by Marcus K. Dowling
On December 12, 2020, Charley Pride’s death marked a moment indelible not just in country music history but also in country music’s ability to embody the epitome of Black excellence in America. Ray Charles — a contributor to country music’s pop legacy and another representation of distinguished African-American creativity — passed away in 2004. At a time where heightened concern surrounding the sustainability of Black liberation in America is a hot-button issue, standing in the shadows of these giants while striving towards unprecedented success in country music presents a plethora of emotions.
Artists like folksy soul crooner and CMT’s own Next Women of Country Class of 2021 member Brittney Spencer and “Good Love” vocalist Shy Carter — a collaborator with the likes of Kane Brown, Keith Urban, and Tim McGraw — are left shouldering the immense weight of Pride and Charles’ incredible innovation, universal appeal, and 55 Billboard No. 1 hit songs no longer physically represented on Earth. It is weight both bear with strength and pride.
On a tensely calm afternoon two days before Joe Biden’s Presidential Inauguration, Spencer relates being traumatized by shock when learning of Pride’s passing.
“I was in the middle of a video shoot, and my guitarist told me that Charley Pride had just died,” Spencer recalls. “It was awkward to try to continue with the video shoot. When I looked back at the completed video, I could look at my face and tell that something tragic had just occurred.”
For Carter, when asked — while speaking to CMT — to calculate the meaning of Ray Charles and Charley Pride’s legacies, his mind first turns to their compositions. He believes that the iconic duo set the blueprint for how Black singers and songwriters view creating country music.
Ray Charles — namely on songs like 1959’s “What’d I Say,” plus 1962’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Bye Bye Love” — blended gospel, blues, jazz, and big band orchestration. Carter finds modern similarities in how “boundary-pushers” like himself use R & B, hip-hop, and trap-style tracks programmed on Roland 808 drum machines.
Also, Charles’ “funky, crazy groove” fascinated Carter. “Watching [Ray Charles] perform is like seeing something greater than music. He could sing one word and tell you a whole story,” the upstart performer says regarding the legend.
When asked about Charley Pride, Carter laughs. “If Charley Pride’s songs were church music, they’d be the whole hymnal! He had a smooth and charismatic style that made him feel like the world’s best friend.”
Instead of Charles and Pride’s physical presence to serve as guideposts for the future, Brittney Spencer highlights Apple Radio podcast Color Me Country host — and groundbreaking Black country star — Rissi Palmer — as a critical mentor. “By teaching [artists like myself] to leave the doors open for others to walk through, she’s doing what artists like Charley and Ray would’ve done.”
Moreover, regarding mentorship, Spencer is fond of Mickey Guyton’s 2020-released and Grammy-nominated, anthemic power ballad “Black Like Me.”
“Until now, everyone in country music has gotten used to everyone singing anthems about kindness and love to solve every human issue we face as a society. But I think that there is a growing space out there for songs that push the needle forward by normalizing a progressive idealism in country music.” Artists like herself and Willie Jones — of poignant single “American Dream” fame — benefit from Guyton as a beacon of change, Spencer adds.
Adding a personal note concerning change, Carter says, “I’m biracial — my mother’s white and my father’s Black. I’ve always felt the division racism causes, and in [everything I do].” He continues, “My music has always been all about acceptance, love, peace, and unity. Writing ‘Someday’ with Rob Thomas and ‘Worldwide Beautiful’ with Kane Brown highlight that healing division has always been on my mind, and other artists, too.”
In a final word regarding Black artists continuing a legacy of excellence, Brittney Spencer emphatically says, “Black artists in country music need real partnership — not performative allyship — from white artists.”
Famously, as Maren Morris accepted an award for Female Vocalist of the Year at the 2020 CMA Awards, she mentioned Spencer — alongside Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, and Rhiannon Giddens — as a pioneering Black female country artist. In response to being questioned by CMT about this moment, Spencer makes a statement-as-challenge.
“I’m still blown away by what Maren did in her acceptance speech at the CMA Awards. However, I also know that Maren’s support is not disingenuous or for show. [She has an] actual desire to want to be a part of systemic change that denies the impact of oppression in the country music industry.”
Contemplating the future, both Spencer and Carter are cautiously optimistic.
Though heartened by 2020, Spencer does note occasionally feeling discouraged and alienated by both the sociopolitical state of America-at-present in the midst of navigating her career as a country star on the rise. “‘Compassion’’s a song that covers the scope of how empathy can help us cope with a broad spectrum of human experiences and misfortunes. However, It was released at the same time that people who are potential fans of my music were stunned by the gross displays of racism and bigotry that continue to occur in the United States,” she notes bittersweetly about her December-released song.
When asked how a Black, American country star can succeed at making universal change, Carter has a smile in his voice after a reflective pause:
“This nation needs healing. Music is healing. When the music is playing, everyone can find that common thing that everyone loves, and celebrate with a high five or a hug, man!”
When similarly asked about this country, and American, moment, Spencer responded with grace:
“Ray Charles and Charley Pride set such an example. It’s humbling to think that I, and others, are tasked with keeping their legacies alive. Where I get to stand is so much bigger than just myself. They opened doors and paved the way for all of us.”