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Working for Students Carlos Rafael Rivera
GRAMMY-winning composer Carlos Rafael Rivera directs the media scoring and production program at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music

Photo courtesy of the musician

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Working For Students: How Music Industry Professionals Find Fulfillment In Education

From Terri Lynne Carrington to Serona Elton, GRAMMY.com spoke with six music educators, who are also active in various aspects of the music industry, about creating an informed and diverse music community through higher ed.

GRAMMYs/Mar 29, 2023 - 05:04 pm

Accessible music education is crucial for sustaining and growing a bright future for music and the world. Music educators — whose work in everything from private lessons to primary school, university and conservatory — are utterly essential to music and our humanity.

"Music education enriches our lives and turns us into fans who want to help sustain the music industry," says Sue Ennis, a songwriting and music industry professor at Shoreline Community College in Washington state, who has written songs for Heart

In honor of Music In Our Schools Month, GRAMMY.com spoke with six music educators who also balance professional careers in the music industry. These educators discuss how their work helps the community thrive by empowering and uplifting the next generation of music creators and professionals.

Teaching Is Not A One-Way Street 

The most effective educators keep their passion for learning at the heart of their teaching practice, staying open to change and learning from their students. 

"One of the biggest reasons I enjoy teaching is the exchange. If it were just a one-way street where I gave whatever information I know to others, I probably would be out of it long before now," says Terri Lyne Carrington, a three-time GRAMMY-winning drummer, composer, producer, and the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. 

Throughout her 40-year career, Carrington has toured and recorded with legends including Esperanza Spalding, Stan Getz and Herbie Hancock — a diverse roster of masterful players whose differences have informed her own musicality and, likely, her approach to education. "I never had a cookie-cutter approach to teaching. I start as best I can with a blank slate because everybody needs something different to learn effectively," Carrington says.

How Music Industry Professionals Find Fulfillment In Education terri lynne carrington

Terri Lyne Carrington | Michael Goldman

The challenges and gratification of working in an ever-changing industry, as well as the opportunity to regularly work with new students, draws many passionate professionals to education. For Stacy McMichael, an adjunct bass professor at Saint Xavier University and Joliet Junior College in Illinois, teaching also serves a motivation to improve her own craft. 

"Helping a student navigate a tricky passage where you have to create a solution is the kind of reciprocal education we never really identify as such," says McMichael, who recently performed in a Broadway production of "SIX: The Musical." "A substantial portion of my confidence in my own playing comes from connecting my students to their power. Witnessing a student’s breakthrough moment is something I truly relish."

How Music Industry Professionals Find Fulfillment In Education Stacy McMichael

Stacy McMichael Courtesy of Stacy McMichael

When musician, producer and engineer David Barbe first started teaching, he realized how much he still had to learn. 

"I realized there's so much more for me to know, and how can I teach if I don't know? I can’t just be knowledgeable in what I’m already familiar with," says Barbe, the Director of the music business certificate program at the University of Georgia. "I have to learn about the country business, the hip-hop business, and sync licensing. I got to know about how these artist managers do things. Teaching completely broadened my perspective."

"Once You Feel It, You Won't Forget It"

With increased budget cuts and decreased emphasis on the arts in K-12 education, many students are losing the chance to experience music in the classroom. That lack of early arts education could be detrimental to their education and life as a whole.

"Once you feel it, you won’t forget it," Sue Ennis says of early exposure to music. "Without basic music education, people have no on-ramp to access music because they have no framework to process or appreciate it and recognize that it is an essential part of our culture."

A study by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation found that schools with music programs have an estimated 90.2 percent graduation rate and attendance rates to match; those without music programs have an average graduation rate of 72.9 percent and attendance rates of 85.9 percent. The non-profit also found that secondary students who participated in a music group at school reported the lowest use of all substances currently and in their lifetime.

How Music Industry Professionals Find Fulfillment In Education sue ennis

Sue Ennis | Courtesy of Sue Ennis

Though a 2019 Arts Education Status Report found that the majority of students in the U.S. have access to some form of music education, the positive effects of music education are not evenly spread throughout the community. The approximately 5,000 schools without music programs are disproportionately in major urban areas and in school districts that serve Black, Hispanic and Native American students. Many schools without arts education are also charter schools, the NAMM Foundation reported.

"Music education helps to create a more diverse and inclusive music community, as it provides opportunities for people from all backgrounds to discover and engage with the art form," says GRAMMY-winning composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, who directs the media scoring and production program at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. 

Effective Educators Over All Else

An education in the business side of music is essential, especially when a single contract could make or break a career. This knowledge can empower students to make educated decisions and take command of their careers. But finding teachers who are both knowledgeable in the business and skilled in the art of teaching can be rare.

"I have seen too many examples of industry executives trying to move into teaching roles without the proper preparation," notes Serona Elton, who directs the music industry program and Associate Dean of Administration at the Frost School of Music. Elton was the Vice President of Product Management at Warner Music Group and the Vice President of EMI Recorded Music North America. "They might have been very good at doing something in the industry, leading a team or company, but they fail when it comes to teaching in a meaningful and detailed way."

How Music Industry Professionals Find Fulfillment In Education serona elton

Serona EltonAddiel Perera Photography

Elton's passion for helping people understand complex topics drew her to education. She cites her own music industry education as essential to understanding the industry's inner workings and placing her work within the larger musical landscape. 

Elton emphasizes that the need for passionate and effective teachers is more important than the need for those with extensive industry experience. "Great educators who have extensive experience are ideal, but not common," she says.  

"I Work For The Students"

Looking to the future, all the educators interviewed for this piece would like to see more collaboration between schools and companies, with the goal of providing students with the necessary connections to grow their careers. 

"Some schools are already doing this quite well, having their students work on projects for industry partners," Serona Elton notes. Among these examples is a partnership between the Frost School of Music and Netflix, secured by Carlos Rafael Rivera, that allows media scoring and production students to create music for current Netflix series

"This historic collaboration sets a new standard for partnerships between academic institutions and production companies, paving the way for future innovative partnerships." Rivera says.

Many educators are also calling for more collaboration between schools. "We, the schools, should engage with each other more. Let's compare notes. Let's talk. We needn’t view each other as threats because we’re all here to benefit the students," says David Barbe. "The rising tide lifts all ships, smaller pieces of a bigger pie works better for everyone."

How Music Industry Professionals Find Fulfillment In Education david barbe

David Barbe | Brian Powers

Barbe travels across the country to meet with companies in person, advocating for his students in the hopes of landing them jobs and real-world connections. He recounts helping a student obtain an internship, and then a job offer, at legendary indie label Sub Pop records by flying to Seattle

"These organizations are always taken aback when I come to them instead of trying to get them to come to the school, and that’s when you can bring real connections to life," he says.

Barbe says this kind of work shouldn’t be an exception, it should be the rule. "I work for the students. They pay tuition, I work for them. So, it's my job to engage with these companies, put two and two together, and land students real opportunities."

Whether it’s in the classroom or working hands-on in the industry, these individuals never step away from education. The future of music is bright as these professionals use their ties to both worlds to form much needed bridges between formal education and the industry itself. Their presence is a connection that puts students first, creating an informed and diverse music community.

A College Of Musical Knowledge: 15 Musical Groups That Act As Hubs For Emerging Talent

Nancy Wilson

Nancy Wilson

Photo: Jeremy Danger

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Nancy Wilson On Her New Album, 'You & Me,' Missing The "Angels" Of Rock & The Future Of Heart

Nancy Wilson's upcoming album 'You & Me' is partly a reflection on her personal relationships—both with the living and those who have passed. Its single "The Inbetween," premiering exclusively via GRAMMY.com, is all about the liminal spaces of existence

GRAMMYs/Apr 28, 2021 - 06:20 pm

Nancy Wilson was thumbing through some notes when she found a poem written by her son, Curtis. Perceptive and probing, it seemed to sum up our politically malignant era—and what was spiritually absent at the core of it.

