On the shelf
Black Country Music: Listening to Revolutions
By Francesca T Royster
University of Texas Press: 248 pages, $25
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In the introduction to her new book, Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions, Francesca Royster recalls attending a country music festival in her hometown of Chicago in July 2014. As a black woman at a predominantly white event, Royster addressed the few other black people she spotted. “Why are you here?” she asked her. Was it because of the music? Each one responded, “Sorry, I don’t know anything about country music.” “Sorry, I can’t help you.” “Sorry, I’m just here for the BBQ.”
Royster believes these dismissive reactions came less from a place of sincerity than from an impulse of self-protection. Perhaps each of these people had really spent a hard-earned $40 for the simple pleasure of grilling outside with a paper plate on a warm day; maybe they didn’t notice the white men on stage with their cowboy hats and fiddles. “Or maybe I asked a fundamentally awkward question,” Royster writes, “to bring to light an awkwardness that most of us might try to ignore or suppress in navigating white space for the sake of amusement.”
Royster, a professor of English at DePaul University, doesn’t address in her book why country music has been such a long-standing taboo for black Americans. Instead, she reflects on the many ways black artists have challenged expectations and stereotypes. “Black people are always inventing new ways to survive the bondages of white supremacy,” she writes, “and that includes country music.”
The past few years have been pivotal for black country artists and their fans. Black country musicians are being seen, heard and loved today as never before in the genre’s long and troubled history – topping the charts, winning prestigious awards and working with the country royals. Their creation (or rather recognition) has been the subject of radio shows such as Rissi Palmer’s Color Me Country and Willie Jones’ Cross Roads Radio, as well as the 2022 documentary For Love & Country. A collective and touring revue, Black Opry, is currently selling venues from Nashville to New York, with an upcoming gig at Troubadour in West Hollywood. This year’s popular Stagecoach and Palomino festivals in Indio and Pasadena, respectively, featured many black artists including Valerie June, Rhiannon Giddens, Breland, Reyna Roberts, Yola and Amythyst Kiah.
Royster’s book, however, is less of a history of the African-American experience in country music — editor Diane Pecknold’s 2013 anthology Hidden in the Mix explores that history better. Black Country Music is more of a mix of memoir, critical analysis and journalism, focusing on a select few contemporary artists and their unique contributions to the genre.
Royster writes with the care of an academic, referring frequently to Audre Lorde, Daphne Brooks, and Bell Hooks, among many other scholars. But she also brings her personal story to the analysis, approaching country music from the perspective of a black queer woman for whom love of the genre is like something that comes out of the closet.
Arguing that black country contrasts with mainstream country and is more akin to Afrofuturism, she writes that the “unpredictable innovation of black art forms,” including country, “can be tactics to challenge the appropriation and the control and the limitations of the to undermine white supremacy. especially as they take advantage of new platforms and forms of distribution.” This combination of theoretical rigor and a very specific point of view may not appeal to everyone, but Royster never pretends to be definitive; hers is more of a personal meditation on country music than an overview of its past and present. What motivates her work is her enjoyment of the genre and her desire to find her place in it.
Each chapter focuses on one artist, and her choices can be surprising. Beginning with Tina Turner—whose 1974 debut solo album was a collection of country covers—and moving on to Darius Rucker (an obvious choice), followed by Beyoncé (a less obvious choice), Royster’s interpretation of “country music” is subjective , although not without intention. Still, does it deserve to include an entire chapter dedicated to Beyoncé in such a slim book?
Royster argues that this is the case, and focuses on how even a female artist can be constrained in her notoriety by racially motivated notions of genre boundaries. Beyoncé’s performance of her single “Daddy Lessons” at the Country Music Assn. Awards alongside the Chicks (nee Dixie Chicks) drew criticism from conservative country fans and commentators who were upset at the CMAs’ inclusion of a pop singer, at Beyoncé’s support of Black Lives Matter, or simply at the conclusion that “Daddy Lessons” was a country song.
Writing about the backlash to the outlaw-country-tinged “Daddy Lessons” — which mimic the “Texas Justice” tropes of westerns and desperado ballads — Royster points out that when they’re celebrated by artists, rebellion and anti-authoritarianism are celebrated such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are performed, but these privileges do not usually extend to others playing on this tradition. “Country music has given way to its white male country outlaws,” she writes, “although it doesn’t always give way to outspoken black women.”
Royster’s writing is at times conjectural, at times pedantic, but in many passages her prose soars, particularly in her chapter on Valerie June.
“Her voice slips through our ribs like a ghost drawn to our hunger, to the space made for her in our shriveled, unfed bellies,” she writes of June. For Royster, June’s voice “conjures up spirits” – not only the spirits of June’s musical predecessors, including Jessie Mae Hemphill, Elizabeth Cotten and Geeshie Wiley, but also the spirits of ancestors near and far. She wonders how June’s voice can sound like “both your mom’s voice calling you in when the streetlights come on and like yourself singing while you fold laundry?”
While neither exhaustive nor conclusive, “Black Country Music” is nonetheless an original, timely, and much-needed entry into the long overdue national conversation about representation and accountability in the country music industry. As Black Country creators and fans alike gain recognition, Royster envisions a future where her question—”Why are you here?”—leads to more satisfying or honest answers.
Why are we here? Because we belong here.
Holley is a journalist and the author of the forthcoming book An American Family: The Shakur and the Nation They Created.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-10-07/black-country-music-francesca-royster-book-review Review: Francesca Royster’s book ‘Black Country Music’