Black Women Have Always Been In Country Music, You Just Haven’t Been Looking Hard Enough

As she’s often done and will continue to do, Beyoncé sparked an integral social conversation in response to her world-stopping work. In early February during the Super Bowl, the announcement of her rumored forthcoming country album “Act II” — lead by the plucky single “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” and the stripped-down ballad “16 CARRIAGES” — raised several points surrounding the genre’s diversity issue. Both songs feature production, writing, and instrumental assists from Black artists. (“TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” features Black folk musician Rihannon Giddens on banjo and viola, while roots music steel guitarist Robert Randolph can be heard on “16 CARRIAGES.”)

Despite the songs’ rapid popularity following their surprise release, a post on X alluded to an Oklahoma country radio station refusing to play “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” stirring allegations of racism. It was later clarified that the station was unaware that Beyoncé had released music within this genre. (Early metadata also suggests that the songs were initially placed under her typical labels — Pop, Hot AC, Rhythmic, Urban, R&B — rather than country, which it was eventually serviced to.) Regardless of whether these songs will get airtime on country radio or not, the notion that the genre is attempting to shut out Beyoncé because of her perceived lack of country street cred has loomed largely.

But we’re missing the forest for the trees. Bey’s place in country music ultimately turns the genre’s proverbial mirror inward, in order to highlight a larger issue regarding the longtime exclusion of the genre’s Black female artists by both institutions and fans. These artists are integral to the foundation of country music, but seldom get the respect or visibility to compensate for the contributions they’ve made. Whether this was Beyoncé’s intention or not, “Act II” is both an album release and a social experiment. She’s helping to apply pressure on a machine designed to exclude certain acts from certain genres in order to force a change.

“I want to recognize that I do not know of any Black female country artists and I do think that this is a problem,” says Jane*, a country music fan from Massachusetts, when asked if she actively listens to country music by Black artists. “There is no representation for Black female artists in country music, and very little representation for Black male country artists. I think that Beyoncé’s two songs are highlighting this major fault.”

Despite “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM”s supremacy on both the country charts and the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, country’s fiercest advocates have taken umbrage with the idea that the Houston-bred icon is threatening “traditional” country music, identified by simple production and thematic-yet-unifying lyricism. This is due to the sonic je nais se quoi that makes a Beyoncé song, a Beyoncé song. (Unparalleled vocal runs, harmonies, and layered production.) As we saw with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” in 2019, 2017’s “Meant To Be” by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line, and even Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” in 1997, this isn’t the first time a discussion about “what country sounds like” has occurred.

“I think it is inevitable that [genre cross-pollination] happens,” says country fan Xavier, who not only names Zach Bryan and Charles Wesley Godwin as some of his favorite acts, but performs country music in NYC. In the last 15 years especially, pop, hip-hop, and trap beats have infiltrated the genre by acts such as Morgan Wallen (“Wasted On You”), rapper-turned-country star Jelly Roll (“Unlive”), and Florida Georgia Line (“Lil Bit”). Purists may also condemn these artists, but it seems that casual fans — and the charts — don’t seem to mind.

But the “sound” of some songs doesn’t negate the fact that there are Black women country acts, producers, and songwriters who are fighting to have their work heard, regardless of whether they’re releasing genre-bending takes or “pure” country tracks. What ultimately stifles these voices in the mainstream is the genre’s deeply rooted racism, inherent misogynoir, and the demonstrated unwillingness of fans and higher powers to dive deeper into the diversity country offers outside of what is already being pushed.

Chris Willman did a really great article in Variety, and he included a quote about how [country] programmers have been searching for this amazing Black woman that is an incredible singer, has charisma, has the right voice, the right song… but they just haven’t found her,” explains country music star Rissi Palmer over Zoom. “There have been more than 50 years of Black women trying to be in the genre…not one?” With her 2007 song “Country Girl,” Palmer became the first Black woman in 20 years to have a song hit Billboard’s country music chart. She is also the host of Apple Music’s radio show “Color Me Country with Rissi Palmer,” where she highlights non-white acts within country.

“Myself and my friends [musicians Denitia, Madeline Edwards, Tiera Kennedy, Miko Marks, and Sacha] went to the Opry to support Camille Parker,” she continues. “In the group you have a variety of colors, shapes, size, perspective, sound. Every one of these women has put music out into the world, several of them are signed to major labels…not one [fits the criteria]?”