"[He] wrote this poem for a class assignment," the Heart co-founder tells GRAMMY.com over the phone from her Sonoma County home. "I thought it was really clever. The words were so clever and so whimsical. He was like, 'Black and white, wrong and right.'" Feeling the words reflected tribalism and partisanship, Wilson flipped those dualities into a song, "The Inbetween." But instead of being portentous or doomy, the track is radiant and rocking.

"Putting it in a context of something more fun—a funny take on it all—takes it away from being so heavy and dark," Wilson adds. "It kind of sheds new light on a situation. It's a contrast from the heavy times we've had to live through and puts it in a different tonality."

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"The Inbetween," which exclusively premieres above via GRAMMY.com, is the latest single from Wilson's upcoming album, You & Me, which drops May 7 via Carry On Music. Really, Wilson is preoccupied with in-betweens throughout the album—the spaces between life and death, dreams and memories, good relationships and poisonous ones. It's also her first solo album ever, despite making music with her sister, Ann Wilson, in Heart for nearly a half-century.

The sisters have had an up-and-down relationship over the last few years, and the pandemic gave Wilson space to define herself both within and without "the vortex that’s Heart." And while the door is open for the band to go out again in 2022, Wilson is cherishing the time to reflect and recalibrate—and You & Me is the heartfelt product of this period of self-examination.

GRAMMY.com gave Nancy Wilson a ring to discuss You & Me track by track, why it took her five decades to make a solo album and the future of Heart.

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This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Over the decades, what was the biggest obstacle to putting out a solo album, whether internal or external?

Well, I think I would call it the vortex that's Heart. There's a vortex of the work ethic of Heart for the last almost 50 years, just to be honest. I hate to even date it. But it's been a mind-bending job to do every year for the touring of it and the album after album—mainly, the touring of it all. You know, everywhere with electricity, we've played there.

It's an interesting dichotomy with the pandemic stopping the hurtling, you know. Heart's been hurtling through space for nearly 50 years. It's an interesting contrast to that to have to be shut in and be at home and stop the momentum and reconvene with your personal soul and self, in order to be able to know what to do musically and creatively with that time I had in my hands like everybody has had.

It's really a blessing, you know? It's been a blessing outside of the larger curse of it all to be able to reconvene with your communication with your own self.

Who were you thinking of when you came up with the album title—and first track—You & Me?

That's dedicated to my mom, who left us quite a while ago now. She's still in my skin, in my DNA. So it's kind of a gravity-free zone where I can talk to her in that song. I think the word "gravity," in and of itself, kind of keeps the song from walking that too-precious kind of a line. [laughs]

I think the personal, confessional kind of thing about this album—it's almost too sweet. It walks a line that's almost too sweet, but I think in another way, you could say that it's more of a revolutionary act to be that open and that honest. Walking the line of sweetness can be more of a rock attitude than hiding out behind your feelings. I'm sort of burying a lot of my feelings in this album.

And, you know, tongue-in-cheek stuff too, but the honesty of it is kind of a rebellious act on a certain level.

It seems like you're preoccupied with that line where sweetness could tip over into treacle. You're consciously trying to stay on the right side of that.

Yeah, exactly. It's almost, like, not supposed to happen. You're not supposed to do that. It's against the rules to be that honest, to bare your soul like that. I guess if that's an issue, then I don't know what is. [chuckles]

Tell me about your relationship with your mom.

She was a steel magnolia. I got a lot of her strength along the way. A military family, right? Marine corps, all those travels we had growing up were a strengthening kind of thing. We became really tight-knit as a family because we were always moving. Early touring experience, actually! [laughs]

She was the mom and my dad because our dad was off fighting wars. It's a total tribute to that strength of her character and her nurturing, strong, amazing … She was an amazing woman. When I sometimes dream of her, I feel like I got to see her again and I get to talk to her again. It's a zero-gravity space, and that's what the song is all about.

Can you describe the last dream where she showed up?

Yeah, sure. She took a lot of Super 8 home movies, and that's incorporated into the video [for "You & Me"] quite a bit. I took a lot of them too. She taught how to edit film and stuff, with the little editing machine. We used to make films in our family.

So, I used a lot of that footage in the actual video for the song and she appears in the video for the song. When I dreamt of her last, it was just her wonderful face. Her spirit. I felt like I had a conversation with her and the words were not even clear. It was just being together and the aspect of her spirit being there.

My collaborator, Sue Ennis, who's worked with us for years and years for Heart songs, had a song for her mom called "Follow Me." And I'd written a song for my mom called "You and Me and Gravity." I loved this music that Sue had. We both kind of have a mom thing. We've talked about our parents and we grew up together, so we had all those connective tissue things in our hearts about our moms.

So, we kind of collaborated on the ultimate mom song to try to reach into the ether and touch base with that. We morphed two songs into one. It's a hybrid mom song [laughs].

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Tell me about "The Rising."

Well, luckily enough, a few years ago, we got to go to New York, when we used to be able to go anywhere, and we got to see "Springsteen on Broadway" live.

When I saw that show, it completely blew my mind. It changed my world around because I've always loved Springsteen and his amazing writing. Growing up with Springsteen on the radio, for instance, he'd be sort of behind this big wall of sound with this rock and roll accent where you could hardly understand the lyrics. 

Then, seeing him live, completely by himself, stripped-down, those songs and those lyrics—it completely altered my perception of Bruce Springsteen. He's an insanely great writer. Those words are so depth-y. Later, after having seen that, I watched it a million times on the show you can watch on television. Then he did Western Stars, his other album that got me through the whole last Heart tour. It was life-saving stuff for me.

So then, when I started to do this album, I was like, "I should do this because of the pandemic. I should do 'The Rising' because it was written initially for 9/11." Now, we're having 9/11 every day, so that's why I thought it would be aspirational and helpful for people to have an inspired message like that to help them through this insane ordeal we're living through.

Do you know Bruce? Did you say hi to him after the show?

I didn't say hi that night, but I do know him. His people told our people that he really liked my version of 'The Rising'! That made my day—my whole year, actually—to know that he thought it was cool.

Tell me about "I'll Find You."

Sue had actually started that song with Ben Smith, the drummer. My Seattle folks. They had this song that is, like, a "friend who's going to be there for you" kind of song. The support system that you've always dreamed of having. That's what the song talks about.

I've always been that person where I'm there for my people, you know? I show up. It's a really simple way of saying that you're going to be there for somebody that needs you. And that's a big deal! I mean, that's a huge thing to be able to do for anyone.

Can you describe a recent situation in which you were able to be that for somebody?

[laughs] Well, if you live long enough, that happens frequently. If you are that person for your other people, it's not an easy role to play to show up for somebody that needs help. A lot of people don't have that skill, you know? A lot of people are not equipped with the emotional wherewithal to be there for anybody else but themselves. So, that's what that song is all about.

How about "Daughter"?

"Daughter" is a Pearl Jam song. I had actually recorded it earlier before I got into doing the album. I'd done that in Austin with an amazing producer, David Rice, for a film, actually, which was made in South Africa. It's a true story about human trafficking in South Africa.

This guy, Simon Swart, who made the film—it's about to come out, actually—he wanted to see if there was a song I could do for the film. And so I decided that "Daughter" would be a really cool idea, because there's a lyric in the song that says, "She holds the hand that holds her down." That was really telling about what it is to be a girl. The movie's called I Am All Girls and it's about to come out.

Anyway, that's the backstory on that thing. And for [Simon & Garfunkel's] "The Boxer," that's something I've been singing with Heart for the last tour. I've been singing that song all my life, basically. It's a really amazing song. Somebody told me that the chorus part—the "Lie-la-lie"—was initially a placeholder, but he kept it in the song like that because the verses are so wordy. It sort of opens up and he kept it that way from the initial demo of it.

