Black Songwriters Share Their Experiences In Country Music: 'It Feels Both Hopeful and Unpredictable
Published By: Billboard
By: Marcus Dowling
As the country music community grapples with issues of equality, diversity, and racism, one area where creatives see the greatest opportunity for inclusion is in predominantly white writers rooms.
As Maren Morris flatly stated during a panel also featuring Luke Combsduring Country Radio Seminar earlier this year, “If you shut out [Black, indigenous, and people of color writers], you have no idea if you are shutting out the next hit song, do you?”
There are small signs of improvement, though much progress needs to be made. Hot newcomer Brittney Spencer has written with Morris, her Highwoman bandmate Amanda Shires, Brandy Clark, Blanco Brown, Jimmie Allen, Runaway June’s Jennifer Wayne, Jason Isbell, Ashley Monroe and Hailey Whitters all over the last several months.
“Being a Black singer/songwriter in Nashville right now feels both hopeful and unpredictable,” Spencer tells Billboard. Since being highlighted on social media by the Highwomen for her cover of their single “Crowded Table” in October 2020, Spencer’s achieved a significant surge of acclaim that’s led to a full writing calendar. But her trajectory remains too rare.
Shannon Sanders, executive director of creative at BMI Nashville, is keenly aware of the need for inclusion.
“Diversity in songwriting rooms impacts the way the Black creatives impact country music. It diversifies a listener’s perspective, and, moreover, they may diversify the genre’s fanbase, too,” says the two-time Grammy winner, who has worked with India.Arie, John Legend and the Fisk Jubilee Singers, among others.
Appealing to as broad an audience as possible is just smart business, Sanders continues: “Of course, an all-inclusive country music industry and community, where everyone sees themselves reflected and invested, is ideal.”
Beyond artists-songwriters such as Kane Brown, Allen, Darius Rucker and Mickey Guyton, there are a handful of Black songwriters reaching chart heights, including Jamie Moore. Signed to Big Loud Publishing, the three-time Grammy-nominated songwriter-producer co-wrote Florida Georgia Line and Tim McGraw’s 2016 hit “May We All,” as well as Morgan Wallen’s 2020 double-platinum single “Chasin You.” (Wallen’s now infamous usage of the N-word in February served as a tipping point for increasing the urgency for conversations regarding a racial reckoning in country music.)
Aware that opportunities for talented, versatile writers existed in Nashville, Steven Battey arrived in Music City six years ago, searching for “the history-making longevity” that writers such as Moore, as well as Black singer-songwriter Shy Carter, who has registered hits with Faith Hill and McGraw, Brown and Keith Urban, have achieved.
Battey’s self-described “crazy, out of the box” move left him unaware and wet behind the ears in dealing with Nashville’s industry and songwriting rooms.
“I thought there were a lot of Darius Rucker-type artists down here. Then I realized, once in Nashville, how much I stood out,” the Black songwriter says.
Battey was already successful, though. For the decade prior -- alongside his brother Carlos -- he’d worked in Los Angeles and won a Grammy, written for four No. 1 albums and achieved five Top 10 singles, crafting songs for artists including Bruno Mars, Flo Rida, Justin Bieber, and Madonna.
Battey’s most significant country cut arrived via 2018’s “One Number Away,” a double-platinum country radio chart-topper he co-wrote with Combs.
Battey found that having a hit cured a wealth of problems. “When I arrived in Nashville, I felt the stress and pressure of being a Black writer in largely all-white writing rooms. I honestly didn’t know if they even wanted me in the room, and I uncomfortably felt like I was the ‘odd man out.’ I was a Black man in sneakers trying to get Nashville songwriters into my songs about trucks,” he says. “Now that I’ve proven I belong, Nashville has shown me the most love I’ve ever received as an artist. The more people adjust to Black songwriters who achieve success, the greater opportunities will emerge for Black songwriters entering writing rooms.”
“One Number Away’s” success -- and that of more soulful and trap-tinged tracks by the likes of Wallen and Sam Hunt in country -- denotes a space where country’s becoming “more experimental,” says Battey, who also performs as part of the country soul duo Exit 216.
That experimentation, not unlike other recent evolutions in country music, is directly related to streaming’s recent explosion in the genre. Streaming allows hip-hop -- a genre that performs extremely well digitally -- to influence country’s direction significantly and gives the songs a home, even when purists may shun the hybrid sound. For more progressive and genre-agnostic fans the potential for country’s experimentations to cross inspirations with styles with which they are already well acquainted is allowing for expansion and diversification of the genre’s fanbase, as noted earlier by Sanders.
