Alice Randall Is Spotlighting Country’s Black Roots

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Keren Trevino, Getty Images, Retailers

Alice Randall is Nashville royalty. Although she was born in Detroit and raised between the Midwest and Washington, D.C., she moved to the Music City in 1983 with an investor’s seed money to start a music-publishing company and a singular goal: to make the inherent Blackness of country music more visible to the masses.

In the four decades since, Randall has become the first Black woman to write a number-one-charting country song (“XXXs and OOOs” sung by Trisha Yearwood) and continued to nurture a successful country songwriting career. She has written six novels — including the best-selling Gone With the Wind parody The Wind Done Gone — and co-written a cookbook with her daughter, written and produced a film, and become a professor and writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University.

Of all the songs she’s written or co-written over the years, even the ones with explicitly Black narratives, every single track has been recorded by a white artist — until now. In April, Randall will release two projects with a shared title. My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music’s Black Past, Present, and Future is a memoir weaving together her personal journey to Nashville and all she went through in the country-music industry with a deep knowledge of Black country history. Come for the fantastically juicy anecdotes, from dressing up chickens on the set of a Johnny Cash music video to being snuck into Quincy Jones’s home in Los Angeles, and stay for the treasure chest of references that track Black country’s roots from Lil Harden and DeFord Bailey to contemporary talents Allison Russell and Rissi Palmer.

Along with the book, Randall will release My Black Country - The Songs of Alice Randall — 11 of her songs, all sung for the first time by Black women. “This is Black women coming together and healing an old hurt,” she says. “These women came together, not for any particular interest of their own, but to give me a magical moment. That was a long time coming. It was a personal Juneteenth. It was good news at long last.”

Speaking to the Cut with a natural storyteller’s flair, Randall shared a few more wild anecdotes, her opinion on Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter, and the music she loves most.

You wrote about your “first family” of Black Country: Eslie Riddle, DeFord Bailey, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Ray Charles, Charley Pride, and Herb Jeffries. Who would you identify as their contemporary descendants?

Beyoncé is the child of Ray Charles, because she’s coming in from another genre, deconstructing and reconstructing the genre. Lil Nas X, for example, is very important as a descendant of Herb Jeffries. In terms of Charley Pride, I would almost say Mickey Guyton, because she sings very mainstream country. Right now, I am fascinated by O.N.E The Duo, and I would put them coming down Lil Hardin’s line. DeFord Bailey, in some ways, led to Rhiannon Giddens. DeFord is this extraordinary instrumentalist. Rhiannon is many things, but she is also an extraordinary instrumentalist. Reyna Roberts interests me. There’s a person called Shy Carter who did a collaboration with Frank Ray that interests me. There’s a wonderful song called “Jesus at the Taco Truck.” I would also put Shy as a descendant of Lil Hardin.

Speaking of Beyoncé, you referenced “Daddy Lessons” as an example of Black country in the book. What do you think of the two new country singles that she’s dropped so far? Are you looking forward to the album?

I am absolutely looking forward to the album. It’s poised to be a pinnacle moment that is both a combination of all that’s come before and a launching pad to new excellences —  on her part, with the rest of the album, and in this world of Black country. “16 CARRIAGES” is a country song in conversation with many other country songs, including “16 Tons,” which is a song about work. It’s a song, I think, in conversation with my own song, “XXX’s And OOO’s,” because it considers the balance of love and money. It’s a song in conversation with “Strawberry Wine,” because it’s about the loss of innocence, but most importantly, it’s in conversation with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” It’s elegiac, and it contemplates death and cycles of continuity.

I also think that “TEXAS HOLD EM” is in that tradition of country dance tunes that are about more than what they seem to be about — from “Achy Breaky Heart,” which is about the sublime, love, and death, to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” The most important theme in “TEXAS HOLD ’EM” is that life is not a game. It’s part of that country idea that God is real; life is hard; the road, family, liquor are compensations. We see all of that in “TEXAS HOLD ’EM.” I hear a profound celebration of nature. I see the centering of transcendent joy, that joy is radical.

Beyoncé has always been proudly from Texas, and people made fun of her for her country accent earlier in her career. Did you see Black country in her even before she leaned into those roots?

I didn’t get Black dolls as a child because they didn’t really exist. My father was a follower of Malcolm X and I got a lot of Black politics as a child. So fast-forward, I’m in my 30s, and I’ve told all my friends that what I wanted for my birthday was Black dolls. I got a whole variety of them, including Beyoncé. But there was still something missing. That thing stopped missing when Ebonie Smith joined forces with Oh Boy Records and gave me this album.

I also want to acknowledge that all of those women helped pave a way for Beyoncé. But Beyoncé, by blasting to the top of the charts to take that No. 1 space, resolved an ongoing wound, an injury to Black women’s representation in American rural spaces that had been existing since the day I was born.

It feels like country music, especially Black country music, is in the Zeitgeist in a way that it hasn’t been before. How does that feel for you? 

