What Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ means to the Black Opry


In the final moments of a Black Opry Revue show, where a traveling rotation of singer-songwriters take turns playing their individual songs and sharing the stories behind them, the singers like to gather for a group performance. During their show in the Washington area on Friday, the choice for the final song was obvious.

“Well, happy Beyoncé Day,” said Roberta Lea to cheers from a sold-out crowd at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va. — coincidentally on the same day that Beyoncé released her new country-themed album, “Cowboy Carter.” Lea noted that she and the members of the Black Opry — a collective of Black country artists, fans and industry professionals — had talked about the significance of when “a superstar like Beyoncé steps into the country music space and what it means for people that look like her, which are people like us.”

“And so,” Lea continued, “we felt like it was just fitting to do a little something in honor of the queen.” Grace Givertz launched into the jaunty banjo introduction, Rachel Maxann jumped in on piano, and along with Sug Daniels and Tylar Bryant, they all sang the track that recently became the first song by a Black woman to go No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart: “This ain’t Texas, ain’t no hold ’em — so lay your cards down, down, down, down. …”

From the moment Beyoncé surprise-dropped “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages” during the Super Bowl in February, the online discourse about her plans to “go country” went into overdrive: Music scholars offered history lessons about the Black roots of the genre, which has historically excluded many Black singers. Fans analyzed the 2016 Country Music Association Awards performance in Nashville when Beyoncé sang “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks, an incident that Beyoncé implied inspired the album because she “did not feel welcomed” in that environment. And of course, the endlessly exhausting debates about what constitutes “authentic” country music.

Through it all, a common theme also surfaced, especially among Black singer-songwriters who are already in the country music world: No matter how you feel about “Cowboy Carter,” this is a historic moment. Not only is Beyoncé using her enormous platform to deliver an artistic statement and raise the profile of other Black country artists, the highly-hyped album could help reframe the way audiences feel about the genre in general.

“There are so many Black people who are like, ‘I can’t talk about the fact that I really get down to Willie Nelson.’ … There are so many people, because of the racism, who are like, ‘Country music? I would never,’” said Givertz during a conversation backstage with the five Black Opry members who traveled to Virginia for the concert. But now, she said, given that Beyoncé has sparked a conversation about the country music world — and featured legends such as Nelson on the album — it could open up the format to more listeners.

“We make this music because we love it,” Daniels added. “But it’s exciting to see the rest of the world turn their head and be like, ‘Ooh — what else is going on over here right now?’”

Listening to “Cowboy Carter” on Friday was a thrilling experience for the Black Opry singers before the Wolf Trap show: Givertz said she hit “play” at 6:30 a.m. and started crying about 45 seconds into the record. Maxann went on a joyful run in Malcolm X/Meridian Hill Park and described herself as “smiling and happy, saying ‘Happy Beyoncé Day’ to every Black person I see.” Backstage, the singers gasped and cheered when Lea revealed that she was given the opportunity to write for the album. (While she didn’t get a song placed, she was excited that she was asked to contribute.)

When Bryant said he felt immediately drawn to “Sweet Honey Buckiin” — Beyoncé’s collaboration with country/hip-hop artist Shaboozey — Givertz noted that when she heard the track, she immediately thought of Bryant’s latest song, “Cowgirl Up.”

“I said, ‘This is like the sister song to Tylar’s new song,’” Givertz said. “There was already room for it when you put it out and you wrote it. But now there’s going to be so many more people who are looking for that.”

Before the album dropped, multiple Black country artists said they had seen a spike in streams and social media engagement leading up to “Cowboy Carter,” and wondered if the record would include Black country singers who have been living and working in Nashville for years. Sure enough, the second track was a cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” that featured breakout singers Reyna Roberts, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy and Brittney Spencer. Daniels added that the song choice — which Paul McCartney has said he wrote about Black women during the Civil Rights movement — was especially poignant.

“It’s the Beatles talking about Black people in America. You know, somebody from outside the country having a perspective that is so on-point,” Daniels said. “So for that to be the second song on the album — that was iconic.”

Other group favorites included “Spaghettii” (another country-rap track with Shaboozey, plus a spoken word introduction from country-music pioneer Linda Martell) and the ballad “II Most Wanted,” a duet with Miley Cyrus. Several of the singers were also inspired by the fact that record was so all-encompassing of so many genres.

“It’s so American. It’s so Black American music,” Lea said. “Because it is country and there’s hip-hop and there’s R&B and there’s pop — ”

“Soul, everything,” Daniels added.

“Everything,” Lea agreed, name-checking more songs. “Then you have ‘Riiverdance’ with the Irish [music]? Then you have the opera on ‘Daughter’? I’m like, ‘Girl, you’re killing it.’”

The Black Opry started back in spring 2021 when Holly G, a writer and flight attendant from Virginia, felt increasingly alienated as a Black woman in her love of country music, where she saw that the majority of the musicians, fans and executives did not look like her.

She created a website where artists of color could raise their profiles and meet other fans, and it blew up so quickly that she had to hire a booking agent when she was inundated with requests to add a touring component. The organization launched a record label late last year, and works with more than 200 artists who perform country, folk, Americana, blues and roots music.

“It’s very relieving to be in a space where we can be ourselves without having to deal with judgment,” Lea said, adding that the community has given so many singers “the ability to be ourselves unapologetically and be country at the same time.”

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During the 90-minute concert, with a boisterous audience that quickly developed inside jokes with the singers (as the only man onstage, Bryant was the good-natured target of several digs), the songs hit on some classic country themes: Hometowns, new love, hardships, friends, family, getting drunk, exes, and getting drunk and thinking about exes. Not to mention the country wordplay as Maxann sang, “He only wants me when he’s drinking; at least he’s drinking all the time” and one of Bryant’s tunes urged to “Paint this town a different shade of red tonight; I’m thinkin’ outside the box of wine.”

As the show concluded, the singers united for a rendition of “Texas Hold ‘Em,” and the audience clapped along. Outside the venue, phone screens around the world lit up as listeners argued and debated and posted about “Cowboy Carter” and what they thought and what it meant and where it belonged. But inside the venue, all that mattered was the music.


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