When “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X became a phenomenon in 2019, with its genre-twisting collision of country, pop, and hip-hop landing it on the charts for all three genres (not to mention the GRAMMY® awards it nabbed in 2020), many casual observers were surprised by the idea of African-American artists making waves in the country world. But the fact is, there have been black country artists in every era, going all the way back to the music’s beginnings.
As those who watched Ken Burns’ much-buzzed PBS documentary Country Music already know, DeFord Bailey was a member of the Grand Ole Opry back in the 1920s, paving the way for generations to come. With the 1939 Western film The Bronze Buckaroo, Herb Jeffries—who proved equally comfortable with jazz and country—became the first African-American singing cowboy star of the movies. The 1960s saw the start of one of the biggest careers in country music: that of Country Hall of Famer Charley Pride. And Stoney Edwards was a reliable presence on country radio throughout the ’70s.
The world first came to know Darius Rucker as the big-voiced frontman for roots-rock superstars Hootie & The Blowfish in the ’90s, but when he reinvented himself as a solo star in the 2000s, he was strictly in a Nashville state of mind. The 2000s also birthed a precedent for Lil Nas X’s country/rap crossover in the “hick-hop” sound of Cowboy Troy from Big & Rich’s crew. So even before “Old Town Road” came along, country in the 2010s was wide open for African-American artists, from the siren sound of Mickey Guyton to the R&B-inflected twang of Kane Brown and the romantic croon of Jimmie Allen.
Nobody with half a head on their shoulders would ever suggest that African-American country artists weren’t relatively few and far between, but it’s important to remember that there’s scarcely been a time when they weren’t a part of the scene.