When Being Black and Loving Country Music's Got You Down
It's in times like these, when madcap insanity is ruling America, that I turn to Top 40 ready country music for serenity. Yes, as a 39-year old African-American, hearing Loretta Lynn telling Conway Twitty that he was "the reason our kids are ugly," Kenny Rogers knowing "when to walk away" and "when to run," to Florida Georgia Line taking a "Cruise" with Nelly and getting "high on loving you" always feels really good. However, when white supremacy enters the American mainstream pop cultural conversation, my love of country music gets awkward. Suddenly, things like the fact that so much of modern country—like the Florida Georgia Line hits, or songs with videos that resemble Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's "Ain't Nuthin' But A G Thang"—now tap into traditionally African-American friendly sounds, gets hard to navigate. As a result, I'm left feeling well, not at peace, but ultimately angry not just at society, but at my beloved country music, too.
I grew up around the corner from Section 8 housing in Washington, DC during the 1980s, but spent summer vacations in my youth in a trailer park in Falling Waters, West Virginia. My mother wasn't at the place financially where big trips could happen every summer, so instead, I spent three summers in my African-American aunt's two double wide trailers that she had won on The Price is Right. The most significant memory from that time is still adapting to, then absolutely loving, reruns of the Grand Old Opry and (regrettably) still being able to belt the words to comic country artist Ray Stevens' "Ahab The Arab," which played on an infomercial that seemed to run ad infinitum on every UHF channel on the dial. However, though flawed as it may be, my 39-year love of country music was stolen from me via progressively insane and racist mayhem that feels like it invalidates much of my profound lifelong connection with the genre.
"I can't describe to you the way country makes me feel. I was an only child and I'd park myself in front of the radio," half-black/half-white folk/Americana singer-songwriter Kamara Thomas tells me in a recent conversation. She reminisced about going to [her] white grandmother's house, and "literally [hearing] country music all day long." Thomas's sound is best described as being haunting and soulful, yet still wholly inspired by a childhood of listening to outlaw country and twang-laden female singer-songwriters like Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris.
"Now, there's a feeling now, this shitty, discouraging feeling in your gut, where you're in a compromised double bind," Thomas says. "The black/white dynamic that governs the racist mythology that creates America, makes the music that you want to create and enjoy not feel like something that's meant for you." Taylor Swift vamping over 808s, Kacey Musgraves being "higher than [her] hair" on "Pageant Material," and a steady stream of bro country videos were my secret diet to get through Ferguson, Baltimore, and November 9, 2016. Yes, this music had clear and, in the face of racial disharmony, troubling connective overtones with black music. But it's also so fucking good—featuring melodies, rhythms, and vocal performances that, when you're jogging through urban residential neighborhoods with manicured lawns that are abutted by toothless and pock-marked homeless men smiling at you in front of 7-Eleven, still sound incredible. Try as I might to live free in my double-bound reality, Charlottesville was the point that my angst and fear broke me free.
I always gave the white kids who lived across the road from my aunt's double wides and welcomed me in for pie, milk, and Randy Travis the benefit of the doubt. They definitely didn't appear to be afraid of me. In fact, because they were so inviting and kind, I figured that, if something truly serious were to ever happen to me or someone that looked like me, that, because I found comfort for my blackness in their whiteness, there would be no fear. I felt safe.
At a loss for what to do next and for a rational explanation of my anger, I turned to Casey Rae, the one-time chief of the Future of Music Coalition and currently the Director of Music Licensing at SiriusXM Radio, a professor at both Georgetown University and the Berklee College of Music. "Far be it for me to speak for a community which I am not a member," Rae prefaced. "I will say this about this cross pollination of genres: I call it the slurry. When rivulets of what people popularly respond to combine, we get the slurry effect." Slurry seems logical.
On June 15, legendary country musician Steve Earle noted that country's mainstream pop stars were "just doing hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people."
Afraid. Of. Black. People. Like the cowards in Charlottesville driving cars into crowds afraid of black people. Like Donald Trump running and hiding behind white supremacists afraid of black people. Like Dylann Roof killing nine black people at a South Carolina church in an attempt to start a race war.
I felt very conflicted. I connected with country music since childhood because outlaw cowboys were more aurally and visually intriguing, and their stories about wild times felt more organic, excitingly rugged, raw, and entertainingly flawed than even Motley Crue's "Dr. Feelgood" or NWA's "Straight Outta Compton." Even today, there's something carefree in ultra-melodic tunes about "cold beer, and hot women (of which) I really can't hit my limit," or reality-driven in dealing with divorce and getting by, that intrinsically ameliorate something of my life as a black man. For nearly four decades—like Marvin Gaye says in "Inner City Blues," I've wanted to "holler, and throw up my hands," and these songs make me feel better than wanting to do that.
The image of a black man—arms and legs akimbo while attempting to flee the path of the front bumper of James Alex Fields, Jr.'s front bumper—is stained in my mind forever. It makes me feel very unsafe, and because white people who looked like the good folks I sat with in trailers and dissuaded my stereotypical notions of who white people who loved Ronnie Milsap could be with were involved, I'm now filled with a second-guessing paranoia about my adoration of country music. Listening to Al Green singing Hank Williams, Jr.'s "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in 1978, Pras, Mya, and Ol Dirty Bastard's 1999 smash "Ghetto Superstar" sampling Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton's 1983 hit duet take on "Islands In The Stream," used to make me insanely happy. As well, one of my all-time favorite songs from any genre like Exile's 1978 country-disco-synth pop melange "Kiss You All Over." Now, I'm left feeling like that there's literally no amount of whole milk, apple pie, Grand Ole Opry, or Sunny Sweeney that's going to wash this terrifying image away.
A steady diet of Kacey Musgraves' "Biscuits" got me through the assault of Freddie Gray and subsequent Baltimore riots. Even then, I felt awkward about that choice, but I also knew that our black and rational President, plus freedom of assembly-loving American citizens, would create such a significant hue and cry that all would eventually be made right with the world, allowing me to faultily rationalize my decision. But, the second that Donald Trump irrationally cosigned white supremacy and people's freedom to assemble after noting that there was "hatred, bigotry, and violence on many side" that was to blame for the violence at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11-12, 2017. I immediately had biscuits to mind, and my gravy turned to shit. Even worse, when I searched YouTube thinking that the amazing 2016 Country Music Association Awards performance of Beyonce and the Dixie Chicks singing the former's album track "Daddy Lessons" would work to make me feel better, it didn't.
Now, some two months later, there's shootings at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas. Given country's strong ties to the National Rifle Association, this tragedy does very little to dissuade my feelings that potentially, on a violence-related level, country is not going present a panacea. I am still officially at a place where nothing comfortably resonates as anything resembling the idyllic moment of black calm and cross-racial unity I so desperately long to hear, see, and feel.
Asking Kamara Thomas her thoughts, given our current political climate, about this Top 40 brand of country that I've loved for generations that's not quite getting the job done for my black body and black soul proved frustrating as well. Stating "even if it's making rap songs and songs traditional to black culture, the people who are on top of country music can and will continue do whatever the fuck they want. There's a lot of people and things that get sacrificed in the pursuit of pop music," it leaves fewer questions and more answers, but no peace of mind.
My sanity is one of those things. If I knew then what I know now, I'd have never stayed in that double wide for the Grand Old Opry, pie, and milk. As a child completely unaware of what was to come, I traded my sanity for dessert. This pain I feel as an adult because of what my black life has become? That's not delicious at all. And there's nothing I can listen to that will truly make me feel better.
Marcus K. Dowling is a writer living in Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter.