Beyoncé’s country album drowns out the Black music history it claims to celebrate | Yasmin Williams

On the first track of Beyoncé’s new album, she seems to state the impetus behind the project: “They used to say I spoke too country / Then the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ’nough.” That rejection was an unnamed experience in which she has said she “did not feel welcomed”, assumed to be her performance of her song Daddy Lessons with the Chicks at the 2016 Country Music awards. It prompted a racist backlash from parts of the country establishment, as well as outrage at Beyoncé giving a platform to the Chicks, who had been in exile from the industry since singer Natalie Maines criticised George W Bush’s handling of the Iraq war in 2002.

Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé’s 27-track response. On the album’s cover, she is on a horse, holding an American flag, draped in US flag apparel, with her long blond tresses flowing and a cowboy hat atop her head. In the few details she has shared about the album, she said she “did a deeper dive into the history of country music and studied our rich musical archive”. As she became the first Black female artist to have a US country No 1 and top the Billboard Hot 100 with a country song and debate over her place in the genre reigned, no greater a country luminary than Dolly Parton lent her support. Later it was revealed that she and outlaw legend Willie Nelson were to feature on the album, cementing its country bona fides.

I’m an internationally touring acoustic guitarist from Virginia who has studied American vernacular music. The promise of Beyoncé’s country album was exciting to me, as were the personnel on its two lead singles: the musician-scholar Rhiannon Giddens playing banjo and viola on Texas Hold ’Em and pedal steel player Robert Randolph – of the Sacred Steel tradition, the southern Black Pentecostal church music dating back to the 1930s – appears on 16 Carriages. These are Black country and folk artists who work within Black traditional lineages that deserve to be highlighted and celebrated for their specificity. However, on hearing Cowboy Carter this weekend, I felt as though little work had been done to utilise the breadth of knowledge of Beyoncé’s collaborators or the Black country/traditional music community at large. Beyoncé settled for using Giddens’ banjo and Randolph’s pedal steel as props to back up the overall production on the record, instead of boosting these traditions to the forefront on an album with an artificial sheen. Moreover, it felt in greater conversation with an exclusionary mainstream – and like a capitalist gesture to insert itself into that world.

Ahead of release, Beyoncé stated that Cowboy Carter was “a ‘Beyoncé’ album, not a country album”, and she sings that she wants genre to become meaningless. She even uses an interlude by Linda Martell, the first Black female solo artist to play the Grand Ole Opry, to restate this. “Genres are a funny little concept aren’t they? Yes they are,” Martell says on the song Spaghettii. “In theory they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” As Giddens put it in a recent article for the Guardian: “Tradition is shaped according to the inner logic of specific communities through long processes of creative engagement … Genre, on the other hand, is a product of capitalism, and people with access to power create it, control it and maintain it in order to commoditise art.” Despite Cowboy Carter’s use of funk, psychedelia and even Jersey club, Beyoncé’s flagrant leaning on country aesthetics to establish this album as being markedly different from her previous records suggests an artist conforming to the standards of the latter category in order to cash in on the growing popularity of country music.

Billboard reported that country music consumption was up 20.3% year-on-year in the first half of 2023, thanks to the success of records by Wallen, Luke Combs, Zach Bryan and Bailey Zimmerman. Later that year came controversial country No 1 singles from Jason Aldean and Oliver Anthony. In their wake, major artists are muscling in: Post Malone has teased the release of a forthcoming country album; Lana Del Rey has also announced a country record, Lasso, for release this summer. Cowboy Carter hardly seems different from those attempts to capitalise on the genre’s prominence.

Post Malone performing at Rolling Loud festival in California in March. Photograph: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

What other reason is there to include guest spots from Post Malone and Miley Cyrus – both white artists who piggybacked on hip-hop aesthetics to gain success and relevance before later criticising the genre? It seems incongruous given Beyoncé’s laudable work to give Black artistry its due, as does the news that Post Malone is set to collaborate with country star Morgan Wallen, who was caught on video in 2021 using a racial slur and briefly penalised by the industry – only to return to the top of the charts and break records when his 2023 album One Thing at a Time became the longest-running US No 1 country album. The swift recovery of his career demonstrates the double standards for white male artists, and then everyone else, within the country music industry. And Beyoncé singing a dreadful duet with Post Malone about Levi’s jeans is not tradition; it’s an advertisement that exploits a certain aesthetic, much like her Black Panther-esque uniform at the 2016 Super Bowl.

Her attempts at country-style storytelling also miss the mark. 16 Carriages immediately reminded me of Merle Travis’s hit Sixteen Tons. They’re both autobiographical testimonies to hardship and sacrifice. Singing about his family’s life in the Kentucky coal mines, Merle sings, “I loaded 16 tons / What do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt.” On 16 Carriages, Beyoncé sings about her young touring life with Destiny’s Child “on the back of the bus” in “a bunk with the band”. As hard as I know bus life can be, Beyoncé’s hardships are a Hollywood version of the working person’s reality.

“I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when / I’m stuck in Folsom prison and time keeps dragging on,” Johnny Cash croons in Folsom Prison Blues. “AOTY, I ain’t win,” Beyoncé laments in Sweet Honey Buckiin’, referring to the fact that she has never won the Grammy for album of the year despite being the awards’ most-garlanded musician. The difference in lyricism displays the changing ethos in country music, from authentically magnifying the underclass experience to a shortcut to perceived authenticity. Beyoncé’s larger-than-life persona feels at odds with the tradition itself. Take her rewrite of Parton’s Jolene. In the original, Parton is vulnerable and powerless in the face of a woman who she thinks capable of luring her man away. Beyoncé turns the song into a fiery warning shot, stripping out the tension that has made the original endure for more than 50 years in favour of a pop-starry statement of dominance.

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Even as an album fusing genres, Cowboy Carter lacks the execution of a record such as Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Modern Sounds reworks country standards into pop, jazz, and R&B song forms by fusing the older traditions of country western music with the more modern popular music at that time. Perhaps if Cowboy Carter had featured more working-class Black country artists, or leaned on the scholarship of the likes of Dom Flemons, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, or collectives such as Black Opry, which represents Black artists, fans and industry workers, or the now-defunct Black Country Music Association of the 1990s, it might have been as thrilling as Modern Sounds.

As has been the case since her 2013 self-titled album, Beyoncé has remained secretive about how the album was made – making it hard to see anything, or any culture, other than Beyoncé herself as the central figure of Cowboy Carter. It’s unfortunate: the album would have benefited from de-centring its superstar and letting the experts she trusted to join her in creating the album to shine brighter. As it stands, it feels as though Beyoncé has put the Carter before the horse.

The Guardian