I’m thrilled. I feel that I can retire now. Literally, one of the goals I had when I came here was to see a Black woman performer at the top of the charts. Ray Charles has been in the number-one spot with “Seven Spanish Angels,” Charley Pride has been up there so many times — I did not want to retire from the world of country music before I saw that. I’m also thrilled by this new generation, what I consider to be a 21st-century renaissance. It’s wild that Beyoncé called her album Renaissance; I talk about a renaissance, and my book was turned in a year ago, so that was already in there. I was perceiving a renaissance swirling around Rissi Palmer and Allison Russell and SistaStrings, and a lot of Black women, country and country-adjacent writers who are living in East Nashville and part of a community. So I am thrilled to support all of the artists I can.

In Beyoncé, I have always heard the Texas: The radical independence, the connection with nature, the connection with guns, the connection with self reliance of the embodied cowboy. We know that 20 to 30 percent of all cowboys were Black and brown. I have long heard that in all of Beyoncé’s work.

Your Black Country album is such a beautiful act of reclamation. How did it feel to record those songs with Black artists, and what are your hopes for the album as it comes out into the world?

I’ve been writing songs since I was a little girl in Motown. But I had lived my whole career, it seemed, without ever having one of those songs recorded by anyone who looked like me, sounded like me, had their life more intimately intersected with my own. Something that white boys in country music get all the time, I had never had that happen.

After the first time I heard Adia Victoria singing “Went for a Ride” in the studio, I had to change the whole opening of my book. I started to cry in the studio and realized the book had to end with this moment. Aside from being a mother, this is my greatest triumph. It means so much to me. But it means more because I am also a person who is concerned with Black history, because it makes visible my erased Black characters. I was thrilled when I got a cut of Holly Dunn. I was thrilled when I got a cut of Judy Rodman, really thrilled when I got the great Glen Campbell; “Galveston” was one of my favorite antiwar songs of all time. I loved all of that. But this erasure — I was talking about a Black cowboy. I was talking about a Black person worried about who’s minding the garden, and Black eco grief. When Glen Campbell sings it, that gets erased.

Reading the book, it really struck me how even when your lyrics were explicitly Black, they were reinterpreted to mean what white listeners wanted them to mean. Even now, the mainstream-country landscape is still very white. How have you seen that dynamic, that desire to only hear whiteness in country, play out as the inherent Blackness of country music becomes harder to ignore?

It’s still playing out. I think it’s extremely important for it to play out. One of the reasons I got into country in the first place was not to preach to the converted. I think that people who think they’d benefit not at all from Black culture, but love Lefty Frizzell, will find it very interesting to discover that Lefty Frizzell was influenced by Black culture directly. My definition of country is Celtic, English, Irish, and Scottish ballad forms, plus African influences and aesthetics and people, plus Evangelical Christianity. Without the Black influences, country would just be folk music. Most country listeners don’t know that. They don’t even understand that some of the ideology around sacred place comes from — Africa is a large continent with many countries and religious traditions, but many of them have evolved beliefs about sacredness of place and sacred nature. That appears in country, and that’s an African idea, the way it’s appearing in country. What’s interesting is that the trap beats and things that have come into country, in a lot of bro country in recent times, have attempted to appropriate Blackness without acknowledging Blackness as the root. This time we’re getting back to the root. I expect to hear some far better music.

The South has always been the Blackest part of the U.S. — so of course, the music that comes from the South is going to be the Blackest music, but somehow that connection has not been made by a lot of people.

It’s time. When I moved to Nashville in 1983, Vince Gill summed up this widely held conception that was true at the time: It was a young man’s town. He had a wonderful song called “Young Man’s Town.” “Sometimes you gotta stand back / And watch ’em burn it to the ground / Even though you built it.” I am proclaiming this new era, at the end of the book, that the album rings in loud: Nashville is, in this moment, a wild woman’s town. I am thrilled that some of the wildest, the most brilliant, the most authentic, the most original women working in it showed up to be some kind of posse of Black genius, riding to the rescue of my legacy.

What are some of your favorite country songs that are out right now?

Oh my goodness. Well, if I had to be terrible, I would name ten and it would be the songs on my album. I have to say, I love those songs. And I love the way they are sung by these women.

I’ve already told you I love “Daddy Lessons.” There’s a Brittney Spencer song from 2019 called “Sober & Skinny” that I think is really interesting. I also really love her song “Bigger Than the Song.” I think that’s an interesting one because it connects to so many different music traditions. I named a song that I thought was really wild, “Jesus at the Taco Truck,” Shy Carter and Frank Ray. Let’s see … O.N.E The Duo, I like “HoeDown” — it’s an interesting, wild song. But right now, there’s no question — the songs that mean the most to me are the ten on that album, and if I added just one, it would be that Shy Carter and Frank Ray duet, because we don’t have enough celebration of the brown, Hispanic impacts on country.

Where do you get your best culture recommendations from?