I got Sammy Hagar to sing with me on that because he's a buddy. He's a rock god. He's funny as hell and he's a really good guy. I said, "Why don't you do something with me on my album here? I want to bring in some people that I love!" He said, "Yeah, OK! What have you got?" So, I said I've got this big rock song called "Get Ready to Rock," which is not on the album, actually. It's elsewhere now.

Anyway, long story short, he said, "Nah, that's too predictable. I don't want to be so predictable, to be the Red Rocker on a song about rock." So I said, "What about 'The Boxer'?" He said, "I love that song! I used to be a boxer!" So having him on that song was really special for me, because he brings such an attitude with him. There's only one of him in the world. That's him.

And then the Cranberries cover ["Dreams"]—me and Jeff, my hubby, were just driving around in Sonoma County. We heard it on the radio and he said, "You've got to get Liv Warfield to sing this with you!" She was my singer in my other band right before this, Roadcase Royale. I said, "OK! Let's just do that! I think that can be done easily enough!" And so we did that, and it turned out really fun and cool. Easy.

Photo: Jeremy Danger

How about "Party at the Angel Ballroom"?

I kind of heard myself saying something one night. I was like, "Wow, we've lost another angel of rock and roll." One of the angels that passed away recently, like Chris CornellTom Petty, and now, Eddie Van Halen. It's kind of like, "Well, they're going to be having some big party up there at the angel ballroom." And it's like, "Hey, that's a good idea for a song!"

So I got Taylor Hawkins, who's another amazing friend, and Duff McKagan. I went and sang some stuff for Taylor for his last album, called Get the Money. Really good album. I said, "Well, I'm going to make a solo album now, so do you have any cool jams laying around, dude?" He's like [affects masculine voice] "Yeah, rad, man! I've got some cool jams kicking around, dude!"

He sent me this jam that they had. It was a completely long-winded jam that needed a lot of structuring. I structured it very differently from the original. And I had these words, so I put it together and it just became a fun sort of lark of a song. It's kind of a dark topic, but [you can] make it kind of a funny moment.

Sort of like the song "The Inbetween." That started with a poem that one of my boys wrote. I have two twin boys that are both 21 now. One boy, Curtis, wrote this poem for a class assignment—a poetry-writing assignment, I guess. I thought it was really clever. The words were so clever and so whimsical. He was like, "Black and white, wrong and right." 

Now, after this horrendous political era we just tried to live through with all the bully-pulpit stuff we've had to deal with, I was scrolling through my notes and I found that again. I thought, "This is really relevant for our times that we're living through politically." But putting it in the context of something more fun—a funny take on it all—takes it away from being so heavy and dark.

It kind of sheds new light on a situation. It's a contrast from the heavy times we've had to live through and puts it in a different tonality.

Sounds like Curtis is pretty wise and perceptive. What do you learn from your boys?

You learn everything from your kids. Everything. Being a parent is not an easy thing to do. It's one of the bigger challenges you could ever face. Because when you love somebody that much and you're trying to help them survive through their own childhood. Because you care. Because you love somebody even more than your own life, your own self.

It's bigger than you are and you're responsible for it. The best thing you could ever possibly try to do is keep them alive long enough to figure it out for themselves.

How about "Walk Away"?

That's a story about a toxic relationship that you have to get out of. You have to face the truth of how you've enabled yourself to be hurt and you've enabled the relationship to go bad. It's kind of self-examination of "OK, I have to be brave enough to get this out of my life and take responsibility for what my part in it was." 

It's kind of complex, but it's definitely a truth that we've all had to face at some point in our own relationship lives. There are some unhealthy things sometimes that leave behind.

Were you thinking of any particular relationship or was it a composite of relationships throughout your life?

[Laughs] Well, I'm not going to admit exactly what that's all about. There's been more than one! So, it's a conglomerate of various situations I've found myself in that I had to get out of and get over.

Photo: Jeremy Danger

How about "The Dragon"?

"The Dragon" is something I wrote back in the '90s. After the '80s, we went home to Seattle. That was a time when all the Seattle bands were exploding. I thought, "Oh, no! They're going to hate us because we're '80s dinosaurs!" But they were really sweet on us and we got pretty close with those guys.

At the time, our friends from Alice in Chains … Layne Staley was still walking around and talking. But he was definitely on a course that everyone could see. It was going to go badly. He was going to self-destruct. We all saw that coming. He was a sweet soul, you know? It was hard to see that inevitable demise. He was letting himself go down that dark ladder.

So, that's when I wrote that song. He was still alive, but everyone could see that. That's what that song was about. It's sort of a cautionary tale, but it's also a very heavy message because I don't think he had a chance against that dragon. It was just a sad story in advance of the sadder story.

That's been around for a long time. It never was destined to be a Heart song, although we tried to do that song a few times, in a few ways. It was on the Roadcase Royale album, which is called First Things First. That was a nice version of it. Somebody from the record company—my main guy, Tom Lipsky, from Carry On Music—said, "You've gotta do 'The Dragon' on your album!"

So, it was back by popular demand. I think this is the best version of that song yet. So far.

That's cool you knew Layne. I personally declare Dirt to be the most powerful album ever written about addiction.

Oh, for sure. Right? I love that band. I was so close with Jerry [Cantrell], Mike [Starr] and Sean [Kinney]—and William [DuVall], now. Mike Inez was actually in Heart for a while after Layne disappeared. He was our bass player for five years, I think. Michael Inez is one of the funniest humans on the planet, for Christ's sake. A seriously funny person. Maybe the funniest person I've ever met in my life.

How about "We Meet Again"?

That's kind of a take-off on Paul Simon. I cut my teeth on Paul Simon's stuff when I was nine, 10, 11 and 12. Early on in my playing life, as an acoustic guitar player. I'm actually glad I didn't get sued by Paul Simon because that basic guitar part in the song was a cue in Jerry Maguire, which was based on a Paul Simon-type fingerstyle part.

I kind of took that and ran with it and put lyrics to it, because I already had written it. I had already put that part together for the movie. If there's anyone to plagiarize besides Paul Simon, I suppose I could plagiarize myself [laughs]. That's the first thing I wrote for this album and I was just trying to touch base with my earlier self—my college-girl self with the poetry that I used to explore before I was in Heart.

Is Paul Simon the greatest living songwriter?

He's definitely in the top three, in my estimation. There's Joni Mitchell, there's Paul Simon, and of course, you have to include Bob Dylan in there. Maybe the Beatles. Those are the four pillars of greatness, I think, in music.

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What about the last tune, "4 Edward"?

I wanted a tribute to Eddie [Van Halen]. When he passed away, I was really sad, of course. I was very moved to try to pay tribute to him in some way. 

When we used to be in the same place together in the '80s—we did some shows with those guys—he told me he thought I was a really great guitar player on the acoustic. I was like, "How can you say that? You're the best guitar player on the planet! Why don't you play more acoustic yourself?" He said, "Well, I don't really have an acoustic guitar." Then, I promptly gave him one: "OK, you have one now."

The next morning, at the crack of dawn, he called my hotel room and played me this amazing instrumental on the acoustic I gave him. It was just one of the most beautiful things I'd ever heard. Just an exciting, inspirational moment, although he'd probably been up all night partying. So I thought I would return the favor and make him a piece of instrumental music on the acoustic guitar.

That's what I did. I put a little piece of the song "Jump" in there. I tried to approximate what I vaguely remembered from what he played me that morning.

I know things have been kind of hot and cold with your main project over the last few years. How would you describe your personal and creative relationship with Ann today?

Well, that's a loaded question. I think we're fine. We both kind of welcomed the break from each other and from Heart in a certain way. 

I think there's a certain blessing inside the larger curse of the whole shutdown we've been living through. Personally, I feel like it's been a relief and a chance to reorganize who I am, thinking of who I am inside the larger picture of Heart and who I am outside of Heart altogether. 

There's a lesson in this shutdown for me, and part of it is to remember who I am without defining myself as somebody in Heart. Which is a beautiful reckoning, I think. 

