One day in late 1985 or early 1986, a journalist from Abidjan, Ivory Coast rang Don Williams, the Gentle Giant of country music, at his home in Ashland City, Tennessee. When Williams answered the phone, the voice on the line identified himself as a reporter from the West African metropolis. Through the murmuring static and slight signal delay of the international call, the two men talked about Williams’ popularity and influence across West Africa, where his laid-back, mellow country numbers had become huge radio hits.
Then the journalist asked Don Williams if he would like to hear a song by the Ivoirian duo Jess Sah Bi and Peter One, who counted the singer from Floydada, Texas as a major influence. Williams agreed, and the man from Abidjan held the phone’s receiver up to a speaker and played, from some 5,600 miles away, a country song called “African Chant.” Williams listened to the whole song through the snowy distance of the phone call and at the end, told the reporter he liked it very much. The two men said their goodbyes and the call ended.
Thirty-three years later I’m sitting with Peter One at Santa’s Pub, a triple-wide trailer dive bar in South Nashville, a sight closer to Ashland City than Abidjan. Peter, who has lived in Nashville since 2014, laughs as he tells me the story of Don Williams and the long-distance call. He doesn’t recall which song, exactly, the journalist played for Williams. Maybe it was “African Chant,” but maybe it was “Clipo Clipo” or “Apartheid”? Either way, it meant a great deal to him and Jess in 1985. “Don Williams! He was huge for West Africans back then. It gave us a lot of hope,” he tells me.
When Peter One and Jess Sah Bi released Our Garden Needs Its Flowers in 1985, it was probably Ivory Coast’s first country album, and certainly its most popular. In a matter of months they went from playing wedding parties and little clubs in Abidjan to stadiums all over West Africa. If it’s surprising to many that anyone outside of the American south would ever even want to play country music to begin with, the music has been at home on the African continent for decades. In the thirties, black newspapers in South Africa advertised “Dixie Records” by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers next to Zonophone Zulu records. This early country music influenced African guitarists working in a number of styles, from the palm wine performers of Lagos port bars to rumba musicians in Kinshasa.
But while country music enjoyed some international circulation during the thirties, it exploded as the United States entered World War II. It wasn’t until the 1940s that country music started to shed its status as strictly regional fare, even within the United States. (Billboard’s first chart that included country music lumped it in with “foreign” tunes.) But the war changed things dramatically. As tens of thousands of southerners moved north for wartime work, or enlisted in the army and were sent abroad, the music they brought with them began to circulate on a scale that was previously unthinkable. Because this transformation of regional music into national music coincided with a dramatic rise in US military and cultural dominance, there exists a sense that country music has always been quintessentially, inviolably American. But the truth is that it probably became popular in Nairobi and Lagos not much later than it did in Detroit.
In the years following WWII, country music became an important American cultural export and a handful of American country performers, notably Jim Reeves, became superstars in Africa. Musicians from the palm wine legend S. E. Rogie, known as The Jimmie Rodgers of Sierra Leone, to Ebenezer Obey, a Nigerian jùjú musician, drew on country to expand the traditions in which they worked.
When Peter and Jess began playing together in 1979, they too were experimenting at the intersections of a many different styles: local African guitar music, rural folk songs, and domesticated calypso and rumba. But rather than Jim Reeves and Jimmie Rodgers, they looked to Don Williams, Dolly Parton, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Their contemporary fusion of Ivoirian folk music and contemporary country — preserved on Our Garden Needs Its Flowers — reimagined African country music for their own generation. Its optimistic energy resonated with the students, anti-Apartheid activists, and hopeful nationalists of their day.
Throughout the 1980s, Jess and Peter continued to tour and draw large audiences, but as the political climate in Ivory Coast became increasingly unstable in the 1990s, both men decided to leave for the US. Their album, meanwhile, fell out of official circulation and into the realm of bootlegs and MediaFire downloads.
