Since its emergence in the early 20th century, traditional country music has been predominantly white — both as performers and the listening audience’s demographic.
But in recent years, that stereotype has long been gone as African-American artists broke through the country music mainstream to make names for themselves. Some helped establish the genre, while others took previous sounds and traditions and fit them into a new, blended mold that better suited their culture.
Keep reading to learn more as we take a look at 11 of the most famous black country singers you may know, as well as others with whom you may not be familiar yet.
1. Darius Rucker
Today, Darius Rucker is recognized as a solo artist in his own right. But his iconic gruff baritone first came to the public’s attention while he was the frontman for ’90s rock band Hootie And The Blowfish.
Born and raised in South Carolina, music was a huge part of Rucker’s family. The family attended church every Sunday, where Rucker heard the influence of religious music, and his father was in a gospel band called The Traveling Echoes.
Rucker found the bulk of his professional success with Hootie And The Blowfish after their formation at the University of South Carolina in 1986, going on to top pop music charts throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. He struck out on a solo career in 2001 with his debut album, The Return Of Mongo Slade.
In 2008, Rucker launched his foray into country music with Capitol Records Nashville and became the second-ever Black artist to top Billboard’s Hot Country Songs list after Charley Pride.
The Country Music Association titled him a New Artist Award one year later, making him the second black musician ever to receive that honor.
With vocals heavy and thick as Southern molasses and a stage presence to break barriers, it’s no question that Rucker will remain in the country spotlight for many years to come.
2. Rhiannon Giddens
Americana powerhouse Rhiannon Giddens burst onto the spotlight in the early 2000s with her country, blues, and folk band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Since her emergence into the public eye, she has collaborated with dozens of prominent artists and woven her talent into multiple genres.
Giddens makes it her mission to bring to life the lost sounds of past slave cultures, as well as African-American traditions in Appalachia and the South. She is the recipient of several Grammy Awards and a MacArthur Fellowship, which join her impressive list of other honors both in and out of the country genre music.
Her voice is a full-bodied mezzo, with the classic trills and tight vibrato of the Appalachian singing style. Aside from singing, Giddens also plays fiddle and banjo and arranges much of the music she performs.
In 2019, NPR featured Giddins in one of their Tiny Desk Concerts. Most recently, Giddens’ voice made the leap from the musical stage to TV, providing the soundtrack for shows including “Nashville” and “Parenthood.”
3. Charley Pride
Within country music, Charley Pride is the most successful black country musician to date. After Elvis Presley, Pride is the second best-selling artist at RCA Records.
One of the most interesting aspects of his musical success is that it is actually his second career.
Pride was first a professional baseball player in the Negro American League, Memphis Red Sox, Boise Yankees, and various other baseball teams throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Born in Mississippi into a family of sharecroppers, Pride was the fourth of eleven children. His adult life as an athlete and musician took him to Memphis, New York, Montana, and Texas, and he became a minor celebrity in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and won three Grammy Awards before his death. In 1971, he was also named the Country Music Entertainer of the Year!
4. Kane Brown
Though still relatively new on the scenery, Kane Brown is making waves in country music with chart-toppers like “Heaven” and “One Mississippi.”
Brown’s rich, low baritone voice is reminiscent of American country singer Randy Travis. He performs in a modern pop-country style, writing much of his own material. He delights fans with his soulful singing as well as his quirky personality, sharing fun trivia facts in interviews.
He currently tours around the US, having appeared with other well-known country artists like Lauren Alaina, who also coincidentally grew up in his same hometown.
5. Ray Charles
Though most people think of Ray Charles as an R&B and soul legend, he did more for country music than they might realize.
According to Willie Nelson, Charles was more effective in boosting the genre with his album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music than any other figure!
Growing up in Georgia — about which he would later write one of his most famous songs — Charles was no stranger to Southern music traditions. He wove country music elements into his music throughout his career, even on the albums that weren’t explicitly released into the genre of country.
Tunes like “Seven Spanish Angels” and collaborations with Willie Nelson and Travis Tritt intertwined Charles into country music even as he made the most impact in R&B.
