Jimmie Allen on His Grammy Nom and Race in Country Music

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Jimmie Allen leaves no room for interpretation when he says country music isn’t racist. His Grammy nomination in the Best New Artist category proves it, he insists.

Talking to Evan Paul on Taste of Country Nights, the “Freedom Was a Highway” singer was asked how he learned of his Grammy nomination. The 2022 Grammy nominations came last November, just as Allen was preparing to rehearse for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. His publicist woke him up to share the news. You can hear the full exchange beginning at about 8:55:

“And then when she told me the category, it’s the Best New Artist,” Allen recalls. “And that’s all-genre, and I’m the only country artist in that genre.”

Saweetie, Olivia Rodrigo, Arlo Parks and Finneas are four more of the 10 nominees in total in the category. The Grammys will air live on CBS on April 3.

It’s not uncommon for a country artist to be included in this category — Ingrid Andress (2021), Luke Combs (2019), Margo Price (2019) and Maren Morris (2017) have all been nominated in recent years. Zac Brown Band was the last country act to win the New Artist Grammy, in 2010.

“What my buddy said makes it a big deal,” Allen says. “He said, ‘Jimmie, think about it. You are a Black guy that’s nominated for a Grammy, because of the success you had in country music … Your story right there is killing the narrative — the false narrative — that people have that country music is racist.’”

“It’s not,” he says matter-of-factly, “Because if that was true, I wouldn’t have my career. I wouldn’t have my Grammy nomination. My Grammy nomination didn’t come from hip-hop, didn’t come from R&B, didn’t come from rock — it came from my success in country music because country radio, country family has supported me. And just that, right there alone, can motivate so many people and bring so many people together and start to see that there’s more love than hate out there.”

Allen has never shied away from talking about issues of race in country music, and has, in the past, acknowledged problems within the genre. In 2018, he spoke to the Guardian about diversity in country music, noting that historically speaking, “Country music came from Black people — it all started with the blues and bluegrass.”

He also noted that he thought Black artists began to get edged out of country music in the second half of the 20th century, with Motown music becoming the focus for many Black musicians, though Charley Pride and Ray Charles — both Black men — found success in country.

“In country music, we are still behind the times,” Allen told the publication at the time. “Outside of country music, it wouldn’t be new to anyone to be a Black pop artist or a white rapper, but this genre is different.”

In 2018, Allen had just scored his first No. 1 country airplay hit with “Best Shot.” He followed that up with another called “Make Me Want To,” and then released “This Is Us” with Noah Cyrus, a song that failed to crack the Top 40. “Freedom Was a Highway” — a duet with Brad Paisley — is at No. 3 on Mediabase’s country airplay chart this week. The song appears on the expanded version of Allen’s Bettie James EP, released in 2021.

None of these wins came quickly for Allen, an artist who — after moving to Nashville in 2007 — spent a decade looking for his break, as many do. “At first, things weren’t going my way,” he told the Guardian. “I was something new — no one was going to take a chance on a Black artist from Delaware.”

In 2022, when talking about tough topics like race in country music, Allen keeps it positive and preaches love. This was never more apparent than in the months after Morgan Wallen was caught using the N-word on camera. The industry effectively banished Wallen for several months, but Allen told Bobby Bones he’d been talking to Wallen daily, offering support and empathy, though not condoning his actions.

More recently, Allen showed up in support of Mickey Guyton, who on Jan. 8 publicized a message she’d received from someone upset that she was pursuing country music as a vocal Black woman.

“All you people talk about is your god damn race and skin color,” the person said, in part.

attachment-Mickey Guyton IG

Instagram/MickeyGuyton

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“Oh you know … just another Saturday for us,” Allen commented. “That fact that he took time out of his day to write this while having a video game have his profile pic … he’s a joke. Love sis.”

This idea that a group (in this case, country music as a genre) can be not racist but still shelter racists is at the center of the conversation about race in country music. The format has been good to Allen, but he’s a unicorn, something he freely admits. In March 2021, SongData published a study called “Redlining in Country Music: Representation in the Country Music Industry (2000-2020)” that comes to some clear conclusions: Black, indigenous or persons of color (BIPOC) make up less than four percent of the commercial country industry. This group receives 2.3 percent of the airplay, with 96 percent of that slice going to men. Just 2.3 percent of ACM Awards nominees and 1.6 percent of CMA Awards nominees are persons of color (data as quoted in the Tennessean).

Allen has won New Artist of the Year awards at both the ACM Awards and CMA Awards. It’s not clear if he’ll appear or perform at the 2022 Grammy Awards this spring. On Monday (Feb. 7), he was announced as a co-host of the 2022 ACM Awards alongside Gabby Barrett and Dolly Parton.

During the full Taste of Country Nights, On Demand interview, Allen also talks about new music he’s working on, as well as the several television productions he’s a part of.

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