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Beyoncé’s new album explores what it means to be country

By Leah Asmelash, CNN

(CNN) — The top of the country music charts is filled with familiar names: Zach Bryan. Luke Combs. Morgan Wallen. These are country heavyweights — names any country fan would recognize.

Then, sitting among them all, face obscured by the tip of a cowboy hat, is Beyoncé.

On March 29, Beyoncé released “Cowboy Carter,” a sprawling 27-track manifesto that is absolutely not a country album, she claims, but is instead a Beyoncé album “rooted in country.”

Inspired by her infamous 2016 Country Music Awards performance, which received so much racist backlash that the awards show removed clips from its social media, “Cowboy Carter” is Beyoncé’s response. Once rejected by the genre, she has now galloped into country music’s frontier, planting her flag and redefining it in her own Texas-bred image.

From its visuals to its lyrics, “Cowboy Carter” is filled with a wealth of country influences, callbacks, and declarations. Together, the work (for it’s much more than an album) pries at the very roots of musical tradition, asking: What is genre? What is country? And who gets to decide?

‘Cowboy Carter’ is a claiming of country heritage

One needs to look no further than “Cowboy Carter’s” album cover to grasp Beyoncé’s intent for the project. Seated side-saddle on a white horse, holding the reins in one hand and an American flag in the other, this image of Beyoncé is a direct callback to rodeo queens and Black rodeo traditions, particularly in her hometown of Houston, said Charles Hughes, who studies race and music at Rhodes College and co-writes the music newsletter No Fences Review.

As soon as he saw the cover, Hughes was struck by the image.

“(It) is speaking to a kind of country culture — country music iconography — that many other Black artists have also utilized, not to try to move into space, but to claim country as theirs, as it always has been,” Hughes said.

“Cowboy Carter” springs from a lineage of Black country crossover albums like Millie Jackson’s “Just A Lil’ Bit Country,” released in 1981, at the height of her R&B prowess. See also: Ray Charles’ “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” (1962) and Bobby Womack’s “BW Goes C&W” (1976), whose album cover features Womack on horseback flanked by Black cowboys.

That’s to say nothing of the countless Black artists and musicians who shaped country from its beginning, a well-documented history that some purveyors of modern country choose to ignore. The pushback against Beyoncé’s CMA performance revealed what happens when that history is buried. Aside from some racist remarks, other detractors claimed the star wasn’t country enough and shamed her for her views on law enforcement.

Beyoncé fully plays into this history. The track list for “Cowboy Carter” resembles posters for performances on the Chitlin Circuit, tours that played Black-only venues, and that White people avoided. The visual also invokes an era of group country music tours, Hughes noted, often sponsored by radio stations. And right there, at the bottom, is Beyoncé’s own radio station, KNTRY Radio Texas, a fictional station referenced throughout the album through voice overs by country legend Willie Nelson.

This, following some accounts of country radio stations hesitant to play her single “Texas Hold ‘Em,” seems to signal: If existing country stations won’t play Beyoncé, she’ll create her own.

Beyoncé has surrounded herself with country greats

Though Beyoncé may be exploring forgotten frontiers with her new album, she is bringing the best of country artistry along with her. A trio of country legends anchor “Cowboy Carter,” providing short interludes throughout the album and destroying any lingering doubt about Beyoncé’s country cred. There’s Nelson, as famous and beloved a country icon as any, beckoning listeners forward, saying “Sometimes you don’t know what you like until someone you trust turns you on.”

Then there’s Dolly Parton, a vocal fan of Beyoncé’s work, introducing “Cowboy Carter’s” cover of “Jolene” with her instantly recognizable drawl.

The last of the three legends may be lesser known, but her work is just as important. Linda Martell was a groundbreaking country figure, and Hughes said the meaning behind her appearance is twofold.

The first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry,  Martell’s album “Color Me Country” saw significant success upon its debut in 1970.

But the state of the industry at the time meant Martell endured racist verbal abuse from audiences and venue bookers alike. Martell has said she was eventually “blackballed” from the industry by a record producer who decided to promote a White artist instead of her. She ultimately left the industry shortly after “Color Me Country,” and never released another album.

