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Liz Toussaint, set to release an album this summer, hid her love for country music from friends while growing up in the Englewood neighborhood, then had to overcome the opposition of her brother as well as club owners who would not accept a black country singer.
"In front of my friends, we listened to Biggie Smalls and Tupac," she recently recalled, sliding into a stage whisper. "I never told anybody that at home I was listening to the Dixie Chicks." Toussaint's crush on country began on her family's summer road trips, when that high, lonesome sound was all their station wagon's radio could dial in. Once back home, the teenager kept quiet about the passion she felt would ostracize her, and country music was a cultural curse made worse by the fact that Toussaint was a promising pop singer, performing alongside a young Jennifer Hudson.
"I was dead-set: I'm not singing unless I'm singing country," the now-30-year-old Toussaint said recently, wearing a cowboy hat, boots and a pearly grin. Still, "it took a while before I could actually sing my original material in front of people without peeing myself." This summer, Toussaint plans to release an album titled "My Name Is Liz," where she sings of being a "City Girl with a Country Soul."
If Toussaint's forthcoming album manages to succeed, it'll put her in rarefied company as a black country singer: Only two of the Country Music Hall of Fame's 105 members are black, and the last time an African-American artist had a hit on the country charts, before Darius Rucker this year, was Charley Pride in 1983. "And let's be honest, Darius Rucker wouldn't be there if he wasn't in Hootie & the Blowfish," said Frankie Staton, who runs the Black Country Music Association out of her Nashville home.
Walter English, who plays piano in Toussaint's band, predicts she'll soon not only grab country fans, but bring in new listeners as well. "I never listened to country before Liz either, but my explanation is that Liz is like that food your parents put on your plate and you didn't want it because you didn't recognize it," he said. "Once you tried it, though, you love it." Her brother Abdullah puts it another way: "Think about hip-hop. It used to be just an urban thing, but now the suburban kids know more than we do. "Well, that's what we're going to do with Liz, only the reverse."