(L-R): Willie Jones, Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer, Jimmie Allen
Photo credit for source images (L-R): Matthew Berinato, Matthew Berinato, Phylicia J.L. Munn, John Shearer
5 Black Artists Rewriting Country Music: Mickey Guyton, Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Brittney Spencer & Willie Jones
2021 has introduced a dynamic change to American life that has aggressively called into question stereotypes surrounding race, gender and culture. And there may be no better lens through which to examine this development than in country music.
For almost a century, the Appalachia-born genre, more than almost any other subset of American popular music, has largely excluded Black artists and performers. However, the roots of country music lay in the hands of banjo-playing Black slaves and minstrel-show performing sharecroppers.
Still, for well over 50 years, the only Black artist significantly represented in the country music industry was the late Charley Pride, who died last December. The Mississippi-born sharecropper turned All-Star Negro League pitcher's ability to navigate his way around a country song led to four dozen-plus top 10 Billboard Country chart hits (including the 1971 classic "Kiss An Angel Good Morning") and worldwide appeal.
Today, in an era partly defined by reparational justice toward African-Americans nationwide, country music contains numerous performers whose tireless efforts in the genre are now being rewarded. Of the growing crowd, Mickey Guyton, Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Brittney Spencer, and Willie Jones have all received Pride-level applause for their successes within country music.
Country's Next Great Torch Singer: Mickey Guyton
From Patsy Cline to Carrie Underwood, country music has a tradition of white female vocalists whose impressive vocal control and electrifying histrionics elevate superb songwriting to award-winning levels.
Comparatively, warm, soulful singers like Linda Martell and Rissi Palmer have opened doors for Black female country performers.
For those looking for a marriage of the two, Mickey Guyton—a veteran country artist buoyed by the pained yet profound inspiration of the Black Lives Matter movement—married her multi-octave superstar vocal instrument to the poignant ballad "Black Like Me" and has soared to top-tier country acclaim. Her new album, Remember Her Name, drops on September 24.
Country music is often maligned because of its inability to address issues of race and gender in a manner that befits the tenor of progressive times. However, Guyton's now-signature song overcame the genre's historical slights against marginalized communities. What's more, it reflects country music's slow, continued moves toward justice for them.
A "Worldwide Beautiful" Superstar In The Making: Kane Brown
Kane Brown is the type of artist as comfortable making modernized trap-style country ballads (2020's "Be Like That," featuring Swae Lee) as he is covering the neo-traditionalist Randy Travis' classic "Three Wooden Crosses."
His head—frequently topped with an adjustable trucker hat—has growing ears, eyes and music-biz savvy. Recently, the trailer-park-raised Chattanooga, Tennessee, native launched a new label, Sony-backed 1021 Entertainment—plus a song publishing company, Verse 2 Entertainment.
However, if looking for the accurate measurement of Brown's cross-cultural reach, "Worldwide Beautiful" drives home why Brown is a star of note, with an extraordinarily passionate social media following to boot.
When he sings, "At every show I see my people/They ain't the same, but they're all equal/One love, one God, one family," his rich tenor conveys a unifying message that supersedes today's American frustrations and antagonism.
The Hometown Hero: Jimmie Allen
Country music loves stories of self-made small-town boys with humble dreams that shine under Music City's downtown Broadway lights.
To wit, rising country star Jimmie Allen is a native—and still, proudly a resident—of Milton, Delaware, a town populated by a hair below 3,000 people. His new album, Bettie James Gold Edition—an expansion of his Bettie James project—dropped in June.
Within the first five years of his country career, Allen's achieved two platinum-selling, number-one Billboard Country Airplay chart singles (2018's "Best Shot" and 2019's "Make Me Want To"), plus recently became the first Black artist to win the New Male Artist of the Year award at 2021's Academy of Country Music Awards.
It's also notable how Allen carries forth Charley Pride's legacy. In a 2020 interview for Holler, the vocalist noted that the Country Music Hall of Famer taught him that if he made the music he loved, "It'll land on the ears and hearts of the people who are supposed to hear it."
"[That advice] clicked," he replied. "Ever since, I really got the confidence to just kind of fall in my groove of what I do."
Your Favorite Singer/Songwriter's Favorite Singer/Songwriter: Brittney Spencer
Baltimore, Maryland's Brittney Spencer writes from a place of deeply ingrained spiritual inspirations, and her style is borne from years spent as a churchgoing Episcopal church choir member and musical arranger.
Equally, it's inspired by having a friend introduce her to the music of the Chicks as a teenager. Just like the band whose 1998 song "Wide Open Spaces" is a crossover country classic, Spencer's music is cut from the same cloth.
On songs like the 2020 Compassion EP single "Sorrys Don't Work No More," lyrics like "I called you up in August, hoping I could be honest/But you never let me speak" hurt more than they rhyme—which is a rare talent.
That skill is not only apparent in Spencer's forthcoming material, but in writers' rooms with the likes of a diverse slate of country performers including Allen, Maren Morris, Brandy Clark and Jason Isbell.
Overall, it's simply a case of if—and not when—Spencer's acclaim will grow.
The Country-Trap Iconoclast: Willie Jones
No artist in the pop-country realm more uniquely highlights the diverse presentations allowed when welcoming more artists of color into the mainstream conversation than Shreveport, Louisiana's Willie Jones.
Suppose a Venn diagram space existed wherein early 2Pac's blend of earnestness and braggadocio blended with Kenny Chesney's desire to kick off his shoes and relax with a drink. In that case, the 26-year old singer-songwriter would occupy it.
From one side of his mouth emerges "American Dream," his critically-acclaimed 2021 civil rights anthem that includes the lyrics, "When you're livin' as a Black man/It's a different kinda American dream."
However, on the other side of the coin, you've got "Down By The Riverside," his Southern, countrified 2021 party track about corn, cotton and crawfish.