There's an offer for Heart to go out in 2022. I think that would be awesome to do that. I would want to do that. But having been outside of the world of it and the pressure of it and the framework of it for this long now has been very freeing. I feel I've gained a lot of momentum as a person because of it.

Peter Frampton On Whether He'll Perform Live Again, Hanging With George Harrison & David Bowie And New Album 'Frampton Forgets the Words'

Tom Petty
Tom Petty performing with the Heartbreakers in 2008

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

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How 'Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration' Makes Tom Petty A Posthumous Crossover Sensation

On 'Petty Country,' Nashville luminaries from Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton and Luke Combs make Tom Petty’s simple, profound, and earthy songs their own — to tremendous results.

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2024 - 06:49 pm

If Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers landed in 2024, how would we define them? For fans of the beloved heartland rockers and their very missed leader, it's a compelling question.

"It's not active rock. It's not mainstream rock. It's not country. It would really fall in that Americana vein," says Scott Borchetta, the founder of Big Machine Label Group. "When you think about what his lyrics were and are about, it's really about the American condition."

To Borchetta, these extended to everything in Petty's universe — his principled public statements, his man-of-the-people crusades against the music industry. "He was an American rebel with a cause," Borchetta says. And when you fuse that attitude with big melodies, bigger choruses, and a grounded, earthy perspective — well, there's a lot for country fans to love.

That's what Coran Capshaw of Red Light Management bet on when he posited the idea of Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty, a tribute album released June 21. Featuring leading lights like Dolly Parton ("Southern Accents"), Willie and Lukas Nelson ("Angel Dream (No. 2)," Luke Combs ("Runnin' Down a Dream"), Dierks Bentley ("American Girl,") Wynonna and Lainey Wilson ("Refugee"), and other country luminaries covering Tom Petty classics, Petty Country is a seamless union of musical worlds.

Which makes perfect sense: on a core level, Petty, and his band of brothers, were absolutely steeped in country — after all, they grew up in the South — Gainesville, Florida.

"Tom loved all country music. He went pretty deep into the Carter Family, and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and the folk, Americana heart of it," says Petty's daughter, Adria, who helps run his estate. "Hank Williams, and even Ernest Tubb and Patsy Cline… as a songwriter, I think a lot of that real original music influenced him enormously." (The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds' Gram Parsons-hijacked country phase, were also foundational.)

A key architect of Petty Country was the man's longtime producer, George Drakoulias. "He's worked with Dad for a hundred years since [1994's] Wildflowers, and he has super exquisite taste," Adria says.

In reaching out to prospective contributors, he and fellow music supervisor Randall Poster started at the top: none other than Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. "Having Willie and Dolly made people stand up and pay attention," Dreakoulias told Rolling Stone, and the Nashville floodgates were opened: Thomas Rhett ("Wildflowers"), Brothers Osborne ("I Won't Back Down"), Lady A ("Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"), and so many others.

Each artist gave Petty's work a distinctive, personal spin. Luke Combs jets down the highway of "Runnin' Down the Dream" like he was born to ride. Along with Yo-Yo Ma and founding Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, Rhiannon Giddens scoops out the electronics and plumbs the droning, haunting essence of "Don't Come Around Here No More."


And where a lesser tribute album would have lacquered over the songs with homogenous Nashville production,
Petty Country is the opposite.

"I'm not a fan of having a singular producer on records like this. I want each one of them to be their own little crown jewel," Borchetta says. "That's going to give us a better opportunity for them to make the record in their own image."

This could mean a take that hews to the original, or casts an entirely new light on it. "Dierks called up and said, 'Hey, do you think we would be all right doing a little bit more of a bluegrass feel to it?' I was like, 'Absolutely. If you hear it, go get it.'"

"It had the diversity that the Petty women like on the records," Adria says, elaborating that they wanted women and people of color on the roster. "We like to see those tributes to Tom reflect his values; he was always very pro-woman, which is why he has such outspoken women [laughs] in his wake."

Two of Petty Country's unquestionable highlights are by women. Margo Price chose "Ways to Be Wicked," a cut so deep that even the hardcore Petty faithful might not know it; the Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) outtake was buried on disc six of the 1995 boxed set Playback.

"Man, it's just one of those songs that gets in your veins," Price says. "He really knew how to twist the knife — that chorus, 'There's so many ways to be wicked, but you don't know one little thing about love.'" Founding Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell features on the dark, driving banger.

And all interviewed for this article are agog over Dolly Parton's commanding take on "Southern Accents" — the title track of the band's lumpy, complicated, vulnerable 1985 album of the same name. "It's just revelatory… it brings me to my knees," Adria says. "It's just a phenomenal version I know my dad would've absolutely loved."

"It's one of Dolly's best vocals ever, and it's hair-raising," Borchetta says. "You could tell she really felt that track, and what the song was about."

At press time, the Petty camp is forging ahead with plans for a boxed set expansion of 1982's undersung Long After Dark. 

Adria is filled with profuse gratitude for the artists preserving and carrying her dad's legacy. 

"I'm really touched that these musicians showed up for my dad," she says. "A lot of people don't want to show up for anything that's not making money for them, or in service to their career, and we really appreciate it… I owe great debt to all of these artists and their managers for making the time to think about our old man like that."

Indeed, in Nashville and beyond, we've all been thinking about her old man, especially since his untimely passing in 2017. We'll never forget him — and will strum and sing these simple, heartfelt, and profound songs for years to come.

Let Your Heart Be Your Guide: Adria Petty, Mike Campbell & More On The Enduring Significance Of Tom Petty's Wildflowers

LL Cool J

Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

list

Celebrate 40 Years Of Def Jam With 15 Albums That Show Its Influence & Legacy

From the Beastie Boys' seminal 'License To Ill' and Jay-Z's 'Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life,' celebrate Def Jam with 15 of the label's essential albums.

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2024 - 01:31 pm

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Def Jam Recordings, the New York label that made history in hip-hop, R&B, pop, and even thrash metal since its founding, and continues to do so today.

A label that began out of an NYU dorm room in 1984 quickly became an artistic (and business) powerhouse. Early acts like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy were raw, adventurous, and risk-taking. Def Jam's roster opened new pathways in a still-young genre, seemingly every few months. 

After that initial explosion, the label experienced a brief lull in the early 1990s when one label founder departed and the other expanded into fashion and comedy. Def Jam came roaring back beginning in 1994, and by 1998 the label was home to some of the most popular and influential artists in the game — including burgeoning megastars DMX and Jay-Z. To this day, Def Jam maintains a roster of both commercially successful and critically beloved artists in hip-hop, R&B, and pop.

To commemorate the anniversary of the label that gave us, well, pretty much everyone, here’s a list of 15 of Def Jam’s essential releases. While Def Jam brought audiences plenty of singles, EPs and remixes, this list primarily focuses on albums. Each project has a mix of artistic merit, popularity, influence and longevity, originality, and played a key role in the story of Def Jam as a whole. Think of it as a chronological run through the key albums that built one of the most lasting labels in modern music. 

And finally: it must be said that in recent years, a dark shadow has begun to loom over Def Jam’s legacy. Label co-founder Russell Simmons been accused over the past seven years of numerous instances of sexual assault, dating back decades. In spite of these accusations, the label (in which Simmons hasn’t been involved for a quarter-century) remains on top, safeguarding its valuable archive while looking forward to another four decade run as fruitful as the first one.

T La Rock & Jazzy Jay - "It’s Yours" (1984)

The one single on this list is also the first piece of music ever released with the now-famous Def Jam logo. "It’s Yours" was a single produced by Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin — his very first hip-hop production. Instrumentally, it was perhaps only comparable to Larry Smith and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons’ contemporaneous work with Run-D.M.C. Both "It’s Yours" and D.M.C.’s early work were severely stripped-down, consisting of a few drum sounds, an instrumental stab, and some scratches. 

