Country music as a genre lends best to storytelling, love, heartbreak, triumph, and tragedy. The Black experience over the decades is told through all those trademarks. You may not know it, but there are dozens of Black singers who made a name for themselves through country music.
These black country singers all found a way to set themselves apart in a very crowded genre. Let’s break them down from classic to contemporary.
For many of you, Charley Pride is the first person you think of when you think about African American country singers. Pride was a pioneer in his time as a recording artist and succeeded in the 1970s when he achieved a massive accomplishment– he was the best-selling artist for RCA Records since Elvis Presley.
Pride had 52 top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart during the height of his music career. Thirty of those peaked at number one. Pride was so beloved that he received the Country Music Association Award for Entertainer of the Year in 1971.
Some of Pride’s most successful songs include “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?,” “I Can’t Believe You’d Stop Loving Me,” “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again,” and “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me).”
Pride’s legacy extended through the decades. He performed on and off through the years before succumbing to complications from COVID-19 in December 2020.
Mickey Guyton is one of the most contemporary artists on this list. She exploded onto the country music scene several years ago and has maintained success in the genre ever since.
Guyton, who was raised in Texas, was exposed to a variety of musical genres at a young age. As a result, her music mixes aspects of modern country and R&B. She moved to Nashville in 2011, and here, she scored a recording deal with Capitol Records Nashville.
Capitol published her first song, “Better Than You Left Me,” in 2015. She received a nomination from the Academy of Country Music Awards with the help of the song. Guyton’s tune, “Black Like Me,” which she released in 2020, speaks about her experiences as a Black woman in country music. The song pushed Guyton’s career to new heights and resulted in a Grammy award nomination for Best Country Solo Performance – a first for a Black woman.
The success of these songs gave Guyton the push to release her first album in 2021, titled “Remember Her Name.” The album, according to Guyton, was commentary on the racism and sexism she experienced in Nashville. Guyton even received the honor of performing the National Anthem during Super Bowl LVI.
Another contemporary artist on this list, Rhiannon Giddens has made a name for herself and her band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, over the past several years.
Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, Giddens was a 2000 graduate of Oberlin Conservatory at Oberlin College. She studied opera there and quickly joined several other musicians to form the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The group earned Grammy fame in 2011 in the Best Traditional Folk Album genre. The Carolina Chocolate Drops eventually disbanded, however.
Giddens eventually moved on to solo work in 2015 with the release of her album Tomorrow Is My Turn. She also won a Grammy in 2022 for Best Folk Album. She has continued her solo efforts through the last few years, even contributing a song to Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2.
Raise your hand if you ever thought the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish would find a way to achieve crossover success in country music. Darius Rucker already had mainstream success thanks to his Columbia, South Carolina rock band and their 1994 album Cracked Rear View. Still, Rucker longed for solo success and found it through country music.
Rucker began a career in country music after signing with Capitol Records Nashville in 2008. His first single, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” debuted on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts No. 51. Midway through 2009, the second song from the album, “It Won’t Be Like This for Long,” spent three weeks at the top of the country chart. “Alright,” became Rucker’s third consecutive No. 1 hit.
Rucker continued his country music career and gained several more hits, including 2014’s “Wagon Wheel.” The song won him the Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance. Rucker was the only African American recording act to win a vocal performance Grammy Award in a category for country music.
Lesley Riddle is likely a name you have not heard of as a black country singer, but his legacy and influence remain critical to the genre.
In August 1927, while working as a young man at a cement mill, he seriously injured his leg. Riddle went through an amputation because of the damage received in the incident. As he healed, Riddle picked up the guitar and practiced an original picking and sliding style that would change music forever.
However, Riddle’s influence comes through The Carter Family, a white family of folk singers. Riddle collaborated with the Carters through the years, and the family’s unique sound helped to shape and form modern folk and country music.
Still, it was Riddle who went largely unnoticed. Riddle sold his guitar in 1945 and went dormant until the 1960s. He returned to music during those years until he died in 1979.
The Pointer Sisters
There is something about country music that is ripe for crossover artists to pick. That is what The Pointer Sisters did in 1974 with the release of their album, That’s A Plenty. While the album is jazzier than anything, the singing trio released a curious country hit with “Fairytale.”
“Fairytale” peaked at No. 37 on the country chart and No. 13 on the pop charts. The group received an invitation to Nashville, Tennessee, and they made history by becoming the first Black group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.
The Pointer Sisters received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1975, while Anita and Bonnie Pointer, who wrote “Fairytale,” were also nominated for Best Country Song.
