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Beyoncé Joins a History of Black Pop Artists Going Country
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Beyoncé Joins a History of Black Pop Artists Going Country

Apr 7, 2024

When Beyoncé confirmed that she would be going all-in on country music with “Cowboy Carter,” the second part of a project that began with her 2022 album “Renaissance,” conversation about pop artists turning to the genre — and how Black artists are received in Nashville — began to heat up.

Country remains a cloistered segment of the music industry where Black performers continue to face an especially challenging path — despite the fact that Black pioneers have been essential to the genre, including Lesley Riddle, known as Esley, a guitarist and folklorist who taught the Carter Family in the 1930s and Charley Pride, who scored more than 50 Top 10 country hits from the 1960s through the ’80s.

In the past few years, Lil Nas X sparked cultural debate and hit chart gold with “Old Town Road,” a country-rap mash-up that was followed by the arrival of Breland’s aesthetic blend “My Truck,” and songs from O.N.E the Duo, a mother-daughter group making a hybrid of country, R&B and pop. But there’s also a long history of Black artists embracing country after establishing careers in other genres. Here’s how some key figures fared.

Ray Charles’s passion for country music dated back to childhood, when his mother would let him stay up late on Saturdays and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. As he told Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” in 1998, “it was fascinating what these guys could do with these banjos and these fiddles and the steel guitars.”

When he tried his hand at the genre, with “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” in 1962, he mostly did away with those surface trappings, instead reimagining country favorites from the prior decade-plus as affecting, pop-crooner fare. Focusing on lovelorn ballads, including Eddy Arnold and Cindy Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me,” Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and Hank Williams’s “You Win Again,” Charles elegantly conveyed the wistful ache at the heart of these songs, his voice framed by sumptuous orchestral arrangements.

It was a brilliant concept that paid off in sales: The album topped the Billboard pop chart and its second volume, released later the same year, hit No. 2. In subsequent years, amid his steady work in pop, R&B and jazz, Charles would return to country music regularly, on albums such as “Love Country Style” (1970) and “Wish You Were Here Tonight” (1983), where he openly paid homage to his roots by incorporating the banjos, fiddles and steel guitars he’d first heard decades earlier.

An entire album themed around country music wasn’t a huge stretch for Tina Turner. “The music I heard on the radio when I was a kid was mostly country and western,” she wrote in her memoir, “I, Tina,” and her superlative covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” and the Beatles’ “Get Back” showed her mastery of the rootsier side of rock ’n’ roll.

On “Tina Turns the Country On!,” her 1974 solo debut, she amplified the deep yearning of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” added a righteous twang to a gender-flipped version of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” toughened up Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” and found the gospel undertone in Dolly Parton’s “There’ll Always Be Music.”

The album earned a Grammy nomination for best R&B vocal performance, female, but didn’t chart, and Turner found greater success with her next LP, “Acid Queen,” which leaned back toward rock. Though she never made another country album, outtakes from the “Tina Turns the Country On!” sessions came out later, including fiery renditions of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s “Good Hearted Woman” (a song originally inspired by an ad Jennings had read for an Ike and Tina release), Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” and Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man).”

Linda Martell had recorded a few early ’60s singles in a girl-group R&B vein when an aspiring music manager heard her singing country covers at a U.S. Air Force base in South Carolina. He convinced her to come to Nashville, where she quickly signed a record deal and tracked a debut LP, “Color Me Country” from 1970, that solidified her reboot as a country singer.

Three singles made Billboard’s country songs chart, with Martell’s beautifully understated cover of Richard Lewis Spencer’s recent hit “Color Him Father” peaking at No. 22. Martell became the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, but she faced racial discrimination on the road. A falling out with her producer — “He blackballed me” after she recorded for another label, Martell told Rolling Stone in 2020 — marked the end of her Nashville recording career. She continued to sing country and R&B in later years but never made another album. As a now-acknowledged pioneer in the genre, she’s inspired contemporary Black country artists including Mickey Guyton.

