Various Artists
From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music
Country Music Foundation/Warner Brothers 9 464282-2
Like the title says, this is not a blues box; it's a country box of black artists. As such, because race is always a curious business in America, it's in some ways a curious album. The first disc concerns The Stringband Era, when blacks and whites made virtually identical sounds out of banjos, guitars, fiddles and harmonicas, with each sounding very much like it was their music. The third disc, Forward With Pride, captures black artists excelling mostly in the Nashville Sound, and sounding, for all their abilities, like they've accepted someone else's definition of country music.

Black people began adapting white music as soon as they first arrived in America. The earliest African-Americans, forced into slavery in New England in 1638, truly interacted with whites (as opposed to working under them) only in the church. There, blacks injected their African-derived stylings into hymns written mainly in England by Methodist ministers. That sort of musical miscegenation has filtered down into today's music in all kinds of ways -- think of white rappers, of black hip-hop acts using hard-rock guitar solos, of the plight of the blues, its hard-earned wisdom, knowing humor and other complexities reduced for the most part to party-down music. This miscegenation lived comfortably with other downsides, too; it created a whole system for denying blacks larger audiences and bigger paychecks, for example. But musically, its influence -- then, and to only a slightly smaller extent, now -- has always been huge.

Consider the 1920s, the earliest days of the record, when the cross-pollination was still going strong in traditional musics. The most obvious link then was the land; those who didn't own it, worked it -- with the races sometimes laboring in the fields side by side. The primary artist featured on the first disc is DeFord Bailey, a black harmonicat whose work bordered on boogie. He starred on the Grand Ole Opry from 1926-1941, before getting booted for what sounds undeniably like racial reasons. But his aggressive takes on "Pan American Blues" and "Fox Chase" were crowd-pleasers no matter what the crowd, and though his records were released on the "race" rather than the "hillbilly" lines, they sold well to both.

With the later "Midnight Special" and "Rock Island Line," Leadbelly, who is usually considered a bluesman because of his pigmentation -- certainly there's little to support that designation musically -- represents an even more archaic strain of black country, the songster. Then there are entries like Taylor's Kentucky Boys, an integrated group whose traditional "Gray Eagle" gets a ringing, echoing sound thanks to black fiddler Jim Booker. And the Mississippi Sheiks' "Yodeling, Fiddling Blues" is what might have happened had Howlin' Wolf ever really met Jimmie Rodgers -- Wolf always said his trademark howl was his attempt to imitate Rodgers' blue yodel. Blacks may have been developing their own music -- blues -- during this period, but there's no doubt they and whites were often playing the same sounds.

The second disc, The Soul Country Years, shows that by the '60s the musics had become quite different (even if many songs kept across-the-board, working-class appeal by telling tales of temptation, hard times, family, hurting and cheating). This set leaves off some of the great ones (Aretha, Otis, James Carr, Johnny Adams), presumably for licensing reasons, but it also could stand to lose Nashville native Bobby Hebb, whose two slight tracks ("Satisfied Mind," "Night Train to Memphis") have little soul or country feel, and the Supremes, whose disembodied version of Floyd Tillman's "It Makes No Difference Now" belongs on one of Rhino's Golden Throats sets of joke songs that were meant to be serious.

Ray Charles usually gets credit for creating this genre with his 1962 Modern Sounds in Country & Western, but he actually followed Wynonie Harris' jump blues "Bloodshot Eyes" and the Orioles' ballad "Crying in the Chapel." But the strongest parallels the two races draw here concern the sentiment, not the sound, of the music; the best tracks are ballads that let distinctive voices stretch and cry over the words -- Esther Phillips' "Release Me," Arthur Alexander's "Detroit City," Etta James' "Almost Persuaded," "Al Green's "For the Good Times" and especially Joe Tex's "Half a Mind."

Forward With Pride is the most problematical. The set aims to show how blacks began assimilating into the Nashville Sound in the '60s but concludes by inadvertently demonstrating the growing alienation between the races. Charley Pride, country's only black superstar, gets four tracks, the most of anyone in the box. With his smooth, note-perfect delivery, Pride shows that he could stand alongside anyone on country radio; indeed his first singles became hits without anyone except his handlers knowing he was black. But Stoney Edwards, a black Oklahoman signed after Pride's success, had no such luck, although his three mid-'70s tracks confirm that his music was as soulful and sensitive to country's roots and branches as that of anyone working in that era (and yes, you can also hear some of the blackness in his Dust Bowl voice).

The rest of Forward With Pride mixes fascinating tracks by performers who went nowhere (former R&B star Otis Williams and the Midnight Cowboys' great "How I Got to Memphis") with those of black singers who usually brushed the bottom of the country charts a couple times and then disappeared (O.B. McClinton, Linda Martell, Dobie Gray) and a slew more from other genres who were just passing through (Professor Longhair, Aaron Neville, Ted Hawkins, Pointer Sisters). But it's hard to avoid the fact that except for Cleve Francis, who had a few minor hits in the early '90s before quitting the business, new black artists haven't had a presence in country since the Pride-induced mini-trend of the mid-'70s.

What's even more telling is that, according to surveys, African-Americans make up as much as 20 percent of the country audience. And black artists have not given up on country even if country -- or at least the country industry -- has given up on them; there's a new advocacy group in Music City for black country artists, and a series of auditions has drawn numerous singers, enthusiastic salt-and-pepper audiences and a token signing or two. For whatever reasons, country music has spent most of this century moving away from a deep, rich aspect of its heritage.

-- John Morthland

This page and all contents are © 1998 by Blues Access,
Boulder, CO, USA.