Cowboy Carter


Columbia, 2024

REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski


Like so much of Black contemporary pop art, Beyoncé's music has found itself implicated in the ongoing culture wars that seek to erase marginalized voices which are claiming their space. No longer merely a pop star, Beyoncé is a cultural force and a social critic, using her art to celebrate the Black contribution to American culture. Her previous album, 2022’s Renaissance, spotlighted the history of Black queer and ball culture. With her latest release, Cowboy Carter (the second in a trilogy of albums), Beyoncé uses her fame and platform to right the misconceived notion that country, Americana, folk, and country-western music are white genres. With roots in gospel and church, many of the forefathers and foremothers of country music have been Black performers. Though Beyoncé isn’t the first contemporary pop artist to center Black voices in country music, she has the highest profile, and on Cowboy Carter pays tribute to peers like Rhiannon Giddens, Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, who appear on the album.

In her book, Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions, scholar Francesca Royster points out that “Black women have almost always had a complex relationship to countryness and, with that, country music, whether they are from the North… or still living in the South.” She adds that “pleasure in [country] music is always in tension with the lived experience of racial and gendered violence.” The hostility Beyoncé faced, first with her appearance at the 50th Annual Country Music Association Awards and then with the rash of country stations that refused to play her music (not to mention the bigoted social media posts), speaks to that tension, as her work has been rejected in some circles because of Beyoncé’s expression of her Blackness. 

Beyoncé places herself into the tradition blazed by pioneers like Big Mama Thornton, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Linda Martell. The album engages with that history, pulling in influences and sounds while innovating sounds, creating a wholly original work of pop art. Perhaps speaking to the media hype to her shift in music, Beyoncé bluntly announced, “This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.” Cowboy Carter isn't the first time Beyoncé's orbit intersected with contemporary country. She famously performed “Daddy Lessons” (from her Lemonade album) with the Chicks (then known as the Dixie Chicks) at the Country Music Association Awards on 2 November 2016. The performance was an affirming and powerful rebuke of country music’s conservative values: Beyoncé’s presence represented a much-needed diversity among the evening’s performers, while the Chicks historied ostracization by country, added to the subversive nature of the performance. Unfortunately, the union faced controversy, with a sustained racist backlash against Beyoncé. 

The hostility spoke a larger, more insidious notion that country music is a primarily white domain, to which Beyoncé was a threat. Despite being from Texas and speaking with a pronounced Texan drawl (which she refers to in the album’s first track), Beyoncé's discography of urban-pop and R&B was held against her. Actor (and sometimes country singer) John Schneider went on a strange rant when asked about the country radio backlash against Beyoncé, likening it to a dog urinating on a tree. He then complained of “Lefties in the entertainment industry” not leaving “any area alone,” explicitly suggesting that country music is a conservative space. It’s as if country music was a nation that wanted a wall erected. Bob the Drag Queen astutely pointed out that Beyoncé is being asked for her “country credentials” despite being authentically Southern, as opposed to country stars like Shania Twain, Keith Urban, and Orville Peck.

Beyoncé’s cool reception from some circles in country music has some precedence, namely with Olivia Newton-John’s success as a country-pop singer in the 1970s. A British-born Australian, Newton-John outgrew Australia and set her sights on the American pop charts, scoring several country hits and even being named the Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974, prompting a backlash among other country musicians. One name who came to Newton-John’s defence was country singer-songwriter Stella Parton, who penned the sweet “Ode To Olivia,” welcoming the Australian pop star to the fold.  

Another Parton has stepped up to support Beyoncé, as well. Country queen Dolly Parton immediately embraced Beyoncé’s presence on country radio via social media and in interviews, intimating that the two pop legends would collaborate. When the tracklist for Cowboy Carter was revealed, fans saw that Parton’s classic “Jolene” was included. (Parton is also included in an interlude, dubbing herself Dolly P, as she references Beyoncé’s ‘Becky with the Good Hair’). Other mainstream, crossover country singers welcomed Beyoncé, many of whom would appear on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Cowboy Carter

Amid all this fury is a record that has caused a lot of noise. Cowboy Carter is a precise and intricate work of towering ambition. It’s a feat of audacity and artistry. The contributing artists create a multicultural, multigenerational world. Artists like Jon Batiste, Raphael Saadiq, Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Linda Martell, Shaboozey, Willie Nelson, Miley Cyrus, Post Malone, Pharell Williams, Cam, Paul McCartney, Robert Randolph, Gary Clark, Jr., Stevie Wonder, Nile Rogers contribute to Cowboy Carter, each creative making an indelible mark. It’s at once joyful and poignant to see this cast of performers helping construct this work. 

