Yeehaw! Beyoncé just dropped the most exciting country album of the year. What a pity Nashville didn’t want it SuperNayr

The artwork for Beyoncé’s eighth studio album, Cowboy Carter, is about as country as you can get. A white stetson atop her head, the pop queen sits side-saddle on a galloping white horse, her own platinum hair flying out behind her, with the reins in one hand and the American flag raised high in the other. It’s an image that resembles that of a revolutionary leader; portraits of nobility; US presidents. It’s heroic, bold, and unequivocally American. To the world, it looks as though Beyoncé is about to stake her claim on country music.

But just 10 days before Cowboy Carter’s release, Beyoncé shared a pointed message with her followers: “This ain’t a country album,” she declared. “This is a Beyoncé album.”

Now that she’s released the record in all its 27-track, 80-minute glory, it’s easier to understand what the Texan-born star was talking about. Of course, the influences of traditional country music and Southern iconography are clear. She’s out for bloody vengeance on “Daughter”, searching for redemption in white chapels and rosary beads. She promises to be a “shotgun rider ’til the day I die” on “II Most Wanted” over the plucking of banjos. She plays up the southern twang in her husky croon on “Levii’s Jeans” while inviting her lover to “rodeo in your room”.

But in her inclusion of other styles like funk, gospel and blues, as well as her wide embrace of Black country musicians, Beyoncé has released something that transcends the confines of the genre as we know it. After Nashville’s poorly concealed disdain for her country leanings, it shouldn’t have the chance to claim her now.

Beyoncé’s affinity for the American South and its culture is a thread woven brightly through a career spanning almost three decades. As early as 1999, we witnessed her strutting down an LA boulevard wearing an orange cowboy hat in the Destiny’s Child video for “Bug a Boo”. In 2016’s “Formation”, she sang of how, despite her eye-watering wealth, “they’ll never take the country out me”, and on the same Lemonade album, “Daddy Lessons”, her twangy tune of parental angst and regret, was a sizzling, country fried standout.

However, when Beyoncé – music royalty in every other corner of the industry – took the stage to perform “Daddy Lessons” with The Chicks at the Country Music Awards back in 2016, the response was downright discourteous. Never mind that this collaboration had attracted millions of extra viewers to the CMAs, while the original song was one of the few country-influenced tracks to make it into the UK charts. For right-wing country artists and their fans, Beyoncé simply wasn’t welcome on the CMAs stage.

Beyoncé performing ‘Daddy Lessons’ with The Chicks, attracting millions of extra viewers to the CMAs in 2016

(Rick Diamond/Getty)

This experience is clearly still fresh in the star’s mind. Before the album’s release, she disclosed that Cowboy Carter “was born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed… and it was very clear that I wasn’t”.

But what, in the detractors’ eyes, made Beyoncé’s step into country music so unworthy of being taken seriously? Born and raised in Texas – the home state of country music icons such as Tanya Tucker, Willie Nelson and George Strait – Beyoncé has yeehaw at her core. Her sister Solange celebrated Black cowboy traditions in her 2019 film, When I Get Home, simply because those are the images she is familiar with. “I don’t know John Wayne. I don’t know his story. I really don’t,” she explained at the time. “We’ve had to rewrite what Black history means for us since the beginning of time… It’s not just an aesthetic, this is something that we actually live.”

The Knowles sisters’ experience of country life is just as real, and just as worthy of celebration as chart-toppers like Luke Combs and Jason Aldean. Sadly, Black artists have long been ostracised and underrepresented in the country sphere for decades. In 2019, when Georgia-born Lil Nas X burst into the country music charts with “Old Town Road”, it was swiftly disqualified, as chart compilers argued that it didn’t “embrace enough elements of today’s country music”.

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Artists such as Lil Nas X received similarly frosty receptions from Nashville with their ventures into country music

(Getty Images for The Recording A)

For many critics, this reasoning exemplified a double standard that allows white country artists who borrow from rap and hip-hop to still participate in the charts. Take Post Malone and Miley Cyrus: they are artists who have vacillated between country and hip-hop with comparative ease. They also both have guest spots on Cowboy Carter, in a move that highlights how refreshing genre play can be – and how Beyoncé chose not to close the door to other artists in the way that country’s gatekeepers have done to her.

On “Blackbiird”, a tender cover of the Beatles’ song inspired by the civil rights movement, Beyoncé brings in the voices of Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts – all Black women on the country scene who have been overlooked. “You were only waiting for this moment to arise,” they sing, united in a powerful statement that stakes their claim to country expression.

Beyonce’s artwork for ‘Cowboy Carter’

(AP)

There’s also the stunning bluegrass ballad “Just For Fun” with Willie Jones, and rodeo-ready “Sweet / Honey / Buckiin” with Shaboozey. Notably, Beyoncé pays a large tribute to Linda Martell, the first commercially successful Black female artist in the country music field and the first to play the Grand Ole Opry. “Genres are funny little thing, aren’t they?” Martell opines on “Spaghettii”.

If that wasn’t enough, the queen of country herself, Dolly Parton, endorses Beyoncé’s update to her classic hit “Jolene” with a drawling, witty intro. Beyoncé’s version is a seething warning to “that hussy with the good hair” from Lemonade, while fellow Texan and another country legend, Willie Nelson, serves as a radio jockey, introducing songs such as her knee-slapping No 1 lead single, “Texas Hold ‘Em”.

Instead of knocking on the door and hoping to squeeze through the cracks, Beyoncé has built her own, inclusive country house – a fully realised exploration of Southern music that is already one of 2024’s most exciting and inspired releases.

Nashville had the chance to embrace Beyoncé long ago; instead they’ve been left to play catch-up as the star shows that she can bring her version of the genre to the world, whether they have her back or not. More fool them for not hopping on her rodeo horse sooner.

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