Country Music: Race, Gender and Transition in the year of COVID-19
This paper on the impact of COVID-19 in American country music, was presented at the Grieg Research School in Interdisciplinary Music Studies Summer School 2021, ‘Music in Crisis: Crisis in Music’, at the University of Bergen, Norway. You can view a video of the presentation at the end of this article.
This paper will examine the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic upended the US country music awards season in 2020 and the extent to which the crisis provided an opportunity for the country music industry to respond to the global social movements of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. In particular, I will seek to establish the extent to which the decisions made by producers of two flagship country music awards shows, can be seen as an obvious alignment with popular social movements, well-known the public consciousness and further highlighted by the impact of the pandemic, or more reflective of a trend in which the country music industry is moving away from its divisive past in relation to issues of race and gender.
In her book The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry, Diane Pecknold describes how ‘few expressions of popular culture have been shaped as strongly by the relationship between commercialisation and authenticity as country music’ (Pecknold, 2007). As early as the 1920s, thousands of listeners turned on their radio sets to be ‘hypnotized by the yellow eye of the dial’ (Pecknold, 2007). The power of radio was strong in the rural South in the first half of the 20th century, after-all it was the only form of entertainment most families could afford. Before the radio there was the rural house party, one of the great seedbeds of country music (Malone & Laird, 2018, p. 20) but one where rural music remained an ‘inchoate phenomenon’ which was ‘as commercial as its socioeconomic context would permit it to be’ (Malone & Laird, 2018, p. 34).
This all changed with the invention of the radio and the arrival of the Grand Ole Opry, the flagship Saturday night show that became appointment listening for households across the rural Southern United States. The Opry itself though, was broadcast on Nashville’s WSM (the call sign standing for We Shield Millions, the slogan of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. They saw a commercial opening in associating their business with a radio station that broadcast predominantly rural, folk or country music (Havighurst, 2007, p. 13). In time, the Opry became by far the biggest radio show in country music. It ushered in a new era in commercialisation where artists would perform radio spots sponsored by the likes of Mother’s Best Flour, which, as Havighurst (2007, p. 164) attests, were ‘fifteen-minute tours-de-force [which] married salesmanship and musicianship’. Country music and commercial advertising were now wedded together.
Fast forward to October 2020 and the Grand Ole Opry celebrated its 95th birthday, amid the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. While still a historic institution, the Opry has arguably given way to the country music awards show as the commercialised bastion of the genre, with research from the sponsorship arm of the Country Music Association stating that ‘CMA Awards viewers are 85% more likely to remember, seek out, and try brands they have seen in TV shows’ (Home – CMA Partnerships – CMA Country Music Association, 2021).
In this way, modern fans of country music are driven towards awards shows like the CMAs (Country Music Association Awards) and the ACMs (Academy of Country Music Awards) which are often sponsored by related brands such as Ford and Chevrolet.
In March 2020, as the world went into lockdown, it quickly became clear that large-scale events and gatherings would not be able to take place. This had a particularly harsh impact on the music industry, which relies on live concerts, national and international tours, and in-person award shows in order to be commercially successful. Research from Fekadu (2020) outlines how the industry lost upwards of $30 billion in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis of the pandemic then, did not exclude award shows, which, as I’ve mentioned, are usually big spectacle events with large crowds, densely packed into big arenas. Clearly a different approach was required in light of COVID-19.
At the same time as the pandemic threatened to upend country music awards shows, several notable social movements were also challenging the genre on its record of gender and racial biases. The #MeToo movement caused us to look again at issues of gender discrimination towards women and associated sexual abuse. Moreover, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by on duty police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, the #BLM or BlackLivesMatter campaign quickly took hold around the world and shed new light on many historically racist attitudes of the past and continuing racial biases of the present. In the country music genre, the Black Lives Matter movement had an immediate impact, bringing to the fore associations with slavery and the Civil War era terms of Dixie and Antebellum, which Helligar describes as the ‘epitome of white America, a celebration of a Southern tradition that is indivisible from Black slaves’ (Helligar, 2020). In the months that followed then, the Dixie Chicks changed their name to The Chicks, Lady Antebellum became Lady A, and Dolly Parton renamed her ‘Dixie Stampede’ at Dollywood.
