Alice Randall Made Country History. Black Women Are Helping Tell Hers.

Alice Randall Made Country History. Black Women Are Helping Tell Hers.

The country singer Rissi Palmer could not understand why Alice Randall was emailing her.

By fall 2020, when Palmer received the message, Randall was a Nashville institution, not only the first Black woman to write a chart-topping country hit but also a novelist whose books undermined entrenched racial hierarchies. Palmer herself was no slouch: “Country Girl,” her 2007 anthem of rural camaraderie, had been the first song by a Black woman to infiltrate country’s charts in two decades. She had just started “Color Me Country,” a podcast exploring the genre’s nonwhite roots and branches.

But 11 years earlier, Palmer had fled Nashville, hamstrung by contract disputes, with “my tail between my legs,” she recalled recently in a video interview from her North Carolina kitchen.

Randall, however, was very interested in Palmer — and her history. Working as a writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, she had urged the school’s Heard Libraries to acquire Palmer’s archives: notebooks, sketches, a dress worn during her Grand Ole Opry debut.

“I’ve been in this business since I was 19. I made the charts when I was 26. I’ve had these items the whole time,” said Palmer, 42. “No one has ever called me and said they had value, until Alice. There are more important people, but she saw value in me.”

Randall also saw something of herself — and a glimpse of gradual progress — in Palmer. After breaking a Nashville color barrier when her treatise about being an overworked mother, “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl),” became a 1994 hit for Trisha Yearwood, Randall quit writing country songs.

“My songs were only going to work if I sang them, or if we found the Black woman who could,” Randall said on a recent afternoon over heaping meat-and-three plates at Arnold’s, a Nashville mainstay that opened in 1982, a year before she arrived. Every few minutes, someone else — a former congressperson, a prominent downtown investor, the restaurant’s scion — stopped to shake hands. “But I didn’t think we would find the star, and my characters were being erased.”

Just as one of the world’s biggest stars, Beyoncé, makes her own long-gestating country turn, Randall’s people have been restored on a new compilation, “My Black Country,” which arrives April 12. A dozen Black women — Palmer, Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell — reimagine Randall’s best-known songs in their own voices, for their own lives. In a corresponding memoir, releasing April 9, Randall weaves her country career into a corrective genre history that reorients its Black past, present and future.

“I had never heard my own songs sound in real life like they sounded in my imagination,” Randall, 64, said of the album’s sessions, grinning broadly behind tears. “That was a Sankofa moment, a Juneteenth moment — good news at long last.”

For years, Randall’s daughter, the writer and scholar Caroline Randall Williams, had encouraged her mother to publish a memoir. She had lived, after all, a remarkable life: Born in Detroit to parents who fled penury and racism in Alabama and Ohio, Randall witnessed the rise of Motown. Her father, a silk-suited tough guy who ran a laundromat and reportedly knew the Bible and “Macbeth” by heart, was a titan of the city’s Black community, a friend of Anna Gordy who dazzled his daughter with her feats.

Randall rubbed childhood elbows with the prodigal Stevie Wonder and sparkled stage-side in a homemade dress when the Supremes debuted at the Copacabana. After her parents split, her mother moved her to Washington, D.C., where Randall was “a Black girl in an overgrown Southern town,” she writes, attending private school alongside white bohemians. She and her mother later moved in with a man on a farm outside of the city. Soon after Randall started high school, he raped her. A John Prine cassette helped saved her life, allowing her to pour out “some of everything haunting me into it.” She escaped to Harvard. And that was all before she moved to Nashville, started a publishing company, met her first husband through working on the set of a Johnny Cash music video, became a mother and wrote best-selling novels.

“Most of her life was in those novels, turned around and sideways,” Williams said, framed by books in the sprawling home her mother bought two decades ago, where Williams is raising her own family. “But she is an intensely discreet person who shares what she’s willing to share, not one word more.”

In 2018, though, Randall was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The time to share a more direct, personal history of her primary scenes — Detroit, in the 2020 novel “Black Bottom Saints,” and Nashville, in “My Black Country”— had come. “I asked myself, ‘If I have five years left to live, what am I going to do?’” Randall said. “I’m going to love this family, take trips with my friends and tell these two stories.”

Randall’s Nashville was one of perseverance, back doors and unlikely allies. Soon after she arrived, the only Black woman she saw in the music licensing agency Ascap’s massive Music Row headquarters was Shirley Washington, who greeted visitors with a coffee or Coca-Cola. She sneaked Randall into the boardroom to write and gave her intel about who to meet and where to shop. The self-portrait that emerges is one of relentless work: booze-free nights studying other songwriters at the Bluebird Cafe, building a company to pitch songs to stars, a writing practice that bordered on the sacred.

“When I first got here, I would wake up in the middle of the night, write down all the songs on the radio and study them. There was no way I could afford them all,” Randall said. “I didn’t have any musical skills, so I had to use my literary analysis. I had to find my authority.”

Randall has always been a world-builder. At age 3, in Detroit, her first song demanded her father not leave her for the bar (he took her). “My Black Country,” both the album and the book, suggests a widening path Randall helped create. Its producer, Ebonie Smith, studied the recorded versions of Randall’s songs, which were often Trojan horses for getting progressive ideas onto country radio, and encouraged the performers to find their own ways into the texts. Adia Victoria’s “Went for a Ride,” an entendre-rich tale of a beautiful Black cowboy, ripples with exquisite ache. Williams transforms “XXX’s and OOO’s,” the hit written in part about her, into a spoken-word taunt.

In the book, Randall posits Los Angeles as the capital of Black country and widens the genre’s lens to encompass Swamp Dogg and the Pointer Sisters. Most striking, though, is her First Family of Black Country, a lineage she argues is anchored by the early Grand Ole Opry star DeFord Bailey and the pianist and songwriter Lil Hardin Armstrong, extending through Ray Charles and Charley Pride to the likes of Palmer and Lil Nas X. It is a sharp rejoinder to the standard country origin story, where the sound spills from pre-Depression sessions by acts including the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in Bristol, Tenn.

“I was injured by that mythology, and I am interested in creating counter-narratives,” Randall said. She bounded among topics — Barbie dolls, transcontinental train travel, the influence of Donna Summer on Dolly Parton and drag culture — before gliding back toward this unifying thesis. “It took 41 years of doing this and teaching to understand that if you tell people just that much, it transforms them. You can make a different First Family. I want to start the discussion.”

Now, of course, there is another branch on the family tree: Beyoncé. Randall long heard rumors about the star’s latest direction, and watching the Super Bowl with friends when news of “Cowboy Carter” broke, they shared an epiphany: “Oh my God. This changes your life.” For decades, Randall had waved the banner of Black women in country; on the eve of a project that reintroduced her Black country characters, she now had backup.

The next day, Randall listened through laptop speakers and transcribed Beyoncé’s new songs. She made notes: the singing cowboy tradition, looking for God, the conceptual underpinnings of “sweet redemption.”

“I typed the lyrics to study because that’s what I did when I got here,” she said, waving the annotated sheets and smiling. “I had to bring my authority.”

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