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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

The Caribbean and Country Music: A 75-Year Love Affair

Updated: Oct 18, 2023


 

When the radio in New York would play “I found my thrill, on Blueberry Hill”, my mother and father would find their way to each other and sing along. The room would become charged with nostalgia for their families, their youth and their lives in British Honduras.


Fats Domino would, more often than not, be the performer. His 1956 rendition of Blueberry Hill became a rock-and-roll standard, Yet, my parents would be imagining that they were crooning with “the Singing Cowboy”, Gene Autry, who recorded the country classic in 1941.


They recalled a country and western radio station in Texas whose A.M. frequency they picked up in, what is today, Belize. In the 1950s, British Honduranians tuned into a few radio stations from other countries, including Radio Havana, for merengue, other music and comedies, from Cuba; La Ceiba, for radio novellas and family comedy and adventure stories, from Honduras, and “first and foremost, Radio Harlingen, Texas, (located in southern Texas near the Gulf of Mexico and named for the city in The Netherlands).


“Yes, all the way from Texas, we got to enjoy musical programs in the days when country and western was very popular,” Angel Nuñez wrote about San Pedro, Belize, in International Radio Stations Were Entertainment for Island Villagers (April 28, 2015), Ambergris Today.

 
 
 

Country music is still popular today in Belize and the Caribbean. Dj Phil Lucian, for example, captures views on Facebook from thousands of Caribbean country music lovers, living at home or abroad. Seventeen flags of Caribbean nations scroll across the top of the screen, while the flag of St. Lucia, a cerulean blue field with a yellow triangle in front of a white-edged black triangle, takes a prominent place. Throughout his hours-long show, DJ Phil sways, mouths the songs’ words and holds his hand to his heart.


“It’s Everything About the Immigrant Experience”


An American genre born in the 1920s, country music draws on Gaelic and English ballads; the banjo, derived from instruments of West and Central Africa; the Spanish effects of the vaqueros (cowboys) in Texas, and the oom-pah of German polka music, according to the founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John McEuen, in the Ken Burns’ documentary, Country Music (2019).


It is characterized by the singers’ openness about experiences of the heart accompanied by the banjo and guitar, creating the melody, and the fiddle weaving a romantic mood. Other instruments often played are the steel guitar, conceived and popularized in the Kingdom of Hawaii; the mandolin from Italy; the zither from Germany and Austria, a modern version of the Greek cithara, and others.


“First of all, I call it country western music. It’s the music of America, for sure. And it’s an amalgam. . . It’s everything about the immigrant experience brought to America and Americanized,” Ray Benson, co-founder of the Western swing band, Asleep at the Wheel, said in the film, Country Music.

 
 

Radio introduced country to the Caribbean. Why did it take hold?


A few academicians have said that the honest and unflinching lyrics speak to the rural Christian poor. They seem to be struggling to respond to journalists, often from America, who ask how is it that people of color love a music associated with whites in the United States, where everything is racialized. So, scholars attempt to make sense of what is illogical and true: the feeling of music. Even if listeners did not know the language of the lyrics, they would be enthralled by the music. Just as the blues, fado and Cornish folk ballads get under your skin and need no translation, neither does country.


Country music is soul music.

 
 

Rapper Biggie: “I Can’t Sleep Without Country Music”


“Back home in Jamaica, there’s a certain time in the morning that on the radio you’d hear country and western,” Voletta Wallace (b. 1953), the mother of the slain Christopher G. ‘The Notorious B.I.G.’ Wallace, who many call the greatest rapper, said in Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, a 2021 Netflix documentary. “I’m a country and western person. I’m a ballad person. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be listening to rap music.”


“Ever since I was a little girl, I liked stories,” Voletta Wallace told Entertainment Weekly (March 1, 2021). “So, when I first heard country music, what I liked was how it told a story through music – they were touching and heart-wrenching. That was it for me. I’m a country girl at heart. I became very attached to the beautiful voices and the stories they were telling.”


Every year, Wallace and her son left Brooklyn, New York, for visits back home to Trelawny Parish, Cornwall County, in Jamaica.