These two social movements were thrown into the spotlight during the pandemic, a period when, due to lockdowns around the world, many more people remained at home and spent an increased amount of time consuming online and terrestrial media – internet usage increased by between 50-70% and streaming by at least 12% (Beech, 2020). In America, and around the world, Country Music fans wondered, quite rightly, how the genres two biggest events would go ahead in light of the pandemic. In addition, how would the CMAs and the ACMs reference the #MeToo and #BLM movements.
Through the rest of this paper, I will examine this idea through two key case studies. Firstly, the ACMs 2020/2021 coverage and their ground-breaking choice of presenter and location. Secondly, the CMAs November 2020 event where the country music association became embroiled in a controversy around their COVID-19 precautions for an in-person awards show.
The Academy of Country Music (ACMs) were the first to respond to the pandemic, with their show in April 2020 being moved from a large arena in Las Vegas, to a series of three historic venues in Nashville: the Ryman Auditorium, the Bluebird Café, and the Grand Ole Opry. In addition, the show was broadcast without an audience for the first time in its history. In staging the show in this way, the ACMs successfully retained an element of the glamour and excitement usually associated with the awards, and this helped to distract from the sudden impact of the pandemic. It was notable because the 55th ACM awards became the first major in-person awards event to take place in the United States since the outbreak of COVID-19.
The 2020 show was important, not only because it proved that a large, industry-wide awards show could take place in a socially distanced fashion at the height of a global pandemic, but because of the show’s focus on female performers, a trend that has been building in country music awards programming for some time (Saad, 2021). For example, the show featured a celebration of the Opry’s 95th birthday, a medley of songs by classic female country artists performed by Carrie Underwood, while Miranda Lambert won her 35th ACM award, extending her record as the most awarded person in ACM history. Interestingly, the show also featured the first ACM Awards tie, when Carrie Underwood and Thomas Rhett were jointly awarded the ‘Entertainer of the Year’ trophy. Even Underwood herself expressed shock at the outcome, saying: ‘We kept asking the accounting firm (Deloitte), are you sure? Are you sure?’ (Dukes, 2020). And while the ACMs have clearly taken steps towards making the academy more inclusive for female artists, choosing to award a tie, and presenting the award to the male artist first rather than both artists together, shows that the genre still has a lot of room for improvement.
While the number of female winners remains low overall, further positives can be drawn from the 2021 ACMs where 43% of nominees were female, a number that greatly improves on the academy’s five-year average of 34% (Saad, 2021). As the pandemic continued, for a second consecutive year the ACMs decided to hold their ceremony in Nashville, repeating their successful formula. Moreover, the Academy made what can only be described as a ground-breaking decision when they announced that Mickey Guyton would join Keith Urban to host the 2021 ceremony. In doing so, Guyton would become the first black woman to host a major country music awards ceremony.
To establish why the choice of Guyton as host for the ACM awards, alongside the more conventional choice of Keith Urban, can be seen as ground-breaking, we must consider the wider historical context in which the country music genre exists.
Angela Hammond has called country a ‘racialized music’ which, according to music journalist and author Edward Morris, is ‘fundamentally based on the white experience…” (Hammond, 2011, p. 4). The genre has long had an issue with race, despite ‘a multiplicity of ethnic influences, participants, and consumers’ (Hammond, 2011, p. 4). Indeed, while country music developed out of a need for ‘Americans, especially those who felt left out and looked down upon, to tell their stories’ (Duncan et al., 2019) one of its earliest instruments, the banjo, was ‘brought by slaves from Africa’ (Duncan et al., 2019). As Rhiannon Giddens points out, ‘it’s America…but it’s got Africa in it.’ The irony then, lies in the fact that the banjo quickly became the instrument of choice for early country performers, who were almost without exception white. In so doing, it played into the assumption that Morris and Hammond explore, despite country music historian Bill Malone suggesting that ‘you can’t conceive of this music existing without this African American infusion’, albeit one where, ‘as the music developed professionally, too often, African Americans were forgotten’ (Duncan et al., 2019).
Country music’s relationship with race has always been a challenging one. In the 1920s, DeFord Bailey became a pioneer of the Grand Ole Opry and the show’s first black star, performing what he called ‘black hillbilly music’ (McCall et al., 2012). Aside from Bailey, for many, Charley Pride is considered country music’s ‘only black superstar’ (McCall et al., 2012). Although in recent years there have been other notable black performers in the genre; Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Rhiannon Giddens and Mickey Guyton, ‘to date no other black country singer has even approached [Pride’s] commercial achievements’ (McCall et al., 2012). In this arena then, the decision to name not only a woman, but a black woman as the host of the ACM awards, takes on a much more symbolic meaning. Consider this alongside the fact that Guyton would be hosting across a number of the most historic venues in Nashville, which traditionally have acted as a ‘beacon for a segregated mode of consumption in which white audiences could consume appropriations of black culture’ (Hammond, 2011, 17), and you can start to understand why Guyton’s hosting duties can be seen as such a watershed moment in the country music genre.
As I have mentioned, in choosing Guyton, the 2021 ACMs became the first major country awards show to be hosted by a black woman. A year earlier, as the extent of the pandemic was just becoming clear, Guyton also made history by becoming the first black woman ever to perform solo at the ACMs (Curto, 2020). Moreover, when Guyton returned to host the awards, she also performed a new song, ‘Black Like Me’, which addresses the discrimination she has experienced as a black woman. The song was released just eight days after George Floyd was murdered (Alexis Benveniste, CNN Business, 2021).
Across a two-year period then, and one which has been dominated by the ongoing pandemic, the ACMs have taken dramatic action to address gender and racial inequality in their programming. This has, clearly, garnered more attention than it might otherwise have done without the pandemic. Audiences and critics alike, were keen to see how the show would play out in a new format which, I would argue, placed the ACMs on a pedestal, and provided an even greater opportunity for coverage of Guyton’s role as host to be shared around the world. However, it is hard to see how the events that unfolded in 2020/21 could not have been influenced by #BLM and, albeit to a lesser extent, #MeToo. The ACMs have had at least one female host in 36 of their 56-year history (although Reba McEntire has been the host for 17 of those 36 occasions); but aside from Guyton, the show has only twice been hosted by a black artist, Charley Pride, in 1980 and 1984 and never by a black woman, as we have seen. The murder of George Floyd and the social movement that followed, provided the perfect opportunity to address a decades old racial bias in country music awards programming, and the crisis of the pandemic clearly bought this issue to the fore. It is hard not to see the choice of Guyton as host as a reaction to wide reaching #BLM movement.
By November 2020, having seen how the ACMs had reacted to the pandemic by moving their awards show to Nashville, it was the turn of the CMA awards to present their response. By virtue of the fact that the ACM awards take place in April and the CMAs in November, the 2020 CMAs would, rightly or wrongly, be judged against the success of the ACMs move to Nashville. It is for this reason, that the two shows have always kept some distance from each other, often pointedly so, with the CMAs being held in Nashville and, until 2020, the ACMs being held anywhere but – owing mostly to the fact that the organization was founded in 1964 as the Country and Western Music Academy. It sought to promote the country music made in the Western states, in contrast to the sounds made in Nashville (Paulson, 2020).
The CMAs then, in stark contrast to the ACMs, was held as a socially distanced event, with a limited audience made up of only performers and nominees. Aside from the socially distanced tables and the requirement for those in the audience to wear masks, the only notable difference from a normal CMAs show, was the decision to move the awards to a smaller venue (the CMAs are usually held in the Bridgestone Arena). Television coverage from the Music City Centre, was a very subdued affair in stark contrast to the big arena show of 2019 and the earlier ACMs with their historic Nashville bent.
While the CMAs did not initially make headlines for their in-person staging during the pandemic, their choice of honorary for the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award stood out, Charley Pride. As I have already discussed, Pride is one of the most revered artists in country music history and the genre’s most prominent, and for many years only, black performer. Pride would be the sixth recipient of the award, and the first black artist to receive it. The fact that it took eight years from the award being introduced for a black artist to be presented with it, and that this award was presented to country’s most prominent non-white artist in the same year that the #BLM movement took hold around the world, should be more closely examined.
