Arts & Culture

Is Beyoncé’s new album country?

Release ignites hot talk about genre’s less-discussed Black roots, what constitutes authenticity

9 min read

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The scheduled release this week of Beyoncé’s new, country-inflected album, “Act II: Cowboy Carter” (containing the single “Texas Hold ’Em,” the first No. 1 country hit by a Black woman), has sparked media coverage about the overlooked influence of Black musicians on the genre and criticism of the singer’s intent to enter the arena and turn a spotlight on that heritage.

The roots of country music are popularly associated with rural white Southerners who brought their Celtic, Scottish, British, and Acadian folk traditions to the New World. But historians have long noted the genre owes a major debt to Black hymnals, gospel, spirituals, field songs, jazz, and the blues.

Some of country’s pioneering stars in the first half of the 20th century, such as Jimmie Rodgers (regarded as the “father of country music”) and the Carter Family, were influenced by unsung Black musicians and had hits with their songs. And the banjo, country’s signature sound, was first introduced by enslaved Africans.

Emmett G. Price III is a musician and founding dean of Africana Studies at Berklee College of Music who writes extensively about Black music and culture. He was a visiting professor of music at Harvard University in 2022-2023. The Gazette spoke with Price about Beyoncé’s new project and what constitutes authentic country music. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Critics have suggested Beyoncé has not made a true country album but just picked up superficial trappings — donning a cowboy hat and adding banjo and fiddle to pop music. She herself says she made a “Beyoncé album” not a country album. What do you make of this discussion?

Her two tracks, “16 Carriages” and particularly “Texas Hold ’Em,” pay homage to the various styles, sentiments, and Black people in country music over the years. In many ways, the debate from her new release is exactly the conversation she was trying to instigate.

Country music, or country and western going back to the 1920s, is one of a number of descendants of what we know as the blues and as spirituals. When you add the over-fascination of race in our nation, particularly during the ’20s through the ’60s, you’ll understand why there’s such huge pushback on having a Black woman be the “face” of country music.

She’s “supposed” to be in R&B or in hip-hop or in gospel. People are claiming cultural spaces without paying homage to the early influencers. I think the debate is heated on all sides because this is cultural real estate that folks are talking about, and nobody wants to give up any real estate.

Musicians often share ideas and influences in many genres of American popular music, including country. How did country music become thought of solely as an expression of white culture?

All of the American forms of music are combinations and merging and syntheses of different sounds because the populations they spoke to had influence and impact on them. I think the question is beautiful because it’s a conflation of the history of radio, particularly in the United States of America, as well as the history of charts like the Billboard chart.

Radio, depending on where you lived, particularly in the early days, you really only had two stations — off and on. And you couldn’t see who was on the radio. A number of artists, such as Big Mama Thornton, who most people have no awareness of — “Hound Dog” was her song before Elvis Presley covered it. And when he covered it, there was a huge trajectory that happened. White artists were able to get their versions of songs played, and Black artists went into obscurity because they didn’t have any sales. Radio was the way to expand one’s reach and influence. That’s the first thing.

And then, the Billboard charts began in the mid-teens to track who the top sellers of sheet music were. By the late ’20s and into the ’30s, they began keeping track of the top-selling records based on whatever classification was used to stereotype and phenotype the sounds and sentiments. Of course, that was all up and down racial lines.

So, our over-fascination with race plays a huge role in how we experience different types of music. Having said that, there were still Black artists back in those days, who were creating things that would be considered country music.

Who were some of the important, lesser-known Black country musicians and songwriters?

DeFord Bailey is the kicker for me, just an unknown legend who was tremendously influential and is absolutely forgotten. Charley Pride is another one. I will even say Ray Charles, who has a tremendous legacy in the country space. Rufus Payne was another cat, not well-known. He went by the nickname “Tee Tot.” Hank Williams met him when Hank Williams was a child and Paine was a street performer. Linda Martell is another one who is not well-known. The Neville Brothers, particularly Aaron Neville, and Darius Rucker, who pays homage to Aaron Neville.

In contemporary times, you can’t talk about country without talking about Rhiannon Giddens [artistic director of Harvard’s Silkroad Ensemble]. Not only through her presence on Beyonce’s “Texas Hold ’Em,” but what she had been doing for years with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the great legacy that comes from that tradition.

Why have these artists, especially those who mentored country legends like Rodgers and the Carters, gotten so little attention? Were they not able to record?  

Some of the Black artists actually did record, but they would have recorded on obsolete labels that maybe pressed 100 albums that were sitting in somebody’s basement or garage. If you had a recording, but you didn’t have any distribution through radio play, nobody knew you had a record.

There were some phenomenal musicians who clearly were phenomenal enough to be inspirations, if not mentors, but not phenomenal enough to be on the cover and put out as artists.

You also have the important third rail of Jim Crow South. Because of segregation, even if I was a promoter or a producer, there is no way that I can have these Black artists on the same bill as my white artists and make a lot of money. So, there was a lack of willingness to break those understood cultural habits of segregation. It’s a matter of who has access and who doesn’t have access.

The banjo was an African-derived instrument popularized by Black musicians in the 18th and 19th centuries that fell out of favor for the guitar after white musicians began using it in minstrel shows as a prop. Today, it’s closely associated with bluegrass and Americana. In recent years, musicians like Giddens, a banjoist and singer, have sought to reclaim and revive the banjo’s place in Black music. Talk about this history.

Dr. Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, emerita professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, wrote a [1978] dissertation on the one-string banjo, tracing it back to its African origins and brought out West African fiddle music. Most people are not aware of the origin. People assume that the fiddle or the banjo were Spanish in origin and came through the Celtic journey or the Spanish journey.

In certain rural areas in the Carolinas, and certainly down South, the instrument never went away. In the Gullah Sea Islands, for the Geechee people all of those traditions continued to stay alive. It’s just that where it was popular, it lost the attention of the majority of people. In the mainstream music culture, you’re right: Nobody’s playing the banjo; nobody’s playing the fiddle in Black spaces.

What Rhiannon does and other people do, particularly during this awareness of Black Lives Matter and of uplifting Black culture in all ways, shapes, and forms, is use the moment to explore our traditional heritages.

In many ways, this is what Beyonce’s doing not only through her new releases but also “Renaissance” or “Lemonade.” She’s paying homage to Black culture and saying, “Hey, folks, don’t forget about this. And also, don’t pin me down. I can do a number of things because this was all part of the rich tradition and heritage that I’m indigenous to.”

Because of her popularity, and the success she’s already having on the country charts, could Beyoncé change the music like Ray Charles did in the early 1960s by inspiring other musicians and introducing it to a new, more diverse fan base?

Absolutely. If there is one person who has the power to do it, I think it’s Beyoncé. I’m a huge Beyoncé fan, so you have to forgive my bias here, but I don’t think there’s anybody else in the industry right now who has the leverage, who has the reach and the influence, to create a moment where these conversations are being had.

And not only as an artist, but as a businesswoman and as a major influencer, she’s doing just that. I actually think that’s the goal. I think it’s about the conversation. What she’s trying to do is not only create effective art, but to leverage it to be a conversation-starter so that we can heal our nation.

She’s from Houston. She’s a Texan. She understands country, both the music and the culture, both the attractive and non-attractive aspects of it. She also understands the influence that it has on people’s lives and she’s going right after that, trying to get us in conversation rather than hiding in the camps we’re more comfortable in.

The conversation is that country is not all white. There is a legacy; there is a history of non-white people who have been major influencers, major contributors, and people who should be recognized as such.