There’s an element of fluidity when talking about music of any genre. What, and who, does and doesn’t belong always rests on shifting sands, moved by the whims of consumers, of marketers, of tastes. But country music is a genre that, for so long, has been defined as much by who is included as it is by who is not. Historically, Black musicians have been excluded from the genre, whether physically from performance spaces and charts, or through their own reluctance to categorize their music as country. It’s blues. Rock. Roots. Soul. It may come from the Louisiana bayous or the wide expanses of Texas, but there is still pushback from within the industry, a hesitation to welcome everyone into the clubhouse.
Yet there are artists who refuse to be excluded, and in her new book, Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions, Francesca T. Royster chronicles the inroads they have made into this genre. A professor of English at DePaul University, Royster examines not just the erasure Black artists have faced in country music, but the many ways they are reclaiming their presence in it. At the same time, she also interrogates her own relationship with country music as listener, fan, and banjo player.
“Maybe by being born a Black woman, and a queer one at that, I am already an outlaw, whether or not I choose to be,” Royster writes.
From what singer-songwriter Valerie June calls the “Organic Moonshine Roots Music” to controversial crossovers like Beyonce’s “Daddy Lessons” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” to, the seemingly traditional paths taken by Mickey Guyton and Darius Rucker, Royster explores the spaces Black country artists are carving for themselves.
We spoke about her new book, country’s relationship to Afrofuturism, and more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Ashawnta Jackson: I really enjoyed this book. It’s always exciting to read Black music history, especially where it feels like we’ve been hidden.
Francesca Royster: I’m really glad to hear that because I was trying to write that Toni Morrison kind of thing—trying to write the book that I was looking for.
You’re an English literature professor. How did you find your way into music history?
I taught Shakespeare for a long time, for fifteen years. I wrote my dissertation on performances of Blackness on the Shakespeare stage. So, for the first half of my career, I thought about that, but as I thought about performance, and Black representation to performance, [I had] a hunger to study more about the agency of Black artists as opposed to representations of Blackness.
I gravitated towards music because music has always been the form that, no matter how busy I am, I can always sit and listen and analyze. At the same time, I also started exploring memoir. I decided to shift my attention to African-American music in particular, and to bring some of my performance studies skills that I learned from studying Shakespeare to the study of music. And I found that some of the same questions that occupied me as a Shakepearean theorist—Blackness and imagined forms of Blackness—were relevant to the study of country music. I’m interested in Black artists as they navigate those tensions and erasures in their music.
Who are some of the scholars that informed your work?
Well, a big influence on me is José Esteban Muñoz and his work on queer futurity, and that idea of the “not yet” in the ways that in queer art—performance especially, sometimes music—you can hear that yearning and mourning for what isn’t there, but also imagining something beyond what we have already. That’s the spirit found in some of the most radical musicians I looked at, like Valerie June. And then Daphne Brooks’ Liner Notes for the Revolution. What I love is that she’s thinking about the powerful ways that Black women, especially as music collectors, were creating a community in support of and in connection with these insurgent ways that Black performers—feminist performers—were making music. Making a way out of no way to create new imaginative forms. Sometimes that includes challenging historical narratives.
Did you always plan for your book to be a memoir of sorts?
I actually finished a memoir at the time I was writing this book; it’s coming out in February. I moved back and forth between this project and that project over the last eight years. The way I got into the music project was first talking to my father for my memoir. For a time we lived in Nashville, and he performed as a session musician for country music artists. He was talking about that experience of the awkwardness but also the hunger to bridge kinds of music.
As I was listening to him talk, I thought, you know, I suspect that the awkwardness is because there’s a history that’s hidden, where the origins are intertwined. That essence is why it feels uncomfortable to talk about it as a Black musician, or to play it. It’s sort of like playing on a rock album and then realizing, “Oh, this is the blues.” So that got me interested, and I started interviewing friends who are country music fans, asking about their own knowledge about the history, and it spiraled. At first it was just going to be an essay, but then I felt it could be a book and a chance to explore the artists who are doing surprising things in a genre that can sometimes be predictable.
How long did it take you to complete Black Country?
Like six years. I knew that I wanted to center Black artists, but I also needed to know about country music as a whole in the contemporary sense, and also historically. I had to do a lot of research and get more comfortable with a genre I only knew selective things about. That adventure of feeling comfortable in the foundation of the music took time. And a lot of records.
