Bookshelf: Alice Randall sets music history straight in ‘My Black Country’

Plus author Steve Oney is honored for past work; Victoria Chang releases new collection of poems.
Alice Randall is author of "My Black Country."
Courtesy of Atria / Keren Treviño

Credit: Atria / Keren Treviño

Credit: Atria / Keren Treviño

Alice Randall is author of "My Black Country." Courtesy of Atria / Keren Treviño

The week’s Bookshelf is big on history — the history of African Americans’ contributions to country music and a prestigious honor for an author’s work in historical nonfiction — plus a little poetry for good measure.

Country music’s reckoning: While some people are losing their minds over the fact Beyoncé has released a country album, author and songwriter Alice Randall is here to say that Black people have been writing and performing country music since the genre began, but the industry has tried to whitewash them out of it. She speaks from personal experience as the first Black woman to write a No. 1 country song — “XXX’s & OOO’s (An American Girl)” recorded by Trisha Yearwood in 1994.

In her fortuitously timed new book, “My Black Country” (Atria, $28.99), Randall delivers a deeply researched history of African Americans’ influence on country music, a genre she defines as “American folk music that has Celtic, African and Christian Evangelical influences.” She credits a song about Frederick Douglass’ escape from slavery written before 1838 and published in 1855 as the first Black country song and believes that echoes of it can be heard in Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa.”

Woven throughout the book are personal anecdotes of Randall’s own experiences breaking down barriers as a country music songwriter in Nashville. Also available is a companion album, “My Black Country: The Songs of Alice Randall,” featuring songs written or co-written by Randall and reinterpreted by Black artists, mostly women, including Rhiannon Giddens, Rissi Palmer, Allison Russell and Saaneah Jamison.

Randall is no stranger to shaking up the status quo. Readers may recall that she first burst on the literary scene with her 2001 debut novel “The Wind Done Gone,” an “unauthorized parody” of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” told from the perspective of Scarlett’s mixed-race half-sister Cynara. The Margaret Mitchell estate attempted to halt its publication, but Randall prevailed and the book spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Charis Books & More presents Alice Randall in a virtual discussion with Francesca T. Royster, author of “Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions,” on April 24. For details go to

Magazine journalist and former Atlantan Steve Oney has collected some of his greatest profiles in “A Man’s World: A Gallery of Fighters, Creators, Actors and Desperadoes.” Photo: Raymond McCrea Jones

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Honoring history: Steve Oney, author of “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank” and “A Man’s World: A Gallery of Fighters, Creators, Actors and Desperadoes,” has been named the Vincent J. Dooley Distinguished Teaching Fellow for 2024 by the Georgia Historical Society. The honor recognizes Oney’s contributions in historical research and mentorship. In September, he’ll be inducted in Savannah where he’ll receive a cash prize and a bust of Dooley sculpted by Atlanta artist Ross Rossin, who made the Hank Aaron statue at Truist Park.

“I’m very honored to get it and humbled and surprised,” said Oney, who donated his Leo Frank papers to the Georgia Historical Society’s archives.

In addition to book publishing, Oney has had a long and distinguished career as a magazine journalist for a number of national outlets, as well as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is currently working on a book about National Public Radio titled “On Air” that comes out next year.

Oney recalled meeting Dooley as a cub reporter in Anderson, South Carolina, and noted the legendary coach’s interest in the past. “He was a serious historian,” Oney said. “This is about his love of Southern history.”

"With My Back to the World" by Victoria Chang
Courtesy of FSG

Credit: FSG

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Credit: FSG

Put it in a poem. April is Poetry Month and there have been a flurry of events and releases to mark the occasion. Notable among them is the publication of “With My Back to the World” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), a collection of poems by Victoria Chang that uses a variety of inventive forms to explore the outer limits of expression.

Chang is the Bourne chair of poetry at Georgia Tech and a Guggenheim Fellow, who divides her time between Atlanta and Los Angeles. Her previous book, “Obit,” was long-listed for the 2020 National Book Award in Poetry and won the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She can be reached at