Lyrically, though, "It’s Yours" is worlds apart from "Sucker M.C.’s" — or pretty much anything else going on in hip-hop at the time. T La Rock, the brother of Treacherous Three member Special K, came from a family of educators, and he put every ounce of his erudition into the track. It begins, "Commentating, illustrating/ Description giving, adjective expert" and goes from there.

LL Cool J - 'Radio' (1985)

In the early 1980s, the state of the hip-hop album was very grim. Only a few existed, and they almost exclusively consisted of a few singles mixed with often-confusing filler. Two things changed that. First, Run-D.M.C.’s 1984 self-titled debut, which GRAMMY.com examined in depth a few months ago. Second was LL Cool J’s debut album Radio, the very first full-length album Def Jam ever released.

In many ways, Radio kicked off hip-hop’s Golden Age. The record shows LL, then still in his teens, as a versatile artist who can be boastful, funny, aggressive, lyrical. The album shows many different sides of his personality, and helped set the template for what a rap album could be.

Read more: 20 Iconic Hip-Hop Style Moments: From Run-D.M.C. To Runways

Beastie Boys - 'Licensed to Ill' (1986)

The Beasties would release more complex and enlightened albums than Licensed to Ill, and one of the members would eventually apologize for some of its lyrics. But there’s no denying that it was a smash hit. It was the first rap album to ever top the Billboard 200, got the group onstage with Madonna, and would eventually sell over 10 million copies

Was some of that success due to their race? Sure. They were a credible group, signed to a hot rap label, at a time when it was still novel for white people to be performers in hip-hop. And yet, that’s not the whole story.

Licensed to Ill is a catchy, unique, energetic album, and the group members show undeniable chemistry. To this day, shout-filled, guitar-heavy anthems like "No Sleep till Brooklyn" and the ubiquitous "Fight for Your Right" can still get the party started.

Read more: The Beastie Boys Provide A License To Party

Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back' (1988)

There’s not too much you can say about this album that hasn’t already been said in the years of books, conferences, academic papers, and deluxe re-issues. It has ended up at or near the top of many all-time best lists. Its abrasive, collage-like approach to composition was never equalled (and, in light of current laws and practices around sampling, can never even be approached). The comic stylings of Flavor Flav bring just the right amount of levity to balance Chuck D’s takes on life-and-death issues. 

Decades after its release, the album still sounds urgent. And sadly, in an America still roiled with tensions over race, incarceration, drugs, and the media, its concerns remain as relevant as ever.

Read more: 5 Things We Learned At "An Evening With Chuck D" At The GRAMMY Museum

Slick Rick - 'The Great Adventures of Slick Rick' (1988)

Slick Rick is the ultimate rap storyteller, and his debut album is the best example of his artistry. "I wrote them like an essay," Rick once said of creating the batch of songs that make up Great Adventures. He also compared it to doing stand-up. So you have exactly what those two reference points imply: stories that are well-constructed, and also frequently riotously funny.

Rick is the master of the telling detail (remember "Dave, the dope fiend shooting dope/ Who don’t know the meaning of water nor soap" from "Children’s Story"?), the humorous twist, the morality tale, the bedtime story, the character voice. His influence lives on in perhaps his most devoted protege, Ghostface Killah, as well as in any rapper who has tried to craft a song with a beginning, middle, and end.

Learn more: Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 1980s: Slick Rick, RUN-D.M.C., De La Soul & More

Warren G - 'Regulate… G Funk Era'(1994)

A bit of an edge case here, as technically the record was put out by Violator Records and Rush Associated Labels, the latter of which was a sort of umbrella organization Def Jam ran in the mid-1990s. Many albums that could have made this list, including projects by Redman, Onyx, Domino, and Nice & Smooth, were released under the RAL banner. But Warren G’s debut, a giant hit in an era where Def Jam really needed it, became inextricably associated with the label, to the point where an article about the album on Universal Music’s website mentions Def Jam five times in the first two paragraphs.

Regulate is a pop-savvy take on the G-funk sound that was then ascendant. It was a huge success in a year that saw the introduction of tons of amazing rappers into the game. And Warren G being associated with Def Jam meant that the East Coast-centric label had expanded its geographic footprint. 

Read more: Warren G Revisits 'Regulate: The G-Funk Era': How The 1994 Album Paved The Way For West Coast Hip-Hop's Dominance

Foxy Brown - 'Ill Na Na' (1996)

Def Jam wasn’t always a friendly place for female artists (despite many of the most important employees being women, including one-time president Nana Ashhurst). In fact, the label didn’t release a rap album by a woman until Nikki D’s Daddy’s Little Girl in 1991. So Foxy Brown’s impact — on Def Jam and on the rap world as a whole — cannot be overstated. Ill Na Na was an album that changed everything for female rappers. It had songs for the clubs, the block, and the radio. Foxy’s sexuality, versatility, and first-class rhyming would have an influence on countless rappers, most famously her number one fan Nicki Minaj, who has been effusively praising Foxy for more than a decade.

Read more: Ladies First: 10 Essential Albums By Female Rappers

DMX - 'It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot' (1998)

No less an authority than Nas referred to 1998 as "The year DMX took over the world." It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is how he did it. The album set fire to Bad Boy’s so-called "shiny suit era" by embodying its polar opposite: a dark, grimy vision full of gothic synths; raspy, full-throated lyrics; and, sometimes, actual barks. Without DMX, there’s no NYC street rap return: no G-Unit mixtape run, no Diplomats.

The record is consistent and captivating from start to finish, and its thematic centerpiece comes, appropriately, about halfway through with "Damien," which reminds all of us that the most difficult battles we fight are the ones with ourselves.

Jay-Z - 'Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life' (1998)

Jay-Z has made more critically beloved albums than Vol. 2 (Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint both fall in that category). He has made albums with bigger hits (The Blueprint 3 had a No. 1 hit with "Empire State of Mind"). But he has never made a more important LP.

Vol. 2 was the album that made Jay a superstar. Its Annie-sampling title track (produced by the late 45 King) sent him to the stratosphere — a process he actually documented on his follow-up album. But the record wasn’t just a commercial novelty. It showed Jay at the absolute top of his game: cocky, funny, and brilliant. Case in point: his novel approach to storytelling in "Coming of Age (Da Sequel)," where all the important action takes place in just a few seconds, inside the characters’ heads.

Read more: Songbook: How Jay-Z Created The 'Blueprint' For Rap's Greatest Of All Time

Ludacris - 'Word of Mouf' (2001)

Around the turn of the millennium, Def Jam had its sights set on conquering new territory. Specifically, the South. So they set up Def Jam South and hired Scarface to head it up. The entity’s biggest success came from an Atlanta DJ who went by Chris Luva Luva on the air, but began rapping as Ludacris.

Word of Mouf was Luda’s second album, but it was the one that really cemented his stardom with songs like "Rollout (My Business)," "Area Codes," and the immortal "Move Bitch" (the last of which has had an artist-approved second life as a protest chant). The album proved that the South was here to stay, and that Def Jam would have a role in determining its hip-hop future.

Learn more: A Guide To Southern Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From The Dirty South

Scarface - 'The Fix' (2002)

Speaking of Scarface and Def Jam South, Face had no intention of dropping music while running the label. But, in his telling, Def Jam exec Lyor Cohen insisted on it, paying handsomely for the privilege.

"There were so many things working in my favor on that album," Scarface wrote in his memoir Diary of a Madman. "For the first time, I was working on an album for a label that believed in me 100 percent and didn’t want anything from me except for me to make the dopest album I could possibly make. And they went out of their way to make that possible."

Def Jam’s history of putting out classics inspired Face on The Fix, he writes in that book. And in the end, the album stands up there with any of them. It is one of only a small handful of rap records to earn a perfect five-mic rating from The Source, and it belongs in that rarified air with projects like Illmatic and Aquemini

Kanye West - 'The College Dropout' (2004)

Yes, today Kanye West is the worst: a Hitler-loving, Trump-supporting, paranoid, antichoice, antisemite who stands accused of sexual harrassment. But two decades ago, the world met a Mr. West who at least seemed very different. 

