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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Beyoncé reclaims history in new album ‘Cowboy Carter’

Country-inspired album earns high praise, but also sparks backlash
Julia Vetsch

It was November 2016, and the Country Music Awards ceremony was poised for modest success. That is, until Beyoncé, to the rage and confusion of some viewers, took to the stage and sang “Daddy Lessons,” a soulful, energetic country song off of her genre-bending 2016 album, “Lemonade.” As inoffensive as the performance seemed to the uninformed onlooker, it shook the country music sphere to its core.

Why? For one thing, Beyoncé performed alongside country trio The Chicks, whom country music fans had long ago shunned for their opinions on the Iraq War. And Beyoncé, of course, was simply not welcome, at least partially due to the fact that some country fans label the genre as exclusively white. To them, she was an intruder, and as a result, she faced formidable criticism for her performance.

But nearly eight years later, Beyoncé dipped her toes into country music again with her eighth studio album, titled “Cowboy Carter.” As a nod to her CMAs performance, she wrote on her Instagram, “[The album] was born out of an experience that I had where I did not feel welcomed … and it was very clear that I wasn’t.” 


One of the lead singles on “Cowboy Carter,” the infectious, twangy “Texas Hold ‘Em’” was the first song by a Black woman to clinch the number one spot on the Hot Country Songs chart. This achievement, much like her CMAs performance, elicited backlash from many country fans and posed several questions — What defines “country,” and who exactly gets to lay claim to it?

I spoke with University of Wisconsin professor Alexander Shashko, who teaches Black Music and American Cultural History, about the country music industry’s tendency to reject Black artists. He told me the industry has a strong culture of gatekeeping. Beyoncé’s intrusion of country music, he said, challenges the genre’s exclusivity. But the album’s country leanings are far from surprising to Shashko. 

“Beyoncé’s celebrated her Texas roots for a very long time, so you’re not paying attention to her if you’re blindsided by this,” Shashko said. 

But the genre, Shashko said, has a small town-living, pickup truck-driving identity that’s synonymous with whiteness, and Beyoncé threatens that — thus, why others struggle to grapple with her break into country music.

Shashko noted this perception is poorly founded. There’s a rich African American history to the genre, he said. For example, the basic chord and rhythmic structures of country music borrow heavily from African American blues, and enslaved Africans based the banjo that is now so fundamental to the genre, off of African stringed instruments, he said. The fact is that without Black musicians and visionaries, there would be no country music.

“Denying that is a form of erasure of history,” Shashko said.

Therefore, “Cowboy Carter” is more than an album — it’s a reclamation of Black culture and a response to the critics who decided she, a Texas native, didn’t belong in the country music sphere. Above all, it’s a bold statement that forces listeners to rethink their perceptions of the country genre. Beyoncé can’t be defined by a genre — she defines genres, and “Cowboy Carter” is definitive proof of that.

The 27-track album opens with the booming, anthemic “Ameriican Requiem,” a thesis statement that makes one thing clear — Beyoncé is not here to make nice. As the title suggests, it’s a eulogy for an idealized version of America, but “Ameriican Requiem” is no funeral march. Assertive and unapologetic, she sings, “Used to say I spoke too country / And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ‘nough.’” This opening track suggests with “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé plans to silence her critics and prove she’s uncontainable. She is Beyoncé, and she is an enigma.

Track 2, “Blackbiird,” is a cover of the classic Beatles song, keeping the same plucky guitar but adding enchanting harmonies with rising country artists Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts. It’s a gorgeous track, but its most remarkable quality is how it platforms younger Black women breaking into the notoriously exclusive country music industry.

“Bodyguard” is my personal favorite on the album. The track is an enticing mélange of country and R&B, intimate and seductive enough to make even the stoniest listener blush. “Sometimes I take the day off just to turn you on,” she purrs to her lover. Smooth and sexy, Beyoncé’s slinky vocals weave over and under addictive background harmonies. Listening to it, I imagine her draped over a piano, bathed in a crimson glow and crooning to a smoky saloon. Even for Beyoncé, who’s known to bear her soul in her more sensual ballads, “Bodyguard” is a standout in her discography. 

The most talked-about track on “Cowboy Carter” is no doubt Beyoncé’s reworked cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Nothing can beat the original, but Beyoncé still offers a worthy rendition. By covering one of country’s most recognizable songs, even getting a sign-off from Parton herself, Beyoncé refutes country purists who barred her from the genre.

Another favorite of mine is “Daughter,” an eerie, mesmerizing track in which Beyoncé fantasizes about killing her husband and his mistress. She gives into her temper, singing, “If you cross me, I’m just like my father / I am colder than Titanic water.” The only word that could possibly be used to describe “Daughter” is hymnal; it even closes with Beyoncé’s haunting cover of an Italian opera, “Caro Mio Ben.” Unexpected, but beautiful.

The album’s big hit is shaping up to be “II Most Wanted,” a stripped-back ballad featuring Miley Cyrus. Beyoncé’s deep, velvety vocals blend surprisingly well with Cyrus’ more rough, husky tone. It feels nostalgic and warm, as the two harmonize on the track’s bridge, “We’re gettin high ‘til we don’t realize / Time is passin’ by.”

The album’s centerpiece, in my opinion, is the rodeo-inspired “Ya Ya,” which opens with the iconic intro to Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 song, “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and unfolds into one of Beyoncé’s most daring musical endeavors to date. The track is unpolished and authentic yet hilariously tongue-in-cheek. “Those petty ones can’t fuck with me / ‘Cause I’m a clever girl,” she says slyly in the song’s spoken intro. It’s unrestrained, boot-stomping fun, complete with growling vocals, playful adlibs and spunky call-and-response moments. But hidden underneath all this is a stirring message.

“Whole lotta red in that white and blue, huh / History can’t be erased,” Beyoncé sings over a rattling beat on “Ya Ya.” Country is a genre firmly planted in American culture, but she refuses to buy into its blindly patriotic ideologies. “Ya Ya” is a statement, the unforgettable main course of “Cowboy Carter.”

The biggest surprise on the album is the self-assured “Tyrant,” which opens with a lighthearted intro from Dolly Parton and morphs into a hard-hitting, campy trap anthem. The song bleeds into “Sweet ★ Honey ★ Buckin’,” a Pharrell Williams-produced track split into three distinct segments. From the sentimental “Sweet” section, to the flirtatious “Honey,” to the bouncy “Buckin’,” it’s emblematic of the album’s refusal to fit into any genre. 

“Cowboy Carter” isn’t exactly country, but it’s not meant to be. Beyoncé said in an Instagram caption ten days before its release, “This ain’t a country album. This is a Beyoncé album.” Instead of conforming to the conventions of the genre, Beyoncé pushes the boundaries of what listeners expect from country, particularly from a Black woman. “Cowboy Carter” is a middle finger to her critics and a love letter to her fans — not the country album listeners might anticipate, but a refreshing subversion of expectations and proof of Beyoncé’s unmatched versatility.

“Tell me, can you hear me now?” she asks in “Amen,” the album’s closing track. To listen to “Cowboy Carter” is to do more than just hear Beyoncé — it’s to open oneself to a stunning, gritty, genre-bending music experience only Beyoncé could successfully execute.

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