The African-American rock critic-turned-singer-songwriter looks for a Country Of Many Different Colors—as well as Negroes Who Do Strange Things.
BY DENISE SULLIVAN
Kandia Crazy Horse is on a crusade to become the first black woman to be invited to join the Grand Ole Opry.
“I have my Minnie Pearl dress. I’m not a casual fan of these things or a country carpetbagger” she says. And while her Southern harmony and musical debut Stampede is a collection of eight gleaming originals and two canny covers that fits right inside the pocket of ‘70s California rock with a light touch of twang, there are few other women of color picking up the fiddles and banjo in solidarity. If Kandia has her way, that’ll all change—and real soon.
“I pay attention to Negroes Who Do Strange Things—especially in country and roots music,” she says. “We’re trying at the street level, to expand the notion of what country can be in the 21st century and there’s resistance on so many sides” she says. And yet, she sees the successes of Gary Clark, Jr. and Darius Rucker as encouraging signs. “I think these are the best years for country since the mid-‘80s,” she says, recalling the insurgent movement that produced Jason and the Scorchers, Lone Justice and Steve Earle. “There’s so much going on under the radar, young people with no hereditary ties to Nashville are making great music. But something else has to give,” she says.
Noting that the oval office, hockey, tennis, “and even show jumping” can claim high-ranking blacks breaking the color barrier, Kandia asks, “Why not in country music? I wouldn’t want my children to think the only Black Country singer was Charley Pride.” Creating a black female presence in Americana is Kandia’s personal Kilimanjaro.
The singer’s love of hardcore twang is part DNA (her grandmother and great granny also loved the Opry), and part life experience that’s carried her from D.C. to parts of Africa, and back to rural Georgia where her family ties directly to American musical and political history: Stampede is the first part of a planned trilogy that attempt to tells that story and then some. “I have porch pickers in all previous generations of my family,” she says. “My grandfather was my primary writing influence and my cousins are singers. My family lived the life that people from the Rolling Stones to the blues revival artists in the west idolized.”
Insisting she’s “fundamentally Country & Western, not an outlier or eccentric of the genre,” as a New York-based writer, Kandia traveled below the Mason-Dixon on the regular, making Southern jam bands her beat. Northern peers and mentors were prone to scratch their heads, implying she’d lost her natural mind, though now that she’s gone and made a country album, chances are colleagues and ancestors alike are smiling knowingly: It’s just their rebel belle, doing what she does, shaking things up again, this time with her own band and an album, produced by Albert Menéndez, known primarily for working with Shakira and a team of players with Latino rock bona fides the likes of Gloria Estefan.
“Albert knew of some of my favorite contemporaries like the Black Crowes and David Ryan Harris, but never heard of Gram Parsons or most LA Canyon Rock beyond the Eagles. That’s why he chose J.D. Souther’s ‘Never Kid In Town’ for me to cover,” she explains. “I came up with the feel and arrangement, he identified with the Spanish tinge in the original version,” but that’s strictly where allusions to the producer’s heritage ends in the mix. “California,” the original that opens Stampede, has the kind of familiar country gospel choruses and plucky banjo you’d be unlikely to hear on those overworked records made in the high cotton days of California rock. “Congo Square,” an unflinching and super-rocking Katrina lament, sounds like an answerback to the best of what the Black Crowes done did. The autobiographical “Gunfight at the Golden Corral” is heartbreak at the trailer park, while “Quartz Hill,” closes the album on an ambitious progressive country note, not unlike the Laurel Canyon sound laid down by Englishman Terry Reid. Studio time is already booked in April for the follow-up to Stampede to be titled Canyons.
Fuelled by a lifetime of border crossing, boundary busting comes perfectly natural to the daughter of civil rights activists whose lives were inextricably linked to music.
