A little more than 43 years ago, the RCA single “Snakes Crawl At Night” began getting minimal airplay on country radio stations. The singer was listed as “Country” Charley Pride.
It took two more releases before “Just Between You and Me” cracked the Top 10 and began Charley Pride’s meteoric rise. He eventually became RCA’s best selling artist during the 1970s – the label’s best selling artist since Elvis Presley. It was also the first time in modern country music history that a black performer became a legitimate superstar.
Pride was the 1971 CMA Entertainer of the Year and won two consecutive Top Male Vocalist honors. He’s sold more 70 million records and was the first black artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (he’s also a Grand Ole Opry member).
Though a fair number of African-Americans have worked in the idiom, that degree of success hasn’t been duplicated by any black performer in the country field since.
However, this year, Darius Rucker has emerged as country’s biggest black performer since Pride was in his heyday. Rucker recently scored his third number one country hit, “Alright,” making him one of only four artists (Wynonna, Clint Black and Brooks & Dunn are the others) to have their first three singles top the country charts.
Yet the marketing behind his rise, as well as the sensibility and attitude Rucker conveys, reflects how different, at least on the surface, things are today from the ‘60s. It also indicates positive changes in societal and fan attitudes.
The subject of race with Rucker comes up only when journalists raise it. He’s completely comfortable with the predominantly white country music audience and has repeatedly thanked country radio for immediately embracing his music, something that doesn’t always happen with performers whose identities and reputations are built in other genres.
That comfort comes from years of doing interviews as front man of the hugely popular Hootie & the Blowfish, who played in front of mostly white audiences in their heyday.
Rucker already has toured with Brad Paisley and is now on the road with Rascal Flatts. He’ll be giving a free concert Aug. 24 at the Grand Ole Opry, one that will also air on Jimmy Kimmel Live Aug. 27. Rucker is also among the featured acts on the CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock, which airs on ABC (locally WKRN-2) Aug. 31.
Add his recent Invitation Only special concert on pay-per-view and Dish Network, plus the platinum certification for his CD Learn to Live (Capitol), and Rucker’s ascension to the upper ranks of the country universe qualifies as one of the year’s biggest music stories.
Whether it signals that race has become less of a factor in country music circles remains to be seen. I have no doubts things are much better these days for Rucker and artists like Miko Marks, Rhonda Towns and Trini Triggs than they were for their predecessors Deford Bailey, Stoney Edwards, Big Al Downing, O.B. McClinton and Ruby Falls, or even for Charley Pride in the beginning.
Likewise, aspiring Latino artists won’t face the same barriers Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriquez had to smash.
But there’s still the lingering stereotype about country being “white folks music.” Ironically, that notion poses as much of a problem for African-American country artists among black listeners as white ones.
Even though internationally speaking music obliterates racial barriers (country music is widely loved and enjoyed in many parts of Africa and the Caribbean), in America old myths die hard. There’s just as much blues in the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams as anyone in the Delta, and as much soul in the delivery of George Jones and Reba McEntire as any Stax or Hi performer. People who dispute that contention should sit down with such artists as Bobby “Blue” Bland, Babyface or Lazy Lester and hear them rave about country singers and performers.
Hopefully as a society one day we’ll get completely away from the necessity or willingness to designate and identify any music as “black” or “white” except in the broadest cultural sense. In the meantime, Rucker’s achievements are certainly something to celebrate.
Wynn is the music critic for The City Paper.