Beyoncé Gave Country’s Black Trailblazers a Mic. Alice Randall Is Giving Their Legacies a Required Reckoning. 

"I was feeling—closer to the end of my life—that my Black heroes and sheroes had been erased from the songs," Randall told Jezebel of her new book and accompanying album, My Black Country. 

Beyoncé Gave Country’s Black Trailblazers a Mic. Alice Randall Is Giving Their Legacies a Required Reckoning. 

One morning in April 1994, a 34-year-old mother and songwriter in Nashville, Tennessee was scrambling. Somewhere between rushing her first-grade daughter off to school, cursing herself for forgetting to send a signed permission slip along with her, and squeezing in a shower, a string of words materialized in Alice Randall’s mind: Got a picture of your Momma in heels and pearls, and you’re trying to make it in your Daddy’s world. Months (and a few verses) later, that sentiment would become the chorus of a number-one hit on country radio called “XXX’s & OOO’s (An American Girl)”—the first co-written by a Black woman.

While it was ultimately made famous by Trisha Yearwood, that mother, songwriter, and award-winning professor and author’s song is now part of a sweeping history known to very few and understood by even less: Black Country. Fortunately, Randall hasn’t just chronicled it in her book My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music’s Black Past, Present, and Future, out April 9, but also in a companion album of the same name, out April 12. The 11-track album features Randall’s songs reimagined and re-recorded by today’s award-winning artists and female arbiters of Black Country like Rhiannon Giddens, Rissi Palmer, and Allison Russell.

Days before the release of Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter, Randall joined me on Zoom to discuss the book and album—the latter of which sees the stories she put to song told the way they were always intended. When they’re both released this week, the parallels between My Black Country and Cowboy Carter will be obvious. For starters, both serve as needful reminders that the genre was started, shaped, and sustained by Black creatives.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Alice Randall (@msalicerandall)

“Black Country is a big tent with many entry points,” Randall tells readers straight away. “My checklist is not a litmus test. It’s a likeliness test. It’s a way to educate your ears and your eyes. Is there Blackness you have refused to see and hear?”

According to Randall, the whole of Black Country is comprised of four truths: “Life is hard, God is real, whiskey and roads and family provide worthy compensations, and the past is better than the present.” But where country music created by white artists largely finds itself longing for a slavery-era South, Black Country longs for a pre-colonization Africa.

“Country is ‘Black as the sky on a moonless night,'” Randall writes. “Knowing that has everything to do with when, where, and to whom I was born.”

Randall told Jezebel the book was always a threat of sorts—a weapon to wield against a whitewashed industry. But after facing a private health crisis in 2018, writing it became that much more urgent. In recognizing her own mortality, she realized the memory of Linda Martell, Florence Joplin, Kossi Gardner, and more, could also be lost.

“I started thinking ‘What do I really want to do?'” she said of the moment. “I was very aware I was approaching my 40th anniversary in the city [Nashville] as a Black woman songwriter.” So, she finished her 2020 novel, Black Bottom Saints, which paid tribute to Detroit’s artful communities—remembered by the mainstream (Motown) and forgotten (Paradise Valley)and began researching American country music. While documenting her own experiences navigating the industry as a Black storyteller—especially in the eighties, nineties, and early aughts, she revisited old recordings of her own songs and was struck by the fact that her words—inherent to, and evocative of, the Black experience—had only ever been sung by white artists. “The Ballad of Sally Ann,” for instance, mourns a man’s lynching. Even within “XXX and OOO’s,” there’s an Aretha Franklin allusion. But when performed by Yearwood and New Grass Revival’s John Cowan, respectively, those references fail to resonate as deeply with, well, a white audience.

In the book, Randall charts the triumphs of the Black trailblazers in the genre, like Gardner, a pioneer in Afro-futurist music; Joplin, a banjo player, singer, and the mother of famed composer and pianist, Scott Joplin; and Lil Hardin, a pianist, arranger, and composer whose works were ultimately made famous by Ray Charles and decades later, Ringo Starr. Their trials and tribulations, too, get their contextual due. Where Beyoncé offers Linda Martell—the first Black female solo artist to play the Grand Ole Opry in 1969—a microphone, Randall’s book gives Martell’s legacy its required reckoning.

“Linda Martell contests racial divides while celebrating her own Black body, Black voice, Black face, Black identity,” Randall writes of Martell, who’s also known as the first commercially successful Black female artist in country music. Shelved by her label in the mid-seventies and, in her words, “essentially blacklisted” Martell left Nashville with a solitary album to her name. “She was a new truth. The truth got erased. She vanished from the national Country scene in the mid-seventies about the same time that the Grand Ole Opry quit downtown Nashville,” Randall writes. “But she left a trail for bold and observant women to follow. Never. Once. Again. These are very different sums.”

The accompanying album, too, was born from that same aforementioned urgency. “I was feeling—closer to the end of my life—that my Black heroes and sheroes had been erased from the songs.” She credits her daughter, the famed author, poet, and academic, Caroline Randall Williams, for helping conceptualize the album and for putting her in touch with dozens of prolific singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists like SistaStrings, Palmer, Russell, and Giddens, whose banjo just made an appearance on “Texas Hold ‘Em.”

“She was the original ‘American Girl’ and connected me to so many of the artists,” Randall says of her daughter. Thus, it was only fitting that Caroline sang her own version of “XXX’s and OOO’s” on the album.

In the book, Randall recalls how that particular song didn’t exactly receive warm reviews back in June 1994. “One big critic dismissed ‘XXX’s and OOO’s’ as a diddy…that song is 30 years a classic,” she said. Even still, it solidified Randall as an industry power player, and, akin to some of her predecessors, that success put, as she wrote, “a target” on her back.

In detailing her own hardships—including, most notably, a bad contract she was “emotionally ambushed” into signing—Randall establishes that the issues crippling Black artists in a racist, sexist, and capitalist industry writ large remain frustratingly constant. Even now, country radio largely refuses to play Black female artists and a Black woman’s song is offered new life only when a white man sings it. I asked her about Tracy Chapman and “Fast Car” and how Chapman became the first Black woman to score a number-one country song as its sole writer…but only after Luke Combs covered it in 2023. I admit to Randall that I was frustrated that Chapman had to share the stage with Combs at the Grammy Awards when it was her song. Why couldn’t she have performed it alone? “Exactly,” Randall said.

“It’s a tune that came into the world with a very different body and a very different voice,” she continued. “There was a great, passionate love of that song in the world already. It wasn’t from scratch. You need to acknowledge the foundations and the roots of what you’re creating.”


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Alice Randall (@msalicerandall)

Randall thinks with Cowboy Carter Beyoncé has done more than that—even at the time of our conversation when only two tracks (“Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages”) had been released. “To me, the theme of that song is ‘life is not a game,'” Randall said of “Texas Hold ‘Em” while “16 Carriages” is an elegy for growing up too fast. Randall thinks of it in conversation with Chapman’s “Fast Car” and her own, “XXX and OOO’s.” All three were penned by Black women shouldering the weight of their own desires (love, liberation, a livelihood) in a world that’s often robbed them of one, both, or all three.

Beyoncé’s album reimagines or interpolates several country tracks—from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” to Chuck Berry’s “Oh Louisiana.” Its refusal to hold too fast to any one tenet while still paying homage to both her peers in the past and present is emblematic of the evolution of Black Country.

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” Martell asks in the intro of “Spaghettii.” “In theory, they have a simple little definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.”

No one knows this better than Martell—except, for maybe Randall.

“Race is a construct, as genre is a construct,” she said. “People have to survive, thrive, endure them, persevere in the face of them.”

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin