Candice Watkins and James Marsh
Country

What It's Like To Be Black in Country Now

Artists like Darius Rucker and Jimmie Allen and executives like Warner Music Nashville’s James Marsh and Big Loud Records’ Candice Watkins know the genre is becoming more inclusive — but is Music City taking enough action to help them thrive?

On July 10 — six weeks after the police killing of George Floyd ignited protests around the world — Jimmie Allen released his Bettie James EP. One track, “Why Things Happen,” particularly stood out: With its lyrics about life’s fleeting nature and a plaintive refrain asking “why things happen like they do,” it poignantly captured the mood of a nation torn apart by both a pandemic and racial tensions that had reached a boiling point. But it was the voices on the track that made it most powerful: Allen, Darius Rucker and Charley Pride — three generations of Black country stars singing together.

“We got a chance to represent Black country artists for younger Black kids who want to do country but don’t feel anyone out there looks like them,” says Allen. “No matter your race, it’s important to see someone who looks like you doing what you love. It makes it more realistic. It makes it seem achievable.”

What might have once seemed unachievable is slowly becoming a reality. Allen — a 34-year-old Delaware native who, in 2018, became the first Black artist to launch his career with a No. 1 single on Country Airplay (the platinum-certified “Best Shot”) — is part of a growing circle of Black country singer-songwriters claiming their rightful place in Nashville and on the charts, 50 years after Pride’s arrival as a pioneer in mainstream country. That group includes Kane Brown, who is biracial and in 2017 became the first artist to post a simultaneous No. 1 on all five main Billboard country charts; Mickey Guyton, a 2016 Academy of Country Music award nominee for best new female vocalist; and Blanco Brown, who went platinum with his debut single, the 2019 Hot Country Songs chart-topper “The Git Up.” And there are promising rising talents to watch, like country-trap singer-songwriter Breland, whose “My Truck” was just RIAA-certified gold, and prolific songwriter Shy Carter (who has worked with Kane Brown, Keith Urban and Sugarland), who released his own first single, “Good Love,” on Juneteenth.

Illustration by Israel G. Vargas
Clockwise from top: Guyton, Kane Brown, Rucker and Allen.

As these artists’ persistence pays off, some proactive label executives are backing their efforts. “The country music fan base was ready for Black artists. But it takes a record label actually signing [Black] artists to make that happen — to put them out there on a mainstream level to the masses,” says Allen, who is signed to Stoney Creek Records/BBR Music Group. Still, these artists say they need more support, noting that the music industry’s systemic racism — brought into focus by the #TheShowMustBePaused initiative in June — is something they’re all too aware of. “There’s always pushback, having to prove how country I am,” adds Allen.

Rucker, 54, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who also fronts Hootie & The Blowfish, perhaps has the best perspective on what has and hasn’t really changed in Nashville. He signed with Capitol Nashville as a country artist in 2008. When his debut single that same year, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” hit No. 1 on Hot Country Songs, Rucker became the first Black country artist to reach that pinnacle since Pride in 1983.

“I’ve been in Nashville 12 years, helping to open a door that a lot of people didn’t know could get open,” says Rucker. He remembers three radio programmers telling him early on that their audiences wouldn’t accept a Black artist, although his voice was awesome. “When other guys started playing [his first single], they added it and told me, ‘I was frigging dead wrong. You proved to me that the music beat all that crap.’ ”

Two years ago, Kane Brown and Rucker made history when they claimed consecutive chart-toppers on Country Airplay with “Heaven” and “For the First Time,” respectively — the first time that two artists of color accomplished such a coup in the chart’s 28-year history. “Kane came in and knocked the door down,” says Rucker. He believes that, at long last, “more record companies are listening” when it comes to working with Black country artists.

Both Guyton and Carter say that they too have found the Nashville music community at large and their respective labels welcoming overall. But what happens outside the studio and the office often strikes a different tone. At her concerts, Guyton — best known for her 2015 Country Airplay hit “Better Than You Left Me” — has encountered audience members waving the Confederate flag and shouting out the N-word at her.

“A lot of people have questioned my sincerity, because you don’t see Black women singing country a lot,” says the 37-year-old Texas native, a Capitol Records Nashville artist whose influences include Dolly Parton, LeAnn Rimes and Whitney Houston. “So I just started writing about my honest-to-God truth. Country music is three chords and the truth. So why can’t I sing about being a Black woman and have people listen? That outlook has changed everything for me.” She recently released the song “Black Like Me.”

Singer-songwriter and producer Carter got his start signed to a production deal with rapper Nelly in Atlanta before segueing into writing for artists like Charlie Puth, Meghan Trainor and Jamie Foxx. Working in Los Angeles was “depressing and frustrating at times,” says Carter, 35: He wanted to work with more pop and country artists, but kept getting siloed into R&B and hip-hop, “not based on my music as much as what I look like.”

The Memphis native, who has now written for several country stars, moved to Nashville two-and-a-half years ago and signed with Warner Music Nashville in January. “I’ve watched country music changing,” he says today. “There’ve been some experiences, being in the South in general, that have been hard. But I’ve felt very embraced and blessed by this community. They have been ready for bringing different sounds into the music.”

