album review

Our Sweetheart of the Rodeo

Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter chronicles an artist with a voice pliable enough (and a following large enough) to crash whatever scene she pleases. Photo: Blair Caldwell

A trebly radio ambles across stations, surveying Charles Anderson’s “Laughing Yodel,” Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Down by the Riverside,” Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” and Roy Hamilton’s “Don’t Let Go,” finally pausing for the Lone Star drawl of Willie Nelson, spliff ablaze, reading out a call sign: “Welcome to the Smoke Hour on KNTRY Radio Texas.” The sixth song on Beyoncé’s eighth studio album, Cowboy Carter, is a curt history lesson nestled in a massive song cycle with an undeniable rallying cry. After she performed with the Chicks at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards, fusing Lemonade’s “Daddy Lessons” with the Dallas trio’s rendition of bluegrass vet Darrell Scott’s “Long Time Gone,” she experienced hateful backlash from racist traditionalists. “Smoke Hour” practically screams “We’ve always been here” to those detractors. It’s a sister to Solange singing “Almeda” — “Black skin, black braids / Black waves, black days / Black baes, black things / These are Black-owned things!” — to a white man in the front row at one of her shows. With Cowboy Carter, the second act of a trilogy that paid homage to Black queer innovators in electronic music on Renaissance, Beyoncé sends a message to Nashville: Country music must make room for all of the people creating and consuming it.

Black singers, songwriters, and players are the Remus to Nashville’s Romulus. They’ve never enjoyed a commensurate cut of prosperity in the big city, where “hillbilly music” by freed slaves and mountain folk was seen as a stain on the reputation of the self-proclaimed Athens of the South. Jim Crow’s talons touched every pie: Harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey was the first Black performer on “Grand Ole Opry,” the state’s now nearly century-old radio institution, but after over a decade on the broadcast, he was let go in 1941; founder George Hay suggested that “the crippled colored boy who was a bright feature of our show” was simply too lazy to learn new songs. It took over 40 years for a Black woman to get the same chance to be on the “Opry”; South Carolina R&B singer and country savant Linda Martell made that history in 1969, but by 1970 her label, Plantation Records, was giving Jeannie C. Riley a bigger push. At the top of Cowboy Carter’s “Spaghettii,” Martell, now 82, enjoys a dismissive chuckle about it all, speaking from hard experience about the confining nature of the country-music business.

We can forget in sociopolitical trying times that the arc of the moral universe is like a wave, an infinite expanse of ups and downs. Hearts and minds creak open and snap shut over time, typically with forceful nudges. Ray Charles’s 1962 country crossover Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was a timely genre excursion, landing after sit-ins that cornered Nashville into the politically actionable embarrassment of jailing Black students for requesting fair treatment in local eateries. Cowboy Carter gestures to such acts of occupying space, barreling into an industry’s nagging race and gender disparities. Men like erstwhile Blowfish Darius Rucker and Chattanooga pop-country hitmaker Kane Brown found success in the 2010s, but Arlington singer-songwriter Mickey Guyton struggled for most of a decade to get an album out, until her 2020 single “Black Like Me.” It didn’t take off on the radio but it helped make her the first Black woman to co-host the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2021 — the same year mainstream country’s golden boy Morgan Wallen was caught on camera calling someone a “pussy-ass nigger” on the eve of Black History Month, after which he saw swift but not long-lasting industry sanctions and an immense boost in sales. Two years later, Jason Aldean would release “Try That in a Small Town,” a clinic in the sly alignment of conservatism’s invitation to return to simpler times and country music’s reverence for its own vaunted past.

It’s unsurprising that Beyoncé’s CMA performance riled that crowd up. The gag is the implication that she hadn’t really set out to cause such a commotion then. Now, she returns to clean house, understanding this business evolves fastest when confronted with the weight of its misdoings. Her worker bees crafted an extensive list of radio stations to pelt with requests for “Texas Hold ’Em” after release, helping to crown it as the first No. 1 single on the “Hot Country Songs” chart by a Black woman in 80 years of tallying. Cowboy spotlights Black artists on the rise with co-writes from Indiana singer-songwriter Mamii, a duet with Louisiana X-Factor alum Willie Jones, and a cover of “Blackbird,” Paul McCartney’s Beatles classic decrying the violent resistance to racial integration in America, with Brittney Spencer, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts. These songs, along with the country-rap heater “Spaghettii” — where the tricky timing of Bey’s rhymes crash into the smoldering intensity of a verse from Virginia singer Shaboozey — illustrate Cowboy’s interest in sharing and comparing experiences of Blackness in the American South. (The absence of both Mickey Guyton and Lil Nas X, whose banjo-laced No. 1 smash “Old Town Road” got the classic Nashville cold shoulder, is curious.)