To wit, Battey says that artists and labels initially found “One Number Away” to be “too R&B” in 2015. However, by 2018 -- as platforms such as Spotify began to grow in importance and streaming numbers soared -- Battey says, “artists like Dan + Shay and Luke Combs were unafraid of taking risks with their sounds.” He adds, “The landscape of country music’s evolution allows progressive-minded artists the ability to lose a few [traditionalist] fans, but potentially gain so many more.”
For an artist like Black country singer-songwriter Breland -- who partnered with Hunt for a remix of Breland’s platinum-selling “My Truck” and, more recently, with Urban and Nile Rodgers for the frenetic, driving “Out the Cage,” widening the lane of what is considered country will lead to more inclusion for Black writers and artists.
“Just broadening our definition of what country music is will help a lot of that support come to be,” he told Billboard earlier this year. “With songs like ‘My Truck,’ there were a lot of people who might've said, ‘Hey, this isn't necessarily a country song.” But I think with the parameters of cross-country, which is: Is it telling a story? Do the lyrics relate to the concept? That's really all you need. I think the more we redefine what genre and country music are, the easier it will be for people to support artists who play on the periphery of traditional country music.”
The desire to significantly increase diversity in country’s most foundational creative spaces has only grown as a hot topic across racial lines in the genre.
Following Morris’ and Combs’ CRS panel, in March, broadcaster Hunter Kelly’s From Nashville: Music Talks at 92nd Street Y series featured three top white Nashville songwriters -- Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Josh Osborne.
During the conversation, Kelly and Clark talked about a time where all barriers, whether race or gender, are broken down and where country music addresses perspectives beyond its traditional white male heterosexual monolith. Clark felt the next generation was already on that path, noting her nephews -- and likely future fans of country music -- “don’t see gay, straight, [black or white] differences in people the way that [older generations] have had to learn it.”
However, in a deeper conversation with Billboard, Clark, who, in addition to her career as an artist, has written with Kacey Musgraves, Rucker, Guyton and other notable artists, admitted her own blind spots when it comes to inclusivity, especially the need for Black representation.
“Honestly, I didn’t realize that this needed to be corrected until everything happened [last] summer with George Floyd because for years, I was just personally, as an LGBTQ songwriter, worried about getting into writing rooms and wasn’t paying much attention to anyone else.”
She sees the issue more as one of lack of awareness and opportunity than blatant prejudice. “I’ll swear on a stack of bibles when I say it, but nobody I know would explicitly turn down writing with someone because of their racial background or sexual orientation. I write with who my publisher puts on my book to write with. The fact that this exists in country music breaks my heart.”
Clark suggests how she and other songwriters working in rooms where Black writers’ voices have been marginalized can best be valuable allies.
“African-American songwriters and artists can only really write [their] songs,” she says. “So while I can’t tell the story of an African-American person, I can get in the room with someone who is an African-American songwriter and help them craft their story because I’ve written songs -- in general -- for decades now.”
The key, as it has always been with country music, is telling the truth. “Black artists must bring authentic, unique ideas that reflect themselves and their backgrounds into the writing room,” Clark continues. “Patsy Cline was a great country artist, and Charley Pride was also a great country artist too. Great country music has no gender or color. Great art -- regardless of the background of its creator -- must always be heard.”
Spencer hopes the momentum for real change doesn’t fade as the headlines change, and she is guardedly optimistic that it won’t.
“Black empowerment of Black women could just be a trend in town. White guilt could be the new ‘fresh, hot feeling’ in country music, but there are signs that the moment has a more genuine insistence,” she says. “The shift that’s happening is bigger than me, other Black songwriters, Mickey Guyton, whomever. I feel like we’ve [simultaneously] blown off the door and ripped a wall out [of the country music industry] ... In general, I don’t feel tokenized. I feel like people genuinely want to know me.”
And, as she walks through doors that were once closed to Black songwriters, Spencer is aware of her agency and the power of the moment. “Though I have advantages now that other writers of color in country music might not have, I understand the responsibility I have to use the blessing of people’s ears to the work that myself and others have made,” she says. “I don’t know how long I, or we, will seriously remain in these rooms in greater numbers than ever. But within this moment, I’m going to walk into those rooms because I know that I -- and others like me -- can write and sing the hell out of a song, and I’ve deserved to be there contributing them.”