Of course, Black singers and musicians have long played a formative role in country music — a fact largely forgotten as industry gatekeepers marginalized their contributions once country’s precursor, dubbed hillbilly music, became commercialized in the 1920s. Once hillbilly music began catering to rural white artists and fans,“race” music was designated the province of their Black counterparts.

As Ken Burns chronicled in his epic 2019 PBS documentary, Country Music, the banjo evolved from West African lutes fashioned out of gourds that slaves brought with them to America. Country pioneers like The Carter Family, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe were influenced and mentored by Black guitarists such as Lesley Riddle, Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne and Arnold Schultz. And harmonica player DeFord Bailey, a frequent performer on WSM radio’s popular Barn Dance program and the first Black artist to perform on Grand Ole Opry in the 1920s, ended up shining shoes and renting out rooms in his home to survive after being fired by WSM over a licensing dispute between radio stations including WSM and ASCAP. Today, he is one of three Black artists to have been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, alongside Pride and Rucker.

Whether country’s future resembles its past or breaks from it will be up to the industry executives with the power to, as producer Claude Kelly puts it, challenge what has been “the norm for so long.” Kelly and his production partner, Chuck Harmony, relocated to Franklin, Tenn., four years ago from Los Angeles. Best known for their work in R&B/hip-hop, they recently worked with Allen and Sara Evans and played the Opry with the former. “What you’re comfortable seeing is what you end up employing, and it goes in a cycle,” says Kelly. “If the world would see more than just white, country will inspire everyone to discover lots more amazing talent.”

 


 

James Marsh is used to breaking down barriers. In 2000, after working as a DJ and in promotion at top 40, rhythm and alternative rock radio stations in Dallas, he became an artist development representative at Universal Music Group, where he says he was pigeonholed in the urban departments of MCA, Def Jam, Interscope and Universal. Then Mike Easterlin, an Island Def Jam executive at the time, suggested he interview for the label’s Southwest regional promotion post. When Marsh met then-label chief Lyor Cohen and Julie Greenwald, he recalls Cohen saying, “ ‘Wait, he’s Black and he knows rock?! That’s the f---ing future.’ And that was my first venture into the pop and rock side of the industry, which was very rare at the time.”

His career diversified from there. After promotion stints at Atlantic, Roadrunner and Warner Bros. Records, Marsh joined Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group, where his friend Chris Stacey had been named GM of the revived Dot country label. “Chris always told me, ‘I don’t need you to live country. I need you to know country,’ ” remembers Marsh. As head of Southwest regional promotion for Dot, he “took that to heart: know the artists, the music, the facts, the consumption — and the rest is your personality.” Two years ago, he moved from Dallas to join Warner Music Nashville as national director of the WAR (Warner, Atlantic, Reprise) team, working with artists like Blake Shelton, Ashley McBryde, Chris Janson and Dan + Shay. Earlier this year, he was appointed national director of radio and streaming for Warner Music Nashville and sister Nashville divisions WEA and WAR.

Marsh, 52, acknowledges the mentors who helped pave the path for his advancement. But he’s also frank about the systemic racism he has faced along the way and says the Nashville music community needs to reach out to more people like himself. “I’m a big guy and give people the benefit of the doubt, but when I go backstage sometimes I’m still mistaken as security. I’ve learned to smile and block it out because I know my artists and executives at the label get it. But some people just can’t get it through their head.” During nationwide protests in late spring, concerned family members called to ask if he was OK, “like I was going to get strung up here,” he says with a rueful laugh.

Cedrick Jones
James Marsh photographed on July 21 in Mount Juliet, Tenn.

As a high-ranking Black executive in the lucrative country music industry, Marsh knows he is still one of very few. “We have to spread the wealth and push the door open more,” he says. “Times are changing; we have to correct this.” His most notable peers include Big Loud Records vp marketing Candice Watkins, BMG Music Publishing creative director Rakiyah Marshall and Sony/ATV Nashville’s recently hired vp human resources Courtney Pender.

Watkins, 38, is a longtime Nashville resident, with posts at Red Light Management, Borman Entertainment (where she was Keith Urban’s day-to-day manager) and Universal Music Group Nashville on her résumé. In 2018, she was named vp marketing at Big Loud — the first company she has worked with during her 14 years in town where she says she isn’t the only Black person on staff, and the first that has asked for her perspective as a Black woman, both before and since the industry’s recent reckoning with racism.

“Before you can actually act, you have to listen,” says Watkins. Praising Big Loud’s approach, she points to having “a great network of people around me, supportive white colleagues and peers who do ‘get’ that the country music business is not diverse. Period.” As a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force that the Academy of Country Music (ACM) launched in 2019, she’s eager to erase the stereotype that Black people don’t like country music (one she says Black people can sometimes feed into) and to encourage her colleagues to speak out when they witness racist actions. Her own most painful and eye-opening experiences working in country music have stemmed from their silence, she says. “In all the situations that I’ve been in — being called the N-word or ‘colored,’ [hearing] racist questions and comments in front of my peers — no one ever called out the behavior,” she says. “No one has really said it was wrong, apologized, empathized or even acknowledged it — until now.”