Race played a major factor in the distribution of music during the beginning of the recording era, around the 1920s. Black art was relegated to “race records,” while white acts played “hillbilly music.” Both “types” of music featured instruments that Black artists are often credited with bringing to the forefront, such as the banjo, which was long associated with slaves. “Race records” would eventually evolve into rhythm and blues, and “hillbilly music” — presented as more “marketable” to rural whites — would birth country music. With this said, music scholars often acknowledge country’s Black roots and overarching influence. However, its segregated foundation contributes to a present-day aversion to change, and the continuation of Black artists being overlooked or ignored.

These days, country radio remains overwhelmingly white and male. Per PBS: “A recent study from the University of Ottawa found a mere .03 percent of all songs on country radio from 2002 to 2020 were by Black women. Less than 1 percent of the 411 artists signed to the three major country music labels are people of color.” Linda Martell was the first Black woman to hit the country charts with “Color Him Father.” When her singles hit Billboard’s country charts, Beyoncé became just the eighth Black woman to have her work appear there, joining Martell, Ruby Falls, Pointer Sisters, Nisha Jackson, Dona Mason, Palmer, and Mickey Guyton.

“I think that country is an American art form,” Palmer notes of the importance of Black country artists. “It borrows from Celtic tradition, African tradition, Mexican tradition, and Native American tradition. You bring all these things together, and it makes this art form that is truly unique and special to the experiences of this country, and that’s what should make it inclusive.”

“I really hope people realize that country is such a diverse genre and that it shouldn’t be defined by any stereotypes,” country fan Xavier adds regarding the importance of inclusivity in country music. (He was born and raised in China.)

Perhaps more than any other genre, country music thrives on the pertinence of storytelling. Now more than ever, Black women deserve just as much of a chance as anyone to share their stories. As a country composed of the descendants of individuals from all over the world, there is nothing more American than art chronicling these diverse experiences. Julie Williams’ “Southern Curls” highlights Black beauty. “Seeds” by Rissi Palmer exemplifies the power of community. Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me” earned a Grammy nomination in 2020, christening her as the first Black woman to be nominated for “Best Country Solo Performance.” (“These are valid stories, these are country stories,” Palmer affirms.)

But such is life — these voices remain muffled rather than amplified, not just because of the genre’s diversity issue, but also perhaps as a means to turn a blind eye to reality. This creates barriers between Black art and consumers. So, how do we continue to bolster these voices in country music?

Support them. Listen to their stories. Shine a light. Give them your time. Because not only have they been here doing the work, they’re not going anywhere.

Songwriter and performer Frankie Staton made waves during the ‘90s by leading the nationally recognized Black Country Music Association, which had an aim to educate the masses and form community within the country music space. Music journalist and artist manager Holly G founded the Black Opry in 2021, an in-person community of Black artists and fans that commune to celebrate the art form. Equal Access, now entering its third year, is an initiative that strives for equity among artists, executives, and management in country music. Per USA Today, its cohorts have been about 60 percent Black women. There’s also CMT’s Next Women of Country, where women of color (including Denitia and Tanner Adell) reportedly make up 12 percent of the artists in the program.

Plus, there’s a plethora of radio shows and podcasts like “Color Me Country” that speak to the non-white experience in the genre, as well as playlists that highlight country music from minority groups. (Don Flemons’ Tennessean playlist is a robust exploration of Black country music, while Spotify’s “Country Frequency” and “Country Latino,” and Apple Music’s “Boots & Mocs” highlight country, roots, and Americana music from Black, Brown, and Indigenous voices.)

“I remember during the election in 2020…somebody said that the motto of Black women is: ‘Forget it, I’ll do it,’” Palmer laughs. “We’re doing that [within country]! We always make a way when we have to. Plus, Google is your friend. You’ve got the same Google that I do.”

What does this moment mean for the future of Black women artists in country music? Palmer (as well as Xavier, Jane* and likely many other country advocates) are hopeful that these conversations allow both new and longtime fans to expand their horizons when it comes to their idea of country music.

“I do think that anyone regardless of race, gender, or background can create a song that includes many country aspects,” Jane* says. “Anyone can make any kind of music they want to, [and] mix country with whatever you want to. I don’t think that my opinion of country music should limit anyone to stay in a box.”

There’s also the wish that Black women country musicians, songwriters, and producers seize the opportunity to strike while the iron is hot, but continue to stay true to who they are.

“I’m not looking at this like ‘Beyoncé has swooped down to save all of us and to take her with us,’ because it’s not her job,” Palmer explains. “It doesn’t start with Beyoncé, it doesn’t start with Charley Pride, it goes way further than that, and that’s the story that needs to be told at this moment.”

“There’s a lot of really great music,” she continues. “If people just take the time to look it up, they will find a treasure trove. Whatever it is that you’re looking for, whatever style [of country music] you like, it’s out there.”