NASHVILLE — Country singer Jimmie Allen likes to tell a story about the first time he met songwriter J.P. Williams, who is blind, before they came up with Allen’s No. 1 hit single “Best Shot.”
“I said, ‘I don’t know if anyone told you, but I’m black,”‘ Allen said. “‘So keep the black jokes to a minimum.”‘
Allen, who made history last year for being the first black artist to launch his career with a No. 1 single on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, isn’t afraid of joking about the elephant in the room: He’s usually the only black man in the country song writers’ room.
He and artists like Kane Brown, 25, who is biracial, are appealing to millennial and Gen Z listeners who aren’t traditional country fans but are discovering country music in different platforms, such as streaming, YouTube and social media. That has allowed these black artists to succeed in a predominantly white musical landscape.
“The folks that listen to Kane Brown and the folks that have started to listen to Jimmie Allen, many of them would not call themselves country fans,” said Nadine Hubbs, professor of women’s studies and music at the University of Michigan and the author of “Rednecks, Queers and Country Music.”
Certainly, there’s not a sea change, but there is incremental change even as the genre is shrinking its gender diversity. Last year, three artists who are minorities, Allen, Brown and Darius Rucker, scored No. 1 country airplay hits, which is only slightly less than the four female artists who reached the top spot with their own songs or as a duet partner.
Both Brown and Allen are skilled at reaching new audiences through social media, with Brown even scoring a record deal because of his country covers on Facebook. Allen, who has the charisma of a seasoned TV pro, posts a lot of pictures on Instagram of his adorable 4-year-old son or his trips to Disney World.
Brown has had a lot of crossover opportunities, singing with artists like Camila Cabello and Khalid, while Allen, who is newer to the genre and has had less collaborations, has pop and rock influences in his music.
But both still hold tightly to their country roots and their country vocals and they are well-versed in country music history, Hubbs said. Like Charley Pride and Rucker, Allen sings about traditional country music themes of small towns, rural life, love and romance and the simple pleasures of life.
At the same time, both Allen and Brown aren’t afraid to address race in their songs, which previously generations of black country artists weren’t always able to do.
On his 2018 debut record on Stoney Creek called “Mercury Lane,” Allen co-wrote a song called “All Tractors Ain’t Green,” directly challenging stereotypes about being black, being rural and being able to sing about those things even though he’s not a white man from the South.
“People always used to say, ‘You can grow up and be anything you want. You can be president,”‘ Allen said. “But until Obama became president, you couldn’t really tell a black kid that you could be president because there wasn’t one. So I feel like representation is very important.”
For generations, the African-American contribution to country music has been largely underappreciated, despite the fact that black musicians have been intrinsic to the genre’s origins and development. But Hubbs said there is more scholarship about country music like “Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music,” by Diane Pecknold and more artists like Rhiannon Giddens who are bringing attention to black American folk music. Hubbs said greater knowledge about race and country music trickles down into popular culture.
Pride is the subject of a recent PBS “American Masters” special detailing his upbringing out of segregation to become CMA entertainer of the year. And both the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum have honoured Ray Charles in recent months for opening many people’s eyes to what was previously considered white hillbilly music.
Charles’ classic 1962 record, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” was also finally released this month on streaming services, hopefully to bring in a new generation of listeners to his country records.
“Right now folks on social media, the younger generation of music lovers are getting the memo that country music was never so-called pure white music,” Hubbs said.
Jon Loba, the executive vice-president of BBR Music Group, which has top artists like Jason Aldean, as well as rising stars like Lindsay Ell and Dustin Lynch, didn’t really consider signing Allen as a riskier choice than any other new artist.
“I had every confidence that Jimmie and his music were going to be given a shot,” Loba said. “Then we just have to pray that it connects with the consumer.”
Allen’s debut song reached the top slot on the airplay chart for three non-consecutive weeks, proving that he had staying power.
“That was another reason why taking the shot with Jimmie was so exciting for me,” Loba said. “If you have compelling music and you have a compelling artist, for the most part listeners in the genre don’t care (about race).”
Allen is nominated for new male artist of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards in April, and if he wins, he will make another notch in the history books as the first black artist to win that award. For Allen, his song “Underdogs” is a motto for him as he’s struggled to prove himself in the music industry.
“I am firm believer that doors don’t just open. You kick them open,” Allen said. “I feel like having a chip on your shoulder is good. It motivates you.”
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