The College Dropout presented an artist who was already extremely well-known as a beatmaker. But Kanye’s carefully crafted persona as the bridge between mainstream rap and the underground — "First n— with a Benz and a backpack," as he put it — meant that he appealed to pretty much everyone. The College Dropout wasn't West at the top of his rap game, but it did show his skill at developing song concepts, at beats, and at creating an artistic vision so powerful, and so relatable, that it captivated an entire generation.

Cam’ron - 'Purple Haze' (2004)

It’s impossible to talk about Def Jam without discussing Roc-A-Fella. Jay-Z’s label hooked up with Def Jam in 1997, and had a years-long hot streak with artists like Kanye, Beanie Sigel, Freeway, the Young Gunz, and of course Cam’ron’s Diplomats crew — Cam, Juelz Santana, and the overall group all released projects there.

Purple Haze came at the very tail end of Roc-a-fella’s golden age. It has Cam at the absolute peak of his absurdist rhyming powers, keeping computers ‘puting and knocking out eight-syllable multis about Paris Hilton like it was nothing. During the Purple Haze era, it was Cam’s world, and we were all just lucky to be living in it.

Rihanna - 'Good Girl Gone Bad' (2007)

Rihanna’s first two projects were full of Caribbean sounds and ballads. But when her third album came along, she needed a change. Riri wanted to go "uptempo," and history shows that was the right choice. Good Girl Gone Bad began the singer’s transformation into the megastar we know today. It spawned five singles and two separate quickie tie-in albums (Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded and Good Girl Gone Bad: The Remixes).

"Umbrella" was the way forward. Rihanna had a No. 1 record prior, but she’d never made a sensation like this. The song (with a guest verse by then-Def Jam president Jay-Z) not only made it to the top slot, it also won a GRAMMY and was undeniably the song of the summer. The album also contained the sensation "Don’t Stop the Music," a track that kickstarted the EDM/pop hybrid that dominated the late aughts. Without Good Girl Gone Bad, it’s safe to say we’d be living in a very different, Fenty-less world.

Read more: Songbook: The Ultimate Guide To Rihanna's Reign, From Her Record-Breaking Hits To Unforgettable Collabs

Frank Ocean - 'Channel Orange' (2012)

One could fill a whole blurb about Channel Orange simply by quoting the extreme praise it received. "A singular achievement in popular culture." "Landed with the crash and curiousness of a meteor." Two days after its release, Pitchfork was already saying that it "feels like a classic."

And yet, somehow even that kind of acclaim doesn’t do the album justice. You really had to be there when it came out, when Frank looked into his soul and, in doing so, connected deeply with so many listeners

Read more: Frank Ocean Essentials: 10 Songs That Embody The Elusive Icon's R&B Genius

"Channel Orange is the most concentrated version of 2012 in 2012 so far," wrote Sasha Frere-Jones at the time, in one of the most dead-on statements about the album. It expressed the contradictions we all lived in. Its fragmentation mirrored the social media that was beginning to take over all of our lives. Ocean left bits of his biography scattered throughout the album, but they almost didn’t matter. He was speaking for all of us, in the way only great artists can. 

A Guide To New York Hip-Hop: Unpacking The Sound Of Rap's Birthplace From The Bronx To Staten Island

PRIDE & Black Music Month: Celebrating LGBTQIA+ & Black Voices

Chapel Hart, Reyna Roberts, Camille Parker, Breland, Julie Williams, Kentucky Gentlemen
Top row: Chapel Hart; Middle row: Reyna Roberts, Camille Parker, Breland; Bottom row: Julie Williams, Kentucky Gentlemen

Photos: Top row: Catherine Powell/Getty Images for CMT; Middle row: Terry Wyatt/WireImage, Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images, Jason Kempin/Getty Images for BRELAND & Friends; Bottom row: Catherine Powell/Getty Images for Black Opry, SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images

interview

What's The Future For Black Artists In Country Music? Breland, Reyna Roberts & More Sound Off

With a wave of talented Black acts shaking up the country music scene, the genre is reaching new heights. Six rising stars unpack country music's complicated past, celebrate recent victories, and predict what's next.

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2024 - 01:29 pm

Shaboozey's "A Bar Song (Tipsy)" is flipping country music on its head. His genre-bending hit, which interpolates J-Kwon's 2004 hip-hop smash "Tipsy," replaced Beyoncé's "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" atop Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in April — marking the first time that two Black artists held the No. 1 spot back-to-back on the chart.

The history-making feat — and the massive success of "A Bar Song" — is a major win, especially given how Black artists have historically been shut out from country music, even in the last 10 years alone. In 2016, for instance, Beyoncé and The Chicks' CMA Awards performance of "Daddy Lessons," a country-leaning tune off the Houston native's sixth album, Lemonade, caused an uproar within the country music community, with many fans boycotting the show. Beyoncé later hinted that the backlash birthed her country-tinged 2024 LP, COWBOY CARTER, as she "did a deeper dive into the history of Country music and studied our rich musical archive."

Then, in 2018, Billboard controversially removed Lil Nas X's GRAMMY-winning, Billy Ray Cyrus-featuring smash "Old Town Road" from the Hot Country Songs chart as it was poised to claim the top spot, because it didn't "embrace enough elements of today's country music." Lil Nas X's comment on the dispute perfectly depicted the ongoing debate around what qualifies as country music: "The song is country trap. It's not one, it's not the other. It's both. It should be on both [charts]."

Mainstream country music has long been a white, straight, cisgender male-dominated genre. But in recent years, an influx of Black country artists have been challenging the traditional norms of what country music looks and sounds like. In turn, they're helping the genre become more accessible and appealing to a broader audience — and it's forcing even some naysayers to pay attention. 

Along with Shaboozey, many rising artists are incorporating hip-hop and R&B elements into their country music. Tanner Adell's viral hit "Buckle Bunny" features rap-inspired verses and thumping bass; a guitar-fueled rap cadence carries BRELAND's "My Truck"; and Blanco Brown's "trailer trap" helped his line dance smash "The Git Up" top the Hot Country Songs chart for 12 nonconsecutive weeks in 2019. Several artists are leaning more into the traditional sound, too, as evidenced by the latest singles from Tiera Kennedy ("I Ain't a Cowgirl") and Chapel Hart ("2033").

Trailblazers like Darius Rucker, Kane Brown and Mickey Guyton have been pivotal to disrupting the scene and opening doors for marginalized acts. Rucker's "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," from his 2008 country debut, Learn to Live, earned him a No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart — the first Black artist to celebrate such an achievement since Charley Pride's "Night Games" in 1983. With 2017's "Heaven," Kane Brown made history twice: he was the first artist to top all five Billboard country charts simultaneously, and the first Black country artist to earn RIAA Diamond certification with an original song. Guyton's history-making feat came at the 2021 GRAMMYs, where she was the first Black woman ever nominated for Best Country Solo Performance, for her autobiographical "Black Like Me."

As country music continues to evolve, how will it make more room for boundary-pushing Black artists? GRAMMY.com tapped six rising stars — BRELAND, Chapel Hart, Kentucky Gentlemen, Camille Parker, Reyna Roberts, and Julie Williams — to discuss the future of a genre that has historically lacked diversity, the undeniable impact of Beyoncé's COWBOY CARTER, and the artists that inspire them to push forward.

Quotes from these interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Shaboozey's "A Bar Song" and Beyoncé's "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" are among 2024's biggest songs regardless of genre. What do you think are the key ingredients for making a great country song? How has it changed?

Brandon Campbell of Kentucky Gentlemen: All the best country songs have authenticity and truth. From the feel-good jams to the heartbreak, it's all about relatability and people being able to see themselves and what they've experienced in those songs. 

BRELAND: A great country song tells a linear story in which all of the lyrics relate back to a central concept. My favorite country songs also include elements of wordplay where a word or phrase is flipped, usually at the conclusion of the chorus.

