Mainstream country music isn’t overwhelmingly white because whiteness is innate to country music, it’s white because — just like any other overwhelmingly white system — it was purposefully constructed to be that way. In Rolling Stone, Elamin Abdelmahmoud digs into the history and talks to the Black artists who are breaking down those artificial constructs to redefine what country music is.
Ralph Peer was the beginning of the business of country music. Working for a struggling record company in the 1920s, the white record executive went to the American South with the sole purpose of finding competition for Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, a black woman. In the South, he was convinced to record Fiddlin’ John Carson, in what became recognized as the first commercial country-music recording, “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.” Peer took credit for inventing something he called “hillbilly music” — what country was known as until after the Second World War.
But if that sounds a little too tidy, it is. Peer’s greatest contribution was as an innovator of the genre as a commercial tool: He found that by marketing hillbilly records to white audiences, and “race records” to black audiences, he could sell more records. It didn’t matter that what he found in the South were white and black musicians recording the same songs and playing the same music with the same instruments. It didn’t matter that the boundaries between genres didn’t exist. It didn’t matter that black musicians were teaching white musicians the art of the string band, and the white musicians were learning fast. For Peer, the label became the tool to sell the record. Then the sell became the story.
I mention one of country music’s foundational groups — the Carter Family, a Peer discovery. “Yes, but A.P. Carter didn’t know how to write music,” she says. “So who did he take with him to gather the songs? Lesley Riddle, who could take them to black churches.”
Riddle was instrumental to the success of the Carter Family, memorizing melodies while Carter transcribed lyrics. Today, the Carters are in the pantheon of country, but there’s a good chance the last paragraph was the first time you’ve heard Lesley Riddle’s name.
The image starts to come together pretty quickly. First, you exclude black people from the festivals. Then write them out by not recording them. And pretty soon, “you have this manufactured image of country music being white and being poor.”
“But when a narrative is that clean,” Giddens warns, “somebody wrote it.”