The first striking thing on "Baby Come Back to Me," the opening song on Experiment, Kane Brown's second album, is his honeyed, low voice. His vowels are slightly drawled, and his tone is rich with a heavy bottom, buoy-shaped, like a more flexible Randy Travis. Behind him, a boot-stomp beat and a throbbing guitar anchor the song firmly to the honky-tonk.
Jimmie Allen opens his debut album, Mercury Lane, with "American Heartbreaker," a familiar kind of country ode. "If you were a song you'd be an anthem/'Sweet Home Alabama,'" Allen sweetly sings, then flirts by playing rural mad-libs: freedom, slide guitar, muscle car. The object of his affection is "red, white and beautiful."
So much of the anxiety in Nashville, Tenn., in recent years has been about the tension between belonging and exclusion, in terms of who the genre advances and promotes (white men, mainly) and what sounds can and should be at its forefront (production that rejects the flickers of hip-hop and electronic dance music that have lately been creeping in).
In this context, especially, Experiment (Zone 4/RCA) and Mercury Lane (Stoney Creek/BBR) should come as sort of a relief to the establishment: Here are two of the year's stronger country albums, and also two of the more stylistically conservative. Experiment debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart, and Allen's lead single, "Best Shot," reached No. 1 on the Billboard country airplay chart, a triumphant conclusion to an almost yearlong climb.
By those metrics, it is a robust time for performers who are loyal to the genre's roots and tropes, fluent in its history and proudly advancing it without too much disruption.
What complicates and deepens that narrative is that Brown and Allen are black. Their success flies in the face of a genre that has often been ruthlessly closed-minded about who can lay claim to the rural experience, at least when it comes to songs about it.
Brown has been on the rise for the last three years -- his 2016 self-titled debut album marked him as one of the more serious young singers working. He had two breakthrough hits last year, "Heaven" and "What Ifs." But at the recent Country Music Association Awards, even as Experiment was heading to No. 1, Brown was not offered a performance slot. That slight was made all the more obvious by the fact that Brown also was a presenter the following night at the Latin Grammys, an awards show for music he doesn't perform in a language that he only slightly speaks -- a signifier of his broad appeal.
For the last decade, country music has had one very high-profile black star: Darius Rucker, a Grand Ole Opry member with a regular chart presence. He had a bit of a head start thanks to his prior life in the 1990s band Hootie & the Blowfish. Still, Rucker has carved out a distinct place in Nashville.
There is a long and not-always-illuminated history of black performers in country, dating back to DeFord Bailey in the 1920s and 1930s. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, Charley Pride was one of the marquee names, notable for his gentle love songs. In the mid 2000s, country rapper Cowboy Troy experienced a brief embrace.
The secret histories of less-heralded performers are in two excellent collections, the boxed set From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music and the anthology Dirty Laundry: The Soul of Black Country. The essay collection Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music details ways in which black contributions were key to early country, but largely behind the scenes, and also how the genre conceptualized itself as white, and then set out to maintain that image.
Coming out of country's tepid gentleman era, full of edgeless men with thin voices singing about romantic fealty, Brown was a refreshing alternative: His voice is lustrous, if not especially powerful, and his reference points are often historically minded. One of the standout songs on Experiment is "Short Skirt Weather," a cheeky two-step that's reminiscent of early Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw. Mainly, Experiment is filled with straight-ahead songs about love and, sometimes, betrayal. He deploys his booming voice as a weapon, especially on the outstanding "Homesick," where he pivots quickly from burly to lovelorn and back.
Brown's skepticism, such as it is, comes through in small but meaningful ways. "American Bad Dream" speaks out about pervasive gun violence and about devious cops (only in so much as they make the jobs of good cops harder). He also flirts with arrangements that suggest a hip-hop awareness, and occasionally opts for a more rhythmic cadence, like on the single "Lose It."
Allen has a sweeter, more neutral tone. The woman he sings about is a "small-town everyday girl I see with her hair pulled back." He sings a toast to "the tip-jar dreamers" and "the barely-made-the-teamers." Two songs mention "Jack & Diane." His impressive cover of Keith Urban's "Boy Gets a Truck" links driving a pickup to finding love, getting married and raising a family.
If Allen is fighting for anything here, it's for the right to be that conventional. His arrangements are largely optimistic, rock-inflected country. He is most effective as a romanticist: The love songs are stronger than the rural-pride anthems, especially "Best Shot," with its choked-up weeping-guitar pattern, and the crisply written and tenderly sung "How to Be Single."
Allen and Brown's conservative streak can be read as an unencumbered reflection of their musical impulses, or as the path of least resistance to acceptance in a genre that has long been intolerant. Perhaps both. They have effectively made the case that country music need not be -- and isn't -- as white as it long has been.
Style on 12/04/2018
Print Headline: Longtime white man's territory seeing shades of color