Jewly Hight: The Scene has been publishing an annual assessment of country music for quite a while now, and that has taken a new form this year. I used to vote in the old poll, and I was among the many who got to respond to this year’s survey. Personally, I find this new approach, which you are calling the Country Music Almanac, very exciting. What is the thinking behind it? Why did you think that this was the time to expand the scope and welcome in more voices, and even get a little bit prescriptive?
Stephen Trageser: There’s so much work being done, in large part by people who don’t necessarily fit the mainstream country archetype or stereotype, you know, folks who are Black or brown or from the LGBTQ community. Country music is their music too. They’ve been showing that and showing how that has been historically an important part of their identity, despite not getting all that much space or assistance from people in power the industry. So we just thought it was really important to give the mic to folks like Holly G of the Black Opry, Karen Pittelman of the Gay Ole Opry, historian, educator and journalist Amanda Marie Martinez and a bunch of other folks. You know, just because a lot of folks are talking about how to make long term, substantive change and those kinds of things only happen when people keep kind of pushing for it, and usually doing way more than they should be asked to do. And so we’re glad to just pass off the mic to some of those folks.
JH: A couple of different interviews that you published in this issue focus on coalitions and activists, some of whom you just mentioned, working at the fringes of the industry or outside it entirely. What did the interviewees have to say about the need for their work and how they go about doing it?
ST: The feeling of community is a really important source of power. It’s a lot easier to get dispirited when you’re asking people who have a lot of power and influence to do better, to make a change in this complex industry that’s made up of thousands of people, and you feel like you’re the only person. And when you see that there are more of you and more people on your side, it’s a lot easier to gain that strength and kind of push forward. Something else that was definitely standing out [in those interviews was the idea that] a lot of the work is in organizing, getting folks to go beyond just making statements, and creating actionable plans for change with some accountability measures, which is not something that necessarily comes naturally if you’re a musician.
JH: Black Opry founder Holly G also wrote a piece about the race-based double standards that have applied to combining country and hip-hop. Who did she say has been allowed to benefit from that kind of borrowing and blending? And what examples did she offer of Black performers who are exercising their artistic agency by creating their own versions of countrified rap?
ST: Over the past several years, you’ve seen white artists like Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line have huge hits with country songs that have really strong hip-hop influences. But now you are starting to see, especially in the wake of Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road,” more Black artists who are coming into that. She mentions Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown and some of their collaborations. She mentions Breland. She also talked to two artists from Texas, Hisyde and Chiyanti. What they’re able to do is come into country without watering down the hip-hop influences that are naturally part of their work. They’re able to come forward and say, “You know, this is who I am,” which is kind of helping clear a pathway for other people who want to do the same.
JH: Two other pieces in this issue look at how the story of country music is being told and taught and by whom. What are the central takeaways from those pieces?
ST: The big takeaway there is that change in one aspect of this extremely complex industry, even if it’s something very visible in terms of who’s getting some specific support to build up their fan base and become a star, just looking at one aspect is really not enough. If all you’re doing as a business is responding to which way the wind is blowing, diversity efforts are only going to hold your attention for so long, essentially until it stops being popular and profitable. There are calls for making changes that are deep and systemic, not just what you can see on the surface.
JH: The first edition of the Country Music Almanac also includes a new take on surveying critics, journalists and close observers of music about what they consider to be bright spots and blind spots. What stood out to you when you collected all those responses?
ST: There’s a lot of love out there for some rising artists, some folks who are doing things very much their way, which is something you might expect to hear from journalists. The praise sort of runs the gamut, from folks like Sierra Ferrell to Brittney Spencer and Roberta Lea, and lots of other folks making music that’s capturing a lot of good attention and getting some good traction out there. But there’s also a lot of praise to be spread around for folks who are making the industry a fairer place, and they’re mostly doing that work outside the mainstream. And then there’s also concern, echoing those calls about what is going to make those sort of changes real and permanent.