How a black-created music genre became country

Black history in country music

Illustration: April Kinney • The Sentry
The important history behind a popular genre. 

Think about the term “country music.” What images or concepts pop up when hearing that? For many, it’s pickup trucks, beer, God, and blue jeans. People like Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, or Johnny Cash. More recently, the person who could float to the surface is Morgan Wallen, who in early Feb. 2021 was filmed yelling a racial slur after returning home from a bender with friends.

While the act in and of itself is egregious, the history of the industry in which Wallen built a career wouldn’t be what it is without the historical influences of the people he degraded.

Take the banjo, for one. While the instrument may be less commonly used in modern country music, it laid the foundation for the genre. The instrument is similar to West African lutes made from gourds that slaves brought to America. Banjos became the backbone of slave culture in the American South. As the notoriety of it rose, it was appropriated and spread throughout the nation.

How exactly did the popularity of the banjo spread? Through minstrel shows, of course. A notable minstrel performer who served as a influence for legendary country musicians, Emmett Miller spread the notoriety of “hillbilly music,” which later was coined “country music.”

Once the genre gained popularity, many record companies divided hillbilly music into two categories: hillbilly records or race records. Labels believed that individuals would purchase music depending on their race, so when a talented Black country musician would arise, the companies would work to cover up their involvement. Oftentimes their names would be scrubbed from the records, and white stand-ins would even be photographed in their place for marketing materials.

With the inability to be visible to the racially motivated purchasers, that left one place where Black musicians could thrive: the radio. There, the musician’s race could be hidden, and the artist could reach an audience who otherwise wouldn’t have given them the time of day. The first Black country music star was a man named DeFord Bailey. His regular performances on a Nashville radio station grew in popularity not just in Tennessee, but all throughout the South. Bailey even served as an influence for the radio program Grand Ole Opry, which served as a central tenant to the country genre.

Sadly, Bailey was fired from the Grand Ole Opry in 1941 and worked the rest of his life as a shoeshiner. The Grand Ole Opry wouldn’t admit another Black artist until 1993.

Nowadays, Black artists are still just only reentering the genre they laid the bedrock for. “Old Town Road” shot to the top of the charts in 2019, reminding country fans that there is more to be brought to the genre than what has been commercial all along. Sure, Lil Nas X isn’t a country-exclusive artist, but he did allow for more diversity in a genre that historically would mock him for it.

Instead of thinking white dudes singing about a girl in cutoff jeans as the entire range of the genre, maybe think of DeFord Bailey’s impact, or slaves in early America coming together to play the banjo. There’s much more to the genre than what meets the eye, and many historical and emerging Black country musicians to listen to and celebrate.

This is a selection from the Feb. 24 issue. To view the full issue, visit:

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