In Billboard’s new 2020 Country Power Players issue, Black musicians and executives in Nashville open up about their experiences with systemic racism — and the changes they’d like to see to level the playing field for all artists. Black musicians, of course, have always played a crucial role in the genre’s evolution, influencing many of its brightest stars — and not always getting the proper credit. Here are just seven of the pioneers who pushed the genre forward.
1886 – 1931
Though much about Shultz’s life and career is unknown — his performances were never recorded — the fiddler and guitarist’s distinct finger-picking style influenced a wide array of artists, including bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and Merle Travis, whose own “Travis picking” method would inspire countless more musicians.
Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne
1883 – 1939
Country icon Hank Williams was still a child when he met Payne, a street performer who taught the youngster how to play guitar in the 1930s. Many historical accounts cite Payne as Williams’s first and only music teacher; decades later, Hank Williams, Jr. paid tribute to his father’s mentor with the release of “Tee Tot Song” in 2002.
Known for his harmonica playing and signature tune “Pan American Blues,” the Tennessee native was the first Black artist to play the Grand Ole Opry and a fixture on the program in the 1920s and ’30s. He also shared stages with white contemporaries like singer Roy Acuff in the Jim Crow-era South, though a music licensing dispute in 1941 prematurely ended his professional music career.
Though a series of accidents left Riddle without a leg and two fingers, his inventive guitar playing was hugely influential on The Carter Family. Along with founder A.P. Carter, Riddle traveled throughout Appalachia documenting songs and ideas that the band would later release as some of its earliest recordings.
One of the few prominent Black executives of his era, Glover wrote songs and scouted artists for King Records, which launched in 1943 and specialized in country music during its early years. In the studio, Glover also produced The Delmore Brothers, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Moon Mullican.
After 44 years on the air, the Grand Ole Opry welcomed Martell to its stage in 1969, making her the first Black woman to perform on the famed showcase. Known for hits like “Color Him Father” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” the South Carolina native played the Opry several more times before retreating from the spotlight in the mid-’70s.
One of the most successful Black country stars of all time with 29 genre No. 1s, Pride signed with RCA Records in the 1960s after producers discovered his rich baritone — and for a time, he was the label’s bestselling artist behind Elvis Presley. Inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1993, he is one of its few Black members, alongside DeFord Bailey and Darius Rucker.
A version of this article originally appeared in the August 15, 2020 issue of Billboard.