In the 1960s, Charles produced the Modern Sounds albums but continued his influence in country music in the 1980s with the release of Friendship.
6. Mickey Guyton
Though not a newcomer to the country music scene, Mickey Guyton entered the national spotlight in February 2022 when she sang the National Anthem at the SuperBowl LVI. She had been actively working in Los Angeles and Nashville for nearly a decade prior.
Guyton holds the honor of being the first African-American to ever perform at the American Country Music Awards. She is also the only black artist to garner a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album.
Originally from Texas, Guyton’s music incorporates R&B, gospel, and pop elements into a country style. She often sings about her experience as a black woman, and specifically how that manifests within the country music industry.
7. Lesley Riddle
Part historical influence, Lesley Riddle had an enormous impact on the beginnings of country music. The North Carolina native took up guitar in the 1920s after a work injury left him with an amputated leg in the 1920s.
He made round as a singer around Appalachia, sharing his musical talent with the lyrical knowledge of AP Carter. Together, the two would provide a framework for codifying the sounds of the region and directing the development of the folk-country genre.
Riddle retired from music in the 1940s but took it up again in the 1960s at the encouragement of folk musician Mike Seeger. Riddle appeared at folk festivals and contributed to a series of studio albums during this time, though he never rose to the level of prominence of other country artists.
Riddle’s friendship and musical influence on what would later be the Carter Family Band meant that the strains of country and folk tunes he helped collect would enter the mainstream.
8. Cowboy Troy
Born Troy Lee Coleman III, the performer who goes by the stage name Cowboy Troy has made his mark on the subgenre of country rap. He playfully refers to this genre as “hick-hop”.
He first became popular with his 2005 song, “I Play Chicken With The Train,” and since then, he has had two other singles reaching the Billboard charts.
The Dallas-born performer enjoyed his first bit of fame with a rap breakdown in the middle of Big & Rich’s 2004 hit “Rollin’ (The Ballad of Big & Rich).” Troy has collaborated with Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich often, both of whom are also members of the MuzikMafia country music aggregate.
Though he put out seven studio albums and one EP, he does not currently tour, nor does he seem to be active in the music industry as of the past few years.
9. Cleve Francis
A cardiologist first, Cleveland Francis left his career in the medical field to become a country musician. He was active in entertainment for less than fifteen years before returning to work as a cardiologist again.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Francis recorded five studio albums, and his songs made the Billboard charts four times. He became semi-famous in country music with his hits “Love Light,” “You Do My Heart Good,” “Walkin’,” and “How Can I Hold You.”
Francis’s website draws attention to his interesting dual career, referring to him by various titles, including “Songwriter” and “Physician.”
He still occasionally performs pandemic with his band, though many shows were canceled or rescheduled due to the COVID-19.
10. Trini Triggs
Contemporary country artist Trini Triggs released a self-titled album in 1998. Born in Louisiana, he saw modest success in the country music industry with his chart-topping singles, “Straight Tequila,” “Horse to Mexico,” and “The Wreckin’ Crew,” which were also fairly popular in Canada.
Triggs was signed to Curb Records, with whom he released his country discography. Outside of songwriting and performing, Triggs works in entertainment as a radio personality, DJ, and writer.
Petrella Ann Bonner, the self-proclaimed “First Lady Of Country Soul,” grew up in Arkansas and continued her education in Missouri.
Her throaty voice and energetic songwriting have achieved moderate success in Nashville, garnering her several awards from organizations such as the Tennessee Songwriters Association.
She has also released seven studio albums in various genres and has collaborated with many country artists. Aside from music, the artist who appears simply by her stage name “Petrella” has launched forays into theater and philanthropy.
Wrapping Up Our List Of Popular Black Country Music Artists
Across several decades of modern music, a genre that has been almost entirely white is now seeing a demographic shift.
With the emergence of various minority faces and voices, the future of country music promises to be strong.
We can thank these performers who laid the groundwork for a less homogenous country music culture, as Southern sounds continue to thrill and inspire across state lines and racial barriers.