Francesca T. Royster’s Book Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions Highlights Beyoncé and Tina Turner’s Influence at SXSW

Taylor Crumpton joined talk on Black resistance within the genre

Francesca T. Royster (left) and Taylor Crumpton at the Convention Center on March 12 (Photo by Abby Johnston)

Tina Turner and Beyoncé rarely surface in discussion of country music. But Francesca T. Royster, an English professor at DePaul University and author of Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions, argues that they are central to Black resistance within the genre.

Royster – engaged in a wide-ranging, incisive conversation with Dallas-based culture journalist Taylor Crumpton – argued that Black people, Black women in particular, hold a revered if largely unrecognized place in country music.

The banjo was born in Africa. Early folk music was heavily influenced by music traditions brought from West Africa. Blues and country intertwined and flourished together. And yet, the country genre has been white-washed.

During the South by Southwest conversation Sunday, which included selected readings about the two pop titans from the book, Royster identified a “renaissance” of Black artists reclaiming space in country music. “Black artists are innovating … I think it’s an important expansion of our history and where we come from,” Royster said. That shows up in artists like Beyoncé, whose 2016 album Lemonade, both Crumpton and Royster said – in particular “Daddy Lessons” – was an unheralded country album. They also discussed Lil Nas X, whose "Old Town Road" began to challenge Royster's assumptions about who country artists were – or who they were for.

Much of the modern expansion, Royster said, is a testament to work being done by artists and archivists who have focused on excavating the role of Black people in country music, such as Rissi Palmer, whose Color Me Country podcast and own career explores the rich role of people of color in the genre. That means recognizing that Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits” played at the corners of what country listeners cherish about the genre: small town life “as a series of oppositions,” as Royster put it.

Crumpton called the book a “love letter to Black women,” in particular for its focus on Turner and Beyoncé. Beyond the overdue documentation of Black influence on the genre, Black Country Music also serves as a signal for a new generation of Black country fans who could benefit from this burgeoning renaissance. For Crumpton, a multi-generation Texan who grew up a “closeted” fan of country music, it finally allowed her to see herself in a genre that has often been co-opted by racism and bigotry. They saw a place for themselves.

“Thank you for bringing me back,” they told Royster.

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