Beyoncé, Tracy Chapman, and Country Music

One of my coolest radio-related experiences happened just a few months ago, when, churning through FM stations in my car, I encountered a country-inflected male voice singing "Fast Car," the Tracy Chapman song. Rolling Stone dubbed "Fast Car" the 168th best song of all time. It has audiophile cred because its simple sonics (predominantly voice and acoustic guitar) and good engineering made it an important test track, used, eg, by Harman for listening tests and by others for assessing compression artifacts in MP3s.

I have written before—and it's inarguable—that nearly every aspect of uniquely American music emerged from African-American culture: blues, jazz, rock'n'roll, hip-hop. I was born in Alabama and raised in the south, where during my childhood such influences were rarely acknowledged. Elvis was spoken of as the founder of rock'n'roll. It's important to get history right and share credit appropriately.

The range of influences on country is far wider than on those other American genres. I'm no expert—a proper study of country music history still lies in the future—but Wikipedia says country arose among immigrants to the American southeast and Appalachia from Europe, the Mediterranean Basin—and, yes, Africa. Over a period of some 300 years, those people brought cultural influences and instruments (including one from Africa, made from a gourd and called the akonting, which would become the banjo). When some of those folks headed west, they took their music with them and picked up new influences: Cajun, Mexican, Native American, New Mexican—even Hawaiian.

Yet, to listen casually to country radio over the last 50 years, you'd think the music was monocultural. It has taken on a rather narrow form, without much variety. When I think back over a lifetime of living in places where country music was impossible to avoid, the only Black country star who comes immediately to mind is Charlie Pride. Google "Black country musicians," and you get lists that include Ray Charles (who made the album Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music), the Pointer Sisters, and Darius Rucker—all of whom made country (or country-influenced) music but are better known for contributions to other genres.

Look deeper. Though uncredited, Louis Armstrong played on a 1930 Jimmie Rodgers record ("Blue Yodel No. 9"). DeFord Bailey was the first person to perform on the Grand Ole Opry stage, in 1927. According to history professor Patrick Huber, in the 1920s and '30s, 50+ African-American musicians appeared on commercial Hillbilly records.

Recent versions of the music, though, hardly seem to reflect that diversity. A recent study from the University of Ottawa determined that between 2002 and 2020, just 2%–3% of 11,000 songs played on country radio were by people of color. That's changing.

Until I heard Luke Combs singing "Fast Car," I'd never have considered myself a fan; heck, I probably still wouldn't recognize him in a lineup with Zack Bryan and Morgan Wallen. But hearing a straightahead cover of a Tracy Chapman song on country radio made me smile. It mattered. Hearing it again and again, then seeing it at the top of the charts, was special. As I write this months later, the song is still at #3 on the Billboard Hot Country chart. Combs's performance was nominated for a Grammy Award.

The most interesting thing to me about the experience was that Combs sang the lyrics unaltered. This big-time country music star was in the passenger seat, not the driver's seat—"I remember when we were drivin'/Drivin' in your car/Speed so fast I felt like I was drunk"—not a place you expect a guy to be in a genre dominated by NASCAR fans. Then there's this: "Your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder." There's vulnerability in that. Perhaps that's nothing new these days; as I have at least implied, it has been a while since I listened attentively to country radio.

Later in the song, when things don't go according to plan, it's the partner—I suppose I should not assume the partner to be female, but I will anyway—who's out at the bar, seeing more of her friends than she does the kids. It's stereotype reversal.

Why does it matter? For one thing, it changed how I thought about country radio, a conservative institution. "Fast Car" is progressive in a way, about despair, hope, the pursuit of something better, however vain. The song's ubiquity on country radio is likely a sign of how the culture—our country—has changed. It made me realize that country music fans are more varied and interesting than I'd previously realized. That's an important insight for a guy—me—who, though born and raised in the south, has for the last 30 years lived in the Northeast and now in New York City. It's long past time I gave contemporary country music a fresh listen.

As I write this, the big news in country music is not that a Tracy Chapman song is #3 on the country charts but that "Texas Hold 'Em," by Beyoncé, is #1, and for the seventh straight week (see my review of Cowboy Carter in this issue's Record Reviews). Beyoncé's country-chart success is almost certainly due partly to downloads and streaming by non-country fans (itself an interesting crossover phenomenon), but there's some serious crossover to traditional fans, too. Apparently, after a delay, Beyoncé is getting some airplay on country radio.

Beyoncé's turn on the country charts is historic, but it's complicated. Her new music is more "meta" than country. The main problem for me, though, is that big stars outshine little stars, and though I like the new album and despite her fame, Beyoncé is not the most interesting thing going on right now on the country music scene. For more interesting music made by African-American artists, check out Allison Russell, Brittney Spencer, or Mickey Guyton—especially Unbreakable, Guyton's acoustic album. Give a listen to Willie Jones's "Down by the Riverside" or The War and Treaty's "Yesterday's Burn." Cue it up on Roon or your preferred music service and let the Radio feature take it from there—just don't expect every song to sound exactly like what you're used to hearing. The music is changing.

tdwesbo's picture

I found Luke Combs' version of Fast Car a lukewarm throwaway... Uninspired, un-"felt", and slapped together. Like the last bolt screwed in at the production line on a Friday afternoon before the shift whistle blew