a doubt, are there.

Randall worked with stars such as Quincy Jones, Garth Brooks, Rhiannon Giddens, Matraca Berg, and Steve Earle, and the book could have been fleshed out with more of their interactions, and a fuller telling of her songwriting process.

The book has some careless errors. The car is an Opel, not an Opal. Three Dog Night did not record “The Fish Cheer”; Country Joe and the Fish did.  

Randall writes well and is good at generating enthusiasm for her subject. She is a missionary with a Black Country mission, spreading the word at Vanderbilt and other universities. The cause is worthy. And so is the record, by the way—give it a spin.