Country is white music for white people.
“Country is just white to the bone,” the Daily Beast wrote in September. This racial association is so strongly embedded in American culture that it recently supplied the punchline for a “Saturday Night Live” skit, in which Kenan Thompson quipped, “A sea of white faces is just looking back at me, and I thought, oh, Lord help me, this must be what it’s like to be Darius Rucker!”
In fact, the genre’s signature sound has diverse roots. African American string bands were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — and played the same types of music, on the same types of instruments, as their white counterparts. Jimmie Rodgers, the “father of country music,” made a number of recordings with African American musicians, including Louis Armstrong. In the 1940s and ’50s, Mexican performers in the Southwest United States mixed their musical styles, including ranchera and norteño, with country; mariachi-style trumpets are heard on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Johnny Rodriguez, whose songs featuring Spanish lyrics topped the country charts starting in the 1970s, amplified similar influences.
Today, the sounds of Sam Hunt, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson unapologetically blend soul and country. Within the past year, rapper Lil Nas X had a viral hit, “Old Town Road,” that challenged listeners’ — and the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart’s — definition of the genre, and Jimmie Allen, another African American artist, debuted with a No. 1 single on country radio, a ballad called “Best Shot.” According to a survey by the Country Music Association, the genre’s fastest-growing audience is non-white and Hispanic listeners.
Country music listeners are mostly working-class.
Country music is certainly rooted in the working class, but as America’s midcentury prosperity spurred migration to suburban and urban settings, the audience changed.
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