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Highway 309 LIVE headliner Crys Matthews reclaims Americana with a truer picture of America

A Black woman with a curly mohawk and green-framed glasses smiles while playing a guitar at an outdoor cafe.
Emily Allen
Crys Matthews headlines a Women's History Month edition of WGLT's live concert series, Highway 309 LIVE presented by CEFCU, on March 20.

Singer/songwriter Crys Matthews was born and raised in Richlands, N.C., a tiny town on the outskirts of Jacksonville—which is a medium-sized town about 50 miles from Wilmington.

Matthews is preacher's kid—a rural southerner through and through. She returned to her roots with a recent move to Nashville after more than a decade in Washington, D.C. And her time in the nation’s capital brought about a pivotal change to Matthews' music, evident in Changemakers, an LP produced at the height of the pandemic and amidst a social justice reckoning that shook the country.

A new album is in the works, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign that exceeded Matthews’ $40,000 goal. She’ll bring songs from the upcoming LP to Highway 309 LIVE on March 20, which she’ll headline in a special Women’s History Month edition of WGLT’s free concert series with opener Sarah & The Underground.

“It doesn’t get much more country than my hometown.”

For Matthews, the move to Nashville is only partly about being in America’s musical hot spot. In returning to the South, Matthews aims to reclaim roots music—country, folk and Americana—as central to her identity.

“It doesn’t get much more country than my hometown,” Matthews said in an interview for WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “It’s this notion that Black people don’t have a right to country music, even though we very much built the South with literally our blood, sweat and tears. So much of the culture of the South is Black culture. The culture of country music is rooted in our experience.”

Matthews found success in the indie folk scene, with her music noted for both its layered complexity—blending Gospel and roots music with an underbelly of her childhood band nerd—and lyrics which pull no punches.

Changemakers is exhibit A, with songs reacting to police shootings of Black people, for example, and the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd—topics which provoke the narrative that all country music is about white guys in bars with trucks.

“It’s this conversation that everybody’s having with Beyoncé’s new song,” Matthews said. “Yo, that lady is from Houston, Texas. Of course she sings country music. It’s this odd juxtaposition of these genres that are historically rooted in Black American culture but are so often the least welcoming to us.”

The tip of the iceberg

Thanks to Beyoncé and Tracy Chapman, conversations around Black voices in country music are having a bit of a moment. As is challenging the notion that mainstream country and Americana music has to be apolitical, given reception to The Chicks’ 2020 LP Gaslightertheir first in 14 years—and artists like Maren Morris and Jason Isbell posing existential questions about the genre.

Is country music ready to have that conversation?

“Definitely not,” Matthews said, “which is exactly why we need to be having it. It’s so ironic to me that a genre that has the audacity to label itself Americana seems hellbent on not actually being that. What makes people American is so multifaceted, so for them to perpetuate the idea that that it’s only going to look like one thing is madness.”

That’s why Crys Matthews moved to Nashville.

“It is very scary to be living in Tennessee right now being as Black and as butch as I am,” she said. “But it is also a really important time to be in Tennessee adding my voice to chorus of other artists trying to do this work.”

That said, Matthews isn’t an independent artist by choice; if the right label came along, she’d jump at the chance for that kind of support. But she won’t compromise on telling her story the way she wants it told.

“If there’s a label out there looking for a Black, butch lesbian who sings social justice music, sign me up,” she said. “They just don’t seem to really be out there.”

Crys Matthews headlines Highway 309 LIVE at the Normal Theater on March 20. Peoria's Sarah & The Underground will open the evening, beginning at 6 p.m. All Highway 309 LIVE concerts are free.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.