When I was growing up, my family would pile into our Honda minivan every summer and make the 13-hour trek from the swamps of Miami to the Great Smoky Mountains of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I was barely two years old when we made the two week trip for the first time — my mom wanted to visit a national park and a AAA travel agent suggested the small town. The road out of the panhandle stretched endlessly until we reached the Welcome to Georgia sign. As we crossed county and state lines, local radio stations switched from reggaeton and Latin pop to George Strait, Tim McGraw, even early Taylor Swift.
There were two halves to those Tennessee summers. One side was the waterfall trails and the picnics out of the trunk of our car, eating soggy hotdogs wrapped in aluminum foil. If it had to be a country song it would be Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey,” a bluesy confession of love and a recollection of summers past. Much of what is quintessentially country — tradition, and the people you build those traditions with — is how I remember these weeks. My love for country music was borne from those Tennessee summers. The familiarity of Stapleton’s lyrics reminds me of a world of which I got to be a part, at least for a short while: the gravel back roads; the experience of small-town life, the one mini-golf course before it became overrun with new tourists.
It was the country lifestyle — s’mores over a barbecue, swimming in a creek and catching tadpoles in Pringles cans — that turned me on to its music, not the other way around. Some of the first artists to hook me were Thomas Rhett and Lee Brice. Brice’s “Panama City”, one of my favorite songs to this day, has all of country’s addictive elements: a melancholic story, raw vocals, and images that I can still envision years later, like a moon “shipwrecked in the distant blue.” My family would drive to that same beach, Panama City, watching fireworks break from 10 feet away on the sand, the ash falling like confetti on my hair.
The other half is more complicated. At the gas stations we’d stop at, the sales attendants would trail us to make sure we weren’t stealing — one even pulled out a shotgun on his lap. Every year, we went to a mom-and-pop gardening store in Gatlinburg where my parents would collect a miniature bear or raccoon sculpture to add to their backyard collection in Florida. My mother, a blonde, fair-skinned Latina who emigrated from Cuba in middle school, has the privilege of passing as a white American. The owners always greeted her happily, but once she started speaking in Spanish to my dad — a tall Cuban man with thick dark hair and a darker complexion — we started to see looks shooting our way from others in the store. Aware of the reactions, my parents traded forced English among each other — a language my parents occasionally spoke to my sister and I, but rarely between themselves.
Later, as we walked through the town’s one-street city center, my parents would pull me and my sister away from stores that had Confederate flags in their display windows. The rule was that if there was a flag, we weren’t going in. It was a symbol of “racistas” that wouldn’t enjoy having two immigrants and their children in their store. That same rule applied when we drove 40 minutes out of town to tour underground caves, until my dad saw the flag hung as a greeting to the desolate town. He turned the car around, afraid of what could happen to us with no one around to watch.
As I grew older, I began to see what my parents were talking about. Once, in a vintage store, I found black slave figurines for sale. “I’m not only racist, I’m a redneck,” said T-shirts for sale in display windows. At a Dunkin’ Donuts, the cashiers pretended not to understand my parents’ accents as they ordered, though my parents had been speaking English for over 40 years. We couldn’t slip into Spanglish at restaurants and supermarkets, or customers and staff alike would turn and glare.
With my headphones blasting country music, I could make believe that Tennessee and the genre was my world, that I belonged there. The songs I listened to preached that you should “just be proud of what makes you country” and I desperately wanted to be able to do that, but the reality of not belonging was enough to make me afraid.
In my second year of high school, my two best friends and I went to our first country concert at a festival in southern Florida put on by a local radio station, an hour away from where we lived. Dressed in plaid shirts, we spent the day lounging on picnic blankets watching Rascal Flatts and Thomas Rhett. But when we walked through the park, we saw groups with Confederate flags hanging from their truck beds; one woman strutted past us with the flag bedazzled on her belt. The fake country boots I put on that morning suddenly felt wrong.
I didn’t return to the festival for two years. By then, a whole subset of the Miami Latinx population had discovered mainstream country hits, and the excuse to tailgate on park grounds was enough to bring us back to southern Florida. Once we arrived, however, we saw that the makeup of attendees remained largely unchanged. T-shirts still espoused the virtues of Jesus and cowboys; monster pick-up trucks still bore the same flag. In our country costumes, and as white Latinas, we blended in, but I was troubled by the thought that a black Latina or a black American might have had a completely different experience.
During my first year of college, I went to my last country concert. Eric Church was playing a stadium just outside Chicago, and even though it wasn’t far from my collegiate bubble, it housed a world I had never seen before in the area. Confederate flags and camouflage were bountiful. The man sitting in front of us sported a T-shirt stating his support for the Second Amendment. I’d been looking forward to the show all week, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him. By that point, I had seen enough videos of angry white people yelling at Latinxs to learn English or go back to their countries to know that one day it could be me on the receiving end. If I was the only person there like me, would I ever belong?
