Yeehaw cowgirl! Beyoncé’s new album is making country music more inclusive

(© Image: Depositphotos)
(© Image: Depositphotos)

If anyone can re-write the history of country music, it’s Queen B. ANU researcher Kristin McGee explores how Cowboy Carter is doing just that.

Beyoncé has always been a unifier. Even when that means following her down dusty roads, across honky tonk floors and through long nights of heartbreak on the western range. Don’t get us wrong; we aren’t complaining by any means.

In her genre-bending eighth studio album released in March this year, Cowboy Carter has unexpectedly (even for the Beehive standards) taken us from the Chicago roots of Renaissance to the heart of Western Texas.

Her single, ’Texas hold ’em’ and ’16 carriages’ were the first taste of her sound pivot. It didn’t take long before they hit number one on Billboard’s country charts, making Beyoncé the first black woman in history to do so.

Beyoncé took to her prior to the release and, without naming any one person or experience, explained that the album was born out of an estrangement from country music at large.

"This album has been over five years in the making. It was born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed... and it was very clear that I wasn’t."

For the uninitiated, this may sound vague; but, the Beehive quickly formed connecting lines between this statement and her song ’Daddy issues’. Her country-leaning track on the album Lemonade that was not only unrecognised by the Grammys but rejected by the Recording Academy’s Country Music Committee.

Kristin McGee is a senior lecturer at the College of Arts and Social Science at The Australian National University. She explains that the criticism Beyoncé is facing is nothing new for country music, highlighting debates of race, politics, and gender that have echoed through the genre for more than a century.

"Race music or hillbilly music were these racially loaded terms in the first half of the 20th century, which attempted to separate audiences based on race.

"Sometimes, black artists perform in that genre. Other times, black artists produced albums like Ray Charles, who created this interesting album called Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music in 1962. It was a great selling album but is still listed under soul music.

"Racial divisions have often been connected to these genre categories. Even now, I think there can be this connection to stereotypes such as lack of education, white hillbillies, and racism despite the massive popularity of country music all’over the world."

Beyoncé, whose sound has always refused easy categorisation, has made it clear that "this isn’t a country album; this is a Beyoncé album." McGee says it’s here that Beyoncé has created unity of sound across the country spectrum - paying tribute to the influence of black culture and artists more broadly.

"I was really struck by just the dominance of choral singing that can be heard throughout this album, and I would actually move it outside of just simply a country album and bring it back to the folk music and all the important participatory aspects of music and black culture.

"For example, Rihanna Giddens plays banjo, so you have these really clear instrumental hues to country music and even bluegrass when you hear the fiddle. She goes right back to the roots of rock’ n’ roll, which have been stolen from black musicians like Chuck Berry -who is probably not thrilled that Elvis Presley is getting all the credit for introducing rock’ n’ roll - and she covers him in this album.

"It’s an acknowledgement that black artists are also part of this American history, and it’s broad, layered, and very diverse."

In addition to creating a space for black voices to be heard, Beyoncé is, importantly, making room for females too. Gender inequality is an all too familiar twang in the country scene.

"At least in North American radio stations, there was a policy for years that prohibited more than 10 per cent of female artists from playing. Even if there were many more artists out there doing amazing work, they just didn’t think their audiences would want that," McGee explains.

"I think Beyoncé is not simply talking about how black musicians have been invisible, but she’s also thinking about women, especially black women who often don’t get praise and the attention that they should by inviting them to perform or having them write songs for her.

"Beyoncé has always done that. She’s always created music that invites communities in."

Beyoncé’s community-creating abilities have also extended beyond Spotify to the social media platform TikTok. McGee points out how Texas hold ’em’ breaks down the barn door on country stereotypes and asks everyone to simply "come take it to the floor now, woo, ha (Woo)."

"I loved watching all the TikTok remakes because you can just see that community so strongly and how quickly they galvanised around this particular song with really creative choreography from brothers and sisters and queer black youth."

"Dance is so important to her music, and this track really brings dancers to a new space-one that was already there, just not valorised and acknowledged in a way that she allows for."

While the Beehive remains on guard for Beyoncé’s next sound-shifting album, Cowboy Carter is creating space for other black female country artists to make their way onto our playlists.

"This album really motivates us to seek out other black women who have been making great country music," says McGee.

"One person I would recommend is Mickey Guyton, who has also been underrepresented on the country music charts.

"That’s one of the great things that this album does. It forces us to recognise that it’s not just Beyoncé creating country music, there are a lot of contemporary black artists doing interesting work in country music."

Elaine Obran, ANU Reporter Senior Writer