The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Country
Let’s face it: Country music today is made by, for, and about white people.
This is at least as true of alt as traditional country, as true of Austin as Nashville, as true of bluegrass as Top-40. You could name a hundred or more of the best or most successful alt-country artists before you’d hit an African-American.
Of course, a few black artists have been involved in country music — Charley Pride, DeFord Bailey, Cleve Francis, Stoney Edwards — but that fact only serves to emphasize the obvious truth. The repetitive appeal to these names is a tribute both to the rarity of black people playing country music and to the desperation of its defenders in the face of an accusation of racism.
An African-American singing country music is a slightly absurd idea because we all understand the racial origins of the style and its place within the present economy of race. Country music emerged in the white south in the early-to-mid-20th century, a period of severe racist oppression, though it was available to black as well as white folks on radio, especially the Opry, and though perhaps 10 percent of the audience for country is black.
It makes no more sense to deny that country is white people’s music than to deny that soul or hip-hop are African-American styles. In fact, the proportion of white performers and audiences for hip-hop is far larger than the black performers and audiences for country music.
The question, then, would be: Is country music a racist, as well as a racial, style? Anything that is made for and about white people is immediately suspect: The people who call for “white pride,” for example, can be counted on to be white supremacists or neo-Nazi skinheads.
That’s because while the black pride movement intended a resistance to oppression, the white pride movement wants to increase existing oppressions. So only a few crazy racists are willing to call what they do an advocacy of whiteness.
On the other side of the ledger, however, country music would be impossible without black American music, and ultimately without African music. Like soul, in fact, country music is a synthesis of African and European styles. The merest acquaintance with Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams makes it obvious that country music couldn’t exist without the blues.
Indeed, it’s part of the mythology of southern music that the decisive experience of figures such as Hank and Elvis involved making the socially enormous and transgressive journey to “the other side of the tracks” and listening to black blues players.
So in some sense, while the artists and audience for country are pretty lily white, the music itself is mulatto. Country is a musical integration of the races, and that’s why it’s not surprising that country radio and country performance had and has some place in black as well as white homes, especially in the South.
Of course country is also traditionally a music for the poor, for “white trash” in the south, just as the blues is a music of poor black folks. So while country is music for the privileged race, it is music for the downtrodden class.
But there really is no need to have an argument about who is more downtrodden than whom. No one has any qualms about calling music black, and that obviously does not imply that it is music that glories in being oppressed. Each style of black music originates in an era of race relations, and extends and affects later eras. And each style has a variety of political and social origins and effects.
We like to say things like “music is a universal language,” a kind of melodic Esperanto. But the truth is that any musical style worth anything emerges from existing cultures, ethnicities, religions, races. I still remember traveling to India as a child and thinking that the music there made no sense.
What you hear depends on who you are. Music is no more universal than any other cultural artifact. And music that tries to detach itself from racial/ethnic/religious origins turns into a kind rootless pap. Literally anything (and certainly an intense whiteness) is preferable to, let us say, Mariah Carey. That country music is white does not make it wrong.
We’ve reached the point as a culture at which we’re not supposed to mention race, and in which not mentioning it is supposed to be equivalent to being free of it. But not mentioning it just shows how enthralled we are by it, how in its thrall we remain.
Listening to country music — or playing it — is not standing in the schoolhouse door with George Wallace. It’s just enjoying a certain culturally situated art, an art whose artists and audience are principally white. White folks got rhythm, baby. We’re naturally musically gifted, just as we’re naturally gifted in polo and bobsledding.
Race remains one of our most important cultural realities. There’s no reason we shouldn’t say that, and there’s no reason to try to pretend we’re not white people who like white stuff, even as we acknowledge that whiteness itself is a mongrelization. It is possible to be proud of our arts and ashamed of the oppression we have inflicted on other people.
So the right defense of country from the charge of musical apartheid is not “Charley Pride, Charley Pride, Charley Pride”; that only shows how pathetic our claims to race-blindness actually are. The right defense is an acknowledgment of our racial — and racist — history, and an enjoyment of our art.