Beyoncé’s new country songs salute the genre’s Black cultural roots

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If you were surprised by the two country-infused songs Beyoncé dropped on Sunday night, hold your horses — this isn’t her first rodeo.

In fact, fans have long speculated that such a genre-shifting project from the pop icon was imminent: There was the custom Louis Vuitton fit she wore to the Grammys last week — complete with a ribbon tie, a studded leather jacket and a matching skirt, plus a Stetson cowboy hat. A source told Variety in 2022 that Beyoncé had recorded “country-leaning tracks.” Not to mention the Houston native has always repped her country roots — from her lyrics (“I’m goin’ back to the South … Where my roots ain’t watered down”) and past performances with artists like Sugarland and the Chicks, to her rodeo appearances and western aesthetics in her Ivy Park clothing line. (“The Houston Rodeo is a gumbo of family, connection, delicious food and eclectic genres of music,” she said of the latter project’s inspiration.)

After teasing new music in a Verizon ad that aired during Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday, Beyoncé has dropped two fast-charting country- and Americana-inspired hits, “Texas Hold ’Em” and “16 Carriages.” The singles are the first releases of her long-anticipated “Act II” project, debuting on March 29 as a follow-up to her acclaimed Act I “Renaissance” album in 2022.

“Texas Hold ’Em” is a beat-stomping, banjo-heavy track likely to inspire a new TikTok dance trend as Beyoncé sings, “It’s a real live boogie and a real live hoedown.” Meanwhile, “16 Carriages,” a soaring, intimate ballad about Beyoncé’s childhood, features steel guitar and powerful organs that nod to Southern gospel influences.

Fans and music experts say the two releases further confirm rumors that Act II will be a full-length country album — and will herald another culture-shifting event in music.

“I anticipate that this album is going to take us in a direction that both refines and redefines what country is and takes country up to another level,” said Alice Randall, a songwriter, author and professor of African American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt University. “That it deconstructs and reconstructs country. That is what modern sounds in country and western do.”

Randall pointed to the impact of Beyoncé’s first country song, “Daddy Lessons,” a twangy single that many critics regarded as one of the best tracks on the star’s 2016 “Lemonade” album. In a historic and widely shared moment at the Country Music Awards, Beyoncé performed the song with the Chicks, who later released their own cover. And it is credited for influencing “The Yeehaw Agenda,” an internet movement to reclaim Black cowboy culture through music and fashion.

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But “Daddy Lessons” also exposed the deep divides that still roil the country music industry. There was an outcry from some country music fans who thought the song didn’t belong in the genre. And the Recording Academy seemingly agreed, rejecting the song from consideration in the country music categories at the Grammys. The events echo the barriers Black artists have often faced in the genre’s more than 100-year history — from Ray Charles to Lil Nas X.

Darius Rucker, a Grammy-winning country singer with 10 No. 1 hit songs, has often recounted the resistance he met after stepping out solo from rock band Hootie & the Blowfish to pursue country music. “When I started doing the radio stations and stuff, I had people say to me, to my face, ‘My audience would never accept a Black country singer,’” Rucker told ET Canada in an interview last year.

But Black artists have long influenced the genre — starting with the banjo.

Musicologists speculate that the precursor to the plucked string instrument originated in Africa and arrived on American shores during the 17th century with enslaved people taken from West and Central Africa. “As I understand Black country music, it goes back to the arrival of the first Black child to an enslaved African woman in these Americas,” said Randall, whose upcoming book, “My Black Country,” chronicles the Black influence in country music’s past, present and future.

‘You do know the banjo is an African instrument, right?!’: The black roots of country music

In her book, she examines the unsung roles of Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin Armstrong on Jimmie Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel #9,” which scholars consider one of the most influential country songs of all time; spotlights Florence (Givens) Joplin as a lost foremother of the genre; and recounts modern-day contributions from the likes of Beyoncé, whose work has long echoed a commitment to honoring and drawing upon music legends and Black history.

In “Texas Hold ’Em,” for instance, Beyoncé features acclaimed Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens on the banjo and viola. The Greensboro, N.C., native is considered an icon in folk music and has dedicated her work to honoring unsung heroes in American musical history.

A viral post on social media, published hours after Beyoncé’s release, shined a light on Giddens’s advocacy. “This whole album is going to be like a class on the roots of country music,” one user replied.

Indeed, just as she recognized Black queer and ballroom culture with “Renaissance,” Randall suspects a potential country music album from the singer will highlight Black artistry in the genre.

“She’s a true cultural curator,” Randall said. “Even going back to ‘Lemonade,’ and ‘Daddy Lessons,’ many people forget that a significant portion of cowboys were people of color. Beyoncé’s album and video helped some people remember that or provoked them to learning that.”

In doing so, Randall said, Beyoncé is spotlighting and building on a profound tradition — a path that the scholar believes was first forged by Ray Charles.

“To me, one of the greatest albums in the history of country music is Ray Charles’s ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,’” said Randall. Charles’s music experimented with jazz, gospel and rhythm and blues before he released the acclaimed country album in 1962.

“I think that Beyoncé’s album is a similar kind of moment,” she said. “She is going to do with this new album what Ray Charles did with [his album]. And I think she’s going to take it even further if the things she’s already done in country is any indication.”

But Randall is wary about the reception Beyoncé may face, noting, “Ray Charles didn’t get those flowers initially.”

“I hope the country music establishment embraces this album and Beyoncé’s presence as we should have embraced Ray Charles from the beginning,” she said. (Charles wasn’t inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 2022 — though critics have often cited his work for reviving and introducing the genre to new listeners.)

“I hope that Beyoncé gets the welcome Ray Charles didn’t get.”

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