“Every summer, Chris would come back from Jamaica,” Hubert Sam, Biggie’s childhood friend, said in the documentary. “Chris would bring back some Jamaican slang and music that we didn’t listen to – rock music, reggae, country.”


Biggie told Sam and other friends in Brooklyn: “‘I can’t sleep without country music on.’ We were like shocked.”


Biggie’s mother would say that they should not have been surprised at her son’s avowal. In Entertainment Weekly (March 1, 2021), she said:


“When he was a little boy and was growing up, I always had the radio on and tuned into the country music station. I love my Wille Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. He listened to it all with me because he had no other choice. (Laughs).”

 
 

In Jamaica: Local or Foreign Music


Jamaica’s passion for country music began with the advent of the first commercial radio station on the island in 1950, reported National Public Radio (September 1, 2011). Songs by artists such as Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis were on the playlist, said the Jamaican writer, Colin Channer (b. 1963), often referred to as “Bob Marley with a pen”, who is also an American living in the United States:


“When I was growing up in Jamaica, there were only two radio stations. We grew up thinking of music as being either local or foreign. The different genres of foreign music didn’t matter that much – it was simply music that was not from there. So, we didn’t grow up with that segmented understanding of what music was, or what kind of music you were allowed to listen to, in the way that people in the U.S. did.”


In St. Lucia: An Obsession


In St. Lucia, country music is not so much a musical genre as a national obsession, reported The Guardian (April 10, 2014):


“There are buses named after Jim Reeves’ songs and radio stations that have been known to play 20 George Jones tracks in a row. There are dozens of country and western karaoke bars and club nights, running endless competitions to find the best local singer who can approximate a southern American twang. And there’s the St. Lucia country festival, which kicked off in the late 90s with appearances from Tammy Wynette, Don Williams and the Charlie Daniels Band.”


Lucians tell a popular joke: When police on neighboring Martinique want to catch undocumented immigrants from St. Lucia, they only have to put on a country and western dance, then arrest everyone who turns up, reports the Dancing the Habanera Beats (in country music): Empire Rollover and Postcolonial Creolizations in St. Lucia (June 2013), according to The Guardian.


Beane Air Force Base, located near Vieux Fort, in St. Lucia, was completed in 1942 and used as a military airfield during World War II. The U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service began broadcasting country music across the island, reported The Guardian.


According to L.M. Stone, an acclaimed country star on the island, the music gained more popularity when St. Lucians, including his father, went to work in Florida cutting sugarcane in the 1960s and 1970s. Workers returned home “with records by Hank Williams, Charley Pride, George Jones, then played them day and night.”

 
 

“Good Music Is Good Music”


In the Belize newspaper, Amandala (November 6, 2022), the writer, Glen, described his initiation into country as a boy in Belize followed by his embarrassment of it and, finally, his acceptance of his love of it.


“Growing up in British Honduras in the 50s and 60s, we had no TV; radio was our only contact with the outside world, for news, sports and music. One radio station for the entire country, and everyone always tuned in until it signed off at 11:00 p.m.


“The music varied, local or Caribbean, Latin, jazz, pop and classical, and, yes, country. At that time, I didn’t realize that Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Skeeter Davis, Burl Ives, Johnny Cash, Hank Locklin and so many others, were country music singers. I loved the songs and the stories they told and just thought of it as music, without definition!


“Then the Beatles, Motown, and rock and roll took over. I was in my mid-teens by then, and my taste changed. Or did it?


“As a black kid growing up in Belize, it would have been strange and unusual to admit that I was a fan of country music, so I decided I hated it, and that was that! I turned my attention to reggae and pop music, jazz and Latin music, and life was good. Then I heard “Sweet Dreams”, by Patsy Cline, “Paper Roses”, “The End of the World”, and Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, George Jones and all the great singers of the 60s and 70s!


“I loved their music, but still hated country music! Those weren’t country; they were great songs of love and loss and suffering. And, of course, Elvis could never have been country! Country music wasn’t sophisticated enough, all that yodeling and nasal twang; no, I hated it.


“As I grow older, now a grandfather, I realize that good music is good music. . . . These days, country music has morphed into pop and rap and rock. I am a traditionalist and don’t really care for it – give me the old-time music.”

 
 

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