Credit: Photo courtesy of F. Royster

Francesca Royster, a professor of English and Critical Ethnic Studies at University of California, Berkeley and author of the new book, “Black Country Music,” has written an important examination on the erasure of Black voices and music expression in the world of American country music. Royster embeds her own experiences along with a well researched lineage of understanding of the importance and relevance of Black artists who have contributed and explored the sounds of country music. She spoke with the Amsterdam News last month about the book and her unique experience completing this new and engaging work.

AmNews: “Black Country Music.” You talk a little bit about why you decided to write about this genre through a Black lens. Tell [us] the origins of your story and how you were inspired to write this book. 

Francesca Royster: Part of the origin story is my own. Growing up my parents moved south [from north of Chicago] after a couple generations. My dad moved to Nashville to teach at Fisk. He was also a session musician, did some recordings with Jimmy Buffet and Diane Davidson. I had been interviewing [my dad] for another project and he started talking about those years. I was 3, 4 or 5 years old when he was doing [the sessions]. It made me realize country music has been a part of my life.

I felt like I didn’t know how to listen in a way that was appreciative. I felt like there was a lot of distraction or discomfort, talking to other Black people about country music. I really wanted to pursue that, understand it and also think about it in terms of my own experience being in Nashville. That set me on the course, researching, interviewing friends, getting a sense of different everyday people sharing the same mixture of interest but also [the] discomfort [of] talking about it. I thought, there’s a story here. 

As I started really writing about it—and I became aware of these different artists—I think the industry itself is also shifting. The question based on the Black Lives Matter movement just asks for greater historical accountability [concerning] country music and more visibility for Black country artists. Both movements were also happening as I was writing and immersing myself in the history of those things.

I’ve always been interested in topics where I feel there’s some rule about identity, about authenticity, that I feel is holding me back from something. I’m always looking out for those things. I just have a hunch that these are histories that we don’t really know. Or that aren’t talked about in the mainstream, that connect country music, blues, R&B. There’s been a purposeful erasure of those connections and I want to pursue that more. 

AmNews: In your book you talk about when your parents divorced and your mother moved you back to Chicago, you as a child still dreamed about Tennessee. Were you aware [of] those racial lines as a child? When in your life did you realize that country music had these barriers, these racialized issues?

Royster: Being in Nashville as a kid we would have visits to the Grand Ole Opry. I would just feel like there was sort of an amusement around Black kids in that space. And then, at the same time, kind of a defensiveness among other people. I knew that country’s place in Nashville is coded as being white people’s territory.

AmNews: Your dad’s been playing music with a lot of artists, and here you are ready to dive in. You walk into this white space. Tell me about your experience finding these Black country artists and the journey [it was] finding it yourself. 

Royster: Some of the features I write about are of major figures: Tina Turner, Darius Rucker, Beyonce. With Tina Turner I’m a big fan. I remember reading about her interest in country music and her identity as a country girl herself. And so, I had in my mind, “Oh, this is a story that I want to get back to.” And then I found a copy of “Tina Turns the Country On” (1974). And once I started listening to it, I really was drawn into the narrative. She’s covering these different country artists—Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and others—doing her own Tina-style. And you can really hear she’s making the most of what country music is. Which is talking about suffering, bringing that into the story, giving elements of emotion in the storytelling. She does it using background singers in a way that credits them like collaborators. 

I really heard her doing this work on [“Tina Turns”] that, if it were really looked at head-on, would really change some of the assumptions about what country music is. And what soul and R&B’s relationship to country is. She is very skilled, very natural, drawing from her own roots in that album. And she’s making it her own. It’s not like she’s borrowing a style; she’s occupying a style and changing it, demanding that we think about Black artists in a different way, in terms of their status in country, not on the sideline. 

AmNews: Now that you’ve finished the book would you recommend or speak highly of country music if a Black person came to you and said I would like to immerse myself in the sound. After all you’ve learned, do you feel safe to recommend that a Black person learn more about country music and get involved?

Royster: Yeah. I think that some of the dangers are still there. Especially in terms of the ways that historical amnesia is still in operation in country music. I feel some of my own fear navigating the spaces is more psychological. And there are other circumstances in my life where I navigate them as a Black woman in white-only spaces. I think writing the book has made me realize that some of the fear and discomfort is really about the history of violence. And about being told, “You don’t belong here.” 

I think that a person who might not have that baggage might not feel they’re treading on ground they don’t belong on. I also feel like this is a moment where different people, like [Black Opry founder] Holly G. are trying to make new spaces for Black artists. Or the work of Marcus Dowling as a journalist for the Tennessean, who’s writing in “other” spaces as a Black man, sometimes through a lens of race, sometimes not. Or Rissi Palmer’s “Color Me Country.” The work these artists and organizers are doing is helping create a space where if someone were interested, they would have people to collaborate with that maybe wasn’t there 10 years ago.

AmNews: Tell me a little bit about your conclusion in the book, titled “The Black Country Music Afro-Futurisms.”

Royster: Some of that interest in the future, in Afro-futurism, is shaped by my work on the banjo with Sule Greg Wilson, one of the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I took some time to learn the banjo, think about the depths of its history and to meet people, hear about the work [they’re] doing through the Banjo Reclamation Project to address the ways that music is used hand-in-hand with racism. Sule is also involved in it. He’s been in the workshops to help kids learn how to make banjos, Black and brown kids. 

Over the pandemic I really got involved in learning the banjo and its history and really thinking about this really subversive issue that’s connected to the songs itself. As well as to the musicians, not [just] in the past but also right now. Engaging in the past with banjo is what people are doing right now; that’s partly how I got into this Afro-futurist idea. 

And then talking to Lylo [Gold], who is an amazing artist out of London right now, originally from New York. Meeting her and sharing her music right now…to me she’s very much keeping with Afro-futurist writers like Octavia Butler or Alexis Pauline Gumbs or Adrienne Marie Brown, people who are really trying to use the imagination and creativity to open up the futures for different kinds of bodies, but also really doing important historical work at the same time. And now Jake Brown’s work…his use of bluegrass and country to think about the future of the Earth; to think about Black resistance, keeping with that stream of thought.

AmNews: In all that you’ve gone through in your deconstruction, are you optimistic about the future of country music?

Royster: I feel like I’ve found a community of people working to create new sounds. I think that feeling of displacement that I felt as a kid…I know now that there’s something more interesting there than even the Grand Ole Opry. I learned that country is part of urban history. Being a Northern person from Chicago I can claim country as part of my own roots. I’m optimistic in that I feel like some of the underground and work on the edge is going to change what’s happening in the industry, generally. Resistance from the edges and margins can push the conversation with each generation.

In the book, I also focus on my daughter. My implicit reason for including her in the book is I want her to feel like she can be part of any musical tradition, and that nothing is closed to her. That doesn’t mean erasing the history of tensions and violence, but if she wants to create or be a fan of the music that she can find people to be with and play together. That’s my vision and I think that’s happening right now; I feel positive about that.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *