Music

Songwriter Alice Randall Weaves Her Story Into the Larger Legacy of Black Country Music in ‘My Black Country’ Memoir

In the opening pages of her new memoir, My Black Country, which was released April 9 through Atria/Black Privilege Publishing via Simon & Schuster, hit country music songwriter, author, activist and scholar Alice Randall details the experience of being at The Bomb Shelter recording studio in Nashville last year. She was hearing new life being poured into one of her songs, as a Black female artist, Adia Victoria, sang the lyrics “He was Black as the sky on a moonless night,” from Randall’s cowboy ode “Went for a Ride,” a Radney Foster co-write that had been included on Foster’s 1992 album.

“It makes me feel like crying right now to even reflect on it,” Randall tells Billboard. “I fight for all the Black cowboys who have been erased, all the country and western songs through the years that did not tell those stories. When I wrote songs like ‘Went For a Ride,’ a lot of people did not realize they were Black cowboys I was writing about… but 20 or 30% of all cowboys were Black and brown in the 19th and 20th centuries, so it’s one of the ways that African-Americans have contributed so much to the legacy of country music, is through cowboy songs.

“The fact that some of [those songs] had their origins with Black cowboys and Black cowboy camps has gotten erased — that’s another way that we don’t understand the African-American presence in country music,” she continues. “So you get this moment with Lil Nas X [in “Old Town Road”] and he’s in jeans and cowboy clothing and people are questioning, saying, ‘Why is he wearing our culture as a costume?’ and not knowing that actually cowboy culture is white, Black, brown and indigenous, as is the culture of country music — that’s the great untold story of country music.”

Randall is one of the first Black women to write a No. 1 country hit, when she and Matraca Berg co-wrote “XXXs and OOOs (An American Girl),” which became a No. 1 Billboard Hot Country Songs hit for Trisha Yearwood in 1994. (Donna Summer previously co-wrote Dolly Parton’s Billboard Hot Country Songs chart-topper “Starting Over Again” in 1980). Randall is also a writer on the top 10 Hot Country Songs hit “Girls Ride Horses, Too” by Judy Rodman, and Moe Bandy’s top 40 Hot Country Songs hit “Many Mansions.”

For decades, Randall crafted country songs that offered Black narratives and perspectives, yet were recorded only by white artists. On her book’s accompanying album, My Black Country – The Songs of Alice Randall, out April 12 via the late John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, Randall welcomes a dozen Black women artists to perform those songs, and in doing so, reclaim the Black narratives and perspectives inherent in each of them.

In addition to Victoria’s “Went For a Ride,” Allison Russell sings “Many Mansions” and Rhiannon Giddens offers “The Ballad of Sally Anne,” while Rissi Palmer performs “Who’s Minding the Garden” and Randall’s daughter Caroline Randall Williams performs “XXXs and OOOs,” transforming it into an empowering, spoken-word performance. Randall says it was Russell who pointed her to Ebonie Smith, known for her work on Hamilton and Sturgill Simpson’s Grammy-winning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, as the producer on the project.

“What is wild and wonderful to me about this album, is that so many brilliant women with busy careers of their own trying to make a living, taking bands on the road — Allison Russell, Rhiannon Giddens, Sistastrings, Adia Victoria, Leyla McCalla, my own daughter, Caroline Randall Williams — these women came riding to the rescue of my legacy,” Randall tells Billboard. “Re-recording these songs gave me a way to fall in love with them, again and giving a 21st century audience an opportunity to fall in love with them for the first time. And it was Ebonie Smith, and [Oh Boy Records’] Fiona Prine, all of these women putting their arms around me and creating a new and safe space for me to be creative. They have nothing to gain from that really, economically.”

Randall grew up in Detroit, where she was a witness to the rise of Motown and spent time with artists including Stevie Wonder. After her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Washington, D.C. Randall grew up in a family that loved listening to country music, but it was while studying English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University (Randall also has an honorary doctorate from Fisk University) that she said she realized that Bobby Bare’s 1976 song “Dropkick Me Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)” “was really a metaphysical conceit.”

“I’ve been intrigued by the language play in country music,” she says, “but I was also intrigued by the idea that country music was a hidden treasure trove of Black genius and creativity that wasn’t acknowledged, and that the banjo was an instrument with African origins, and that there were all these Black people that had participated in the creation of country music that had gone unacknowledged.”

Randall began making trips to Nashville, playing her songs for primarily white, male music publishing executives. In her book, she recalls returning to Washington, D.C., only to receive a harsh rejection letter. Undeterred, she writes in My Black Country, “That was the day I decided to move to Nashville.”

She relocated to Nashville in 1983 and began attending songwriters rounds, as well as dissecting and analyzing the songs that were making an impact on the Billboard charts. She found an early champion in Bob Doyle, who was then a songwriter liaison at ASCAP. Doyle’s Bob Doyle & Associates is the longtime management for Garth Brooks. Another of her early mentors in Nashville was singer-songwriter Steve Earle, whom she met through Doyle.

“One of the things I learned from Steve wasn’t something he told me, but something he showed me,” Randall says. “He wrote about the politics of his time. He wrote about generational trauma and wrote about what troubled him in the world. Watching his example, I felt emboldened to do the same thing.”

She earned her first top 10 hit in 1987 with the Judy Rodman-recorded “Girls Ride Horses, Too,” which she wrote with Mark D. Sanders. She also launched the publishing company Midsummer Music (which she later sold), with the aim of aiding and developing a community of storytellers.

