Cowboy Carter: Beyoncé meets country music at the crossroads

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Inanda, a township in KwaZulu-Natal, is the last place I remember hearing a Beyoncé track – pumping through the speakers at a nearby house party. A thought comes to mind, “Unsurprisingly, this isn’t Texas – but you’ll find the same appreciation for music and meat on a fire.”

Beyoncé releases her country album Cowboy Carter on 29 March 2024. It’s almost a year later, and the world looks different as I get in touch with my co-writer in Texas. “What can you tell me about country music?”

Neither of us has been to a bar for the past ten years. “Everywhere I’ve lived, people go to bars all the time around here. I really only go to bars if I’m playing.” Apparently, country music is popular everywhere in the United States – whether we’re talking Texas or Arkansas. Neither of us is a typical country music fan, with a history covering Leonard Cohen, Ozzy and Danzig over Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. We agree to listen to the album – at home, because we won’t need the authenticity of line dancers or stale brews to gather our first impressions.

Cowboy Carter

“American requiem” is song one, evoking nostalgia for friends you haven’t called in a while. The first song subtly references her earlier experiences with country fans who weren’t particularly supportive of her 2016 CMA performance.

Rapper Isaac Mutant adds from Cape Town: “Beyoncé can sing, but maybe she’s pushing her luck – and if not, then she’s pushing boundaries.” Beyoncé is indeed pushing against boundaries, and the album feels like a blatant middle finger to genre definition. For some, this takes the album all over the place – and it feels like you’re hopping bars all night.

That’s what artists do, I’d say. Pushing boundaries. Mutant should know, having pushed AfriForum’s boundaries (and won) with the Dookoom track “Larney, jou poes”.

Knowles covers “Blackbiird” next; Suzannah and I are both fans of the original Beatles track. The cover is tranquil enough.

“16 Carriages” is about the gap between childhood and now. There’s also “Protector”, an ode to family. And “My rose” is a brief, empowering interlude, with an intermission from Willie Nelson.

“Texas hold’em” starts with the lyric: “This ain’t Texas, ain’t no hold’em”. It’s upbeat, with a flavour of Beyoncé. It has the appropriate references you’d expect from country (cards, whisky, spurs, boots).

“Bodyguard” is more appropriate for my co-writer and me: “Be your best friend, I’ll protect you in the mosh pit.”

The album is meant for multi-genre appeal, and it’s apparent that she’s leaving her mark on several genres at once.

“Jolene” gets updated, with blessings from Dolly Parton, who also features on the album.

“Daughter” is a homage to Beyoncé’s roots and a reminder of our own odd upbringings: “If you cross me, I’m just like my father/ I am colder than Titanic water”.

“Spaghetti” is a reference to the Western genre, starting with the lyric: “Genres are a funny concept, aren’t they?” It features both Martell and rapper Shaboozey.

The singer’s Instagram account announced her feelings about genres and Cowboy Carter: “This ain’t a country album. This is a Beyoncé album.” Don’t forget that she also portrayed blues singer Etta James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records. It’s presented as a concept album, with the occasional radio announcer voices of Willie Nelson, Linda Martell and Dolly Parton introducing what’s next.

After “Spaghetti”, the song “Alligator tears” nods to a popular Southern expression that’s made its way to southern Africa, too. “Smoke hour II” introduces more spoken-word Willie Nelson.

“Just for fun” is a party track about “going down South” that somehow could have been placed anywhere else in the track list.

“II most wanted” is an outlaw-loving rock piece, featuring Miley Cyrus. “Levii’s jeans” is back to the party, and “Flamenco” goes back to love.

“The Linda Martell Show” is an interlude. Martell announces, “This particular tune stretches across a range of genres.”

“Ya ya” is upbeat and, frankly, strange.

Suzannah and I take several days to listen through. It’s not a one-sitting album. It’s a much longer road trip crammed into 78 minutes.

“Oh Louisiana” is a tribute to heritage and roots. “Desert Eagle” and “Riiverdance” play with genres, and “II hands II heaven” is back to evoking nostalgia.

“Tyrant” duets with Dolly Parton. “Sweet honey bucklin’” duets with Collins Obinna Chibueze (or rather, Shaboozey), a rapper from Fairfax, Virginia, who got known for their music’s inclusion in Spider-Man: Into the spider-verse. Their surname means “God is King” in Igbo, a tribute to their own African roots.

It ends with “Amen”, a close-to-gospel closing. Maybe it’s not meant to be defined purely by one genre, but to be groundbreaking in several. Cowboy Carter contains 27 songs in total, maybe a deliberate nod to the blues and country crossroads (“The devil went down to Georgia” and “Cross road blues”).

Recording and genre roots

An interview (Billboard) reveals that the singer wanted to avoid artificial intelligence and digital programming. “I wanted to go back to real instruments, and I used very old ones.” Beyoncé also noted: “All the songs were so organic and human – everyday things like the wind, snaps and even the sounds of birds and chickens, the sounds of nature.” Songs are deliberately raw, recorded with echoes and cracks left in. Suzannah, early on, points this out first. It’s something characteristic of old blues, rock and country recordings. Surrounding spaces and atmospheric elements add something you just don’t want to take out of the final mix.

The album feels a little all over the place, but clearly has the blessing of country idols like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. Who could argue that she’s pushing against the mainstream – and manages to make a good album? Beyoncé makes her point about country, blues and hip-hop: their roots are interconnected enough through Texas, Chicago, Louisiana and Africa. Even Marilyn Manson is aware of this point, covering Johnny Cash songs with gothic undertones.

Nashville’s first recorded performer was DeFord Bailey, an African American country singer. He was born in 1899, and was already a veteran when the Country Music Association was founded in Nashville in 1958.

The album isn’t just ars gratia artis (art for art’s sake), but aims to make a point about earlier, perhaps forgotten country and blues artists. It’s good, but also overwhelming in its bar-hopping nature. Inevitably, fans might cherry-pick the songs they like best – a quick trip, rather than the whole journey through music history. Still, the album manages to succeed in making its point about genres.

Country music is rooted in pure survival mode, with songs about life when it’s harsh (and life when it’s not) – just like blues, jazz, hip-hop and metal. “Fast car” was selected as CMA’s Song of the Year (2023), thanks to country artist Luke Combs covering the classic Tracy Chapman song. Country isn’t always an obvious genre, which seems to be Cowboy Carter’s entire point.

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