While the group never again received country music success, they continued to release album after album of pop, dance, and disco hits for decades to come.
Ray Charles, A Famous Black Country Singer
Ray Charles was a blues and soul god. Nicknamed “The Genius” thanks to his stylings on the piano and songwriting prowess, Charles might have been an early rock and roll favorite, but his country songs will move anyone.
The first of Charles’ three career No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, “Georgia On My Mind,” was released in 1960. His first album to reach the top of the Billboard 200 was Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, released in 1962.
With 44 hits on the US R&B singles chart, 11 singles on the Hot 100 singles list, and two singles on the Hot Country singles charts, Charles had multiple singles that reached the Top 40 on various Billboard charts.
But “Georgia On My Mind” was Charles’ most crucial contributor to his success as a country artist. The song gained him four Grammy nominations, including Best Vocal Performance Single Record or Track, Male.
Charles’ success over the years inspired legions of fans, including a young Jamie Foxx. Foxx later starred as Charles in the autobiographical film, Ray. Foxx’s performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Trailblazer might be a word to define DeFord Bailey, but honestly, it might also undersell his contributions to country music. Born in 1899, Bailey battled polio at a young age but found a way to beat it and learn the harmonica.
In his late teens, Bailey relocated to Nashville with family and made significant early contributions to the city’s developing music scene. His recorded compositions were well-known and well-liked, and he was one of the first entertainers to perform live on the radio.
But in 1926, he made his most well-known radio performance when he became the first singer to be introduced on the Grand Ole Opry, the first Black performer to appear on the program, and the first musician whose song was recorded in Nashville.
Bailey’s contributions to country music cannot be understated. Despite putting his harmonica down in the 40s, he did return to performing in the 70s before his death in 1982.
Another pioneering act in the 1970s, O.B. McClinton liked to call himself the “Chocolate Cowboy.” McClinton enjoyed listening to Hank Williams as a kid, which inspired his foray into country music after a failed attempt getting into R&B.
Regardless of his failure to chart in the R&B world, McClinton pivoted to country music in the early 70s. Using television to market his album The Only One, McClinton secured a hit with “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.”
McClinton continued in country music for another decade, releasing eight albums and numerous singles. While none of them reached the heights of “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You,” they allowed McClinton to remain relevant in the country music sphere.
Unfortunately, McClinton’s life was short-lived. He passed away in 1987 following a bout with abdominal cancer.
While there have been only a few black country music singers in the early days of the genre, black country artists are finally beginning to find their voices in the contemporary era. Another former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons is already making waves in the country music genre.
Flemons is a unique blend of old-time music, blues, and country, making him an artist with a sound unlike any other. At 39 years old, Flemons appears to have the future of the country music world in his hands. He has already received a Grammy award nomination for Best Folk Album in 2021.
These days, Flemons is living in Washington D.C., continuing to hone his craft and gain the respect of fellow country artists.
Jimmie Allen is another contemporary country music artist using his youth and soulful voice to shake up the establishment.
Allen has the mark of being a cut contestant from American Idol in the same year fellow country crooner Scotty McCreery won the competition. The two have since become close friends and recently toured together.
At 37 years old, Allen already has a No. 1 country hit song in “Best Shot” off his album Mercury Lane. The song was on the Hot Country Songs, Country Airplay, and Billboard Hot 100 charts. Mercury Lane was a hit, helping Allen gain the Country Music Association award for Best New Artist in 2021.
Allen continues to make music, releasing his third album in 2022 and appearing as a guest mentor on American Idol during season 20. Talk about a comeback! The sky’s the limit for this young man from Nashville.
Amythyst Kiah is an artist beginning to come into her own. While the Chattanooga, Tennessee native found her musical voice as part of the country group Our Native Daughters, Kiah is branching out as a solo artist to successes she never thought possible.
Touring with the band and as a solo artist since 2010, Kiah’s particular style of music is what she calls “Southern Gothic.” Kiah is a skilled guitarist and banjo player focusing on a more soulful singing presentation.
Kiah’s 2021 album Wary + Strange is particularly noteworthy in her burgeoning career as a country artist. The album made its way to Rolling Stone’s “25 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2021” and one of its songs, “Wild Turkey,” was named one of the 50 Best Songs of 2021 in Variety Magazine.
With many accolades in her possession, it is only a matter of time before Kiah hits the mainstream. Get in early on this artist, folks.
The War and Treaty
A husband and wife duo, The War and Treaty feature two artists who have found music as their ultimate outlet.
Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter came up with their unique duo name following an argument about changing their names for the fifth time. The result is a name that allows the duo to stand out from the crowded country fare. Trotter is an Iraq war veteran. Blount-Trotter has been a singer for her entire life.
