Not ‘country enough’? Beyoncé proudly proclaims her Texas roots in ‘Cowboy Carter.’

James Brown’s 1979 performance at the Grand Ole Opry elicited angst from other country music performers. “I could throw up,” piano player Del Wood reportedly said to the Nashville Banner. The Memphis Press-Scimitar offered this headline: “James Brown brings disharmony to Grand Ole Opry.”

It reminded me of the icy reception Beyoncé received at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards, where her performance of “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks drew backlash. That pushback from the CMAs has reportedly inspired her latest work. Much like James Brown didn’t take no mess, neither does Mama Carter.

Why We Wrote This

Genres can become gatekeeping when they are used to determine who has a right to sing certain songs. Houston native Beyoncé’s new album has her riding a horse through those gates as she offers her takes on everybody from the Beatles to Dolly Parton.

I love “Cowboy Carter” because among the serenity and severity of the album, there is a brashness that comes through. I can’t stop listening to the thumping “SPAGHETTII” and the strings on “TYRANT,” two tracks with lead-ins from female country music icons that make way for defiant anthems.

“Cowboy Carter,” buoyed by the likes of Black country music icon Linda Martell and legends Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, gives roots to Beyoncé’s experimentation. “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” Martell asks at the beginning of “SPAGHETTII,” and Beyoncé wrote on Instagram that “Cowboy Carter” isn’t a country album – it’s a “Beyoncé album.”

Just before the official release of “Cowboy Carter,” the second act of Beyoncé’s “Renaissance,” I thought about a number of Black artists who had been disrespected by the country music establishment. The most local, if not the most notable, for me, was James Brown.

There’s a recollection of Brown’s March 1979 performance at the Grand Ole Opry from Rolling Stone, which recounted some of the angst from other country music performers. “I could throw up,” piano player Del Wood reportedly said to the Nashville Banner. The Memphis Press-Scimitar offered this headline: “James Brown brings disharmony to Grand Ole Opry.”

It reminded me of the icy reception Beyoncé received at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards, where her performance of “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks drew backlash. That pushback from the CMAs has reportedly inspired her latest work, and much like James Brown didn’t take no mess, neither does Mama Carter.

Why We Wrote This

Genres can become gatekeeping when they are used to determine who has a right to sing certain songs. Houston native Beyoncé’s new album has her riding a horse through those gates as she offers her takes on everybody from the Beatles to Dolly Parton.

I love “Cowboy Carter” because among the serenity and severity of the album, there is a brashness that comes through. I can’t stop listening to the thumping “SPAGHETTII” and the strings on “TYRANT,” two tracks with straightforward lead-ins from female country music icons that make way for defiant anthems. The sultry lyrics of “Cowboy Carter,” buoyed by the likes of Black country music icon Linda Martell and legends Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, give roots to Beyoncé’s experimentation. “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” Martell asks at the beginning of “SPAGHETTII,” and Beyoncé wrote on Instagram that “Cowboy Carter” isn’t a country album – it’s a “Beyoncé album.” Her song titles are in all capitals and threaded with Roman numeral II’s throughout, as a visual callback to the album being Act II of “Renaissance.”

Since the April 2016 release of “Lemonade,” Beyoncé’s sense of empowerment through her studio albums has been pronounced, and no one is exempt. I can still visualize a baseball bat-wielding ’Yoncé marching down the street, her lyrics a damning indictment of the behavior of her husband, Jay-Z. The first act of “Renaissance” elicited the spirit of Black disco icons such as Donna Summer, but also saved room for systemic angst, exemplified in phrasing such as “America Has a Problem.”

“Cowboy Carter” opens up with “AMERIICAN REQUIEM,” which goes beyond the problem and acknowledges that status quo is what makes this country and establishment go:

Nothing really ends
For things to stay the same, they have to change again
Hello, my old friend
You change your name but not the ways you play pretend
American Requiem

And then, the explicit pushback on notions that she isn’t “country enough”:

Used to say I spoke, “Too country”
And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country enough
Said I wouldn’t saddle up, but
If that ain’t country, tell me what is

This is a reminder that we’ve known Beyoncé since she was a child – that even when she fell among the stars, it was only a setup for an illuminating career. It would have been easy for Beyoncé to lean into scorn and vindictiveness, taking a Louisville Slugger to country music’s elite institutions. But success has always been her best revenge. “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper,” she told us in 2016’s hit “Formation.”

In that same song, she told women to organize, which is the true beauty of “Cowboy Carter.” This album is a clarion call, an “OK, ladies” to the “BLACKBIIRDS” of country music, to giants such as Parton and Martell. A requiem requires an invocation. Beyoncé, the living successor to Tina Turner, is an evocation. She is Proud Mary on “YA YA.”

“BODYGUARD.” “PROTECTOR.” She’s letting us know where she sits, not just on a throne, but on a horse, as a defender of the past and the present. One of her husband’s most famous lines ends with “no, [I] did that, so hopefully you won’t have to go through that.” So much of pop music has become homogenized, which is why her genre-bending effort shines through. It’s not just informed by history, but also soulful and avenging. 

One of the promos for the album mentioned the “chitlin’ circuit,” which is a fancy way of saying the underground railroad, or the Negro leagues. It is a callback to second-class citizenship, or, rather, to the attempts to instill such policy. Beyoncé, a native of Houston, uses it to affirm her family and musical legacy, and also to uplift the Martells of the world and give them a voice. Sonically, it is “Black Girl Songbook” author’s Danyel Smith’s recollection of unappreciated women in music, and this exhortation – “Shine Bright.”

Another promo featured a taxi driver who rode through the countryside, and a sign: “Radio Texas, 100,000 watts of healing power.” James Brown owned radio stations throughout the country as well, a response to the difficulty Black artists had distributing their music. “If you can’t beat them, buy them.” This sense of capitalism can rub folks the wrong way, and so it went with Brown and Beyoncé. The Black Panthers challenged Brown, and Beyoncé has received criticisms about her radio silence on Gaza.

When Brown said it loud – that he was Black and proud – it resonated. Beyoncé’s efforts at Black reclamation – including Black Panther homages at the Super Bowl and the Grammys – have done the same.

I am finding that the people who criticize her the most are not the targeted audience. I have a good friend, a proud Houstonian, who has followed Beyoncé figuratively and literally, having attended her Coachella set. “I love Beyoncé and she loves me,” Crystal Franks proudly has listed on a social media page.

Quite naturally, she calls “Cowboy Carter” a masterpiece. But she also called this latest episode of “Renaissance” a refrain.

“Once you get past melodies and beats, you’re in the middle of a history repeating itself lesson,” Ms. Franks says. “Overall, I’m pleased with her representation of our past and present in this country. No better woman [or] man for the job of putting America in its place.”

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