The Pointer Sisters’ early hits dipped into a grab bag of genres, including jazz, rock and funk, and on their proudly defiant 1974 breakup song “Fairytale,” full-on country, recorded in Nashville with fiddle, pedal steel and all the trappings. The song charted at No. 13 and won the quartet a Grammy for best country vocal performance by a duo or group, making them the first and, to date, only Black women who have taken home a Grammy in any country category.

“When I wrote ‘Fairytale,’ I wasn’t trying to do something clever to break into the country market,” Anita Pointer, who co-wrote the song with her sister Bonnie, said in the group’s autobiography, also called “Fairytale.” “I wrote it because that’s the way I felt.”

The Pointer Sisters broke another barrier with the song, becoming the first Black female group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, where they faced protesters carrying signs that said “Keep Country, Country.” Their sound remained eclectic in later years, as they scored pop hits like “I’m So Excited.” But a follow-up to the country stylings of “Fairytale,” “Live Your Life Before You Die,” earned another Grammy nod, and on the 1994 genre-blending “Rhythm Country and Blues” compilation, the Pointers teamed with Clint Black to cover the Aretha Franklin hit “Chain of Fools.”

“I took these country songs that I like and funked them up a little,” the soul singer Millie Jackson said in 1981, ahead of the release of “Just a Lil’ Bit Country,” her first full LP focusing on the genre. Like Charles and Turner, the Georgia-born singer-songwriter grew up on country radio, and she recorded songs by Merle Haggard and others even as she established herself as a master of passionate, straight-talking R&B.

On “Just a Lil’ Bit Country,” she added a strutting contemporary groove to Charles’s “Modern Sounds in Country and Western” smash “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” tackled ballads made famous by Tammy Wynette and John Conlee, and reimagined Kris Kristofferson’s “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams” as an ode to her favorite soul singers (including herself) on “Anybody That Don’t Like Millie Jackson.”

Despite cracking the Top 50 on the R&B albums chart, the album turned out to be Jackson’s last full-LP foray into the genre, as she continued to explore soul, pop and even raunchy comedy. But in 2014, she showed she still had a knack for funking up country with her playfully explicit riff on Tyler Farr’s 2013 country hit “Redneck Crazy.”

In 2008, when the singer-songwriter Darius Rucker announced that Hootie & the Blowfish would be going on hiatus, he told fans not to expect another album or tour from the group “until I do three or four country records.” That number actually turned out to be five, as he found immediate success with “Learn to Live,” his second solo LP and first country album.

The album topped the Billboard country albums chart and yielded the first of a string of country No. 1 hits, culminating with “Wagon Wheel,” his Grammy-winning, diamond-certified Old Crow Medicine Show cover from 2013. Rucker would become the most prominent Black artist in the genre in decades: the first to top the Billboard country songs chart since Charley Pride in 1983, and the first to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry since Pride had in 1993.

Rucker did join back up with Hootie & the Blowfish in 2019, but his country career is still very much a going concern: His sixth album in the genre, “Carolyn’s Boy,” came out in 2023.

Traces of country were evident on Commodores hits like “Sail On” from 1979, where Lionel Richie sang with a pronounced twang. But the Alabama native found even greater success in the genre the following year, when “Lady,” a stirring love ballad he’d unsuccessfully pitched to his then-bandmates, became a huge hit for Kenny Rogers, topping Billboard’s Hot 100, country-songs and adult-contemporary charts, and also making a showing on the R&B songs chart.

Even as Richie’s solo career exploded in the ’80s thanks to pop hits like “Truly,” “All Night Long (All Night)” and “Hello,” he tipped his hat to Nashville on tracks like “Stuck on You” and “Deep River Woman,” a collaboration with the country veterans Alabama. He spotlighted his country past on “Tuskegee,” a 2012 LP where he revisited his major forays into the genre, along with his pop smashes, with help from Rogers, Willie Nelson, Shania Twain, Darius Rucker and other country A-listers.

In 2022, Richie made it clear that he hoped to make more time to record country music going forward. “I am so vested in country music, you have no idea,” he said at that year’s C.M.A. Awards.

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