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Guest opinion: Country music is more diverse than you think

NYT

This spring the rapper Lil Nas X, who is black, released “Old Town Road,” a twang-inflected song that rocketed to the top of the country music charts — even though Billboard temporarily removed it from the list, saying it wasn’t sufficiently “country.”

A few months later, when the Country Music Association announced that three women — Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood — would host its annual awards show, some people criticized the choice as political correctness, as if “real” country music was restricted to good old boys.

Both controversies reflect the stereotypes that chronically surround country music. They overlook its diverse roots, its porous boundaries and the central role that women and people of color have played in its history.

Such narrow views would astonish the two foundational acts of the genre — Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family — who contributed to country music’s early commercial success in the 1920s. They knew firsthand that what has made American music so uniquely American has been its constant mixing of styles and influences.

It all began when the fiddle, which came from Europe, met the banjo, which came from Africa — bringing together ballads and hymns from the British Isles with the syncopations and sensibilities of enslaved blacks. That mix, that “rub,” which occurred principally in the South, set off a chain reaction that has reverberated in our music ever since.

The earliest country recordings were known as “hillbilly” music, just as African American recordings were categorized as “race” music. The names echoed a prejudice that each genre (and its artists and its fans) was somehow beneath consideration from society’s upper rungs — and that each one was unrelated to the other.

In truth, as the two of us learned while exploring the music and its history, they were always intertwined. The music constantly crossed the racial divide that a segregated nation tried to enforce.

Before his career took off, Rodgers worked as a water boy in Mississippi for the mostly black crews laying railroad track. The men he met, and their music, shaped his own emerging style — the songs he made popular as an adult were essentially the blues, to which he added a distinctive yodel. When A.P. Carter collected songs for the Carter Family, he brought along Lesley Riddle, a black slide guitar player, to help him remember the melodies. Riddle also taught the Carters a hymn from his church, “When the World’s on Fire,” which they recorded. They then used the same melody for another song, “Little Darling, Pal of Mine.” Years later Woody Guthrie, a fan of the Carters, borrowed the melody for his classic “This Land Is Your Land.” That one song’s journey encapsulates the real, interconnected story of American music.

Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, was mentored by an African American fiddle player. Hank Williams, the great honky-tonk singer, credited Tee-Tot Payne, a black musician in Alabama, for “all the music training I ever had.”

The cross-fertilization went in both directions. Charley Pride — the first postwar black artist to have a No. 1 country hit, and the first artist of any color to win the Country Music Association’s male vocalist award two years in a row — was discovered in a bar in Montana, singing Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues.” He had grown up listening to the “Grand Ole Opry” show on the radio.

When Ray Charles was given creative control of an album for the first time, he chose to record a selection of country songs. “You take country music, you take black music,” Charles said, and “you got the same ... thing exactly.” The album was a sales sensation.

Likewise, the history of country music is filled with strong, talented women in ways the common stereotype seems (or chooses) to overlook. From Patsy Montana to Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells to Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris to Rosanne Cash, women have created some of country music’s most enduring art.

In 1926, A.P. Carter and his wife, Sara, had been turned down by a record label on the theory that a woman singing lead could never be popular. Instead, the Carters added Sara’s cousin Maybelle to the group and went on to make history, centered on Sara’s remarkable voice and Maybelle’s innovative guitar playing, “the Carter scratch,” which has influenced generations of guitarists.

In 1966, the same year that the National Organization for Women was founded and the phrase “women’s liberation” was first used, Loretta Lynn wrote and recorded “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” a statement that dealt with spousal abuse and alcoholism and a woman’s right to her own body, with a bluntness no other musical genre dared make at the time. “If you write the truth and you’re writing about your life,” Ms. Lynn told us, “it’s going to be country.”

At its best, country music country has never been confined to one simple category or convenient stereotype. It sprang from many roots and then sprouted many new branches through the 20th century, creating a complicated chorus of American voices joining together to tell a complicated American story, one song at a time.

Country deals with the most basic, universal human emotions and experiences — love and loss, hardship and dreams, failure and the hope of redemption. The songwriter Harlan Howard once defined country music as “three chords and the truth.” Three chords imply simplicity. But the truth part is always much more complex. And more profound.

Ken Burns is the director and producer of “Country Music.” Dayton Duncan is the writer and producer of the documentary and author of its companion book.