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Two Nashville Paths Converge In Rodney Atkins' Collaboration With Fisk Jubilee Singers

Rodney Atkins
Frederick Breedon IV/Getty Images

Rodney Atkins performs during the Rodney Atkins 4th Annual Music City Gives Back on June 3, 2014 in Nashville, Tenn.

When the Academy of Country Music (ACM) granted recent membership to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the event was doubly significant: It recognized an expansion of the ethnic diversity taking hold in country, and it represented a full-circle moment as country was united with a group that helped build the infrastructure that made Nashville the genre's home base.

The Fisk ensemble is featured on Rodney Atkins' single "Caught Up in the Country," which is at No. 25 on the Country Airplay chart dated March 2. It represents the first top 30 appearance on the list for the Fisk group, which will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2021, a year before the centennial of the first country recording session. Their contributions are particularly apparent in a breakdown section on "Caught Up in the Country," which has Atkins singing above the voices, claps and stomps of the 16-member choir.   

"I was told several times along the way that it would never work," says Atkins.

It's not the first time the Fisk singers have intersected with country. They have performed with Faith Hill and Hank Williams Jr. and have appeared on recordings by Phil Vassar, Lee Greenwood and Shania Twain, who employed them on "God Bless the Child," which peaked at No. 48 on Hot Country Songs in 1997.

But it's the first time the Fisk ensemble has received a "feature," and it comes at an opportune juncture in country's evolution. Kane Brown, Darius Rucker and Jimmie Allen are current hitmakers of African-American descent. PBS profiled Charley Pride in an American Masters episode that debuted Feb. 22, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum held a panel on Feb. 23 that explored the contributions of Ray Charles
in conjunction with the rerelease of both volumes of his landmark 1960s albums Modern Sounds
in Country Music
.

"I like country music personally," says Crystal Brooks, one of the Fisk alto voices on "Caught Up in the Country." She is heartened, she adds, "to see artists that look like me entering those spaces and to know that we're able to go perform songs like this, merging all these different cultures."

"Caught Up in the Country" was a direct result of a 2017 merger in which Atkins, at the urging of Curb | Word Entertainment chairman Mike Curb and CEO of recorded music and publishing Jim Ed Norman, sang "Working On a Building" with the Fisk singers during a 2017 benefit at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Atkins knew little of the group's history at the time, but he was overwhelmed when he walked into a rehearsal where the singers were already raising the rafters.

"I was completely blown away by the energy, the spirit," he says. "I looked at my wife [songwriter Rose Falcon], and she had tears in her eyes. That little building, it was just lit up in there. And we left just feeling unbelievable."

Within weeks of the Ryman appearance, THiS Music GM/partner Rusty Gaston pitched "Caught Up in the Country" to Atkins, who saw it as a song that connected the earth to the sky. The Fisk ensemble, he thought, could enhance that lyrical message.

"What the song gave to me was this feeling of the outdoors, this connection that you have with God when you're out there," he says. "It's that expression, ‘Some people go to church and think about fishing. Some people go fishing and think about God.'"

The choir's musical director, Fisk University associate professor of music Dr. Paul T. Kwami, agreed to the collaboration even before hearing the song because of his belief in Atkins -- and because the concept fit his belief in music's mission.

"Every culture has its unique music or language, but all of us make this world a good place as long as we can accept each other, as long as we're willing to respect other cultures and accept them for who they are," says Kwami. "If every culture chose to stay within a box and not branch out and even learn about other cultures, I don't think that we would be able to express true love the way it should be expressed."

That outreach is ingrained in the Fisk singers' history. Fisk University was founded a year after the 13th Amendment passed in December 1865, becoming the first American college to offer a liberal arts degree to "young men and women, irrespective of color," according to FiskJubileeSingers.org. Within five years, the institution was in financial straits, and the group began touring to raise money. It sang Negro spirituals, which were previously unfamiliar to the masses, and gave their a cappella performances in formal dress, countering the dismissive blackface format that dominated theatrical depictions at the time.

Green Book, which won the Oscar for best picture, best supporting actor and best original screenplay at the Academy Awards on Feb. 24, demonstrated how treacherous it was for a single African-American musician to tour amid segregated communities in the 1960s. The Fisk singers, whose number has always exceeded nine vocalists, represented an easier target for discrimination.

"There was no Green Book, no reference," says Brooks. "It was just massive trekking through, trying not to get kicked off of trains. It amazes me when I think about it."

Country music, first recorded in 1922, was considered a niche market, much like spirituals and "race records," though it often has been referred to as "the white man's blues." Country and black music tracked very different routes publicly, though there was some distinct overlap, including the early presence of Deford Bailey on the Grand Ole Opry and the influence of African-American musicians who mentored at least three of country's pioneers: Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and bluegrass founder Bill Monroe.

Both music forms are rooted in similar belief systems, working-class attitudes and a hope for a better life, whether it arrives on earth or in the hereafter: "Working On a Building" operates with the same belief in a heavenly reward as country's foundational Carter Family song "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Both also speak to some form of oppression: The sense of being an outcast is obvious in the slave songs that form the Fisk canon, but it's there, too, in every country song that seeks to defend being country.

Atkins feels that outcast nature from his own history. As an orphan who lived at the Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Knoxville, Tenn., he was adopted and returned several times before a family took him in permanently. It's a storyline that he still struggles to overcome.

"It does get in your psyche," he allows. "There is something that is in the back of your mind that you always wrestle with, of whether you belong. My manager has always had to tell me from time to time, ‘Look, man, you belong.' "

That's the ultimate significance of the Fisk singers' membership in the ACM and their ascent on the country chart. At a time when racist rhetoric is on the rise in America, a historically white music format is opening its arms to talent, recognizing the commonalities between two cultures and emphasizing the hope at the heart of both genres. It's simply saying, "You belong."

"Us being on the country music charts is amazing," notes Fisk bass singer Allen Christian. "It just says that anything is possible."

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