BEYONCÉ’S HISTORY LESSON

“Drop the new music,” Beyoncé demanded at the end of her Verizon ad hours into Super Bowl Sunday and the BeyHive scrambled. As the dual singles “TEXAS HOLD ’EM” and “16 CARRIAGES” started streaming, the queen bee’s master plan came into focus; like the disco all over 2022’s RENAISSANCE, country music sits at the center of Beyoncé’s new album, act ii, due 3/29 on Parkwood/Columbia.

Country is a musical form with whitewashed African American roots, and a learning curve tracing that trajectory emerged on social media straight away, with the names of Black country pioneers like Charley Pride and landmark projects like Ray CharlesModern Sounds in Country and Western Music bandied about.

And within days, Byng, Oklahoma, radio station KYKC refused to play Beyoncé’s new singles (shades of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”), then bowed to pressure after a public backlash. As a pop-country project by the most popular Black female singer of the era, act ii can’t help but serve as a teachable moment.

For one thing, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter famously hails from Texas, born and bred. “I grew up going to the Houston rodeo every year,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2021. “It was this amazing diverse and multicultural experience where there was something for every member of the family, including great performances, Houston-style fried Snickers and fried turkey legs.”

When I was growing up in the ’80s, I had a girlfriend who loved country music. I vividly remember her walking me through the lyrics to Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.” Kenny Rogers singles like “Islands in the Stream” (with Dolly Parton), “The Gambler” and “Lady” (also a hit for its author, Lionel Richie) were in heavy rotation. Parton’s “9 to 5” was all over Pop radio as well, as was Willie Nelson’s heart-tugging “Always on My Mind,” among others. If country music meant something to Black kids in the Bronx, it’s no surprise that it was an ingredient in the soup Beyoncé swam in down South.

“16 CARRIAGES,” a ballad about the sacrifices of starting one’s career as a teen, features playing by African American steel guitarist Robert Randolph, who recently told Rolling Stone: “In country music for [the] longest time, it almost seemed like it was supposed to be out of left field when a Black artist says, ‘Hey, I’m going to do a country record.’ It’s crazy that the whole world doesn’t understand the history of country music and fiddles, dobros and banjos.”

Speaking of, the up-tempo “TEXAS HOLD ’EM” showcases the banjo chops of biracial musician Rhiannon Giddens (a Pulitzer Prize winner for co-writing the 2023 opera Omar). Conversations about act ii’s reclamation of country music by a Black woman have, in fact, delved into the African roots of the banjo—it’s descended from the West and Central African kora, brought to the U.S. by enslaved people.

As the album rolls out, expect to hear more about hillbilly artists’ co-opting of Black spirituals and field hollers, as well as early crossover cuts like Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel Number 9” and even the Black roots of the Woody Guthrie staple “This Land Is Your Land” (originally a hymn entitled “When the World Is on Fire,” written by an anonymous Black minister).

2016’s “Daddy Lessons,” the Lemonade highlight famously remixed with The Chicks, was Beyoncé’s first foray into country music. With act ii, she’s affording us another lesson about who’s rightfully entitled to it.

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