“We have a couple of Garth cuts through Mark Sanders and we have a lot of my cuts. I’m proud that with ‘Girls Ride Horses,’ the song was pitched to a woman’s label, MTM Records [a subsidiary of the production company owned by actress Mary Tyler Moore]. Not only did Mary Tyler Moore have that label, it was putting out material that was more feminist. Now I love that the new version of ‘Small Towns,’ by Leyla McCalla, puts Black women in the equation.”

In addition to her hit songs, a few of Randall’s career high points have included writing the treatment for Reba McEntire’s Is There Life Out There? music video, which won an ACM Award and features a cameo from Randall. She wrote and produced the pilot for the primetime drama XXX’s and OOO’s, which aired on CBS. Randall, who is on faculty at Vanderbilt University, has also written novels, including The Wind Done Gone and Ada’s Rules.

Randall’s new book is also unflinching when touching on some of the more difficult industry situations she encountered. In one part, she details how following the success with “XXXs and OOOs,” a music publishing executive pressured her into signing a contract, before she had time to let her lawyers look at the paperwork. Randall writes in the book that she ended up signing away much of her writer’s share of the profit on the song.

“It’s a tough business. Over time, I consider that to be my graduate school — that I learned to read contracts carefully and not to sign things without reading them,” Randall says.

But she also points out other experiences that have been favorable: “Working with people like Bob Doyle, that’s been 40 years of honest dealings. Bob Doyle was one of the people who encouraged me to write books. He said, ‘Your songs need footnotes. You should start writing novels.’ And I did. My experience in music business is that though there was one catastrophic loss for me, but without that, I’m not sure I would have written [her novel] The Wind Done Gone, because I was so heartbroken. I left the music business at the height of my success, but I went on to write novels, and I’ve come back to the music business with this amazing new album.”

Alice Randal, My Black Country

Though My Black Country is Randall’s memoir, she refrains from focusing solely on her own story and her own songs; instead, she deftly weaves her own journey through the book, while also restitching the threads of country music’s Black roots and history and tying it to country music’s current moment. She highlights the stories of Black country artists — both musical forebears and contemporaries — such as the collective of artists she calls “The First Family of Black Country,” including Eslie “Lesley” Riddle (who directly influenced the songs and musicianship of The Carter Family), Grand Ole Opry star DeFord Bailey, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong (who along with Louis Armstrong played on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9”), music luminaries Ray Charles and Charley Pride, and actor/musician Herb Jeffries, who in the 1930s starred in a series of Black Westerns such as The Bronze Buckaroo.

“Those creatives created all the strains that were existing in country when I arrived in 1983, as I was engaging it and I wanted to continue forward,” Randall says, adding, “I didn’t get to hear from DeFord’s own words. I did eventually find interviews of what he had experienced, of what Lil Hardin experienced in Nashville, and what Linda Martell experienced, in her own words. I wanted to leave that record for people coming now and coming after me, hearing in their own words how African-American creatives had experienced their life in country music. At the same time, I’m always interested in stories other than my own story.”

From there, the book chronicles a lineage of Black country artists, including the Pointer Sisters and Linda Martell, to many of the artists who contribute to the My Black Country album, including Sunny War, Miko Marks, Valerie June and Rissi Palmer.

Randall’s My Black Country book and accompanying album arrive at a time when history is being made on the Billboard country charts, as Beyonce’s Cowboy Carter sits at the pinnacle of the Top Country Albums chart, marking the first time a Black woman has earned a No. 1 country album since the chart’s inception.

“Beyonce is the only artist known to be a Black female artist to achieve that height, and she will not be the last,” Randall says. “Once something has been done and shown that it can be done, it becomes much more likely that it will be done again and again.”

As Cowboy Carter sits atop the Billboard 200 and Billboard Country Albums chart, Beyonce’s song “Texas Hold ‘Em” has reigned atop the Hot Country Songs chart for eight weeks.

Speaking with Billboard soon after the song peaked on that chart, Randall said, “I love that it’s not a one-week thing; it’s multiple weeks, and I’m so excited to see that. That’s one thing I said about ‘XXXs and OOOs,’ it was two weeks at the top of the charts. That second week is always so much sweeter, because the first week is a lot of business and everyone getting it there, most of the time. The conventional wisdom when I was coming up in the business [was that] the second week is about your real audience. That’s America talking.”

Parallel to Randall’s mission of uplifting the truths of generations of Black artists, Cowboy Carter has led to consumption gains for not only Black male artists including Shaboozey (who is featured on “Spaghettii” alongside Martell, and “Sweet Honey Buckin’”) and Willie Jones (“Just For Fun”), but Black female trailblazer Linda Martell and rising Black female artists Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, Tanner Adell and Tiera Kennedy, who are all featured on the update of The Beatles classic “Blackbird” (stylized “Blackbiird” on Cowboy Carter).

In conversation, Randall reflects on the 2003 Vince Gill song, “Young Man’s Town,” with its lyric, “Even though you build it sometimes you got to sit back and watch ’em burn it to the ground/ Even though you’ve built it/ It’s a young man’s town.”

“I don’t think that’s true in the same way anymore,” Randall says. “I think in some ways Nashville, in this moment, is becoming a wild woman’s town.”

Powered by Billboard.

Related Articles

Back to top button