At this point, it feels like a given that a Beyoncé album would be an instant classic. Since her self-titled ‘surprise’ album in 2013 she has released one brilliant album after another—an impressive streak. Cowboy Carter is yet another excellent entry. Though heavily influenced by country, her scope is larger, and she is not content with settling on just one type of music. She has found inspiration in folk, Americana, and bluegrass, but she also includes pop, R&B, country-rock, and dance. 

She opens the record with the “Ameriican Requiem,” in which she plants her flag and claims her space. Referencing the backlash she faced after singing at the Country Music Association Awards, she sings, “Used to say I spoke too country / And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ’nough / Said I wouldn’t saddle up.” She then muses, “If that ain’t country, tell me what is?” The song’s production signals the lush, dynamic work heard throughout the rest of the album. It’s a swirl of soul, gospel, psychedelic rock, and pop, reminiscent of Tina Turner’s rock and soul of the 1960s and 1970s. (Turner’s debut 1974 album—Tina Turns the Country On!—is worth a listen as a precursor to Cowboy Carter, as the legendary rock diva bends country music to her inimitable style just as Beyoncé has.)

The record embraces sounds of country-pop and country-soul on its single “Texas Hold ’Em.” Unfortunately, the tune has been overexposed and made into a goofy trend on social media, with content makers and civilians recording themselves dancing to the song. It’s a groovy, ingratiating song that shimmies on a charming swing. The album’s second single, “16 Carriages,” is a moving, epic country power ballad with the singer working out demons from growing up in a household with overworked parents, only to repeat those patterns as a child entertainer and pop superstar. “Had to leave my home at an early age,” she remembers with pain, “I saw Mama prayin’, I saw Daddy grind / All my tender problems had to leave behind.” She recognizes the cycle by admitting she’s “On the back of the bus with a bunk with the band / Goin’ so hard, now I miss my kids.” The song is part of a long tradition of pained, bruised story songs in country music, especially from the perspective of a touring, gigging musician paying her dues, hoping for that brass ring: of course, Beyoncé hasn't just grabbed a brass ring, but a platinum one, adorned with diamonds. And the latest single, “II Most Wanted,” is just gorgeous, with Beyoncé trading verses with a deliciously throaty Miley Cyrus. 

There are two high-profile covers on the record, one fairly faithful and the other imaginatively original. The album’s take on the Beatles’ “Blackbird” is understated and lovely. The production pushes Beyoncé’s honeyed vocals to the forefront, and she sings with exquisite subtlety and restraint. She connects to the lyrics’ inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement. Its composer, Paul McCartney (who plays guitar and takes on co-producing duties), praised the cover, calling her interpretation of the ballad “magnificent,” saying the performance “reinforces the Civil Rights message that inspired me to write the song in the first place.”

The other cover reimagines Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” spiking the country song with some pop-funk and soul. In Parton’s original tune, the narrator is desperate, appealing to the titular goddess who is turning the head of every man in the town, including her husband; Parton’s version is a plea, conceding to Jolene’s superior beauty, hoping she’d take pity. Beyoncé’s reworking of the song finds a steely strength in the storyteller, which makes sense given the power in her voice.

Along with her famed self-assuredness, Beyoncé exhibits an enviable coolness, especially in the grooving “Bodyguard,” a radio-friendly bit of funk-pop that highlights the fantastic chemistry the singer shares with Raphael Saadiq. “Bodyguard” is one of the few songs on Cowboy Carter that strays a bit from the ostensibly country-western theme. The smooth “Riiverdance” bonds the disco of Renaissance and the country of Cowboy Carter, with the dance tune shimmying with a nimble strumming guitar. And just as she allows for dance, there are moments of grinding urban-pop and hip-hop soul, like the epic “Spaghettii” or the fiery “Tyrant.”

With Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé has once again proven that she is one of the savviest performers making music today. However, the album’s release comes in a divided culture where pop singers are not just entertainers but emblems of cultural and social values. Unlike many mainstream pop stars, she hasn’t shied away from engaging in social critique, which makes her an even bigger target for the right, which has suggested that she’s “anti-police” or “woke” or “anti-white.” When Schneider whined about “lefties” encroaching on country music, he was giving voice to anxiety that views performers like Beyoncé with wariness. 

So, what’s left is to wonder about the third act in her trilogy. Given that her first two albums celebrated Black excellence, it could be that her final release in this three-parter could be a gospel album, jazz, or an album that chronicles Black contributions to rock and roll. One thing is sure is that it’s clear that Beyoncé is a genuine talent, and judging from the excellence of Renaissance and Cowboy Carter, she’s also the most exciting pop star today. 

Rating: A

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© 2024 Peter Piatkowski and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia, and is used for informational purposes only.