History of African American influence on country music

Enslaved African Americans popularized the banjo in America, which became one of the most identifiable sounds in country music, according to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 10:52 AM CST
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - Nashville is known as the Country Music Capitol of the World. It’s a place where three chords and the truth can be heard night after night on Broadway. The origins of that sound, the picking of the banjo, is what made Hillbilly music, or country music, what it is today.

“It was enslaved African Americans who really popularized the banjo in America. The banjo became very popular during the minstrel period in the 1800′s and you know the banjo is one of the most identifiable sounds in country music,” said Michael Gray, the Executive Senior Director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Gray says the banjo came from Western Africa. Enslaved people would play the banjo, and the white musicians wanted to play the banjo just like them.

“Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, was learning from a black guitarist named Arnold Schultz. The Carter Family were learning from a black musician named Wesley Riddle. So it was very fluid,” Gray said.

In the early 1900s, the country music sound was segregated in its marketing. Whites made and were sold Hillbilly Music. Blacks made and were sold Race Records. That started the divide.

“In the long run, it really hurt country music because a lot of black musicians felt disenfranchised. I’ve heard story after story about black musicians who almost had to justify their existence in the genre,” Gray said.

But artists like Deford Bailey fought to maintain their presence in the genre. Bailey was a pioneer member of the WSM Grand Ole Opry, appearing on the show from 1927 to 1941. Ray Charles released a country music album in 1962. Then there’s Charley Pride. He had 30 number one hits and 52 Top 10 hits. He was named Entertainer of the Year by the CMA Awards in 1971. Even with all of his accomplishments, Pride was still considered an outsider.

“Charley Pride told a story that a big country music star in the 1970′s said, ‘Charley, it’s really good for our music that you’re a part of our music.’ And Charlie said, ‘Well it’s my music too!’”

Those early contributions from black artists led to the success of musicians like Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen, and more to come.