Yet Cowboy’s tagline — “This ain’t a country album, this is a Beyoncé album” — is just as instructive as its intergenerational array of guests and references. This album is not her Modern Sounds, packed with gobsmacking country covers, or her American Recordings, Johnny Cash’s rehabilitation of story songs from beyond his formidable wheelhouse. Country is to Cowboy Carter what Afrobeat and baile funk were to 2011’s 4; what dancehall and rock were to Lemonade; what triplet raps were to the Jay-Z collab Everything Is Love; what the entire continent of Africa was to The Lion King: The Gift; and what ballroom culture was to Renaissance. Beyoncé wants the freedom to transcend genre. Cowboy Carter is a chronicle of molting personas and the difficulty of pinning down the human underneath, of an artist with a voice pliable enough (and a following large enough) to crash whatever scene that she pleases. Bey sings sweetly to Rumi in “Protector”: “And there I was, tangled up in marigold / We were listening to the reverent children singing / Humming low as the garden river flows / While the August light becomes a golden evening.” She revisits the autobiographical conceit of 4’s “Schoolin’ Life” and wrings determination out of the exhaustion of a life spent on tour in “16 Carriages,” her take on the classic country road song: “For legacy, if it’s the last thing I do / You’ll remember me ’cause we got somethin’ to prove / In your memory, on the highway to truth / Still see our faces when you close your eyes.” The twang jumps out during “II Most Wanted,” and the grungy “Alliigator Tears” unveils a high lonesome warble. “Flamenco” is an exquisite detour into the close harmonies of the Louvin Brothers, or Dolly Parton’s ’70s and ’80s collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. (A few vocal flourishes even seem to channel Prince, patron saint of quick studies and musical chameleons: the scream in “Ameriican Requiem,” the bending, staccato notes in the Post Malone team-up “Levii’s Jeans.”) In the most carefree performances, you begin to lose a sense of Bey. She disappears into her characters, and it ceases to matter how much a lyric was workshopped into easy understanding. Serving almost sensual vengefulness through a low, tired growl in “Bodyguard,” she sounds like she might really try to “John Wayne that ass” as promised.

On the front end, Cowboy splashes reverently around Laurel Canyon folk (“My Rose” seems inspired by both Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses and Destiny’s Child’s harmonic workouts), slick pop-country (“Texas Hold ’Em,” the archetypal card-game song, whose lyric sheet leans into raunchy outlaw country), psychedelic protest music (“Requiem,” a Jon Batiste collab that takes after Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”), and more: The withering “Daughter” offers a Marty Robbins–style murder ballad. Bey’s cover of Parton’s “Jolene” turns a classic tune about meeting someone who can take your man and whoop your ass into a slick “I’m coming to you as a woman” gut check instead. It is riveting that Bey won’t allow herself to lose even in a song that stakes all of its passion on the palpable possibility of failure. Ending “Jolene” with a scene more akin to the fight from Obsessed — “You touched my child?” — goes to show that the goal here is to dominate. Like stuffy radio execs and Morgan Wallen’s One Thing at a Time, which topped the country album chart enough consecutive weeks to take the record from Garth Brooks’s 1991 classic Ropin’ the Wind, Jolene never stood a chance. But as much as Cowboy asks you to appreciate Beyoncé the Carter — blessed by Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash, a member of the closest thing to a royal family existing in American roots music — it’s also a monument to the business acumen of a veteran industry trendsetter who, amid this march on Music City, knows her troops, who faithfully dressed like disco balls to dance to “Alien Superstar” last summer, need bops.

The back half of the album skews less admiring and more playful. “II Most Wanted” taps Miley Cyrus for a beautiful duet that borrows chords from Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” (after “Bodyguard” reveals a driving rhythm section that brings the classic rock icons’ “Dreams” to mind). She’s the perfect copilot, a powerhouse vocalist coming off the heels of one of the biggest hits of her career, that overall has been a tug-of-war between accepting and bristling against her country music roots. Post Malone, the only mainstay on the pop charts capable of making music with YoungBoy Never Broke Again and Joe Diffie in the same year, raises the hit potential on “Levii’s Jeans” as an undeniably talented singer-songwriter whose swing from rap to rock and folk has frustrated genre purists as much as this album’s restless shuffling through styles has. (You don’t summon Mr. “I Fall Apart” and the former Miss Montana unless your goal is slotting into pickup-truck and dive-bar rotation, right?) Between prospective Top 40 meteorites, Cowboy pulls country-rap into its root-rock fold. “II Hands II Heaven” mixes soft, OVO-style synth pads, muted drums, images of coyotes running wild, and windy acoustic accompaniment. To question what makes this country is to ignore Florida Georgia Line’s mixtape promising a little Hank and a little Drake. Their 2012 single “Cruise” and Georgia singer-songwriter Sam Hunt’s 2017 hit “Body Like a Back Road” — the same kind of R&B jam spiced with the live instrumentation that meets Grammy- and radio-stickler guidelines — each ran “Hot Country Songs” for months in the 2010s.

