by Marcus K. Dowling
Because America is a country founded on Christian values, and two out of every five Americans practice the Protestant faith, the relationship between gospel music and all American-borne musical genres is essential. However, when considering how specifically gospel’s rhythmic, percussive, and spiritually empowering Black tradition impacts country, a musical conversation transpires that highlights not just country music but also America’s evolution.
The relationship between the African-American gospel tradition and country music is older than country music itself. For America’s first 150 years, Black slaves and sharecroppers and poor, white Northern and Central European immigrants lived and worked in the same spaces from as far north as Appalachia, south as the Mississippi River’s mouth, and west as the Rocky Mountains.
“Everyone was suffering and catching hell, equally,” says author, organizer, musician, and theologian Reverend Osagyefo Sekou regarding the trials and tribulations faced by indigent Black and white Americans in America’s early history. “White folks were displaced because of mountaintop removal and struggling against industrial unionization. Black people were working as sharecroppers. Hard times were faced equally.”
Even deeper, in the first episode of Ken Burns’ 2019-released PBS Country Music documentary, Black female roots music star Rhiannon Giddens adds, “Country music is the music of the working class, of people who don’t have a lot of power. These are the people who built this country. You don’t have America without them.”
For both poor Blacks and whites, working hard until Friday and letting loose over the weekend was followed by heading to church on Sunday for moral reckoning and religious salvation before the workweek to come.
For both races, re-establishing their culture’s religious traditions on American soil involved Southern missionaries entrenching themselves into white and Black communities via gospel tent revivals held by newly established Baptist and Pentecostal churches. Because of the proximity between these churches, preachers, choirs, hymns, and spirituals, what American trumpeter and educator Wynton Marsalis refers to as a “richness created by friction” emerged.
Black banjo players’ percussive strumming provided a rhythmic base. Melodies familiar to Northern and Central European folk ballads provided melodies. Then, in 1935, the very white Carter Family learned the very Black Negro spiritual “Can The Circle Be Unbroken.” Upon its wildly successful release as a single, the “friction” Marsalis describes yielded the fire that has brightly burned as country music for nearly a century.
For nearly a century, country music has represented the best of intensely catchy music by white artists that imitates African-American sounds while romanticizing the sonic essence of the Antebellum South’s relationship to spirituality. Unfortunately, respect borne of both races’ similar hardships did not remain a vital facet of the music.
White supremacy dovetailing with the onset of the Great Depression allowed for the moment to occur when white country and Black gospel had their initial inspirational split.
“When white people could proudly say that being poor and jobless was better than being Black, the point in American history arises where racism trumped how human decency could be showcased via musical excellence,” Sekou says.
Sekou continues to note that the benefit of the direct influence of Black-created gospel’s impact on country music is that America’s Black gospel tradition is uniquely based on achieving existential freedom while legislatively oppressed. “Poor white people [and their descendants] locked in a narrow understanding of [gospel’s inspiration] lack the Black-defined willpower to create the kind of sounds that could change established systems of power,” notes the reverend.
Intriguingly, country music’s most dynamic moments in the eras since the Great Depression have been highlighted by Black artists scaling now seemingly impossible cross-cultural odds to create impacting “sounds that have changed established systems of power.”
Ray Charles’ 1960-released double album Modern Sounds In Country and Western used Black gospel and blues chords, gospel orchestration, and the use of a preacher-to-choir call-and-response to make country covers of songs like Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” into pop hits.
Moreover, four-plus decades separate The Pointer Sisters’ “Fairytale” and Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me” as the only Black female-recorded, Grammy-nominated songs. However, one listen to both highlights the twinges of country’s Black gospel tradition — the former’s harmonic structure and the latter’s reparational message against bigotry — that remain alive, well, and impacting.
Intriguing then to consider are artists like Jackson, TN native Lathan Warlick. He’s an artist currently making waves in country music. Among his bona fides include previous work with the likes of gospel icon Kirk Franklin. His latest single is “Roots,” a hip-hop swagger-imbued duet with RaeLynn that celebrates women with strong religious values at the core of their humanity.
“I want people to know that I’m not purely a Christian artist,” Warlick says. “I’m an artist who is a Christian.” His main inspiration is humbly using his own story with God to help others realize that faith can help anyone survive steep challenges.
A century later, Warlick notes that the driven rhythm that birthed country music is still as vibrant as ever. However, he also notes that the sound now serves a reparational function too. His music’s possible goal — considering country and gospel music’s similar musicality — is audacious yet powerful.
“The most important part of my background and the way I was raised in my faith,” Warlick explains.
The young artist’s perspective of using music to “bring colors together” is important. When thinking about how America responded to the white embrace of Black gospel nearly a century prior, the idea that a Black country artist is helping to ensure that America becomes a racially unified, unbroken whole feels right.