Room At The Top: Kane Brown, Darius Rucker And Minority Songwriters On Diversity in Country Music
Three weeks before Kane Brown’s “Heaven” ascended to No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in mid-May, the rising RCA artist texted Darius Rucker, whose “For The First Time” looked like a good candidate to succeed “Heaven” in the top spot.
“He was like, ‘If this happens, it’s going to be crazy’,” Rucker recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s history, man, and we’ll be part of it’.”
Indeed, their one-two punch marks the first time in the 28-year history of the chart that two artists of color—Brown is bi-racial, Rucker is African-American—had scored consecutive chart-toppers.
The historic feat comes at a time when black songwriters are also experiencing a burst of success on Country Airplay, a chart generally dominated by contributions from white songwriters. On June 4, bumping “For The First Time” out of the No. 1 spot was Luke Combs’ “One Number Away,” the first country hit co-written and co-produced by Steven Battey, an African-American songwriter who has previously worked with Madonna, Bruno Mars, and Justin Bieber. Kane’s “Heaven,” was co-written by Shy Carter, a bi-racial artist, who also co-wrote Charlie Puth’s “One Call Away.”
Being part of the milestone “really put me over the moon,” Carter says. “I feel like we’ve accomplished something, we’ve made some kind of impact for positive change.”
Furthermore, during last week’s CMA Fest, Florida Georgia Line celebrated its recent trio of chart toppers, including the Tim McGraw collaboration “May We All,” which was co-written by Jamie Moore, an African-American songwriter who's had three Grammy nominations in the contemporary Christian and gospel fields. Perhaps reflective of the mixing of cultures, “May We All” includes the line, “The sound of a quarter rollin’ down a jukebox/Play the Travis Tritt right above the 2Pac.”
“I definitely see the genre opening up a lot more,” Brown says. “I don’t know if black people don’t want to get into country music or what, but I feel like we’re breaking down barriers.” He name-checks two artists doing just that: Jimmie Allen, a developing artist on Stoney Creek, whose single “Best Shot” is No. 46 on Hot Country Songs, and Capitol Nashville artist Mickey Guyton, who received a nomination for best new female vocalist at the 2016 Academy of Country Music Awards and is working on new music.
Battey moved to Nashville three years ago to devote himself to writing country songs, following his flourishing pop career. “I knew the challenge would be very, very difficult,” he says. “I’d had a lot of success [but] coming to Nashville felt like I was starting all over as a writer.”
He attributes the adjustment mainly to learning “how to write for artists, get placements, be innovative and different without being too out of the box,” just as any songwriter new to country music would experience. In Nashville, writing sessions are often conducted by appointment during business hours, as opposed to the frequent late-night sessions in pop and R&B. Battey, who is meeting with music publishers for a potential deal, spent his time participating in song camps, where he first met Moore. “Jamie wasn’t knocking down Florida Georgia Line No. 1s when I first saw him,” Battey says. “We understood we could be different, we could add something to country music.”
Carter, 33, helped pave the way for Moore and Battey by co-writing Sugarland’s 2010 hit, “Stuck Like Glue,” which features an infectious hip-hop loop and reached No. 2 on Hot Country Songs and No. 17 on the Hot 100. “Shy was the guy who broke in first that was African-American,” Battey says. “People were like, ‘Shy Carter: if I could be like him one day.’” Carter also co-wrote Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s “Speak to a Girl,” which reached No. 6 on Hot Country Songs last year, and two songs on Keith Urban’s new album, Graffiti U. (While Carter definitely helped usher in beat-driven songs, a handful of African-American songwriters have scored country chart-toppers in modern times, including Anthony L. Smith -- for Lonestar in 2000 and Chris Young in 2011 -- and Alice Randall, writing for Trisha Yearwood in 1994).
With so many country songs from the likes of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Sam Hunt infusing R&B or rap elements, Carter says that when he tries to write a traditional country song, often “that’s not what [the artists] always want. They want something that’s going to push the boundaries. They want country music to change a little bit and incorporate elements from other places.”
While generally smooth, Carter’s journey hasn’t been without bumps. Nashville publishing companies celebrate their No. 1 songs by placing banners in their front yards with photos of the songwriters. When Billy Currington’s “Don’t Hurt Like It Used To,” co-written by Carter, reached the top of the Country Airplay chart in 2016, someone tweeted that Carter’s success must have been a byproduct of “musical affirmative action.” “It got tweeted 300 times,” Carter says. “It really hurt me. It’s so rude to me.”
Battey hasn't experienced anythng that blatant. “It was more that a few people told me if ‘you’re not born and raised country, you shouldn’t write country,’” he says.
Brown, in a post taken down shortly after it was posted and without any further clarification, tweeted in February, “Damn, some people in Nashville who have pub deals won’t write with me because I’m black. Aight…I’m still gonna do my thing.”
Moore, who moved to Nashville from Muscle Shoals, Ala., in 2002, made his mark first in the Contemporary Christian community, transitioning to country music after an executive at BMG’s music publishing division encouraged him to. Moore’s first country cut was “Breaking,” an album track on the Swon Brothers' self-titled LP in 2014, followed by “Mexico,” an album cut on Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller LP in 2015.
“For the most part, everyone was very welcoming,” Moore says. “Most of the time when people think you’re talented and may have something to offer, you’re accepted.” He adds that he was used to walking into a room where he was the only person of color. “There’s not a lot of black people doing contemporary Christian music either.” Still, when Moore switched publishers from BMG to Big Loud Mountain/Big Loud Shirt in 2017, the company put out a statement heralding Big Loud’s “mission to build a forward-thinking music company.”
After hitting No. 1, all three writers say their calendars are filling up. Moore has a cut on Blake Shelton’s new album, as well as one on new artist Morgan Wallen’s full length debut, and he’s waiting to hear if a song he wrote with Brown will be on the singer's next album.
“There are reach-outs that never really happened before, people emailing me saying, 'We should work together,' from A&R execs, publishing guys,” Battey says. “You have to prove your worth.”
And Carter, despite the Twitter debacle, felt so welcomed by the country community at the 2017 BMI Country Awards in November that he moved from New York to Nashville four months ago. “I felt so much love, I was so embraced, that I Googled houses in the area and bought the first one I saw with a studio,” he says.
For the final word, Billboard turned to the legendary Charley Pride, who landed more than 50 top 10s on Billboard’s Country Songs chart in the ‘70s and is one of only two African-American artists in the Country Music Hall of Fame. “Slowly but surely, a lot of things are changing,” he says. “But it’s not changing too fast. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Tom Roland provided assistance on this story.