lady a

If Country Music Wants to Reckon With Its Racism, Look Deeper Than the Bad Names

The band formerly known as Lady Antebellum. Photo: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

We’d seen the hollow statements, the black Instagram squares, and corporate press releases. We scrolled past them like the advertisements they were, the vague attempts to sell some off-brand version of liberty and justice that no one was interested in buying.

And then came Nashville trio Lady Antebellum’s unexpected statement Thursday morning, bold and explicit, crashing through the internet:

After much personal reflection, band discussion, prayer and many honest conversations with some of our closest Black friends and colleagues, we have decided to drop the word “Antebellum” from our name and move forward as Lady A, the nickname our fans gave us almost from the start. 

There is this idea — a convenient, if falsified, explanation — that country music has a complicated past. But the truth is that the history of this genre — with its roots snaking deep into rich, southern soil, then watered by the gospel, blues, and soul of Black folk — isn’t complicated at all. When recorded music began to emerge as a viable revenue generator in the 1920s, the music industry was as segregated as the country itself; the music, however, wasn’t. The earliest country stars stole their sound directly from the Black community. A.P. Carter of the Carter Family copied songs he heard in the Black churches he visited with Black guitarist Lesley Riddle, and Jimmie Rodgers learned to mimic the vocal styling and guitar picking of the Black railroad workers he served water to as a kid.

Thus set the tone for the growth of this fledgling genre, initially dubbed hillbilly music for its origins in the rolling hills of East Tennessee. White artists continued to “borrow” from their Black counterparts; all the while, country music was billed as the sound of the humble (white) Southerner — those who were neither rich nor elite, who weren’t the descendants of slave owners but who hearkened to a “simpler time” nonetheless. For those white people slung across society’s lowest rungs, a need to remember, and reinforce, supremacy over Black people wasn’t about heritage. It was, quite simply, a matter of self-preservation.

So even as racial divisions began to relax in other genres, as white artists crossed over into jazz and soul and Black artists went pop, country music fought valiantly to maintain control of something that it never really owned. It set up shop in Nashville, a town as equally beholden to its racist past as the music that would call the city home. More important, it erected walls so high, so strong, that the vast majority of Black folk could never get in.

There is always one, of course — a Charley, a Mickey, a Darius — that execs, and even fans, will point to as they attempt to skirt the deeper issues, unwittingly revealing those issues in startling clarity. Years ago, while veteran country songwriter Bobby Braddock and I were discussing O.B. McClinton, a Black country artist of the 1960s and ’70s, he explained that this has always been the Nashville way. McClinton had the misfortune, and limited success, of coming up in the same era as Charley Pride, and according to Braddock, at least one Music Row exec made McClinton’s prospects very clear: “The problem here is that this is a one-n- - - -r town,” he said, “and we already have our n- - - -r.”

Many people question whether the members of Lady A, now 14 years into their career, could have actually been unaware of the meaning and implications of the word antebellum for so long. It’s a valid ask, to be sure, for while the word refers to any prewar period, it is most often used in reference to the pre–Civil War South. Meanwhile, about those antebellum homes, one of which was used to stage the band’s first press photos: They are also commonly known as plantation homes — a term far more straightforward in its historical exposition. Despite this skepticism, I will say that, if it is anywhere possible to exist in a bubble so impervious that one can get dressed to the nines and pose, smiling, on the same grounds where Black men, women, and children were worked like animals, beaten, and tortured, it is within the confines of country music.

Racism is everywhere in this industry. It’s in the major label offices with one or no Black employees, the publisher rosters with one or no Black songwriters, the country-music festivals and shows that look like a Strom Thurmond rally, even as Darius Rucker, a Black man, sings onstage. In this industry, the air is so thick and putrid with racism, both current and residual, that everyone is awash in it, their eyes so caked with hate that they’ve been glued shut. So, yes, it is entirely plausible that, before now — before the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and the subsequent protests — no one could see a thing.

But the timing of Lady A’s revelation isn’t the most important question to ask right now. The better question — for Lady A and for all of country music — is whether this move, however provocative, is enough. And the answer is far easier to deduce: It’s not. Never mind that the A in Lady A still stands for Antebellum. Just 24 hours after the band made their statement, Rolling Stone revealed that the name Lady A was already taken, that, in the most apropos of circumstances, it’s been used by a Black blues artist for more than 20 years. “[The change is] an opportunity for them to pretend they’re not racist or pretend this means something to them,” 61-year-old Anita White told the publication. “If it did, they would’ve done some research. And I’m not happy about that. You found me on Spotify easily — why couldn’t they?”

Even if we are to give the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum credit for this gesture, one that appears to have been made in both good faith and poor execution, we must also acknowledge that it should be but the catalyst of far deeper work.

For every one Mickey Guyton or Darius Rucker wannabe, there are 100, maybe 1,000, never-wills, the people whose hearts beat to a banjo-laced track but who wouldn’t dare subject themselves to the humiliation of being Black in country music. I know this because these people are in my in-box and Twitter DMs right now, professing a love for country music out of one side of their mouths and a greater love for self out of the other. “I’m not sure this industry is even something I want to be a part of,” one songwriter wrote. “It doesn’t even deserve Black talent at this point.”

Ultimately, I know that I can’t convince that songwriter to stay, nor can I make them feel welcome in an industry that has been far too unwelcoming for far too long. My husband and I know countless Black artists, musicians, writers, and producers who made their way to Music City only to give up and leave, the idea of shucking and jiving for conditional acceptance by country music’s gatekeepers was too much to consider. And, quite frankly, it’s not my job to prove to them, or anyone else, that country music deserves their talent. That is the work that must be done by the industry itself; that is the next step after the black boxes and Black hashtags, and the band-name changes.

Labels and publishers and artists must actively and intentionally do the work on the ground to welcome Black people, one by one, into this multibillion-dollar genre that bears their own blood. They must hire more Black musicians than the handful of drummers who get passed around the town. They must sign Black writers to publishing deals and allow them an opportunity to be paid for their creative work, even if it never results in an album cut. They must recruit Black employees and create an environment that welcomes their voices and opinions, even if they reject the status quo.

Country music must extend the offers that, until now, have been mostly reserved for white musicians. This is the work that the industry as a whole, including Lady A, must now undertake.

What Would a Real Country Music Reckoning Look Like?