QUEEN BEY ADDS COUNTRY TO HER MUSICAL REALM

When Beyoncé Knowles-Carter appeared at the Grammy telecast in a white Stetson, my heart raced. The fashion-setter, cultural force, activist, archivist and powerhouse entertainer has proven herself to be potently intentional, as well as willing to school the world on realities that need squaring up while creating impossibly powerful, often joyful music in the process.

Could the gorgeous, Houston-born daughter of a Louisiana Creole mother and an African American father bring “country” at its most robust back to country music—and, more importantly, kick in the door once and for all for people of color, women, LGBTQIA+? Beyoncé, who globally transcends all labels while lifting up others and creating space for artists, designers and archivists, understands the power of her vision and her fame.

“TEXAS HOLD ’EM,” which made her the first Black woman to top the Hot Country Songs, was rife with all the best of what makes country infectious. A banjo—played by MacArthur Fellowship recipient, Pulitzer Prize winner, solo artist and onetime Carolina Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens—starts with a few choice notes, then hauls ass as it sets a decidedly agrarian, barn dance feel, its beat pure line dance/clogging delight.

The imaging—a classic rodeo queen with sash proclaiming the title, reins in hand as she sits backwards side-saddle with an American flag flying behind her—felt like a celebration of an America she wants to bring into being, an America she’s laying triumphant claim to.

Like The Chicks’ unbridled musicianship with its forward rush of grace and goodness, “TEXAS HOLD ’EM” packed plenty of grab-’em-by-the-ears musicality before her dusky, jubilant vocal kicks in. When the backing vocals drop a curtain of lush beauty, Beyoncé sketches a perfect miniature of the end-of-week euphoric whirl for oilfield workers, farmers, cowboys and blue collars that’s often reduced to ham-fisted, paint-by-cliché, party-down Music Row anthems that lack the wonder and the thrill of actual habitation.

Working with Raphael Saadiq, possibly Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Black female country pioneers Rissi Palmer and Linda Martell, sacred-steel master Robert Randolph and more, Queen Bey is creating a space with act ii COWBOY CARTER that’s built not to claim her Lone Star bona fides, but to suggest that all music belongs to everyone. Just give credit where it’s due.

As I was celebrating the idea of an album that could once and for all clear the path for Mickey Guyton, Allison Russell, Valerie June, Adia Victoria, Reyna Roberts, Chapel Hart, O.N.E. The Duo, Madeline Edwards, Brittney Spencer, heck, The War and Treaty, two fortuitous things happened.

First, the 3/19 Instagram post that spoke of an event that left her feeling unwelcome, that drove her determination to delve into the Black history in country music, which includes DeFord Bailey, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Rufus Tee Tot” Payne, Lesley Riddle and later Charley Pride, surgeon Cleve Francis, Martell and Palmer, as well as recordings by Ray Charles (the quintessential Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music), Bobby Womack (BW Goes C&W), Joe Tex (Soul Country) and Tina Turner (Tina Turns the Country On!). That fire might deliver an album to right the narrative and frankly own the mainstream country/Americana space in her inimitable way. The buzz started buzzing—the issue must’ve been her appearance in 2016 on the 50th CMA Awards with the at-that-point-polarizing The Chicks.

While the CMA was silent about the booking, the anticipation in Nashville was palpable; the debate was “Why would Beyoncé do this? ‘Daddy Lessons’ was for sure country, but isn’t this a little too hick for her?” The energy backstage that night was electric, for while a hard right slice of the industry fed reactive fans’ response to Natalie Maines’ 2003 comment onstage in London, just the idea that we were getting to have The Chicks’ music fed hopes they might return to a genre that desperately needed their musical torque and elation.

But Beyoncé? People were giddy at the idea. In the press room there were cheers when she hit the screen. YES! It was really happening. Holy crap! To quote William Miller or Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous: “It’s all happening” in a phalanx of musicians playing with everything they had, two brilliant vocalists trading lines and a musical climax that made Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton’s career-launching CMA Awards collab seem like a garage band.

How could those loud-mouthed uncles, that awful sister and the redneck brothers-in-law no one wants to sit with leave that kind of impression? Good Lord, where were their manners? Yet, the proof was in that 3/19 Insta post. Which speaks to the reality of how charged Nashville is for those perceived/defined as “other.”

When Harvard-educated Alice Randall arrived in the mid-’80s, having hits with old-guard honky-tonk singer Moe Bandy, co-writing with progressive country’s Radney Foster as well as Grammy winner Steve Earle and having a BMI Sextuple Millionaire with Trisha Yearwood’s #1 recording of her “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl),” she was the only Black creative in the room. Brilliant, a quick student of people, she created on her own terms with some of the city’s best writers.

If Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” translated for a working-class chunky boy riding in his father’s truck named Luke Combs, creating the first #1 for a Black solo female writer and marking the first Black woman to win the CMA’s Song of the Year, the alternative-pop song suggested what Beyoncé is bringing home.

That second thing that happened after the “this is real” realization was a brilliant Nashville polemic execution. On 3/20, the Guggenheim, Whitney, New Museum and Museum of Arts and Design all had variations of the cover image and lines from that 3/19 post projected on their buildings:

“THIS AIN’T A COUNTRY ALBUM.
THIS IS A ‘BEYONCÉ’ ALBUM.
act ii COWBOY CARTER 3.29”

“My hope is years from now,” Beyoncé wrote, “the mention of an artist’s race, as it relates to releasing genres of music, will be irrelevant... It feels good to see how music can unite so many people around the world while also amplifying the voices of some people who have dedicated so much of their lives educating on our musical history... act ii is a result of challenging myself and taking my time to bend and blend genres together to create a body of work.

“I have a few surprises on the album, and I have collaborated with some brilliant artists who I deeply respect. I hope that you can hear my heart and soul, and all the love and passion that I have poured into every detail and every sound.”

Whether it’s a straight-up rebuke, a robust celebration of majestic Texas women that would include country firebrands Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Tanya Tucker and Maren Morris to make a parallel that allows for all races, a leveling of the playing field in country or a masterclass of roughneck rapture, “TEXAS HOLD ’EM” is definitive.

“16 CARRIAGES” offers another tent to commune under. It reaches into the space between the emotional drama of great country doyennes Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Bobbie Gentry and Parton who stretch the stoicism and positivity that allows for happiness in life’s travails and the detail-driven Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, even Joni Mitchell folk underpinnings that can unfurl into the majestic production of progressive powerhouses Patsy Cline, k.d. lang and Carrie Underwood.

For country, long challenged by a divergent populace, COWBOY CARTER stands to deliver a musical moment that rises above it all. If a Barney Fife radio guy somewhere in Oklahoma didn’t know what was coming, haplessly saying “We don’t play Beyoncé” because he thought of her as a pop supernova, everyone’s on notice now.

But more important, knowing the attention to detail, the commitment to not just getting it right but to deliver in a way that celebrates the wisdom, the muscular musicality and righteousness rising, COWBOY CARTER may well be the best album of the year, as well as the best country album of the year. To me, there’s so much right about this moment, but especially Queen Bey finally crowning The Pointer Sisters’ Grammy win for 1974’s Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for “Fairytale” after becoming the first Black female group to appear on the Grand Ole Opry.

Half a century later, maybe we can finally eschew the conversation and get on with the music.

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