Country singer Jimmie Allen likes to tell the story of the first time he met songwriter J.P. Williams, who’s blind, before they came up with Allen’s No. 1 hit single “Best Shot.”
“I said, ‘I don’t know if anyone told you, but I’m black,’ ” Allen told him. “ ‘So keep the black jokes to a minimum.’ ”
Allen, who made history last year for being the first black artist to launch his career with a No. 1 single on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, isn’t afraid of joking about the elephant in the room: He’s usually the only African-American man in the country song writers’ room.
He and performers like Kane Brown, 25, who’s biracial, are appealing to younger listeners who aren’t traditional country fans but are discovering country music via streaming, YouTube and social media. That’s allowed these artists to succeed in a predominantly white musical landscape.
“The folks that listen to Kane Brown and the folks that have started to listen to Jimmie Allen, many of them would not call themselves country fans,” says Nadine Hubbs, a professor of women’s studies and music at the University of Michigan who’s the author of “Rednecks, Queers and Country Music.”
Last year, three minority artists — Allen, Brown and Darius Rucker — had No. 1 country airplay hits.
Brown and Allen are skilled at social media. Brown even scored a record deal because of his country covers on Facebook.
Despite pop collaborations, both hold tightly to their country roots and are well-versed in country music history, Hubbs says. Like Charley Pride and Rucker, Allen sings about traditional country music themes of small towns, rural life, love and romance and the simple pleasures of life.
But Allen and Brown aren’t afraid to address race, which previously generations of black country artists weren’t always able to do.
“People always used to say, ‘You can grow up and be anything you want. You can be president,’ ” Allen says. “But until Obama became president, you couldn’t really tell a black kid that you could be president because there wasn’t one. So I feel like representation is very important.
“I am firm believer that doors don’t just open,” Allen says. “You kick them open.”
Upcoming Chicago performances
Jimmie Allen will perform May 18 at the Holiday Casino Amphitheatre in Tinley Park on Rascal Flatts’ tour and July 12 at the United Center parking lot as part of the Windy City Smokeout.