My friends are very curious and very adventuresome, and they consume a lot of art and politics every day. I’m hearing from all kinds of different people. I also consider myself to be an expert Googler. I subscribe to lots of newspapers. I subscribe to magazines. I am not on TikTok. I do look at Instagram, but that’s not where I’m getting my news. It is this wonderful friend web. We’re not a silo, we love to argue. I feel I represent my own opinions very well. I want to talk to people that have different opinions than me. We have a common cause of love and equity, that we want the world to be as good a place as it can be for as many as it can be. And we do not believe that we’re there yet. But we have many different ideas about where the problems lie and how to fix them.

Which five celebrities, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party?

Zora Neale Hurston, Emily Dickinson, Aretha Franklin. Aretha Franklin would love to be here for this entire moment. Alexander Pushkin, the Afro-Russian poet. I love Pushkin. And just to put him in conversation with Emily and Pushkin, Tupac. That’s my list.

What is the last meal you cooked for dinner?

Last night, I made a salad with chicken and spinach. I had a lot of cumin on top of that, and I added that to romaine lettuce, English cucumber. I had a particularly good red pepper that I sautéed. The romaine hearts, cucumber, and avocado were the green part. And then in the pan was the chicken, spinach, red pepper, and a little bit of cheese. I didn’t even make a salad dressing; I just sprinkled olive oil over it and tossed it with a little red-wine vinegar.

Do you have a ritual when you’re sitting down to write music?

Water seems to help me with coming up with the seeds and the skeleton of songs, so it often happens to me in the shower or washing dishes at the sink. A lot of my song beginnings come to me when I’m literally naked and in the shower. I think it has something to do with songs being an elemental art form. You sing to your children. You sing at death. Many people, including me, sing in the shower. I think it is that the water is coming down, and it’s the way you speak your joy back into the universe, speak your sorrows. It’s a way we transform. Songwriting is a profession, but it’s also an elemental creativity. Children make up little songs. Parents make up little songs. It’s elemental. I like to get as close to that elemental human communication as possible. So my ritual is: Get naked and say what you’re really feeling and thinking. And then get dressed and show up at someone’s writers room who has a very disciplined approach and figure out how you can translate what you’re thinking and feeling into something that connects with millions of people.

What’s a book that you couldn’t put down?

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a very important book to me. Coming Through Slaughter by ​​Michael Ondaatje is a very important book to me. In my early days, Wuthering Heights was very important to me. I love the writers Jesmyn Ward and Randall Kenan. Allison Russell and Rhiannon Giddens have memoirs coming out, and you know I will be teaching them when they come out. I cannot wait to read what those women have to say about their lives.

What is the best and worst advice you’ve ever received?

The best and worst advice I’ve ever received is the same piece of advice: “You should go back to exactly where you came from.” That was the worst advice I ever received. And it was the best, because it was so disgusting it provoked me to immediately decide that I was moving to Nashville and going to prove that person wrong.

What would your last meal be?

It would involve smoked salmon, artichoke, caviar, Château d’Yquem, and a little bit of Champagne. That would be it. Maybe a marron glacé for dessert.

What is the worst thing to do at a dinner party?

Get belligerently drunk and throw up. You can get belligerent if you don’t throw up. You can throw up if you don’t get belligerent. But the worst thing to do, and I have never done it, but I’ve seen it — is get belligerently drunk and throw up.

What is the one song or album that you would recommend for someone who needs a little convincing in terms of getting into country music?

Listen to Our Native Daughters’ album. Listen to that. It’s put out on Smithsonian; Alison Russell, Leyla McCalla, and Rhiannon Giddens are all on it, and it really touches a lot of the roots in a way that allows people to see the brilliance of both the past and the present.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Herb Jeffries was an actor and musician with a signature baritone voice. He starred in Black westerns like Harlem on the Prairie and The Bronze Buckaroo. Charley Pride was a Grammy and CMA Award–winning singer and guitarist whose career reached monumental heights in the 1970s, 30 of his singles went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. He’s one of only three Black members of the Grand Ole Opry. Mickey Guyton is a Texan country singer who was the first Black woman to be nominated for a Best Country Solo Performance Grammy in 2020, and the first Black female artist to perform at the Academy of Country Music Awards. O.N.E The Duo are a mother-daughter country duo — Wu-Tang Clan vocalist Tekitha Supreme and her daughter, Prana Supreme Diggs. Lil Hardin Armstrong was a jazz musician known as “Hot Miss Lil” in the 1920s. She was also married to Louis Armstrong. DeFord Bailey is widely considered the first Black country music star, and was the first Black performer at the Grand Ole Opry. He was also the first performer to officially record music in Nashville. Rhiannon Giddens is a founding member of the Grammy-winning band Carolina Chocolate Drops and co-writer of the Pulitzer Prize–winning opera Omar. She also plays the banjo on Beyoncé’s “TEXAS HOLD ’EM.” Reyna Roberts is a country musician best known for her 2020 single, “Stompin’ Grounds.” Lefty Frizzell was a prominent country singer in the mid-20th century, whose vocal stylings influenced Willie Nelson.
Alice Randall Is Spotlighting Country’s Black Roots