This in itself marks Pride out as an interesting choice by the CMA, and again it is one that arguably received more press coverage and scrutiny in light of the pandemic. Pride was invited to attend the ceremony, which he did, and performed on stage with Jimmie Allen. However, just weeks after attending the televised event, the 86-year-old Pride died on December 12th from complications of COVID-19. Having managed to avoid any major controversies associated with their response to the pandemic thus far, Pride’s death sent shockwaves through the country music industry, not least because of his advanced age and his legendary status. This called into question the protocols the CMA Awards had put in place. Even more pointed, is the fact that much of the immediate criticism came from a group of female artists including Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Rissi Palmer and the aforementioned Mickey Guyton, who have all experienced their own forms of discrimination in the genre, be it for their race, sexuality or gender. At the height of this controversy, the CMA themselves released a statement, saying quote:
‘Charley was tested prior to traveling to Nashville. He was tested upon landing in Nashville, and again on show day, with all tests coming back negative. After returning to Texas following the CMA Awards, Charley again tested negative multiple times.’Country Music Association (CMA), November 2020
This statement was later corroborated by Pride’s long-time manager and bass player Kevin Bailey. As Yahr suggests however, while it is unclear where Pride contracted COVID-19, ‘many viewers were shocked to see the ceremony taking place indoors, in front of nearly 100 people, the majority of whom were not wearing masks on camera’. In addition, Yahr goes on to question ‘the strange tone of the CMA Awards, the format’s biggest night in the national spotlight to celebrate music known for capturing real life and “three chords and the truth,” trying to project an image of cheerful normalcy in a tragedy-filled year (Yahr, 2020). Behind the scenes then, the CMA awards have been rightly questioned for their decision to hold an in-person ceremony when so many events were forced to take place online, with industry officials from across the genre using terms such as ‘tone-deaf’ to describe an attempt at normalcy.
Clearly 2020 was a unique year around the world, and no less so in country music, for all the reasons I have outlined. It is unlikely that things will be as negatively impacted and in such a sudden fashion again. Although the ACMs repeated their successful COVID-informed approach in April 202, on reflection this decision is more likely a product of the continuing travel ban within the USA and the slow vaccine rollout, than the severity of the pandemic itself. The show was markedly different in that socially distanced audience members were invited into all venues to watch and applaud the show. Music too is starting to open up in the USA now, with tours and live events being announced for the autumn of 2021.
But the pandemic does seem to have introduced some change, if not in long-term positive action on race and gender biases, then certainly in affording country music an opportunity to revisit and revaluate its roots. The responses I have described, do feel more like an informed reaction to the #BLM and #MeToo movements and as such, they may not persist into the future. But the way country music is changing is positive and suggests a more inclusive marrying of the conservative past with new, more open approaches. The 2021 ACMs for example, saw traditional country legend Alan Jackson invited to perform an original song for the first time since 2011. In addition, artists have used their time in lockdown to reflect on how their careers might develop; male artist Thomas Rhett re-introduced the fiddle on his album Country Again Side A (Willman, 2021) and Miranda Lambert released an album of acoustic campfire songs recorded live on location in Marfa, Texas. The record is one, it has been noted, ‘that probably wouldn’t have been released before COVID’ (Sartwell, 2021). Both of these projects are likely to do well at the CMA awards in November 2021, further solidifying the pandemic’s impact, namely that country musicians have clearly been reflecting in on themselves, as much as anyone else this last year.
Overall, it will be interesting to see how the pandemic has impacted the genre of country music more widely over the coming years, and to closely examine the extent of the impact the genre’s two flagship awards shows have had on race and gender biases in country music. This is particularly true when, by virtue of the pandemic, they have cast even more of a spotlight on the decision to name the first black woman ever to host a major country music awards show (ACMs) and the first black performer to be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award (CMAs); the latter being a feat that will likely not be repeated for decades to come, given the lack of longstanding non-white artists in the genre and the need to have achieved career longevity before being eligible for a ‘lifetime achievement award’. Moreover, it now seems that gender and racial biases in country music are now even more overtly visible than ever. In this way, the crisis of the pandemic has certainly helped to move forward action on the two most divisive inequalities which have blighted country music for decades.
If you have enjoyed this paper, you can read more about my PhD in Ethnomusciology and my research into the experiences of female country performers in the 21st century.
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