Review | Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, by Diane Pecknold

Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music. Edited by Diane Pecknold. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013. [392 p. ISBN 9780822351634. $27.95.] Illustrations, index, bibliography.

Reviewed by Scott V. Linford

Country music in the United States self-consciously narrates racial, gender, and class identities. While the narrative that country music is white music has long held sway in popular consciousness, a relatively recent wave of scholarship and musical activity has disrupted that myth by deconstructing its origins and highlighting the contributions of African-American country musicians. The twelve chapters of Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, edited by Diane Pecknold, make a valuable contribution to this literature by documenting the participation of African Americans in country music and analyzing country music as a site for the elaboration of African-American identities.

Reasserting the African American Presence in Country Music

Interventions into the white myth of country music have gained traction in the last few decades, constituting a distinct nexus of scholarly production. Librarian Dena Epstein’s 1975 article unearthing the banjo’s African roots was a seminal step in recovering the instrument’s black history,[1] and has inspired a number of subsequent works searching for banjo analogues in West Africa (Adams and Pestcoe 2007; Adams and Sedgwick 2007; Bamber n.d.; Coolen 1991 and 1984; Jagfors 2003; Linford 2013; Pestcoe n.d.; Shaffer 2005). This effort set the stage for Cecilia Conway’s beautifully written account of African-American banjo history and the living tradition of black banjo players in North Carolina (1995), based on two decades of fieldwork that overlapped with parallel work by Kip Lornell (2002, 1989, 1975, 1974) and Robert Winans (1982, 1979). Karen Linn’s more analytical work traced the banjo’s changing racial, regional, gender, and class significance in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly connecting these deliberate changes in the instrument’s meaning to the economic maneuverings of banjo manufacturers (1991). Recent works by Aaron Fox (2004a, 2004b) and Geoff Mann (2008) have analyzed the strategies used by country musicians to self-consciously create and promote white and working class identities, and have helped lay bare the constructed nature of country music’s semiotic whiteness. Finally, and perhaps most explicitly related to this project, journalist Pamela Foster’s two books (2000, 1998) illuminate the numerous and regular contributions of African Americans to country music.

Working in tandem with this scholarly research are the recent efforts of African-American musicians to reassert the African-American presence in country music. While Taj Mahal, Otis Taylor, and others have been working in country subgenres for decades, recent albums by Sankofa Strings (2012), The Ebony Hillbillies (2011), and the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops (2012, 2010, 2006) have a more evidently self-conscious mission to play with country music’s narratives and roots. The Carolina Chocolate Drops in particular make ample use of the revisionist rhetorical strategy identified by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as “signifyin’”: “a metaphor for formal revision, or intertextuality, within the Afro-American literary tradition. […] To name our tradition is to rename each of its antecedents, no matter how pale they might seem. To rename is to revise, and to revise is to Signify” (1988:xxi). African-American discourse theorizes about itself self-reflexively, especially through “unmotivated” repetition that expresses respect and through “motivated” revision that recasts earlier texts in a critical light. The playfully ironic but seriously evocative title of the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig–and the eponymous song which is re-named “Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)”–reclaims and renames a song composed by African Americans and stolen by a minstrel performer, resetting it in a contemporary, hip hop-style groove created by foot-stomping and the minstrel instrument of the bones. This haunting arrangement simultaneously signifies self-reflexively on the blackness of the original tune and uses its troubled history to signify the contemporary African-American identities of the performers.

Hidden in the Mix enters this field with a deliberate mission, described eloquently in Pecknold’s introductory essay “Country Music and Racial Formation.” The book seeks to move beyond the conceptualization of African-American musicians as mentors and inspirations for more well-known and commercially successful white musicians (e.g., the partnership between African American Lesley Riddle and the white “father of country music” A.P. Carter, or the influence of African-American guitarist Arnold Shultz on the white “father of bluegrass” Bill Monroe). Instead, it aims to explore the work of African-American country musicians in their own right and the fascinating complexity of country music’s relationship to black identities. On a simple level, then, it responds to Christopher Waterman’s observation that “performers, genres, texts, and practices not consonant with dominant conceptions of racial difference have [...] often been elided from academic, journalistic, and popular representations of the history of American music” (2001:167). More subtly, Hidden in the Mix avoids narrow conceptions of country music and blackness, a pairing whose incongruity has been played for laughs, or used to symbolize alienation from an authentic black self, or employed as a form of what Toni Morrison calls “playing in the dark,” using notions of blackness to provide affective depth to white identities. Working from a constructivist model of race and identity, the book’s ultimate goal is neither to argue that country music is “really” black nor to exploit the apparent curiosity of black musicians participating in a genre that is racialized as white, but rather to explore “the shifting and multifaceted ways in which resilient black identities are fashioned through musical production, whether that music is construed as ‘black’ or not” (2013:7).

