Black Country music artists
Tina Turner: one of country’s unlikely black female stars. Photograph: Ivan Keeman/Redferns
Mickey Guyton’s debut single Better Than You Left Me has the country music world all abuzz. The ballad scored the biggest radio debut in country music history when it hit airwaves two weeks ago, earning first-week adds on 79 stations across America. While that record may have much to do with modern radio consolidation, it’s nonetheless a remarkable feat – especially given the traditional nature of the song. Adorned with steel guitar and a slow waltz beat, Better Than You Left Me sounds like little else on country radio at the moment. What makes the feat even more remarkable is that Guyton is a black woman in an industry not known for its diversity.
Granted, black artists have been a part of country music, which shares southern roots with R&B, since the genre’s inception, but only a small handful of these artists have found mainstream success. DeFord Bailey, the legendary harmonica player, performed at the Grand Ole Opry from 1927 until 1941. Charley Pride was an iconic star who had 39 songs reach No 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. And most recently, Darius Rucker has parlayed his Hootie and the Blowfish fame into a thriving country career.
Related: A look at black artists in country music
But what of the genre’s black women? How have they fit into the country music landscape?
For the most part, they haven’t. The list of popular black female country singers is a very short one, and the women who have made their mark did so in a very concentrated period during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Linda Martell became the first African American woman to play the Grand Ole Opry in 1969, the same year that her cover version of The Winstons’ R&B smash Color Him Father became a top 25 country hit. Martell appeared on television programs like Midwestern Hayride and Hee Haw and released a few more singles to modest success, but she ultimately left the recording industry behind in 1974 to focus on raising her family.
Around the same time, Tina Turner had her own breakout country moment. In 1974, just two years before her split with Ike Turner, she released her debut solo album Tina Turns the Country On! on which she covered tracks such as Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through the Night and Dolly Parton’s There’ll Always Be Music. The album wasn’t a commercial success, but it did earn a Grammy nomination (in the R&B category) and helped to launch Turner’s successful solo career. (She also recorded a number of sizzling country covers at Bolic Sound, her then-husband’s studio, in the 1970s. They have gradually trickled out to the public over the years on repackaged compilations like Tina Turner Sings Country, which features a dazzlingly raucous version of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s Good Hearted Woman, a song reportedly written about Turner herself.)