Cedrick Jones
Candice Watkins photographed on July 21 in Mount Juliet, Tenn.

Marshall, 28, who grew up on country queens like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Rimes, joined BMG Music Publishing in 2018 as creative director after working at pop-centric Republic Records; her roster of writers now includes Lindsay Ell, Sean Stemaly, Ryan Griffin and Emily Landis, who has her first single at radio with Gabby Barrett’s “The Good Ones.” She says her time in Nashville hasn’t been marked by the “harshness and hate” other Black executives have experienced. But that doesn’t mean she’s oblivious to the not-so-subtle microaggressions sparked when she is the only Black person in the room.

She has heard two questions more times than she can count: “How did you end up here?” and “Do you like country music?” She usually responds calmly: “That’s kind of a silly question. I currently work in this position, so obviously I like the music.” Today, she says, change in Nashville is happening “as we speak. Close friends have reached out and asked [important] questions that feel uncomfortable: I see the strength it’s taking to talk about it and want change for the future. I can’t expect anyone to change overnight and understand what it’s like to be a Black artist or executive and [stand] in our shoes. But if we talk more, people will become aware that it’s normal to be Black and sing a country song.”

It was that kind of communication that led to Kane Brown’s history-making performance at the BET Awards’ virtual 20th-anniversary show in June, the first biracial male country artist to do so. Brown debuted his song “Worldwide Beautiful” alongside Black gospel singer Jonathan McReynolds, who sang his hit “People” — a momentous pairing that resulted from a conversation across divisions between Randy Goodman, chairman/CEO of Sony Music Nashville, and RCA Inspiration senior vp/ GM Phil Thornton, who was tapped in the wake of Blackout Tuesday to lead SMN’s Equality Task Force.

Goodman asked Thornton to attend a marketing meeting for Brown with Sony Music’s national team. “After listening to the song,” recalls Thornton, “it hit me that here was a chance for Kane to be a bridge. You’ve got BET, which speaks to the African American side of Kane and introduces him to a totally different audience. Then there’s the audience on CBS [which aired the awards show for the first time], which is probably more familiar with Kane. Before I knew it, I was on a thread with Kane’s manager Martha Earls and the Sony team, and things moved forward.”

There’s good reason to think that kind of progress will continue. The ACM task force, whose members also include Guyton, is “doing real work, having real dialogue and will take real action — no performative BS,” says Guyton. Before racial tensions erupted nationwide in May and June, BMG’s BBR Music Group, home to Allen and Blanco Brown, had already begun working on tracks that paired Allen with pop singer Noah Cyrus (“This Is Us”) and Brown with country rock band Parmalee (“Just the Way”). BBR executive vp Jon Loba predicts an increase in minority hires in Music City over the next three years. “There will be mechanisms in place to fix that,” he told Billboard in June. “The country community’s really good about doing the right thing, and I think there will be focus there now.”

In the wake of Floyd’s death on May 25, the Nashville Symphony’s corporate partnerships manager, Kortney Toney, partnered with mtheory Nashville president Cameo Carlson and Middle Tennessee State University College of Media and Entertainment dean Beverly Keel to form Nashville Music Equality, an organization dedicated to educating nonminority colleagues about Black Americans’ struggles and encouraging them to increase minority representation in the music industry. Already, NME has put together a number of virtual panels, titled “Dear Music City,” that address racial inequality in Nashville — from the executive level down to treatment of Black country fans.

And there’s more reason for optimism: This fall, the National Museum of African American Music is slated to open. Overseen by CEO H. Beecher Hicks, the 56,000-square-foot building is part of the $450 million Fifth + Broadway commercial development underway in downtown Nashville. At a press conference in February 2019, then-Mayor David Briley called investing in the museum an essential step for Music City “to get past its history of racism and to start to move to an era where African Americans both know and can tell their own history in our city.”

Learning from history is crucial. But immediate and sustainable change in leveling the playing field will come only if the industry takes more concrete steps to ensure that Black artists and executives working in country — and across the board — have more equitable opportunities.

“It feels like the veil has been lifted and people are actively fired up to change this,” says Guyton. She’s trying to uplift fellow Black women artists, including mentoring buzzy “Stompin’ Grounds” singer Reyna Roberts. After Guyton shared Roberts’ cover of Carrie Underwood’s “Drinking Alone” on Twitter — writing, “Country music also looks like this” — Underwood retweeted her. “It’s ridiculous when people describe my music as only ‘soul’ or ‘more like R&B,’ not country,” says Roberts. “I can sing the exact same song, in the exact same style, as Carrie Underwood.” She is currently meeting with labels — something Guyton says she isn’t sure “would have been as easy for her a few months ago.”

Music City, after all, is at its best when its moniker means music for, and by, everyone. As Marshall puts it: “When we say we want change in the country genre, we’re not asking you to create something different for us. We just want to have a seat at the same table.”

Additional reporting by Heran Mamo, Taylor Mims, Melinda Newman and Tom Roland.

This article originally appeared in the August 15, 2020 issue of Billboard.