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Black Country: A Love Letter and Living Archive

Ivy Park/YouTube

Beyoncé surprise-announced her upcoming country album last Sunday night in a dazzling trailer referencing Paris, Texas, Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” and the Delta bluesman Son House. The new foray has ignited a thousand conversations and just as many questions. Some wonder if a singer known for breaking records at the Grammy’s and a rhythmic blend of soul, r&b, and hip-hop has the chops to deliver convincingly in this genre. Is it all a bid for more Grammys, or an act of cultural reclamation? Does “reclamation” even matter? Will she cover “Jolene”? The trailer embraces the open road and a soundscape of blues and early rock, clues that the Houston-born singer will lean into the meticulous archiving she has pursued while crafting her last four LPs. I suspect this album, “Act II” of a trilogy that included 2022’s Renaissance, will similarly map musical lineages while inviting us to stay present, centered, and free in our bodies. 

In “Texas Hold ’Em,” the first single, Beyoncé tells us that she and her beloveds will ride out a tornado with a bottle of whiskey and that later, they will head to the dive bar and dance close. It opens with Rhiannon Giddens’s crackling banjo, an instrument whose West African and Afro-Caribbean origins place it in lineage with the kora. It closes with the Pulitzer and MacArthur-winning instrumentalist on viola. In 2018, Giddens wrote in our pages about learning at the feet of a fiddler based in Mebane, North Carolina named Joe Thompson. Joe and his brother Odell were part of a family band who played at Black and white dances in their town. “They were also among the last living links to a vast black string band tradition that used to be spread all over the South and other parts of the U.S. but had slowly disappeared until very few were left,” Giddens writes.” “Texas Hold ‘Em” reminds us that country is and was dance music, and shines a bold light on a tradition that a few keepers of the culture, including Giddens, as well as Holly G. and Tanner D. of Black Opry, work so tirelessly to keep alive. 

Bey’s searching second single “16 Carriages” is all about that work. It is also about girlhood and femininity, tender memories and dreams, and the desire to leave a mark. With Robert Randolph and Justin Schipper on steel guitar, the singer, whose first album with her girl-group debuted when she was sixteen, croons about her own years of grinding: Ain't got time to waste, I got art to make. The lyric hits like a brick. Crafting a well-produced print magazine in the current media climate can often feel like running up a steep hill. And yet, I’m proud that we have fashioned, over the past few years and multiple forms of media, a body of work that has chronicled and illuminated the Black roots, and future, of country. If Black country is having a moment because of Beyoncé, we are here like always to guide and probe and make the necessary connections. To reveal antecedents and carve out a pathway for a future in which we’re all able to shine our brightest, sing our loudest.

In her forthcoming memoir My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music’s Black Past, Present, and Future, Alice Randall outlines the fundamentals of a country song. There’s an Evangelical Christian worldview, she says, alongside a mix of African, Scotch, Irish, and English traditional song forms. Lyrics often discuss femininity, values, daddies, good and evil. A Black country song, according to Randall, can be any song deemed country (since the African influence is fundamental) that is especially beloved by Black audiences. Black country could also mean a cut by a Black artist known in other genres who fashions herself, for a particular project, as a country artist. Which would include Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” or the new singles, or Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, or songs by Millie Jackson, Lionel Richie, and Stevie Wonder. This spring, Randall will release an album of new renditions of her own music, performed for the first time by Black vocalists. A frequent OA contributor, Randall says Black Country is “a hidden trove of Black genius” that has always existed if you only know where and how to look. Here is a guide, drawn from our own archives, full of looking, unearthing, and sparkling, truth-telling splendor. We’ll keep adding to it.

Danielle Amir Jackson, editor


History and Lineage

Start with some solid groundwork in the often-erased history and legacy of Black country music.



“Black at the Roots” by Rissi Palmer

Musician and Color Me Country host Rissi Palmer gives us a lesson in country music lineage, calling names like Lesley Riddle and DeFord Bailey. As accompaniment, it features a playlist of influential and innovative tunes that reads like a sonic map.

