“It’s a hard life on easy street
Just white painted picket fences far as you can see
And if you think we live in the land of the free
You should try to be, oh, black like me” —excerpt from Mickey Guyton’s song, “Black Like Me”
When I originally published this article on November 1st, 2017, I was hesitant about sharing it because I wasn’t sure if my message would be understood. Considering today’s environment since the murder of George Floyd and the protests for equal rights led by the Black Lives Matter movement, people are striving to be more open-minded. I see people operating not out of fear but out of neighborly love and a sincere desire to do better. I felt it would be a perfect time to repost this essay. It connects deeply not only with the current discourse but with the recent song “Black Like Me” penned by a Black female country singer, Mickey Guyton (which you can listen to here).—Chaz Ebert
I grew up with the knowledge that in the past, record companies geared certain music to certain audiences on the basis of their race. Some music was marketed to black audiences and was even called “race music,” while other music was deemed “hillbilly” and might as well have been labeled “whites only.” It wasn’t until the 1960’s and ’70s that crossover songs in the genres of Motown, bluegrass and folk bridged the gap between audiences, proving that one’s taste in music didn’t depend solely on their skin color. There was some fear that this separation would occur again with the advent of rap music, but white suburban teens turned out to embrace it as eagerly as their black city peers. All that mattered in the music was its beat, its message and its ability to reach the listener. In fact, now we accept that music has a universal appeal.
Still, programs such as “Hee Haw” did not showcase black country music stars and made it seem as if the genre was geared exclusively toward whites. That’s why I was so excited to see the career of the African-American singer, Charley Pride, the best-selling recording artist at RCA Records since Elvis Presley, and a country musician to boot. In modern days Darius Rucker is the only modern black rock star I can think of who decided to turn his attention toward the realm of country. So I was surprised when I learned that my daughter Sonia loved country music.
Sonia is cool, in the know, well traveled and well rounded. She listens to everything from rap to opera. But it wasn’t until we got in her car one day and I turned on her radio that I discovered Sonia’s passion for country. I couldn’t identify the artist, and I thought the valet had left the radio on a different station after parking her car. Sonia told me, “No, mom, it wasn’t the valet. That’s Kenny Chesney and this is my music.” Of course I was aware of classic country stars like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, but that day in Sonia’s car is when I began to listen to the work of country singers more closely.
I was shocked, only because I had no idea Sonia liked country music or was even that familiar with it. Sonia explained that she liked the folky, soulful sound and stories in country music. “It’s kind of like Gospel music,” she said. “The songs are full of life-stories that are easy to follow.” She said she began liking country when she was about 10 years old and I took her and her brother Jay on a cruise to the Caribbean. She watched “Coal Miners Daughter” in the ship’s theatre and was changed. “I loved the movie and I loved the music and I was hooked!” These days we watch the Country Music Awards shows together and vow we will attend in person one day.
Apart from Kenny Chesney, some of Sonia’s other favorite artists are Dustin Lynch, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert, Thomas Rhett, Luke Bryan and Eric Church. And she also treasures some of the old school artists like Terri Clark, Loretta Lynn and Kenny Rogers.
As a gift to my daughter, last week I decided to take her to the Kenny Rogers farewell tour in Nashville, Tennessee, where a gallery of country stars were slated to perform to honor him. Among them were the McCrary Sisters, a black gospel quartet, whose very presence at the event left me feeling more reassured. But then, reality set in, and I got cold feet. I am reluctant to admit this, but since President Trump’s election, I have had doubts about racial issues in America. So I wondered if two African-American women would be accepted at a country music show. I didn’t know how we would be received when we seem to be reverting back to a time of racial division in our nation.
I reached out to friends in the music industry to ask if it would be safe for us to attend. Most gave me words of assurance, especially those who live in Nashville. In fact they said I would love Nashville and would have a good time there. However, there were a few who advised caution. As it turned out, the logistics at the last minute just didn’t work out, so we decided not to go. But this failure to attend swirled around in my head until I had to face it squarely. Was it really the logistics that stopped me from buying the tickets, or was it fear? Why would I be apprehensive about going to Nashville? Some white friends have told me of their fear about going into certain areas of Chicago or other big cities, but people may be surprised that some black friends also have fears about going to certain suburbs, or small towns where they would feel uncomfortable. We must talk about this racial fear openly and begin to heal these rifts.
Just this week, an alleged member of the “White Lives Matter” movement punched a white woman who was sitting with a black man at a pub in Brentwood, a town only ten miles south of Nashville. It’s the latest example of the growing division between races and classes—epitomized by the Nazis and KKK members marching in Charlottesville—that our president fosters with his careless words and rhetoric.
At one time it appeared that the racial divide in this country was closing. People seemed more civil to each other, at least outwardly. I have to believe that both their hearts and minds were being healed. But following his election, some of President Trump’s destructive words and actions make me heartsick. The leader of our country should encourage unity and harmony among people. I want to feel as if I am one with my neighbors, no matter their age, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, physical ability, sexuality or the kind of music they listen to.
I have no idea whether our president falls in the category of a “Manchild in the Promised Land,” where he innocently remains in a childlike state even though he’s been elected to lead one of the world’s greatest nations; or whether he’s a “Manchurian Candidate” utilized by Putin to create chaos within our beautiful democratic system. I don’t want to feel that there is a city in my United States where it is too dangerous for me to attend a public assemblage. And I don’t want the leader of my country to encourage this kind of division.
A friend of mine reminded me that it was 17 years ago on November 7th, 2000, when he was in Nashville the night of the election, expecting to celebrate the presidency of Al Gore. Nashville was seen as a progressive city. I realize that my apprehension about not going to the Kenny Rogers Farewell Tour in Nashville may have been a wrong perception on my part. My longstanding passion for empathy, kindness, compassion and forgiveness is what caused me to be open and transparent in making this confession and writing this article. I truly want to be able to enjoy and celebrate all the country music stars that my daughter loves. I want to be among the crowd at the Grand Ole Opry, and witness the roots of where countless legendary voices originated. Someday I will. But last week was not that day.
Editor’s note: Make sure to check out Kelcie Willis’ article, “14 Things Black People Who Listen to Country Know to be True,” at Buzzfeed.