Last month, Awesome Tapes From Africa, a reissue label out of LA, re-released Our Garden Needs Its Flowers. Awesome Tapes started in 2006, after Brian Shimkovitz returned from a Fulbright-funded year studying Ghanean hip hop, bringing back a suitcase full of cassettes. Beginning in the 1980s, the cassette tape had upended music distribution on the continent. Durable, portable, cheap, and easily reproducible, tapes made music more accessible, while industry processes like LP production or international marketing became much less lucrative. The aim of Awesome Tapes was to make the contents of that first suitcase, and all the suitcases and crates and shoeboxes that followed, available online, and to compensate artists for their work as it reached an ever-widening audience.
Over email, Brian describes coming across the album. “I first heard it because I was given a huge load of tapes by someone who had lived in West Africa for a long time and collected thousands of tapes. I believe it was in that bunch and I was immediately surprised by the style of music, of course, but also the clarity of the message and the beauty of the production.” For years he poked around online, looking for the two men without much success. One day last year, his sister put on an album she had bought on iTunes, and asked him if he had heard any of this country music from Ivory Coast. Brian immediately recognized it as Jess and Peter’s work, but he was disappointed by the low quality of the transfer.
He doubled down on trying to find the artists, and, as he puts it, “luckily a lot of online stalking came to fruition.” Last year he finally got in touch. Jess, it turned out, was living up the coast from Brian in San Francisco and Peter was in Nashville. Both men were still in touch and playing music, mostly on their own but occasionally reuniting for shows at the Embassy of Côte d’Ivoire in Washington, D.C. or back home in Abidjan. Together, the three began to discuss a proper reissue — vinyl, radio gigs, a small tour — and after months of ironing out production logistics and working through the attendant minutiae, Our Garden Needs Its Flowers emerged from three decades of obscurity.
When I discovered that Peter and I live in the same city, I emailed and asked whether he’d be interested in getting together at Santa’s to talk about his album and catch one of the weekly gigs. He said yes, that all sounded good, and we set a date. But when Sunday rolled around I got a little nervous about whether, in my enthusiasm for the music, I’d been totally forthcoming about just how much of a dive I’d be marching the man into.
We pull up to the bar at the same time and introduce ourselves as we walk through the gravel parking lot. Peter is a quiet, neatly dressed man in his early sixties with graying hair and a smile that wavers between wry and polite. It turns out we both moved to Nashville in 2014. Before that, Peter had been in Murfreesboro, and before that in Delaware, where he had moved shortly after immigrating from Ivory Coast. He currently works evenings as a nurse at a retirement home in the area and lives with his wife and son in South Nashville.
He counts off the series of moves as we stand at the bar and order beer, explaining that while the job offer in Tennessee had come as a surprise, he had gotten excited. “I flew in for the interview,” he tells me, “and they hired me right there. I took a week to see around Nashville and I liked it. I saw right away that music is very important for people’s lives here. So I said, OK, this is the right place for me!”
Santa’s, which is one of the last truly good, truly shitty bars in Nashville, has only been around since 2011, but in a city turning over as mercilessly fast as this one, it still feels like an underground institution. The bar is known for hosting karaoke seven nights a week, but on Sunday nights it’s home to the best, most raucous honky-tonk session in town. For two hours the Ice Cold Pickers — a six-ish-piece house band — tear through decades of country covers, from Jimmie Rodgers to Dolly Parton to Brooks and Dunn. As they cycle through ballads and stomps and shuffles, the trailer steadily fills to the brim with musicians itching to get on stage, drunk tourists ferried from Lower Broad, and big, thick, lung-destroying banks of cigarette smoke. It’s real social, real lively, and notoriously hard on the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems.
The smoke and the close quarters turn people off of the place. It’s a sort of bourgeoisie-repellent, helping maintain some semblance of carrying capacity and keeping Sunday nights at the bar from being overwhelmed by the bachelorette parties and LA health cowboys the city increasingly caters to. Peter walks through unfazed by the thrum, now in its early stages. We find a seat along the wall, and while the band sets up he tells me about meeting Jess and finding their sound.
The pair met in 1979, while Peter was in college in Abidjan and Jess was working as a political cartoonist. “Jess’s nephew introduced us,” Peter tells me. “We were suitemates in school and shared a kitchen that didn’t get very much use, but I would sit in there and play guitar.” One day this discerning nephew approached Peter, adamant that he meet Jess: “He said his uncle was doing the same thing and that we should get together. So he had Jess come in and right there we found out we could match.”