After Pecknold’s thoughtful introduction, the book’s twelve chapters are grouped in two parts. Part One, “Playing in the Dark,” addresses the paradox that country music retains strong significations of whiteness despite the large number of African Americans who have contributed to its repertoire, and that even the high-profile presence of prominent African-American performers such as Ray Charles has counter-intuitively served to accentuate the genre’s semiotic whiteness. Part Two, “New Antiphonies,” approaches country music as a site for the negotiation of black identities, viewing the genre’s collisions with soul, hip hop, Caribbean dance halls, and others as sonic contributors to conceptions of blackness. Black music here is not reflective of an a priori cultural essence; it participates in the construction of black identities.

Part One: Playing in the Dark

Part One’s four chapters achieve their goal from diverse angles. Patrick Huber’s “Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932” (Chapter One) provides an excellent introduction to the historical creation of separate “hillbilly music” and “race music” recording genres, including the ways that these genres not only reflected segregationist ideas but contributed to the naturalization of racial categories in the United States. His survey of the significant number of African-American and interracial recording sessions released in the hillbilly genre prior to 1933 holds historical value for its insights into the early years of country music’s construction as an “invented tradition.” Diane Pecknold’s “Making Country Modern: The Legacy of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” (Chapter Two) continues this focus on the influence of the recording industry, interrogating the role of Ray Charles’ seminal album in challenging the perception that “race music” would not play well on regional radio stations. The album’s success changed the economic landscape of recording label categories, but Pecknold argues that the primary impact of the album was to redirect the class narrative of country music and not, as is now popularly believed, to challenge country music’s whiteness.

The latter two chapters of Part One examine the careers of lesser-known African-American musicians in relation to country music’s white narrative. Erika Brady’s “Contested Origins: Arnold Schultz and the Music of Western Kentucky” (Chapter Three) focuses on the role of African-American guitarist Arnold Schultz in the development of bluegrass and especially the thumbpicking guitar style. While his actual contributions to those musical developments are unclear, Schultz has become a mimetic originary figure, whose blackness adds to the controversy of those genres’ origins. “Fiddling with Race Relations in Rural Kentucky: The Life, Times, and Contested Identity of Fiddlin’ Bill Livers” (Chapter Four) by Jeffrey A. Keith narrates the remarkable life of African-American fiddler Bill Livers as an exemplar of race relations and ethnic interchange in rural Kentucky. Keith describes three phases in Livers’ career: as a “buffoon” in an otherwise all-white band who nevertheless used storytelling to subtly undermine racism; as “the embodiment of romantic primitivism” (120) in a hippie band that sought to unite rural culture and 1960s counterculture; and finally as a regular on the folk revivalist circuit. In all three stages, Livers’ acute awareness of changing racial power dynamics guided the way he adjusted his performance style to meet the expectations of his audience.

Part Two: New Antiphonies           

United by their approach to country music as a site for the negotiation of black identities, the eight chapters of Part Two cover diverse terrain. Tony Thomas’ “Why African Americans Put the Banjo Down” (Chapter Five) challenges the prevailing argument that black musicians stopped playing the banjo in the twentieth century due to its associations with the racist stereotypes perpetuated by minstrel shows, arguing instead that black musical tastes, dances, and performance contexts changed in ways that did not accommodate the banjo. Thomas’ assertion that the organological limitations of the banjo (particularly its characteristically short sustain and limited range) made it unsuitable for blues music may overlook the success of musicians such as Taj Mahal, Otis Taylor, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops in adapting the banjo to the blues. Likewise, his argument that African Americans do not share white Americans’ enthusiasm for nostalgia may not account for differences in class and rural/urban identities within the African-American experience (indeed, the seventh chapter of Hidden in the Mix discusses the musical trope of African-American nostalgia for rural life). However, Thomas' reevaluation of previous arguments and the evidence used to support them makes this chapter a significant contribution to recent conversations about the banjo's African-American history and identity.

