Does Country Music Have A Color?

Luke Combs playing guitar under spotlight


This week I realised I’ve been failing.

A person familiar with this blog and podcast said:

“You’ll always be on an uphill struggle.  It looks like you’re trying to tell white people that they’re not white.  Then they look in the mirror, and see a white person.”

The entire premise of Before We Were White is about trying to explain that in American history, “whiteness” has slowly morphed over the centuries from being a simple observation about someone’s complexion into a stand-in word for RACE, with RACE then being used interchangeably with the word ETHNICITY.

At the end of this weird algebra (complexion = race, race = ethnicity, ethnicity = culture), people come away believing that culture, identity, and skin color are inextricably linked.

After 400 years of mental and linguistic programming, some Americans cannot wrap their heads around the idea that we are the ones who connected the dots between real and imaginary things.

There is a real thing called “ethnicity”.  There is a real thing called “culture”.  There is even such a thing as “population groups” where certain types of physical features like hair or skin color are more common.

And then there is a fake thing called “race”.

In the USA, the overlap and intermixing between all of these things – both real and imaginary – is constant and ever-changing, and is often determined by where we grew up.

It is often in those very places where people maintain the most distance between these imaginary “races” that we see the most cultural overlap.

It’s complicated.

Now I could continue with some lengthy speechification trying to lay out the difference between outward appearance, lived culture, and actual genetic ancestry, but I suspect I’d lose a lot of readers just one or two more paragraphs down the line.

So instead, let’s talk about Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs.


It is a marvelous thing to see Tracy Chapman being noticed by the Country Music Association this year.

As the original singer/songwriter of Fast Car (which has charted after being covered by country singer/songwriter Luke Combs), Chapman is receiving much belated additional recognition for a song she first released 35 years ago, a song exquisitely expressing human weakness and pain, poverty and pathos, hope, memory, love and disappointment, all with diamond-sharp spareness.

In other words, the perfect country song.

And you’ve got to admire Luke Combs for spotting it.

I was brought up in a time before autism was diagnosed.  I’ve never bothered to find out if I’m “on the spectrum”, because if I’m not hindered dramatically by my need to arrange coffee mugs according to size and color, I can just keep on keeping-on without being defined by what others might perceive as a “condition”.

People are just different to one another in a million different ways.  It keeps things interesting.

Anyway, this pertains to the way I have a memory for stuff.  Not a photographic memory, but a memory which interconnects disparate things at great distances.

I see the name “Luke Combs“, and my mind lights-up like a blinking Christmas tree.  I know that the surname “Combs” is a country American way of spelling the old surname “Coombs”, which comes from a pre-English word used by ancient Britons.  I know that there were free persons of color living in Jamaica since the 1600s using that surname, and that those people were slaveholders.  The former English women’s national soccer team player Alex Scott is descended from them.

I know that Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean was connected to Charleston, SC and Providence, RI by an umbilical cord tended by seafaring smugglers and slave traders.

I know that almost everyone with roots in colonial America bearing that surname is likely to be at least part Melungeon or Old Mix American, meaning that they will have some ancestry from places other than Northern and Central Europe.

So of course I had to go to my computer and check.

Anyone who has seen Mr. Combs will know he is a big, stout fella, light of complexion and red of hair.

Tap, tap, tap goes the keyboard.  And my weirdly wired memory hasn’t failed me.

Yes, Mr. Combs has English and Scottish and German ancestry.  But he also has ancestors from the remote corners of Southern Appalachia, from places like Lost Creek, West Virginia.  Surnames like Gibson and Brock, which speak of indigenous American and Jewish ancestry.  Surnames like Boyett, one of the few Appalachian families shown by DNA to be of Romani or “Gypsy” ancestry.

But this is America, and this is Nashville.  This is country music, country music is “white”, and so is Luke Combs


Before We Were White was never about trying to claim that all “white” folks were once “black”.

It’s about trying to remind Americans of the time before “white” became the primary identity replacing “ethnicity” or culture.

Before the rural American underclasses became “white” – especially during the fraught early years of frontier colonialism – we were a hundred different colors along a spectrum, and most of our ancestors clumped around a shade of brown found somewhere near the middle of that spectrum.

Luke Combs, with his pale skin and red beard, and Tracy Chapman, with her dark skin and black hair, look about as far from one another on the color spectrum as two people are likely to get.

The wonders of the internet, of record digitalisation, of modern genetics, allow us to see what could never be seen before.  We can learn just how intertwined all of our stories really are, even when a look in the mirror would make us think otherwise.

But any genetic inter-relatedness shared between Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman would really be little more than an interesting side note.

What really matters is how the power of music can remind us just how much we have in common at the level which really matters.

In our shared culture.


#countrymusic #tracychapman #lukecombs

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