As Peter puts it, both men had been soaking up all of the American folk and country-rock that was getting played on television and the radio, and then interpreting it through West African musical idioms. He and Jess were taking cues from the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, and anything else that made it from Laurel Canyon to Abidjan, but they were also borrowing from musicians from Benin, Cameroon, and Gambia, artists like Laba Sosseh, Eboa Lotin, Francis Bebey, and Lougah François. “To me, music is exciting because it’s a mix of different cultures.” Peter tells me. “I’m listening to all kinds of music around the world on the radio, the TV, I hear interesting things from elsewhere. But I also have what is, you know, inside of me — which is African, local African, which I can’t get rid of,” he laughs. “When I’m expressing something it’s always a mix of what I am and what I listen to.”
Even today, Our Garden Needs Its Flowers is striking, and not because it feels like a novelty or a pastiche. Peter and Jess draw easily from country’s sonic palette, layering warm harmonica and lap steel under the striking vocal harmonies at the heart of their songs. The album’s eight tracks, sung in French, English, and Gouro, are almost all political in nature, dedicated to protest movements across the African continent. Some, like “Apartheid” address particular struggles against repressive regimes, while others like “African Chant” urge a pan-African solidarity and scope:
Remember you’re fighting for your rights
I say, black people
Courage, now you’re struggling for freedom
On the album’s title track, they describe the world as a “beautiful flowered garden” ruined by the powerful: “Those who have succeeded bein’ there / Prevent the others from bein’ there.” But while the songs are in the service of struggle, each one feels like a hopeful exhortation to change. “I sing for my sisters and brothers / ‘Cause our garden needs its flowers.”
It’s a warm sound, more Laurel Canyon than honky tonk, that manages to take classic country material like the train beat or the lonesome whine of a steel guitar and bend them toward some rarely glimpsed sonic optimism present in the music. As far as Peter is concerned, he and Jess only scratched the surface of what Ivoirian country music could be. “Any style is always changing and country is no different,” he tells me, “I can bring things in from my culture. Like a beat people use to sing mostly traditional songs. Nobody uses this beat in country music, but I can use it and make things more interesting.” For Peter, Our Garden’s rerelease feels like both recognition and rebirth. “Somewhere you did something that people still like. After 33 years! To get feedback that what we did was interesting then. It gives me and Jess more courage, more energy to pursue our dream.”
The dream is more music, but Peter has struggled to find collaborators in Nashville — informal songwriter meetups seem full of hobbyists and the few producers he’s approached tend to pigeonhole him and misinterpret his music as “reggae” or “worldbeat.” He’s got an album in his head, he tells me. “Ten songs,” he says, “I just need the band that wants to do it and can do it.”
Soon enough the Ice Cold Pickers are in high gear, pulling friends from the audience to sit in for a song by Roger Alan Wade or Dolly Parton or Bob Dylan. The scene is set down to the last detail: the spilled beers and snapped guitar strings, the bobbled outro of a song learned on the fly, the dancers who appear like angels on a pin, two-stepping through spaces invisible to the untrained eye. Peter seems right at home. We talk between songs or shout over the din. He likes the drummer’s touch — he could handle some 6/8 stuff, he notes — and the voice of a singer, high and slightly pinched, who barrels through Waylon’s “Rainy Day Woman.” “I could work with this,” he tells me.
At the end of the night the band wraps and we walk out of the smoke and into the lesser fog of the Tennessee night. “I’m enrolling,” Peter laughs, pointing back at the bar before he gets into his car and leaves. I put on Our Garden Needs its Flowers. Like Santa’s, it gives a sense of community; in it, the tradition of country music is reinhabited rather than just recited. “The country music we hear today is so different than it was before,” Peter tells me at one point, “and that was different than the folk music that came before it. It keeps moving.”
The next week I go back to Santa’s and sure enough, I run into Peter on the porch, standing in front of a trailer-side mural of Santa Claus on a chopper and drinking a tall can of beer, already looking like a regular. We talk about his long week at the nursing home and his upcoming tour. Then we go inside, parting the curtains of smoke and dodging the spinning dancers, to watch the band.