Kip Lornell’s highly personal essay “Old-Time Country Music in North Carolina and Virginia: the 1970s and 1980s” (Chapter Six) tells the story of his groundbreaking fieldwork with African-American musicians working in non-blues country genres in the 1970s and 1980s. His chapter underscores the diversity of African-American folk music as including far more than only blues and gospel genres, but the chapter’s real value (especially for ethnomusicologists) lies in the autobiographical story of how Lornell’s lifetime of musical interests led to his much-appreciated career of scholarly and applied work. “The South’s Gonna Do It Again: Changing Conceptions of the Use of ‘Country’ Music in the Albums of Al Green” (Chapter Seven) by Michael Awkward explores the works of Al Green and particularly his intimate, spiritual Belle Album (1978) in the context of shifting notions of black masculinity and “the country” as a source of nostalgic musical inspiration. Although Awkward’s prose is sometimes serpentine, he manages to weave together issues of fame, racialized gender expression, and fraught regional symbolism at a time when African Americans were questioning the promise of the urban North and returning to the imagined homeland of the black South.

The only essay to consider country music outside the United States, “Dancing the Habanera Beats (in Country Music): The Creole-Country Two-Step in St. Lucia and Its Diaspora” (Chapter Eight) by Jerry Wever is an ethnographic and historical account of the popularity of country music among African-Caribbean dancers in St. Lucia. Although the prevalence of country music from the United States in St. Lucia is sometimes bemoaned by musicians and intellectuals as a form of musical colonialism, others prefer to view country music as a musical form that is already creolized by the contributions of African Americans and the characteristically Caribbean habanera rhythm. Wever positions the St. Lucian case study as an intervention into the dialogue about the racialization of country music in the United States, providing a welcome global perspective that could be supplemented by studies of United States country music elsewhere in the world (cf. Cohen 2005; Goertzen 1988) as well as other “country” musics such as Mexican and Chicano norteño and Brazilian música sertaneja and música caipira (Dent 2009).

Adam Gussow’s “Playing Chicken with the Train: Cowboy Troy’s Hick-Hop and the Transracial Country West” (Chapter Nine) takes on the hybrid genre variously known as country rap, hick-hop, or hill-hop, particularly with regard to the career of African-American musician Troy Coleman, better known as Cowboy Troy. While audiences and critics sometimes react to Coleman’s deliberately controversial music with surprise or thinly veiled racist horror, Gussow argues that the braggadocio of Coleman’s stage persona hides a savvy finesse that asserts a space for blackness in contemporary country music and encourages listeners to think of country music as a creole genre.

Barbara Ching’s “If Only They Could Read between the Lines: Alice Randall and the Integration of Country Music” (Chapter 10) argues that the work of African-American country songwriter and novelist Alice Randall (a Harvard graduate, occasional university professor, and “a postmodernist versed in critical race theory” [256]) toys with what communications scholar Josh Kun calls “audiotopias.” For Kun, audiotopias are “almost-places of cultural encounter,” where sounds with diverse semiotic significances (for example, “white music” and “black music”) can exist simultaneously in the utopian sonic space of American music (Kun 2005:17). While briefly engaging with black country artists of the second half of the twentieth century (such as Charley Pride, Linda Martell, and Stoney Edwards) and discussing their different approaches to addressing race, Ching focuses on the ways that Randall self-consciously engages narratives of country’s supposed whiteness (for example by simultaneously paying homage to Aretha Franklin and Patsy Cline in a song she wrote for Trisha Yearwood). An excellent analysis that brings forward Randall’s use of utopian musical space to address the question of African-Americans’ relationship to country music, Ching concentrates almost entirely on the lyrical content of Randall’s oeuvre, neglecting the possibilities of examining musical sound as a discursive and performative practice unto itself (a critical aspect of Kun’s audiotopia concept).[2]

“You're My Soul Song: How Southern Soul Changed Country Music” (Chapter 11) by Charles L. Hughes describes the large, interracial group of session musicians, songwriters, producers, performers, and executives in Memphis, Nashville, and Muscle Shoals who collectively shaped the sounds and genre identities of Southern soul, country, and country-soul music. While previous works have discussed the contributions of white musicians to soul music (as in Hughes’ discussion of foundational works by Peter Guralnick [1986] and Barney Hoskyns [1998]), Hughes hones in on the mutual influences and interracial collaborations of soul and country music in a field nonetheless fraught with prevailing white appropriation and control of black musics. Hughes’ meticulously researched work provides a valuable glimpse behind the scenes, highlighting the importance of non-performers in shaping musical sounds and meanings.