I think the structure of country songs is about the same as it was 20 years ago, but there has just been some changes sonically. I've noticed fewer country songs have bridges, and the songs tend to be shorter now in general, which is consistent with trends across the music industry as a whole.

Reyna Roberts: It's about the instrumentation, lyrics and heart that's put into the music and how authentic it is. I personally love slide guitar, banjos, fiddles, harmonicas, and acoustic guitar, so those are key instruments in my music. I always make sure the foundation of classic country music is there and build upon that. Storytelling is equally as important; I pour my everything into the melodies and lyrics in every song I write.

Trea Swindle of Chapel Hart: The instrumentation has changed so much. Now there's the electric guitars and 808s. I think whenever Jason Aldean did "Dirt Road Anthem," it introduced 808s to country music and set off the whole bro-country moment. 

And, the thing about country music is it's all about the story, and it's all about the experience of creating music that has heart and soul and an impact. It's not like an AI-generated song with country buzzwords like truck, snake, boots, hat. That's not what it makes it country, and sometimes, it's not in the instrumentation that makes it country. You can hear a Vince Gill song, and it doesn't have a single guitar in it. It's all piano, but it's country at its core.

Camille Parker: I'm constantly referencing music that has lasted decades and speaks to people in a real way. The best country songs make people feel seen regardless of where they're from. I grew up on traditional country songs like "Kiss an Angel Good Morning" by Charley Pride and "You Don't Know Me" by Ray Charles. Those songs have evergreen lyrics, amazing production, and make you feel something real every time you hear it.

Julie Williams: All my favorite country songs pull me in with the storytelling and transport me to another place — either a memory of some place I've been or to an imaginary world. These stories can be raw and vulnerable or fun and lighthearted. Another core piece is a great melody, one that makes you want to jump in and sing along and gets stuck in your head. But we're in an exciting time in country music where we're hearing more types of stories like Mickey Guyton's "Black Like Me" and Brittney Spencer's "Thoughts and Prayers." 

Like most genres and sounds, the origins of country music are largely Black — why do you think it's been difficult for its roots to be widely acknowledged? Do you feel that's changing?  

BRELAND: Country music is undeniably influenced by Black musicians and Black culture, as with all American musical genres. But from the beginning of country music's popularization, there has been a concerted effort to separate it from its Black roots. In the '50s and '60s, country songs by white artists were considered country songs and hillbilly music, and country songs by Black artists were labeled and marketed as race records and eventually the blues. Since then, both genres have evolved in different directions, and their shared history is only now being discussed.

Williams: Mainstream country music has evolved into a genre rooted in patriotism, conservatism and general pro-America sentiments. For there to be an acknowledgment of the erasure of Black country music pioneers, there would have to be a wider acknowledgement — or, more specifically, a reckoning — that America hasn't always been so great. And, for some, that feels threatening.

Derek Campbell of Kentucky Gentlemen: There's a long history of people being unaware or not fully acknowledging Black efforts and contributions across many different genres. That's changing largely due to the fact that so many new people are discovering their love for country music. Those same people have joined in on important discussions while deep diving into its roots. They've had an incredible curiosity for acts like us who have been working in the genre all these years. 

Parker: More people are discovering missing pages in country music's history. For some, it may be difficult to challenge what they thought was a complete story, but it's important to acknowledge the past so we can all move toward a more informed and honest future.

Swindle: Since country is cool now, audiences far and wide are finding people they like and all these subgenres of country, or even some of the old-school, tried-and-true stuff. Every other genre has branched out, and I'm so glad that country is finally joining the party.

We all tell the same stories. Like Toby Keith's "How Do You Like Me Now?" for instance. How is that different from [rapper] Mike Jones' "Back Then"?

Danica Hart of Chapel Hart: When we were on "America's Got Talent," I said "Country music doesn't always look like us." And I think, for so long, country music has done what has made country music billions of dollars. Country music has never had a Black superstar, but that also takes a lot of money for a label. The industry has just been working the formula that has worked for them for hundreds of years.

With social media, everything's just right at the tips of your hands. Back in the day, you had to go on a radio tour, you had to go do the arena tour — you had to get in front of somebody before you would reach a million people. Now you can get on TikTok and be like, "Go stream my music" and get a million followers. There's an evolution going on that's really in favor of all artists.

Read More: Beyond Country: All The Genres Beyoncé Explores On 'Cowboy Carter' 

How has "the Beyoncé effect" helped thrust country music even further into the mainstream and make it more inclusive? 

B. Campbell: It's been great to see so many of us Black country artists gain visibility, and it's been even better seeing more broad audiences feeling more comfortable being country music fans. In all of our years doing this for a living, we've never seen more Black people and people of color in the audience dancing and singing back at us. It's been truly incredible and game-changing.

BRELAND: Beyoncé is helping to evolve country music because she brings with her a diverse group of millions of non-traditional country music listeners into the format. For decades now, country music has felt, to a lot of Black people, as a white space, so few Black artists and fans have felt safe and accepted in it. But now, the demographics are changing, and they have been in the years leading up to COWBOY CARTER.

If Beyoncé's fans and all of the other people inspired to broaden their musical horizons as a result of her album are willing to continue supporting Black artists in country, and the genre in general, this can be a really powerful and sustainable development in country music.

Swindle: It piqued the interest of people who may have naturally gravitated toward hip-hop or R&B. Now that Beyoncé decided to do a country album, it forced a lot of other platforms to say, "Okay, Beyoncé's doing it, but look at all these other artists," so it just shined a brighter light — and that, I appreciate.

Roberts: My numbers have grown exponentially over social media and DSPs. A lot of fans that don't typically listen to country music are now listening to my album and experiencing my art. (Editor's Note: Roberts was featured on COWBOY CARTER track "BLACKBIIRD" with Brittney Spencer, Tanner Adell, and Tiera Kennedy; she also offered background vocals for "TYRANT.") 

My goal has always been to reach people within and outside of the genre, and that's what's happening now. Many people didn't entirely see my vision before, but now I feel like people can see it clearly.

Parker: I feel so confident creating across genres and blending sounds because of artists like Beyoncé. She's shown us that you become the mainstream by creating art that resonates. COWBOY CARTER lets people imagine new possibilities in collaboration and expression. I love that she made this record so intentionally, and it's been a gift to witness people all over the world fall in love with a genre so many of us were raised on.

Williams: There are many folks that might not have felt like country music was a genre that they enjoyed, or even felt safe engaging with, so they might not turn on a country music radio station or go to a country music festival. And the country music industry gatekeepers that control those means of music discovery haven't historically played artists of color.

What's incredible about the Beyoncé effect is that people are going around those middlemen. Fans are discovering new Black country artists directly on social media.

In putting out COWBOY CARTER, Beyoncé has put a spotlight on Black country. I have personally seen an increase in my numbers on streaming, social, and press hits. Black country artists have been out here for a while hustling and trying to be heard, but as a driver of culture, Beyoncé helped elevate the movement to an international stage. 

Where do you think diversity within country music stands these days?

Roberts: I feel like it's changing by artists like myself, and others who are acknowledging the history of country music and the true legends behind the genre that most people don't know about. Of course, I'm speaking about Linda Martell, Leslie Riddle, Tee Tot Payne and so many others who created what we consider to be classic country, and who taught Hank Williams, Jr., Johnny Cash and so many other phenomenal artists that we uphold today.

Parker: I've experienced firsthand some of the progress that's been made, and it's truly special.  I think fans are connecting to our authenticity, and it's exciting to see more people from different walks of life at the shows and supporting us online.

Country music has such a powerful opportunity to make our space even more supportive of art and the people that create it. We're seeing all kinds of artists fall in love with country music, and I'm excited to see more collaborations. 

BRELAND: Diversity within country music is at a very pivotal inflection point. We're seeing more Black artists on the Billboard charts, and women like Lainey Wilson finding unparalleled success. There are finally more conversations about diversity that are happening within the genre.

