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Author Francesca Royster on her new book, "Black Country Music"

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Author Francesca Royster was constantly surrounded by country music growing up in Nashville. But as a Black queer woman, she struggled to connect.

FRANCESCA ROYSTER: I never really knew my place in it or heard my own story or my own voice in the sound.

SUMMERS: Until her daughter started listening to Lil Nas X.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) I'm going to take my horse to the old town road. I'm going to ride till I can't no more.

ROYSTER: Hearing her and her friends listen to this music over and over again, I thought, well, that has a lot of country elements to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Riding on a horse.

ROYSTER: This is a song where I hear the spirit of Black resistance and creativity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Can't nobody tell me nothing.

ROYSTER: And also, a kind of sense of humor about country. It just got me digging into the future of the genre, where some of the limits and gatekeepers are less important.

SUMMERS: And that's exactly what she does in her new book, "Black Country Music: Listening For Revolutions." In it, Royster explores the way in which listening to country music can be loaded for Black people, a discomfort she compares to coming out.

ROYSTER: In my own neighborhood, there's a country music bar. And I've only gone a few times just because of the perception of being not welcome or being an intruder. And sometimes that feeling of moving in spaces that feel very protected and patrolled is what coming out feels like to me, you know, as a queer woman too. That looking-over-your-shoulder feeling is something that - it's not an accident. I think it is part of the ways that country sometimes operates in our culture to cement an idea of a certain kind of whiteness that, you know, those of us who might not fit those identities are meant to feel outside.

SUMMERS: And she says that outsider status even applied to Black performers like country music star Charley Pride. He would sometimes open his shows with jokey disclaimers to a room of largely white faces.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLEY PRIDE: I said, ladies and gentlemen, I realize it's kind of unique, me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan.

ROYSTER: And he would use humor, the humor of kind of having this impressive tan as a way to get people laughing and then kind of move on from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME")

PRIDE: (Singing) They say that time will heal all wounds in mice and men.

ROYSTER: I think actually it was a very savvy way to pay attention and just kind of name the elephant in the room of his Blackness and then move on.

SUMMERS: I'd like to turn to another artist that you write about. And I have to confess, I was not too familiar with Tina Turner's first solo album, "Tina Turns The Country On," that came out back in 1974.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAYOU SONG")

TINA TURNER: (Singing) Working for the man as hard as I can. Trying to make a living in this bayou land.

SUMMERS: Put us in place. Where was this album situated in Tina Turner's incredible career?

ROYSTER: So Tina Turner made this album at a point when she had already reached an incredible amount of notoriety as part of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. It's a cover album, and she makes it when she is on the verge of separating from Ike Turner. And I can't help but think that these songs are shaped by where her life was and just this experience of having survived this tumultuous marriage that also included incredible artistic control over the kinds of music that she could cover.

SUMMERS: Is there an example of a song that speaks to that?

ROYSTER: I really love her cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT")

TURNER: (Singing) I don't care if it's right or wrong.

ROYSTER: You know, the lyrics are also a seduction in a way. But I think underlying it is this incredible feeling of loneliness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT")

TURNER: (Singing) Let the devil take tomorrow 'cause tonight I need a man.

ROYSTER: And so when I was listening, I was listening to Tina's voice, which feels to me her own take on Kris Kristofferson's vulnerability, but, you know, given a Black woman's kind of framework of experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT")

TURNER: (Singing) I don't want to be alone.

ROYSTER: So to me, it's such a strong song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT")

TURNER: (Singing) Help me make it through the night.

ROYSTER: And one where you really see the drama and the intimacy that country music can offer.

SUMMERS: Francesca, culture and music both can evolve quickly, and it's a space that is full of innovation and reinvention. When you think of the future of Black country music, what do you think it might look like and sound like?

ROYSTER: Well, I think what is so absolutely awesome is the ways that some of the Black country artists are opening up hybrids of sound and storytelling that wasn't there before. So I'm thinking about Valerie June...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY TO LOVE")

VALERIE JUNE: (Singing) Well, if you're tired and feel so lonely...

ROYSTER: ...Who isn't exclusively a country music artist...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY TO LOVE")

JUNE: (Singing) Thinking that only if you had somebody...

ROYSTER: ...But who's definitely drawing a lot on her own country roots and interesting country music traditions in the kind of new music that she's making. And I'm thinking of some subcultural folks like Kamara Thomas or DeLila Black, and they're also like bringing together country with protest music, country with punk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE SO COMMON")

DELILA BLACK: (Singing) You're so common. Don't let those demons push you around.

ROYSTER: I feel like this kind of, like, experimental work with country music sound and storytelling is going to influence the genre as a whole, even when it's not happening necessarily on the main stages of country music like the Grand Ole Opry.

SUMMERS: Earlier, you talked about how there is a bar in your neighborhood that plays country music. And you don't often go. And you talked about that discomfort for many Black people, including yourself, of being in these largely white spaces where country music is front and center. And I guess I wonder if, over time, do you think that there are more spaces that are evolving for Black country fans like yourself to feel safe?

ROYSTER: I think that they are evolving. Maybe the next thing I should do after this is to open my own country music bar. But I think that part of what's changing is the ways that artists are banding together to organize and perform collaboratively. And I think when the performers are also finding safety in numbers, I think that that's also something that might change the future for listeners as well.

SUMMERS: And just to be very clear here, if you open that Black country bar, you've got to invite all of us.

ROYSTER: Absolutely. Yes, definitely. Definitely.

SUMMERS: Francesca Royster is the author of "Black Country Music: Listening For Revolutions." It's out now. Thank you so much.

ROYSTER: Thank you, Juana. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.