The book’s final chapter, David Sanjek's “What's Syd Got to Do with It? King Records, Henry Glover, and the Complex Achievement of Crossover” (Chapter Twelve) is a narrative account of Jewish-American executive Sydney Nathan and African-American A&R man Henry Glover of King Records and their practice of marketing crossover recordings (i.e., recording the same song in multiple genres and styles). Sanjek differentiates “crossovers” from crossracial “covers” such as those by Pat Boone and his ilk, which verged on embarrassing racial impersonation or caricature. Taking a rather idealistic view of this practice, Sanjek characterizes crossovers as “a musical melting pot, for two (and sometimes more) musical and cultural traditions consequently collide, fuse, and reformulate” (311). He further implies that Nathan and Glover’s financial directives happily aligned with positive social motivations of integration: “an ancillary element of [King Records’] agenda ratified the pluralistic essence of our national character” (336). While a cynical reader might wish to inquire further into the racialized power dynamics between the mercurial Nathan and strategic Glover, this essay’s placement at the end of the volume may be a gesture at optimism for country music’s potential as an audiotopic site of crossracial collaboration and integration.


Hidden in the Mix stands as an important contribution to literature on American country music and its wide range will be appealing to a broad readership, especially scholars of ethnomusicology, music history, anthropology, American studies, and ethnic studies. The book’s introduction and twelve chapters amply fulfill their two-fold mission to deconstruct the creation of country music’s whiteness and interpret country music as a site for the negotiation of blackness. Aside from these general themes, the book brims with unforgettable anecdotes: the story of black guitarist Amédé Ardoin, who was savagely beaten after playing at a white house party with white Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee, allegedly for accepting a handkerchief from the daughter of the white homeowner (30); Ray Charles’ pithy response to an interviewer who asked about the difference between white and black jazz bands (“Oh, about a hundred dollars a week” [85]); the aging Bill Livers’ wholehearted embrace of the 1970s free love ethic (illustrated by an anecdote involving an appreciative female fan and a wheelbarrow [132]) and the way he sometimes dumbed down the technical complexity of his fiddling so as not to appear superior to white fiddlers (133); Kip Lornell’s simple but inspiring ethnographic mission to “go out into the field, find out what’s on the back roads and in small communities, and add to the body of knowledge by way of album liner notes, articles, books, and recordings” (173); and the easy way that Nashville songwriter and producer Buddy Killen used the same disco-infused backing track with two different sets of lyrics to score simultaneous hits on the R&B charts (recorded by African American Joe Tex) and the country charts (recorded by Caucasian Bill Anderson) (283). By turns tragic, comedic, inspiring, and insightful, these stories enliven the chronicle of race and music in the United States.

Works Cited

Adams, Greg and Shlomo Pestcoe. 2007. “The Jola Akonting: Reconnecting the Banjo to its West African Roots.” Sing Out! 51(1):43-51.

Adams, Greg and Paul Sedgwick. 2007. “Encountering the Akonting: A Cultural Exchange.” Old Time Herald 10(9):36-41.

Bamber, Nick. n.d. “Two Gourd Lutes from the Bijago Islands of Guinea Bissau.” <> Accessed July 18, 2013.

Carolina Chocolate Drops. 2012. Leaving Eden. Sound recording. Nonesuch.

______. 2010. Genuine Negro Jig. Sound recording. Nonesuch Records.

______. 2006. Donna Got A Ramblin' Mind. Sound recording. Music Maker.

Coolen, Michael Theodore. 1991. “Senegambian Influences on Afro-American Musical Culture.” Black Music Research Journal 11:1-18.