I was finding out about a genre that was undergoing this explosion—really a revolution—in terms of Black artists and visibility, or what I hope will be a revolution. And that energized my writing.
Your writing is both highly scholarly but also accessible to someone outside the academy. How do you straddle that line?
Memoir is one of the tools that I’ve used to try to bridge audiences.
A lot of the people I’ve written about—Valerie June, Our Native Daughters, Carolina Chocolate Drops—they’re historically-minded, and have gone to the archives and are making their music out of a very historically, theoretically informed understanding of Black culture, country music, and its erasure. I felt like I could depend on the music to support theoretical ideas. By crediting these performers, their thoughtfulness, and the ways they’re trying to push conversations, it saves me from having to be like, “Okay, let me explain what that means,” because they’re already doing that.
You mentioned the idea of exploration and discovery. What’s something that surprised you in your discovery of country music?
When I came in, I really was thinking about [country] as a static genre. [I also] had a sense of what the sound of country was, and that there’d be certain standards and rules that define it. What I discovered was there are all these hybrid kinds of music that draw from country, but when you’re a Black artist, and you’re creating a hybrid music, the default is to call it something else, not country because of the ways that country music has been marketed that’s trying to separate it from Black culture.
I discovered the work of Alice Randall, who wrote “The Ballad of Sally Ann,” about a bride who thinks that she’s been left at the altar, but it turns out that he has been lynched. The song is wonderful. It sounds like an old 19-teen artifact from the Appalachian Mountains, but it’s actually written by this amazing African-American woman from Detroit who knows the ways that racial violence and early country music are intertwined and is playing on that.
There’s a lot of room for [fluidity] within this genre that felt very closed, to create political music, music that is stretching boundaries. The other side of that is that when white artists in the 70s were experimenting with different kinds of music, especially connecting to Black music, it was seen as expansive and creative, but the Black role in that music was always undermined. So what I think [musicians] today are doing, who are pushing and experimenting and drawing from different kinds of music, they’re answering that erasure and letting country music be a tool to speak to Black experience and to engage with history and violence as well.
Your entrée to country was Tina Turns the Country On (1974), right?
Yeah, along with talking to my dad, and growing up in Nashville. But, in terms of my research that was the first thing that I wrote and published on. Now when I look at that essay, there’s so much packed into in. I was trying to include history and erasure and minstrelsy, and then Tina Turner herself is so cool.
A question that struck me as I was reading: Have Black artists figured out a way to make art in absence of the white gaze?
Yes and no. Some of the artists I’m looking at have totally created their own space. Like my banjo teacher, Sule Greg Wilson, from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Our Native Daughters, or Kamara Thomas, folks who have bracketed country music in history, and decided, maybe partly because of the erasure or invisibility for a certain amount of time, to find their own space.
But then there are some artists like Mickey Guyton or Darius Rucker who have been interested in and getting white listeners, creating, in some ways, within the terms of the white gaze. Though I allow for ways that they might be doing a little bit of subversion of that gaze. I’m wedded to subversion. That maybe it might be read in different ways for a Black listener—that there even is the presence of a Black listener—bringing a history of Black culture to the music. That’s something that country marketers aren’t really thinking about.
Darius Rucker is probably the most commercially successful person I wrote a chapter on. His music poses questions about a sense of what it feels like to be a problem and the importance of creating anyway. That’s baked into his music.
That chapter was the hardest to write, because I wanted to crack the code of Darius Rucker. And until he gave an interview after George Floyd’s death where he was making himself vulnerable about his experiences in the industry, it was so hard to talk about anything about his inner life. Not that I feel like I really understand that either but I always felt like there was such a mask, such dissonance, that I just couldn’t totally get to him. And yet, he’s so well known. When I talk to colleagues or friends about my book, they’d always say, “Oh, like Darius Rucker,” but he was so challenging, you know, to really think about why he’s doing what he’s doing and how it works. I hope that someday he’ll read my book and tell me if I got it right.
I suspect that many of us, all along, have been listening to Black country music, and not thinking about it as such. Why is there reluctance to just call it country music?
