Country Music Pledged To Change, Here’s Where the Scene Now Stands
This story is part of Billboard's annual Year In Music package, which identifies and explores the major music trends and industry stories that defined 2021.
Like much of the nation, following 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, the country music community reckoned with its racially divisive past and current lack of inclusion. Then in February, the spotlight turned its glare on Nashville after a video of budding country superstar Morgan Wallen using a racial slur emerged.
The condemnation of Wallen was swift: His label suspended him, country radio dropped him and streaming services removed him from prominent playlists. Some artists quickly stated that his actions did not speak for the genre as a whole. “The news out of Nashville tonight does not represent country music,” tweeted Kelsea Ballerini. Others disagreed, arguing that the community was guilty of allowing exclusionary behavior. “It actually IS representative of our town,” tweeted Maren Morris.
Not even a year later, Wallen is on a sold-out arena tour and is back in the top 15 at country radio with “Sand in My Boots.” Meanwhile, Blanco Brown — who scored a No. 1 on Country Airplay this year with “Just the Way” with band Parmalee — expressed his frustration on Twitter in November about the stereotyping he still routinely faces as a country artist of color. “I get tired of people asking me why I love country music and why this lane,” he wrote. “I don’t understand [why] I have to waste energy explaining who I am when a white man doesn’t have to … Don’t include me in anything for diversity, include me because I’m simply great!”
It’s a sentiment shared by Jimmie Allen, a best new artist Grammy nominee who wants to be judged on his merits. “I understood as a Black man coming into country music that there would be preconceived notions,” he says. “But no matter what people think about me, no matter what obstacles I might face, it’s still my obligation as a songwriter and artist to create great music and put on a great show.”
For some, letting the music lead means dismantling long-held systems that, perhaps inadvertently, encourage exclusion. In November, Color of Change, which helped the Recording Academy craft its inclusion rider for the Grammys, called for the Country Music Association to be held accountable for what the online racial justice organization termed “anti-Black culture.” It demanded the CMA Awards revise its nominations eligibility requirements based on Billboard and Mediabase’s country charts, which, given the paucity of artists of color on mainstream labels, excludes many acts. In a statement, the CMA responded that while it was not working with Color of Change, the organization was “working very closely with a few partners to help us shift the narrative of inclusivity in country music,” and, earlier in December, held a seminar on the barriers and drivers for multicultural consumers of country music.
Similarly, the Country Radio Seminar’s selection process for its influential New Faces of Country Music showcase, which requires at least one top 25 song on a Billboard or Mediabase country chart, continues to come under scrutiny for its lack of representation. (For the 2022 showcase, the five performers include two women and no artists of color.) Last year, the voting criteria for the showcase expanded beyond broadcast radio to include digital service providers, TV outlets and other programmers.
And while RJ Curtis, executive director of Country Radio Broadcasters and Country Radio Seminar, says that “we don’t want to be left behind,” he adds that [industry] change takes time. “There were people who wanted to flip the switch and say, ‘You have a problem, and we want to see results tomorrow,’ but I think we’re gaining some ground.” He points to major-label artists TJ Osborne, Lily Rose and Brooke Eden, all of whom came out this year and garnered support (“Younger Me,” by Brothers Osborne about TJ’s encouraging letter to his younger self, earned a Grammy nomination for best country duo/group performance), as well as the deep bench of new Black country artists making their mark, including BRELAND (Atlantic), Brittney Spencer, Tiera (Valory), Willie Jones (Sony Nashville) and Reyna Roberts.
Additionally, Latin artists are finding a home in country music. Sony Music Nashville signed married Latin country duo Kat & Alex, who release music in English and Spanish, while BBR Music Group’s Stoney Creek imprint inked a deal with bilingual recording artist Frank Ray. In October, Amazon Music launched Whiskey & Tequila, a playlist that combines country and regional Mexican music.
Mickey Guyton is emblematic of a prominent artist of color who is treated very differently across different platforms. While she has received scant terrestrial airplay for her major-label debut, Remember Her Name — which arrived 10 years after she signed with Universal Music Group Nashville and peaked at No. 47 on the Top Country Albums chart — she has been highly visible, co-hosting the Academy of Country Music Awards in April (all three major country music awards shows had Black co-hosts) and becoming the first Black artist to earn a Grammy nod for best country album since the category relaunched in 1995.
When asked to give the country music industry a letter grade on its progress, CMT senior vp music strategy Leslie Fram opts for a “C.” “We’ve taken baby steps. We’re not going to take giant steps,” she says. CMT’s 2021 class for Next Women of Country, which promotes rising artists across CMT’s platforms, is its most diverse yet, with four of 10 acts comprising women of color. And CMT’s Equal Play program continues to mandate 50/50 parity for male and female artists across all CMT platforms.
“We have to have an eye toward diversity now in everything that we do,” says Fram. “It really is essential to the future of the format to recognize artists that are underrepresented … You have to do your due diligence and find those artists — and then support them.”
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 18, 2021, issue of Billboard.