______. 1984. “Senegambian Archetypes for the American Folk Banjo.” Western Folklore 43(2):117-132.

Cohen, Sara. 2005. “Country at the Heart of the City: Music, Heritage, and Regeneration in Liverpool.” Ethnomusicology 49(1):25-48.

Conway, Cecelia. 1995. African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Dent, Alexander. 2009. River of Tears: Country Music, Memory, and Modernity in Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ebony Hillbillies. 2011. Barefoot and Flying. Sound recording. EH Music.

Foster, Pamela. 2000. My Country, Too: The Other Black Music. Nashville: Publishers Graphics.

______. 1998. My Country: The African Diaspora’s Country Music Heritage. Nashville: My Country.

Fox, Aaron. 2004a. Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

______. 2004b. “White Trash Alchemies of the Abject Sublime: Country as ‘Bad’ Music.” In Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, edited by Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derko, 39-61. New York: Routledge.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1988. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford University Press.

Goertzen, Chris. 1988. “Popular Music Transfer and Transformation: The Case of American Country Music in Vienna.” Ethnomusicology 32(1):1-21.

Guralnik, Peter. 1986. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. Boston: Little Brown.

Hoskyns, Barney. 1998. Say It One Time for the Broken Hearted: Country Soul in the American South. London: Bloomsbury.

Jagfors, Ulf. 2003. “The African Akonting and the Origin of the Banjo.” The Old-Time Herald 9(2):26-33.

Kun, Josh. 2005. Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Linford, Scott V. 2013. “O’teck Akonting: Ethnography of a Senegambian Folk Lute.” Society for Ethnomusicology Annual Meeting. Indianapolis, 11/15/2013.

Linn, Karen. 1991. That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Lornell, Kip. 2002. “Non-Blues Secular Black Music in Virginia.” In American Musical Traditions. Volume 2: African American Music, edited by Jeff Todd Titon and Bob Carlin, 42-49. New York: Schirmer Reference Books.

______. 1989. “Banjos and Blues.” In Arts in Earnest: Field Studies in North Carolina Folklife, edited by Daniel W. Patterson and Charles G. Zugg, 216-31. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

______. 1975. “Pre-Blues Black Music in Piedmont North Carolina.” North Carolina Folklore Quarterly 23(1):27-32.

______. 1974. “North Carolina Pre-Blues Banjo and Fiddle.” Living Blues 18:25-27.

Mann, Geoff. 2008. “Why Does Country Music Sound White? Race and the Voice of Nostalgia.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31(1):73-100.

Pecknold, Diane, ed. 2013. Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Pestcoe, Shlomo. n.d. <> Accessed July 18, 2013.

Sankofa Strings. 2012. Colored Aristocracy. Sound recording. CD Baby.

Schaffer, Matt. 2005. “Bound to Africa: The Mandinka Legacy in the New World.” History in Africa 32:321-369.

Waterman, Christopher. 2001. “Race Music: Bo Chatmon, ‘Corrine Corrine,’ and the Excluded Middle.” In Music and the Racial Imagination, edited by Ronald M. Radano and Philip V. Bohlman, 167-205. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Winans, Robert. 1982. “Black Instrumental Music Traditions in the Ex‑Slave Narratives.” Black Music Research Newsletter 5(2):2-5. 

______. 1979. “The Black Banjo-playing Traditions in Virginia and West Virginia.” Journal of the Virginia Folklore Society 1:7-30.

Scott V. Linford is a doctoral candidate in Ethnomusicology at UCLA. His research approaches music as key feature of experiential senses of community, through fieldwork in West Africa, Central America, and the United States. An award-winning filmmaker and banjoist, Scott formerly served as Editor-in-Chief of Ethnomusicology Review and Director of the UCLA Bluegrass and Old Time Ensemble.

[1] A lifelong scholar and supporter of ethnomusicological work, Epstein passed away this year at the age of 97.

[2] For example, Ching’s otherwise subtle analysis of Randall’s “The Ballad of Sally Anne” does not consider the discursive ramifications of the song’s melody, which is inspired by the common old time fiddle tunes “Sally Ann” and “Sail Away Ladies,” themselves products of a syncretic British- and African-American tradition. And to nitpick, neither fiddle tune is “wordless,” as Ching claims of “Sally Ann;” both have a large repertoire of informal lyrics that clearly influenced the lyrical themes of Randall’s take on the song.


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