The following day, I found myself making excuses for attending the concert. Other times I found myself defending the music I love, saying things like “the lyrics are so heartfelt” and “it’s not all tractors.” But inside, I was coming to terms with the fact that the country culture that painted visions of swimming holes and sunsets in my bedroom could just easily as erase them.
Until earlier this year, when the Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X released “Old Town Road,” I had filed my struggle with the world of country somewhere close to my 2000s Thomas Rhett playlists. I’ve never been a fan of country rap, but I found myself — along with the rest of the Internet — rooting for Lil Nas when his song was removed from Billboard's Hot County Songs chart for not embracing “enough elements of today’s country music.” The song, which features banjo strumming and a languid beat, sounded like any other “hick-hop” song — except that the traditional lyrics, about tractors and horses and dirt roads, gently parody Southern culture. It wasn’t until Billy Ray Cyrus, a country music icon and white man, collaborated on Lil Nas’ song that it was deemed “country enough” to be put back on the charts. Watching what happened with Lil Nas X didn’t surprise me; it just reinforced what I knew about being a non-white artist or fan in the genre.
For once, a song wasn’t afraid to mock the white culture deeply associated with country. Lil Nas isn’t the only one challenging this — Cardi B wore chaps in her latest music video; Solange featured black cowboys in recent visuals for her latest release. There’s a popular #yeehawchallenge on the media app TikTok associated with “Old Town Road”; the Instagram account Yeehaw Agenda circulates and celebrates black cowboy and cowgirl images in pop culture.
Country music and its representation wasn’t always dominated by all encompassing whiteness. After the Civil War, cowboy jobs were one of the few opportunities open to black men. Historians now estimate that one in four American cowboys were black, yet they have been largely erased from the popular narrative. Country music’s early sound was also largely influenced by black culture and ragtime as well as Mexican ranchera styles. Darius Rucker, Tina Turner, and Charley Pride all had success in country as black artists. Last year, Jimmie Allen became the second black artist after Darius Rucker to have his debut single reach No. 1 on country radio, while Kane Brown, who is biracial, had the top country album in the U.S.
But looking at the top 50 country hits on Billboard today, only two out of 50 artists are non-white. Even though country artists are notorious for remaining apolitical to keep themselves from alienating fans, the values they sing about — the right to bear arms, the importance of religion, and what it means to be a patriot — are distinctly conservative. Big-ticket country stars like Blake Shelton and Thomas Rhett have close ties to NRA Country, a lifestyle-brand offshoot from the gun-rights organization. And after the 58 people died when a gunman opened fire at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest Festival in 2017, the industry has been forced to reckon with its relationship to the NRA. Many country artists, including Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Eric Church, and Maren Morris, came out in support of gun-control reform.
Meanwhile, the Country Music Association touts an increasingly diverse fanbase, with a 55 percent increase in black fans and 15 percent in Latinx over a five-year period. The association says that country music has “increasing appeal among Hispanics” and is experiencing “growth across all regions of the map, including non-traditional market regions.” The association, of course, is using these statistics to appeal to advertisers and corporations that might want to tap into the extremely lucrative country music consumer market. But while the genre’s fanbase — according to its own data, at least — may be diversifying the industry at large, as illustrated by the Lil Nas debacle, has been much slower to reflect and embrace that change.
I haven’t been back to a country concert since college. But this past spring, I found myself getting excited about country again. The rise of yeehaw culture among black, Latinx and LGBTQ communities online made me reconsider the industry; if artists like Kacey Musgraves were becoming mainstream beyond the country fandom, I could potentially find country shows with audiences that didn’t make me uncomfortable. The release in March of a new record by Jake Owen, one of my favorite country artists, paired with yeehaw couture taking off, had me thinking I’d be unapologetically sporting cowboy boots all summer long.
When I got to “Señorita,” the ninth track on Owen’s album, my momentum slowed. The song is a duet with Lele Pons, a Venezuelan-born Miami-raised Youtuber and singer, that tells the story of a white man being wooed by a Latina in an island paradise. The lyrics are grimace-worthy: “Señorita, yes, I need ya,” he sings. “ On my lips like a shot of tequila.” To make matters worse, Pons willingly takes part in the tokenizing of her identity. “Give me one more dance, mi amor,” she goes. “You’re gonna be loco by the end of the night.” (They both sprinkle in random Spanish words throughout the song for the full effect.) It’s a thoughtless caricature, but rationalizing it doesn’t make it any easier to consider where I still stand on country music culture after all this time.