Nine Country Artists of Color to Check Out in the Wake of "Cowboy Carter"

Nine Country Artists of Color to Check Out in the Wake of "Cowboy Carter" credit: Ebru Yildiz

By Hannah Schwartz

Apr. 17, 2024

When you think of the prototypical country music artist, a particular image probably comes into your mind - a Southern man, maybe with a beard, wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans. Also, he's most likely white. The face of the country music industry has been dominated by this stereotype for a long time, but as Beyoncé's new album Cowboy Carter emphasizes, country's roots lie with people of color, and the Black community in particular.

Queen Bey spotlights many Black country artists on the album and makes a point of telling the story of a rich history that has been often ignored and denied by mainstream country. American country music draws from Mexican and Indigenous origins as well, but the multicultural roots of the genre are frequently overlooked. In light of the message sent by Cowboy Carter, here is a list of musicians of color who are asserting their rightful share in country's heritage.

Mickey Guyton
Candace Mycale "Mickey" Guyton's first hit was "Better Than You Left Me" in 2015, a classic country-pop ballad about moving on from an ex. Despite facing intense struggles finding her place in the country scene and being told to stick to traditional country songs about lighthearted topics, Guyton has stuck firmly to her beliefs with songs like "Black Like Me (Our Voices)," which faced racism head-on and gained traction during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Crediting artists from Dolly Parton to Whitney Houston as inspiration, Guyton's powerful, passionate voice has earned its place on country charts.

Carin León
The Hermosillo-born artist mainly performs música mexicana, but has recently broken into the country world via a collaboration with Kane Brown, "The One (Pero No Como Yo)". One of his most popular songs, "Primera Cita," is steeped in Memphis-style country. In February, León performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, one of the most famous country venues in the world, describing it as a "dream come true." His soulful voice and vibrant guitar make him a natural addition to this list.

Rhiannon Giddens
A former member of the string band revival troupe The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens has long been pushing the envelope of country with her multifaceted folk tunes and warm, expressive voice. In 2015, she began releasing solo albums, which include both covers like her stirring rendition of Dolly Parton's "Don't Let it Trouble Your Mind" and inspired originals such as the spirited breakup anthem "Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad" and "Yet to Be," which features Jason Isbell in a duet that tells the love story of a Black woman and an Irish man.

Vincent Neil Emerson
The Texan native's deep, mournful voice and thick twang certainly fit the bill for a quintessential country artist. As an Indigenous musician and a member of the Choctaw-Apache tribe of Ebarb, Louisiana, Emerson is committed to honoring and calling attention to his heritage. In his song "Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache", he spins a timeless country format to recount the story of his tribe and their displacement to build the Toledo Bend Reservoir. Emerson has also contributed music to the television program "Reservation Dogs", which follows Native American teenagers growing up on a reservation. On his latest album The Golden Crystal Kingdom, Emerson sings about his ancestry and the destruction wreaked by settlers in "Little Wolf's Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint", and produces a scorching criticism of gun violence and American politics in "The Man from Uvalde."

Raúl Malo
Born in Miami to parents who fled the Castro regime in Cuba, Malo and his band The Mavericks, which split in 2004 but reformed in 2012, mix rock influences and Latin stylings with country, writing songs in both English and Spanish. In fact, in 2021 the group released their first album entirely in Spanish. In the band's cover of "Here Comes My Baby", Malo's deep voice tells a downright country story of unrequited love over lively trumpets and percussion in a style that evokes Tejano music. Malo told Americana Highways in a 2019 interview about his memories of hearing Freddy Fender's song "Before the Last Teardrop Falls" on the radio as a child and being "really proud that there was a Latin-American man singing a #1 song." Malo's seamless blend of inspirations from across the Americas has made him a country staple who continues to innovate.

The War and Treaty
This husband-and-wife Americana duo from Michigan create a brand of country soul that draws on vintage styles of gospel and blues. Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter sing with a passion and joy that can't help but transfer to the listener. Their collaboration with Brothers Osborne, a cover of "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll (But I Like It)" is swinging country-rock, and "Hustlin'" showcases the smooth blend of the pair's rich pipes over haunting guitar. In an interview with NPR, The War and Treaty cite the influence of Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, and Ashford & Simpson among others, and discuss the way their relationship comes through in their own music. Their connection is indeed clear - their harmonies twine effortlessly around one another, and the couple produces both sensual grooves like "The Best That I Have" and upbeat tunes like "Five More Minutes".

Kane Brown
Kane Brown, Carin León's collaborator, describes himself as "R&B with a touch of twang" in his song "Fiddle in the Band", where he enumerates his myriad of musical influences. He first garnered attention in 2014 when his covers of country artists including Alan Jackson and George Strait went viral. His smooth, laidback baritone and self-aware lyricism shines in love ballads and poppy party tunes alike, and the wide range of artists he teams up with - from blackbear to H.E.R. to Becky G. - exemplifies his open-minded approach to modern country.

Rissi Palmer
From the moment her career began, Rissi Palmer has been breaking barriers. With her 2007 single "Country Girl", she reached number 54 on the Billboard Country Charts, making her the first Black woman on the country charts in 30 years. Since then, she's released three albums and several EPs, and in 2020 she hosted the Apple Music radio show Color Me Country, where she spotlighted the history of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous musicians in country. While her earlier music is more traditional and lighthearted, Palmer's later work infuses her own unique flavor of soul and R&B and tackles topics of social justice and personal struggles.

Reyna Roberts
A songwriter since high school, Roberts is quickly on the rise, as evidenced by her inclusion on Beyoncé's Beatles cover "BLACKBIIRD." The Alaska-born artist released her first album, Bad Girl Bible, Vol. 1, in 2023, and her wide variety of influences is clear in each song. The party anthem "Country Club" combines trap beats with outlaw swagger, and "Louisiana" is a foot-stomping tale of rebellion. On "Death of Me," Roberts' classical inspirations jump out as she switches to piano to belt out an earnest love song, complete with soaring violins. Her fearless persona and forceful voice are infectious and lots of fun.

Country is one of the truly American music genres, and as such it has roots in many communities and backgrounds. The musicians listed here come from many different walks of life, but they are all working to stay true to their unique sounds and influences while participating in a rich musical history that stretches back generations.