However, many of these Black artists are not getting played at country radio, are not able to secure significant opening tour slots, and are not being given the same opportunities to sign record deals and release music at a higher level. All of those things need to continue to change for us to see sustainable careers of these diverse acts.

Swindle: I feel like the diversity has definitely changed. It's taken leaps and bounds, but in my heart, I just can't wait until we get to the point where people won't have to say, "She's a great Black country artist." No, she's just a great country artist. That's the goal. Because at the end of the day, it's about the music regardless of who's singing it.

Wiliams: It's getting better, but we have a long way to go before country music is [fully] welcoming and safe for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. A big part of that is not only diversifying the artists that are on stage, but also the people behind the scenes: industry folks, producers, engineers, musicians, photographers.

Read More: How Queer Country Artists Are Creating Space For Inclusive Stories In The Genre 

In what ways can the industry do a better job at championing Black country artists? 

Williams: Right now, the industry does a great job of championing Black country artists around Black History Month and Black Music Appreciation Month. But I would love to see more love from the industry throughout the year.

Folks can make sure when they are organizing festivals or radio hours that they include Black artists, and also make sure when including those artists, they don't just give them the worst spot and call it a day. When putting together tours and support slots, booking agents can consider Black artists to add to the lineup and help introduce them to fans that might not discover them otherwise.

Roberts: The industry can have us perform at award shows that's within country music — and outside of country music, like the GRAMMYs — while putting the same amount of resources, attention, promotion, and money into us as other artists in the genre, as well as playing our music on country radio and radio stations outside of country. Black artists who have impacted the country legends also deserve formal recognition by organizations like the Country Music Hall of Fame.

BRELAND: The industry has to understand that positioning Black artists in this genre isn't going to work the same ways it would for a white artist. Our stories and our struggles are unique, and trying to erase our race from that narrative doesn't benefit anyone.

On the flip side, none of the Black artists I know in this space want their Blackness to be the only aspect of their story that gets told, either. And unfortunately, since 2020, it seems like most of the opportunities that come up for Black artists in country are addressing exactly that. So, the industry has to better understand the nuances of our existence in this space and work with us to find the best ways to support. 

The music industry is going to have to be more willing to play Black artists on country radio, book more Black artists on festivals and opening tour slots, and support Black artists editorially and on playlists. We need all of the same opportunities as our white peers, and additional support to push back against the systemic obstacles that have been put in our way.

B. Campbell: Placing more resources behind Black country artists is needed. Also, expanding the idea of what country music looks like can help continue to open doors. When you expand that narrow idea of what country music is to what reflects reality, then more of the world will be ready for us and our music.

Hart: There are artists that labels lose money on every day of the week. I think the way to change is to take a chance on a Black artist. The money's got to be lost anyway.  

Now that we see there's Black people that exist in this space, let's throw some money behind it and see what happens. That takes a conscious, bold, and brave effort, but it also requires a little digging and getting educated about who's out there. When they're playing their shows, are people showing up? Are they selling out theaters?

I think consumers forget that the people have the power. We saw that when someone called a country radio station and requested Beyoncé's "TEXAS HOLD 'EM." Everybody flooded that particular station until they finally were like, "Fine, we will play the song." There's a charge to the fans and the consumer to be more proactive in helping to promote Black artists.

What do you make of how Black artists have been standing out within the country community as of late?

Parker: It was exciting to see so many Black women enter the country space a few years ago — it was a big part of why I moved to Nashville to start my career. I've noticed the more brave you are, the more likely you are to create real, lasting change. Our industry is changing, and there are so many of us who want to serve music fans in new, creative ways.

D. Campbell: It's been such a blessing to have so many new fans searching for our music, coming out to shows while we're on the road, and asking to hear more of us. We can't wait to see how this carries us moving forward.

BRELAND: The Black artists in country music right now are incredibly talented and all have great stories and approaches to their craft. And I've done everything in my power to elevate them, whether it's bringing them on tour or out with me at my annual BRELAND & Friends benefit, collaborating on songs with them, or just keeping an open dialogue going with them. We have a great community of Black artists that all have the potential to be very successful, and I love to see it.

Williams: It's incredible that Black country artists have been standing out in the country music community — and long overdue! To see Shaboozey killing it with a No. 1 song and a packed CMA Fest stage, it gives me hope. Any win for a Black country artist is a win for the whole culture.

What contemporary artists have you seen break barriers? And who are some newcomers that are doing the same?

D. Campbell: We humbly name ourselves; showing up as our entire selves is daring in a genre that for decades proved it didn't believe we belonged, but we do it anyway. When you see the barriers being broken, it makes it easier to get up and do what you were born to do each and every day because you know it's possible. Also, Brittney Spencer's vulnerability and versatility have been breaking barriers for a while now. 

Williams: Mickey Guyton has been in Nashville for years, putting out incredible music, playing the game, and fighting for her voice to be heard. But in 2020, she put out "Black Like Me," a song that was unapologetically her and has inspired a new wave of artists to be our authentic selves despite what have been told is "commercial" or "acceptable" in country music.

BRELAND: Mickey revolutionized this space by talking about her experiences at a time where she was one of the only ones doing it. Her GRAMMY nomination [for Best Country Solo Performance for "Black Like Me "in 2021] inspired so many artists, including myself, to believe success was possible here. 

I also think about artists like Nelly, who for the last 20-plus years has blurred the lines of where country music fits into the larger conversation of Black culture. I've been inspired by how seamlessly he weaves between the hip-hop and country worlds.

Artists like Brittney Spencer, Shaboozey and Tanner Adell have all been bringing a new energy into the genre and all of their debut projects are very strong. Seeing Shaboozey's chart topping success with his single, Tanner's movement as an independent artist, and Brittney finally getting her flowers after over a decade in Nashville — all of those artists motivate me to keep going. 

Williams: Brittney Spencer is such an incredible songwriter and an even better artist and performer — I was lucky to write my song "Big Blue House" with her. I appreciate how she uplifts those around her. She is such a force! 

Rissi Palmer started Color Me Country Radio on Apple Music to highlight artists of color in country music and educate folks on the history of country music. She also awards Color Me Country grants to help smaller, independent artists fund their projects.

Denitia Odigie is another artist you cannot miss. Her voice is otherworldly and her blend of classic country sounds with modern twists is so fresh and unlike anything I'm hearing out of Nashville.

Swindle: Darius [Rucker], who first dominated the world with Hootie & The Blowfish, then he said, "I'm going back to my South Carolina roots, and I'm going to sing what I want sing from my heart," even though he didn't look like what most people were expecting country music to be.

That authenticity shines through every time. It's undeniable, and that's with anything. I've seen some artists try something because they think it's trendy, but the minute they just start being themselves, that's when it sticks. 

Where do you think country music is headed in 2024 and beyond?

Roberts: I believe it's going to be a blending of genres. I call my music Country Plus, which is country, hip-hop, rock, and pop. My vision is to create music that is innovative, and to do collaborations that bridge the gap between other genres and country music. I want to work with artists that have inspired me outside country music, including Megan Thee Stallion, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, Ariana Grande, and Rival Sons.

B. Campbell: With the idea of country music expanding, there are more voices that are going to be heard and more stories that are going to be told. So many more people are seeing themselves in our music and this genre.

BRELAND: Country music is just getting started. It's the final frontier for really well-written songs, which the listening public is desperate for more of, and I think it's going to continue getting more diverse in the process.

Devyn Hart of Chapel Hart: Country music is about to do some things, and I don't know if everybody's ready for it, but it's happening already. There are so many subgenres — country-pop, country-soul, country-hip-hop, country-rock. It's like a melting pot.

Parker: Country music will always remain because of its power to tell stories. My hope is that, in the future, we will see more art that tells our stories more authentically, creatively, and uninterrupted by anything that doesn't push us toward the future. 

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