The War and Treaty have released two albums thus far– both described as a mix of soul and country. While neither has made waves when it comes to commercial sales, both albums are critically acclaimed. The duo’s work thus far has also given them attention thanks to their awards for 2019’s Emerging Artists of the Year by the Americana Music Honors and Awards and 2020’s Artists of the Year from Folk Alliance International.
The pair sits upon the precipice of greatness. But what will be the song that sends them into the stratosphere?
Who knew TikTok and YouTube could help create one of the more recent country music success stories? Blanco Brown burst onto the scene after growing up listening to country music icons such as Johnny Cash while visiting his grandmother in Georgia.
It was the Man in Black’s influence that moved Brown to create a song and dance called “The Git Up” which he sang with country artist Lainey Wilson. The resulting “Git Up Challenge” posted to YouTube spun off onto TikTok, where hundreds of thousands of users would contribute to the challenge.
As a result of TikTok and YouTube, “The Git Up” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country charts, giving Brown credibility in the genre. Brown succeeded on the country charts with Parmalee’s “Just the Way,” where he was a vocalist on the No. 1 charting song.
Brown, unfortunately, was involved in a motorcycle accident that broke his pelvis, arms, legs, and wrists. Despite the massive damage to his body, Brown made a full recovery.
These days, Brown is also trying his hand with hip-hop, hoping to become another crossover artist whose mainstream appeal works across genres.
Ah yes, another Willie in country music. This should be good, right? Willie Jones was on the precipice of breaking out when he appeared on the U.S. version of The X Factor in 2012. Making it to the live shows, Jones looked ripe for success until his elimination in the first week of competition.
While a week-one elimination from a reality TV singing competition would have devastated a lesser artist, Jones used it to fuel his fire as a country music artist. Jones gained over a million followers on social media, helping spread his talent to all corners of the Internet.
In the following years, Jones’ popularity allowed him to sign a record deal with Sony Music Nashville. Since then, Jones released his first album in 2021 called Right Now. The album included hits such as “Down by the Riverside” and “Down for It.”
Jones has the country music world paying close attention to his success. It is a matter of seeing how he can harness that success into his next album.
Daniel Gerard Breland has plenty of attention, considering he has yet to release an album. Still, the New Jersey-born country-rap artist continues to make waves on social media and in his various concert appearances.
The son of ordained preachers Tonya and Gerard Breland, who filled their household with gospel music, Breland grew up in Burlington, New Jersey. Breland first encountered pop, country, hip-hop, and R&B secular music when he enrolled at the Peddie School in New Jersey at 14.
From there, Breland started his professional songwriting career. Breland relocated to Atlanta after receiving his degree. He wrote music typically till late into the morning hours while working a job marketing language technology during the day. Breland also taught himself how to engineer.
Breland frequently uploaded unique content to Instagram during the COVID-19 pandemic. He created the #BrelandVerseChallenge on the app to interact with his fans. Ultimately, he gave two of his Instagram fans their first-ever major-label writing credit on the song “In the Woulds,” an R&B and pop tune with country musicians Chase Rice and Lauren Alaina.
Breland’s 2019 hit “My Truck,” a song on truck culture, helped him find his unique voice. He shared the song on Instagram and received a positive response.
The success of “My Truck” now has Breland releasing his debut album in September 2022.
You may not know it, but you have likely already enjoyed a song from Shy Carter. While Carter’s name was unknown in the mainstream until recently, his music career spans almost 15 years.
Carter started as a songwriter and penned his first hit in 2009 with Rob Thomas’ “Someday.” “Someday” was a runaway hit on Billboard’s Adult Top 40 list, culminating in a No. 1 ranking. Carter took that success and continued with hits for other artists such as Meghan Trainor, Jamie Foxx, Charlie Puth, Tim McGraw, and Keith Urban.
Carter’s work with Urban helped solidify his talent for country music. Carter penned his country hit “Good Love” in 2020 with Micah Carter, James Slater, Carlo, and Colasacco. He followed up the success of that song with “Beer with My Friends,” another hit about the fun of kicking back with the boys and enjoying a few rounds.
Black Country Singers – Final Thoughts
Country music is a genre defined by the soul of those who sing it. The Black community has plenty of soul to sing, and these artists of the past, present, and future have found a way to deliver that message.
The success of these artists also proves there is a way forward in country music for the Black community. With crossover country success for hip-hop artists like Little Nas X and “Old Town Road,” it is easy to see a path forward for several who wish to add their unique spin to the genre.