Kandia was between ages 8 and 20 when she traveled Africa with her mother, a US Ambassador to Mali who was also posted in Cairo, Lesotho and Ghana during her tenure with government organizations. “Every morning before dawn, I would sit on the veranda and write and listen to the sounds of an African morning.” Traveling with records by Crosby Stills and Nash “and sometimes Young, it was a case of taking Southern music with me.” And when Kandia says Southern, she means at the root of each band members’ lineage—as in Texas-born military brat Stills and Young’s matrilineal ties to Jamestown. “That was our land, so it’s very interesting,” says Kandia whose own mother’s descendants were the indigenous people of Powhatan Territory on the Atlantic Coast. “Which due to chattel slavery eventually wound up in Staunton, near the West Virginia border,” she explains. “I didn’t know that when I was 15 and a Buffalo Springfield fanatic, but I knew there was a Southern piece to their music and brought it and the Allman Brothers with me, all over Africa as an adolescent.”
Gravitating to Southern Rock with its triple guitars and drums at the core was a natural for someone who cut her teeth on her mother’s beloved jazz sides. “I carried that knowledge and I understood what the bands were doing.” Seizing the opportunity to run off as a reporter to Alabama, or to Macon, “To stay in the big house with the Allman Brothers… I almost bought the house right behind the big house!” she declares. Referring to the Allmans’ founding drummer, “Jaimoe saved my life a couple of times. Once when I was born, and again when I was an adult,” she says taking a breath. Promising to tell the full story one day, her point remains: “I became family with a lot of those bands. Derek Trucks, Leftover Salmon, Col. Bruce Hampton…Drive-By Truckers were my personal entrée to the whole Muscle Shoals scene. It was the most important era of my life in terms of personal adventure and the written work I did and it was my life for most of my adulthood and the immediate period before I got married and moved to Missouri.”
And then things changed: The marriage tilted and her mother took ill. Tending to family business, and as one does at such crossroads, she got to thinking. There was also the impulse to create the work that eventually became Stampede, forged as a tribute to her mother.
“She loved jazz first, but also she loved Motown and African music. She cared so much about music and didn’t put it on the shelf,” she recalls. “She also drove the car, and thus she dominated the radio, and brought as many if not more of the records into the house as my father.” And yet, professional singing had never much crossed Kandia’s mind, though a seed had been planted.
Restricted from television until the watershed mini-series Roots was broadcast,
“We were allowed Soul Train and the redneck Soul Train, otherwise known as Hee Haw.” But as much as she loved the country songs and revue, she always figured she’d end up behind the music. “My initial inspiration was to become Jerry Wexler in a skirt. Because black people have always danced for pennies, I was always very self-conscious of not wanting to be in front of the camera. I wanted to work behind the camera. And I always knew about the Black West, about our presence in country, and that a lot of that history was invisible.”
nd so it was, she proceeded to make her mother, Anne Forrester, as well as herself, just a little more visible. Today she wants girls and others to “See a face like mine,” to let them know, “We on this side of the racial divide have not forgotten that it’s a multiracial, multidimensional culture.”
While the story of black artists making country music—from the invisible inspirers of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers to the Opry’s first black member DeFord Bailey and others—are waiting to be told, for now Kandia has no such plans to tell them. Though she knows her history better than the average music critic, she’ll be using the stage rather than the page to create history.
“There’s been a slow revival of the recognition of this heritage,” she says. “I commend my friends in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They’ve helped people to recognize that Africans have a huge part to play in the development of Southern music which splintered into many forms that later became rock’n’roll.”
“There needs to be less tokenism and more expansion and room to let more people in. My parents were part of the only revolution that occurred in the last century. We have overcome as a result of their sacrifices and vision. I don’t have a choice to sit on my laurels. I’m armed with Stampede and Canyons.”
Kandia Crazy Horse appears in Austin during SXSW on Friday, March 14th 7:40 – 8:05 p.m. Maria’s Taco Xpress (outdoor stage, 2529 South Lamar) at a day long event sponsored by KG Music Press, Medina River Records and Carolina Chickadee Presents.
Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing, Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop and Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors.