Country music has long been dominated by white men, but over the past few years, things have been changing for the better, as more women and people of color have been breaking out and reaching toward the top of the charts. While names like Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen are certainly the future of the genre, plenty of African American musicians have been creating excellent country songs and albums for decades, and some have found true critical and commercial success by doing so.
Here are 10 of the most successful African American musicians in country history.
Charley Pride isn’t just one of the most successful African American musicians in country, he’s one of the most successful musicians period. Throughout his decades-long career, the talented songwriter and performer charted an unbelievable 52 tracks on the Hot Country Songs chart. Of that sum, more than half (29) of those tunes went to No. 1. The trailblazer still claims the sixth-most chart-topping singles on that list, and his contributions to the genre will never be forgotten.
After making his mark on the music industry as the frontman and vocalist for rock band Hootie and the Blowfish and attempting a solo career that ventured into R&B, Darius Rucker tried his hand at country, and while his songs weren’t immediately smashes, he did make history and eventually became one of the most successful African American country musician.
Rucker has now released five proper country albums, and all of them have peaked inside the top 10 on the Billboard 200, with all but one topping the genre-specific Country Albums tally. The musician has now sent 18 singles onto the Hot Country Songs chart, with half a dozen of them rising all the way to No. 1. Rucker even won the Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance for his song “Wagon Wheel.”
Superstar Kane Brown, who identifies as biracial, isn’t just successful in the country field these days. In fact, he’s become one of the most exciting names in the music industry to watch, and he now has the chart numbers to prove he’s not all hype. The musician has already collected a trio of top 10 albums on the Billboard 200, including a recent chart-topper, Experiment, which made it to No. 1 just last year. 22 of his songs have reached the Hot Country Songs tally, and a pair of them have ruled the tally for at least one week.
Throughout his lifetime, Ray Charles wrote and recorded music in countless genres, as a man as brilliant as he was could not be restrained by just one style. While country was certainly not what he was best-known for, he achieved more in that one field than some who work their entire careers making just one kind of tunes. Charles charted a dozen titles on the Hot Country Songs list, including a joint No. 1 with Willie Nelson, “Seven Spanish Angels.”
Lil Nas X
While Billboard may not call him country, Lil Nas X will undoubtedly be remembered as a genre-bending musician who pushed the twang-heavy sector of the music industry closer to hip-hop than it’s ever been. The newcomer rose all the way to No. 1 on the Hot 100 with his first single “Old Town Road,” which became an international sensation in 2019. The song initially charted on the Hot Country Songs ranking as well, but was removed by the magazine after it was deemed “not country enough.” A remix of the tune featuring genre favorite Billy Ray Cyrus won over many country fans, though it wasn’t enough to put it back on that chart.
She is, of course, remembered more for her rock, R&B, and pop hits, but few people realize that Tina Turner got her start (as a solo artist, at least) in country music. Turner’s first solo album was a unique mix of country and R&B called Tina Turns the Country On! The collection saw the singer covering songs penned by the likes of James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and even Dolly Parton, and while it wasn’t a commercial success, it’s an important part of her legacy.
Newcomer Jimmie Allen has only just started what could be a long and prosperous career in the country music world, but already things are going well. His debut album Mercury Lane barely missed reaching the top 10 on the Top Country Albums chart, but its lead single “Best Shot” did make it to No. 5 on the Hot Country Songs ranking and it became one of the most-played songs on country radio in 2018.
The Pointer Sisters
Like Tina Turner, The Pointer Sisters aren’t remembered for being country favorites, but they did find some level of success in that world before properly pivoting to the R&B, dance, and pop that made them true icons. The group only landed one top 40 hit on the Hot Country Songs chart, 1974’s “Fairytale,” but they did end up taking home the Grammy (their first) for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for the tune, so clearly the industry was paying attention and respecting their art.
Throughout his career, Aaron Neville released albums that fit squarely under many different labels: Christian, gospel, jazz, soul, R&B, and yes, even country. Only two of his singles, 1993’s “The Grand Tour” and 1994’s “I Fall to Pieces” with country favorite Trisha Yearwood, would make it to the Hot Country Songs tally, but his impact stretches beyond those numbers.
Mickey Guyton is a name you should know in advance of her becoming a breakout star, though that hasn’t happened just yet. She has released a handful of EPs and several singles, and while a few of them have ranked on country-only Billboard charts, none of them have become true smashes. With her talent and songwriting credibility, chances are she has a bright future ahead of her, and it’s only a matter of time before she earns the praise and fame she deserves.
Photo Credit: Tina Turner