Including Martell equally on the album alongside names like Parton and Nelson, uplifts the artist and serves as a historical correction, Hughes said.

“There’s something really powerful about the sort of three country icons on the album, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, who are unimpeachably country icons, and Linda Martell, (who) far fewer people knew about,” Hughes said. “I’m taking that as a statement that Linda Martell deserves to be there.”

Appearing right before the song “Spaghetti,” Martell introduces herself with, “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? In theory they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.”

The album redefines the limits of genre

That Martell’s musings appear just before “Spaghetti,” whose title is likely a nod to the Western film genre, only emphasizes the ever-evolving definition of country music. In the song, Beyoncé raps alongside Shaboozey, a country hip hop artist, in a frenzied, genre-bending track that challenges: Could this be country, too?

The infusion of rap and hip-hop with country isn’t unfamiliar to country listeners, Hughes said. White country artists have long explored the space, most notably Florida Georgia Line and their song, “Cruise,” a remix of which features “Country Grammar” rapper Nelly, and even Jason Aldean, who plays with flow on his 2010 hit “Dirt Road Anthem” (Rapper and fellow Georgia native Ludacris also features on the song’s remix, proving that Black talent brings their own country credentials to the table, even when mixing genres.)

“(The album) is actually an interesting demonstration of how expansive country music can be,” Hughes said.

Though not considered emblematic of the genre, many southern hip hop artists have always placed themselves alongside their country origins. Rappers and groups like UGK, Big KRIT and Nappy Rootz have all lauded their country southern heritage — with the latter specifically identifying themselves as country rap.

“There’s no reason, honestly, why a group like Nappy Rootz could not have been on country radio,” Hughes said.

Beyoncé’s hometown, Houston, is famous for its hip hop, but is obviously still entrenched in Southern traditions. This is, after all, the same artist who made multiple appearances at the Houston rodeo, whose early days with Destiny’s Child showcased a proclivity for cowboy hats, and who frequently references her “Texas bama” roots.

It’s natural, then, that all of those sounds and influences could appear at once, Hughes said. Beyoncé is just mixing the pot, asking us to consider, at the very least, a broader definition of country.

Like “Spaghetti,” “Sweet Honey Buckiin” is a similar genre-bending tune. Beyoncé opens the track by crooning “I Fall to Pieces,” a classic country ballad by Patsy Cline. But Beyoncé’s version is not Cline’s yearning for a love lost. Our narrator cuts to Houston, reminiscing on Jiffy cornbread and mechanical bulls in a medley of singing and rapping. Here, again, Beyoncé is underlining her purpose: This may not be the country you’re used to, but it’s her country.

Beyoncé also drew from multiple Western movies during the course the album’s making, even having them play in the background while recording: “Five Fingers For Marseilles,” “Urban Cowboy,” “The Hateful Eight, “Space Cowboys,” “The Harder They Fall” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

There are sonic breadcrumbs of these Westerns’ influence on “Cowboy Carter,” Hughes said. The finger-picked guitar on “Daughter,” for example, is reminiscent of cowboy songs of the old west. “Ameriican Requiem” calls upon “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, a California rock band. “Texas Hold ‘Em” invites visions of dance halls, famously depicted in the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy.”

References, allusions, collaborations and history lessons aside, the album has not been immune to criticism. One reading of “Jolene” noted that Beyoncé replaces the song’s legendary vulnerability with “a bunch of bad-bitch clichés.” Others have critiqued “Blackbird,” a Paul McCartney cover, for relegating the four young Black women country artists featured — Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts — to the background.

Still, simply by naming these artists, Beyoncé has given them a demonstrable boost in streams and fans. Their inclusion, one could argue, creates a place alongside country music’s elite and creates an opening for more Black women in the industry.

It’s just one mission of many that Beyoncé’s new album strives for: To reveal the history, interrogate the present, and chart the future of country music. But, ultimately, the artist says it’s all about the music. “I think people are going to be surprised because I don’t think this music is what everyone expects,” Beyoncé said in a press release. “But it’s the best music I’ve ever made.”

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