Points South: “Working on a Building” featuring Rhiannon Giddens

In the first episode of our Points South podcast, we talked to Rhiannon Giddens and Ken Burns about the legibility of African and African-American contributions to country music—from the Carter Family to Lil Nas X—and how that influence has been downplayed in the American consciousness.

“Linda Martell’s ‘Color Him Father’” by Alice Randall

Alice Randall connects her experience at the Grand Ole Opry with Linda Martell, who graced the stage forty years before.

“Fairytale” by Carina del Valle Schorske

Maybe best known for their ’80s dance hits, the Pointer Sisters embraced their roots with “Fairytale,” a country song that Carina del Valle Schorske argues renegotiates the rhythm of liberation.

“Music from the Magic Box” by Alice Randall

Alice Randall remembers an episode of the Johnny Cash Show featuring Louis Armstrong and the history of “Blue Yodel #9,” on which the trumpeter played, along with his second wife, the composer and pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong. 

“If You Don’t Like Millie Jackson…” by Charles Hughes

Charles Hughes revisits Just A Lil’ Bit Country, Millie Jackson’s 1982 country album.


Digging Deeper

Learn to ask the right questions with these pieces that think critically about Black country’s implications and potentialities.


“How to Be an Outlaw: Beyonce’s Daddy Lessons” by Francesca T. Royster

In this excerpt from her book Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions, Dr. Royster explores the revolutionary potential she sees in “Daddy Lessons.”

“For Daughters of Southern Sundays” by Imani Perry

OA contributing editor Imani Perry traces Quasheba, the name at the heart of a song by Our Native Daughters, the banjo supergroup featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah, and Allison Russell. 

Listening for the Country by Zandria F. Robinson

OA contributing editor Zandria F. Robinson shares a story about her father, who she listens for in gospel, blues, and country.

“Lights in the Valley (Live),” a liner note by Rhiannon Giddens

From our 2018 Music Issue featuring North Carolina, Rhiannon Giddens writes about her experience playing with Joe and Odell Thompson, carriers of a Black string-band tradition.


Breaking Boundaries


Broaden your knowledge with writers and artists who are thinking across genres and mediums.


“The Country Idiom of Hip-Hop” by Imani Perry

Perry hears a country way of thinking in Big K.R.I.T’s “Mt. Olympus.”

“Place Embodied” by Noah T. Britton

Noah T. Britton meditates on the cowboy-inspired sounds and visuals of Solange’s When I Get Home.

“Mickey Guyton Talks to Us,” a Q&A with Melissa Ruggieri

Melissa Ruggieri talks to Grammy-nominated Mickey Guyton about musical influences, Nashville, and blurring genre boundaries.

Listen In


Stay current with these pieces and playlists exploring Black artists working in country and roots music today.

 

“‘For My Lover’” by Sarah Smarsh

Before Luke Combs’s “Fast Car” cover, Sarah Smarsh celebrates the crackling audacity in Tracy Chapman’s “For My Lover.”

“Space, Race, and Country Music” by Francesca T. Royster

Dr. Royster reports from Darius Ruckers’s and Tanner Adell’s concerts at Windy City Smokeout.

“The Final Gift” a new traditional by Dom Flemons

For our 2023 Ballads Music Issue, we commissioned Grammy winner and tradition-bearer Dom Flemons to write and perform this new traditional ballad.

Spring Break Soundtrack by Leon Bridges

For our 2021 Music Issue, r&b artist Leon Bridges curates a playlist celebrating spring break in Virginia Beach.

Not in this Life: Death, Secession, and Belonging in Southern Sacred Music by Adia Victoria 

Gothic blues artist Adia Victoria, one of our cover stars from our 2016 Visions of the Blues Music Issue, returns to curate a playlist of Southern sacred music.





Oxford American

From the editors of the Oxford American.