While a handful of peers including Mickey Guyton, Cam and Maren Morris rebuked the singer, others quickly called for Wallen’s redemption. And, in an ugly show of defiance from Wallen’s fans, his sales have soared since the incident, while artists who have spoken up against racism have faced social media backlash.
This incident and its aftermath, however ugly, actually point to the possibility of the famously White genre embracing a more inclusive version of country music. This possibility is driven by a multiracial coalition (and Black women in particular) of artists, writers and fans outside the confines of Nashville’s Music Row, who have organized to reclaim a genre people of color have always loved and move the music away from a business model where they have never been welcomed.
The country genre was created as a marketing category in the 1920s, when record executives capitalized on the potential to record and sell music from the American South. But while Black and White Southerners often played and enjoyed similar music, thanks to Jim Crow segregation the executives created two music categories, one White and one Black: “hillbilly” and “old-time” music — now collectively referred to as country music — and “race music.”
Executives envisioned the “hillbilly” genre as a product for rural, White Southerners. Reflecting classism for decades following its inception (and to a certain extent into the present), country was routinely ridiculed as backward and lowbrow. For instance in 1926 a front page Variety article described listeners as “illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons.”
After World War II, however, country music, along with its core White audience, benefited from the social mobility of the period, and the genre became more mainstream. The centralization of the country music business in Nashville in the 1940s and 1950s heavily aided the genre’s respectability campaign. No force was more influential in this process than the Country Music Association (CMA), which was created in 1958 as a trade organization “for the purpose of fostering, publicizing and promoting the growth of and interest in country music.”
In the context of the 1950s, this meant homing in on a White, adult and heavily suburban audience — the primary beneficiaries of post-World War II affluence — that would appeal to radio advertisers.
The industry’s resulting business strategy routinely ignored evidence of non-White artists and fans and instead branded its music as the sound of racial backlash politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the period’s most well-known songs capitalized on feelings of White anxiety, which the industry pushed even when artists resisted such branding. After Merle Haggard released his No. 1 hit “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969, the singer hoped to follow with “Irma Jackson,” a song about interracial love. Recognizing the money to be made on the heels of “Okie,” however, Haggard’s producer, Ken Nelson, instead insisted he release the jingoistic anthem “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which also became a number one hit.
The industry worked to keep country White despite evidence that Black artists could be commercially successful within the genre. In 1962 Ray Charles’s transformative album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” was certified gold and received a Grammy nomination. Although the album brought a new, middle-of-the-road audience to country music, the industry failed to support the album as one of its own.
In 1965, the industry did make an exception to its Whites-only rule, when Charley Pride became the first non-White artist signed to a country record label. In the years following, Pride would become one of the best-selling country artists of all-time.
Following his success, new potential emerged for country to broaden its focus. Black artists like O.B. McClinton, Stoney Edwards and Linda Martell earned a string of small hits. And Mexican American singers Johnny Rodriguez and Freddy Fender achieved superstardom as well.
But rather than market to a multiracial audience, the country music industry instead doubled-down on its Whites-only approach — even embracing Richard Nixon, who saw the country audience as part of his “Silent Majority,” during the throes of Watergate. The industry marketed its music as the product of White nostalgia, featuring many popular songs celebrating the “redneck” figure, such as Vernon Oxford’s “Redneck! (The Redneck national anthem)."
By the 1980s, country hits like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” emerged as the soundtrack of Reagan-era conservatism. Like Nixon, Ronald Reagan identified country listeners as his voters, making multiple visits to the Grand Ole Opry, and rhapsodizing that “Country music represents the story of out nation … It tells of our way of life and the men and women who built this nation and made it the greatest land on earth.” At a time when moral panic surrounded popular music and the Parents’ Music Resource Center sought to censor what children listened to, country was again presented as the genre of choice for White conservatives and members of the PMRC.
Over the past several decades, the country music business has gone to great lengths not to disrupt or alienate the right-leaning White listeners it perceives as its core fans. The most notorious example came with the blackballing of the Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks) — the best-selling group in country music history — in 2003 after lead singer Natalie Maines mentioned to a London crowd that the band was “ashamed” that President George W. Bush hailed from their home state of Texas because of the Iraq War.
Efforts to appease country’s base audience of White conservatives have continued to the present. Last year, at a heightened moment of political and racial unrest, the annual CMA Awards were advertised as a “no drama” event. And while Garth Brooks, maybe country’s biggest star, has often hinted at more progressive politics, the singer remained vague about his political beliefs when he announced he would perform at President Biden’s inauguration last month, calling his performance “not a political statement,” but a “statement of unity.”
Yet a paradox rests at the heart of this country climate. Though the music has always been sold as a White genre, it has maintained widespread appeal, with fans across not only race but class, region, age and gender and sexuality lines. Over the past year especially, country artists, writers and fans of color who have not traditionally found acceptance within the country music business because of racism have worked diligently to reimagine a more inclusive country music community.
Singer Rissi Palmer has been key to such efforts, with her weekly Color Me Country podcast on Apple Music, which highlights country artists of color, and in the creation of the Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund, for artists of color. Writer Andrea Williams, meanwhile, has worked tirelessly to expose the racism rampant throughout the country music business. And singer Mickey Guyton has led the effort to support fellow Black country artists.
But while Guyton’s song, “Black Like Me” received a Grammy nomination, she still receives little airplay on country radio, which continues to be the most powerful platform in promoting country artists.
The split reaction to Wallen’s use of a racist slur reveals the two possible routes for country’s future: continue on its traditional path, catering to a marketplace built on Whiteness and reactionary right-wing politics. Or foster a new audience that takes advantage of country’s potential to be an inclusive musical community.
It’s not yet clear the industry, overall, is willing to change. The market for White anxiety is larger than ever. But the efforts of artists, writers and fans pushing against Nashville’s rigid gatekeepers have the potential to prod executives and radio stations to embrace a more inclusive vision.