Some of it is not wanting to be associated with Southern music. Or rural music. And not wanting to be associated with being “too country,” seeming unsophisticated. That has generational roots of people wanting to distance themselves. It can be seen in the contemporary sense of red states versus blue states, or in terms of the Black migration and wanting to be in what’s seen as more sophisticated or more stylish.
Then there’s a fear about the present. And about spaces like bars or concerts or other places that feel unsafe. Maybe my goal will be to open up a Black country bar.
I was really excited about the Black Opry Revue, which Holly G, an activist and organizer, set up. New, emerging Black country music artists travel all over the country and perform. I went to one of these shows in Evanston, and I was kind of disappointed because the space was still all-white. I brought my family, and we were among the few African Americans in the audience. The musicians totally connected and saw us [and] we talked to them backstage. The space itself is important, but creating venues for Black artists to play hasn’t been enough to bring people there. That’s going to take changing as well.
You talked a little bit about how it seems like some of these artists are subverting the white gaze by trying to speak directly to Black audiences. It’s interesting how much the idea of Black Country, be it the music or the feeling of “being country,” is almost a reclamation when you’re a Black person.
It can be, almost like coming out. I was thinking about the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, which is literally taking the banjo back into Black hands, and helping young people make banjos and learn about the history. It’s both embracing historical force, and a style or way of life that is sometimes belittled.
I’m reminded of José Muñoz’s Disidentifications. He talks about this performance artist, Vaginal “Crème” Davis, who has southern roots and her style is a country style. In her performances it’s about her ability, feeling, wearing your heart on your sleeve. Not necessarily being formal in presentation of ideas. Ironically, I think country can be a way of stopping the work of white acceptance of Blackness, of respectability. So even though country is often framed as a white music, I think it is kind of a space to just kind of quit and do something else.
In this book and in a piece about Patti LaBelle, you talk about Afrofuturism. You wrote, “unlike some forms of futurist art and thought Afrofuturism is never fully disconnected from the embodied histories of slavery with its experiences of labor pain, as well as social death.” Can you talk about Afrofuturism, and how you connect it to Black Country?
Afrofuturism is thinking about putting black folks in the future. That’s something that Krista Franklin, a visual artist, talks about. The way I understand it, Afrofuturism is imagining a future with Black people, and also noting the ways that imagination is denied from all these different forces—social death, criminalized black family, all these different ideas, ideologies and discourses that discount the viability of Black life. I see Afrofuturism as a kind of response to, or maybe even connected to, a tenet of Afro-Pessimism, which is looking hard at unfreedom and the continuation of that.
Afrofuturism reckons with the past—never abandoning history and the past and those losses, but always builds a future that can imagine something else to be and do. Within Afrofuturism there’s an element of grieving, there’s an element of [having to] think and feel through a path to a future that is also trying to take a chunk out of you.
Country music’s a great mechanism for thinking through the relationship to the past in the present. Because of the way that it can be a sound that’s rooted in pasts that maybe have been lost. It can tell stories, and it can also get at the heart of sustenance and transformation. Music plays an important role in that. Also, to assume a future where total freedom, in terms of what you can play or listen to or the stories that you can tell, is already there. We have to make the future, we have to plant this by making the music, and hopefully engaging other audiences. But I really like the slowness of country music and the care of it. Not all country music is slow, but really good music that I like is, and the way that it is encouraging a different kind of speed that can be healing and a space for thinking and imagining. Those elements, and even the aspects of repetition, those can be tools for thinking through and inhabiting a future.
In Sounding Like a No No, you write that the book is “exploring a group of maverick performers,” and I couldn’t help but think “oh, so is this one.” Are you now our go-to for the maverick performers?
Maybe. I find myself drawn to the maverick performers, it’s true. And I like music that’s soothing and beautiful. But I also like, and sometimes not always recognize, that first listen, that feeling of strangeness that I found in Grace Jones’s performances or her voice, or in Valerie June. I think that the mavericks, the eccentrics, are challenging, and I wanted to figure them out. And I love it when I see people or see performers taking common stories and then turning them inside out, or asking us to recenter Black experiences or queer experiences. I guess I really love to see and hear a kind of queer activism in action when I’m listening to music. So yeah, I guess I am. Maybe that was why Darius was so hard for me because, in a way, he’s not a maverick. But he is a maverick.
Is there anything we didn’t cover you want to make sure we know?
The banjo is an African instrument! [laughs] Everyone knows that. It’s important.