Traditionalists hoping Cowboy would lean closer to the work of someone like Rhiannon Giddens, a bluegrass luminary and the banjo player on “Hold ’Em,” will feel rankled by its pop-country bent. But not even Beyoncé can implant a love of this music in people who grew up cut off from it. What she can do is challenge the great American canard that its straight, white, often male titans of industry are always its cultural starting guns and that their success is evidence of their primacy. This land didn’t always belong to them, and this music has always been in conversation with and at times dependent upon Black creativity. This is the story from the adaptation of the banjo by musically inclined African slaves to the unsung tradition of Black vocalists who were yodeling before Jimmie Rodgers in the 1920s to the success of performers like Charley Pride and Stoney Edwards in the ’70s to the songwriting gifts of Alice Randall and Frankie Staton to the modern troubadours: Amythyst Kiah, Jake Blount, Allison Russell, Yola, Charley Crockett, the War and Treaty, Adia Victoria, Brittany Howard, Rissi Palmer, the members of the Black Opry. (You don’t spot any of them when combing Cowboy’s credits.) Johnny Cash studied Black banjo player Gus Cannon. There’s someone like him at every turn of the history. They don’t tell you about the “Opry” refusing to give DeFord a Christmas present. You have to dig.

Cowboy’s final quarter makes a more subversive argument in traditional Yoncisms. “Riiverdance” snatches a fluttering guitar loop off an Irish folk riff, syncing it to sparse drums. You’re reminded of a few notable Destiny’s Child jams — “So Good,” “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Bootylicious.” It highlights how frequently guitars have featured in this catalogue (see “That’s Why You’re Beautiful,” “I Care,” “If I Were a Boy”) and invites you to reflect on Beyoncé’s music getting filed in pop and urban contemporary genres at awards shows. The late-album highlights “Ya Ya” and “Sweet Honey Buckiin’” are funk-soul rave-ups indebted to antecedents like Tina Turner, Dreamgirls, B’Day’s “Sugar Mama,” and Austin Powers in Goldmember’s “Work It Out.” Pharrell Williams, who produced the last one, presides over “Buckiin’,” a three-parter picking up where Renaissance’s “Pure/Honey” left off. “Buckiin’” incorporates Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” and another great Shaboozey spot into a celebration of Bey’s roots: “The Cadillac back on the road, we takin’ Route 44 / Just say what you need from the store / Put some grits on the stove / Jiffy cornbread, booty corn-fed / Body rolls at the rodeo / I’m coming home.” As it invokes the chitlin circuit over a groove the late Wilson Pickett would love, “Ya Ya” flashes an overarching theme: “My family live and died in America / Good ol’ USA, shit / Whole lotta red in that white and blue, huh? / History can’t be erased.” “Ya Ya” taps into decades of interdisciplinary synergy: countless renditions of Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”; Turner’s cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”; Al Green’s gorgeous, gutted reimaginings of country classics; Hank Williams Jr.’s take on the Brook Benton single “Rainy Night in Georgia”; Prince’s song for Kenny Rogers. (Notably, “Ya Ya” and “Spaghettii,” which express the album’s guiding logic the clearest, are not featured on physical versions of the album, nor is the rodeo-queen imagery. One wonders when they came into the picture, and whether Cowboy’s calculations extend to adapting itself to the reaction to its own rollout.)

Donning red, white, and blue on Cowboy’s cover and urging Black listeners to take Americana back is a loaded task in a year whose A-plot is mass local and international displeasure with the United States’ accommodation of Israel’s unrelenting bombing of Gaza. Lizzo announced she’s quitting music after incurring backlash for singing at a Joe Biden benefit. It could resolve a lot of frustration if Beyoncé would practice a bit of scathing specificity, but she doesn’t even name and shame the parties whose rejection sparked the musical deep dive Cowboy sprung from. It doesn’t seem like someone who caught a whiff of the smoke the Chicks saw is interested in a similar outcome. Storming this conservative-friendly field, where a love of tradition can ignite defensiveness, resistance to change, and exclusionism, opens the door to unpleasant MAGA-verse encounters. But there are Black country lovers on the front lines already, who can too quickly count numbers at shows, who can’t get the face time they deserve for their music, who spot more Confederate flags in their daily dealings than they care to. It’s too easy to bristle at this album’s hunger for crossover success and the reality that achieving it means making some inroads with white America. The most baller move Cowboy Carter could make would be to lean into the sparse, lovely “Flamenco” and “My Rose,” drop the coldest mountain and front-porch music flanked by legendary and up-and-coming Black folk and country artists, and blow everyone off the charts while espousing politics a large swath of its base hates. Instead, our sweetheart of the rodeo schemes to bring all parties painstakingly together.

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Our Sweetheart of the Rodeo