Beyoncé’s ready to top the country charts, but is the industry ready for her?

Generations of gatekeeping and racism have clouded mainstream country, but Black country music has always been at the roots of the country music industry and is ready for its future to flourish.

By Kristen CabreraFebruary 14, 2024 2:48 pm, ,

Beyoncé dropped new music during the Super Bowl on Sunday to the surprise and delight of many fans.

Though the “surprise drop” is not new to mega stars like Beyoncé, it was her choice of genre that seemed to come to so many as the big surprise. It’s a sound that suggests Beyoncé is coming home to her Texas roots, and she’s positioned to top the charts once again.

But how ready is the mainstream country music industry for a Beyoncé country album?

Texas Standard spoke with Francesca Royster, author of the book “Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions on the impact Beyoncé can have on the country music industry. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Beyoncé certainly set the internet on fire. What was your reaction to what you heard?

Francesca Royster: Well, super excited. I mean, even before I knew that Rhiannon Giddens was playing on “Texas Hold ‘Em,” I thought, “wow, she’s playing with these really interesting, really undeniably country music sounds and instrumentation.”

And I really like the two different moods of the two songs that she’s dropped. To me, it kind of speaks to the range of what “Renaissance II” is going to be and what I hope it will be.

And of course, the fact that she used Rhiannon Giddens. Maybe you could say a little bit more about her.

Yes. Well, she’s someone who I so admire.

You know, a Pulitzer Prize-winning artist who has been really instrumental in getting people in the general public to think about the role of the banjo in country music and Black contributions to it. Really also reviving traditions of banjo playing in her groups, Songs of Our Native Daughters and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

So she’s just been a really outspoken person about the ways that Black music, Black storytelling is so important to country music and to popular music in general.

I wonder if we can talk about the status of Black country music right now, both in mainstream country and maybe beyond it? I mean, recently, as you well know, Tracy Chapman became the first Black songwriter to win Song of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards, and she performed with Luke Combs at the Grammys. And now that original version that she did of the song is back on the Billboard Hot 100 some 35 years later.

How primed do you think mainstream country and the music industry at large is for what seems like, on the surface, a potential resurgence or a breakthrough of Black country artists?

I think this is excellent timing because, as you were mentioning with Luke Combs’ successful cover of “Fast Car” and then the fabulous performance by Tracy and Luke on the Grammys,  people are really thinking about and discussing and debating who is left out of the history of country music and also Black creativity, as you know, a constant resource throughout the years.

So I think that that has been a really important moment. I mean, I always thought of “Fast Car” as a country, or at least a countryesque, album as well as other songs on the first album. You know, “For My Lover and “Baby Can I Hold You.” So, I think it’s really neat.

But even before this resurgence of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” you know, we’ve had an amazing renaissance of Black country music artists hitting the mainstream and also pushing things from the edges – from, like, Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer to folks who are more kind of on the Americana side, like Valerie June and the Chocolate Drops.

And so I think that there’s just a new way to listen to country that these artists are getting us to think about. And some people are really, in addition to making music, digging into the archives to get us to think about what has been left out in terms of the history of country music and its origins.

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You talked about a sort of debate, and I seem to feel like the debate, such as it is, sort of lies with categorizing whether something is country music or not. You think back on “Daddy Lessons” from Beyoncé, and I think a lot of people consider that her first big foray into country music – although, as you point out, there was a lot of country inflection on her earliest releases – but it was rejected by the Grammy Awards Country Music Committee.

And then in 2016, when she performed the song with the Chicks, many conservative musicians were upset. Lil Nas X got similar reactions with “Old Town Road.” So I guess I wonder where’s the locus here? What makes country music country or maybe country enough for the industry?

Yeah, it’s a it’s a really important question. And it’s one that kind of, with those examples, we see how things are really static in terms of the definition of country music as it operates on country radio and sometimes for institutions like the Grammys in the past, hopefully not in the future.

But I think that that partly reflects the ways that country has become, you know, a genre that also is very politically inflected. And for country radio, for example, there’s sort of a fear of losing a listenership of white listeners, especially white male listeners, by playing wide varieties of music or like even taking on the definitions or debating the definitions.

So we really feel that in terms of how the genre is controlled, I think that that has probably been true from country music’s earliest times, you know, in the ’20s, the ’30s.

I also really appreciate the work of [Richard] Peterson, who talks about just the construction of country – that it’s an idea that has been also part of a marketing genre and that really some of these debates are kind of selective in terms of what’s considered hybrid sounds.

But we’re definitely in a moment where musical genres feel very tightly controlled, in terms of marketing. But country is maybe one of the most closely-protected in terms of those boundaries.

» RELATED: Beyoncé and the Hidden Black Women in Country Music

You talked about “Texas Hold’ Em” and we talked about how it begins with that great banjo sound. “16 Carriages,” a slower song than “Texas Hold ‘Em,” for sure, and gospel organ in there as well. You think this is going to work on country radio?

You know, it could. I mean, because of the constraints that Beyoncé has faced, you know, with “Daddy Lessons,” we see that not all country music fans or country music radio or, you know, other institutions are quite ready to embrace her. And I think that it’s as much about race as well as kind of fears around the “popization” of country.

But I think that there are these really traditional elements, especially like thinking about “16 Carriages.” When I heard it first, I thought, “wow, this sounds so familiar.” The imagery of the long back roads or the summer sunset or even just the storytelling of that struggle like this sounds to me like classic country music that we might hear with Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn.

And I even just, you know, not being a church person myself, I decided to just look up some country gospel songs – like “Long Black Train,” “Three Wooden Crosses. Like she’s using this iconography in the song that really appeals to this ear. And, you know, in earlier generations of African American music, listeners would feel very comfortable with taking their country with gospel.

So, you know, she’s playing on this tradition, but at the same time, it is also a contemporary song because she’s talking about the story of struggle, putting in some details that could very well be connected to her own life as a young musician, but also like connecting it to histories of struggle and to labor. And she’s telling a story that can also apply to a lot of different lives.

You know, it’s sort of in the same way that “Fast Car” appeals to a lot of listeners because of the ways that it speaks to these ideas about freedom and struggle is lost in a sense. So I think that she has she has a winner.

I think that “Texas Hold ‘Em” is a really fun song, and that also might get audiences. Like there’s almost like a carpe-diem, seize-the-day kind of feeling to the song and that also might appeal to a lot of listeners.

» RELATED: Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’ pays tribute to Black queer roots of house and disco music

You know, we’ve been talking about the genre more, but let’s focus for a moment if we can on Beyoncé. You have “Renaissance” Act I, which was an ode to dance and house music and the LGBTQ community. And now you have a continuation of the “Renaissance” with Act II, which is said to be going back to her roots with these two songs in an upcoming album ahead of her.

It seems like it might be a bigger leap for some of Beyonce’s traditional fans, this sort of country shift. What what do you think? You think that this could in some way cost her, maybe bring her a new fan base? How do you see this going down for Beyoncé?

I’m optimistic about this move.

In first, because we have been having this national conversation about who owns country music – how it’s been kept and how the history has sometimes been misrepresented in terms of excluding folks of color. So I think that that has primed some listeners.

And then there are folks who just kind of basically feel like Beyoncé could do anything. Like this is a really great flex in terms of the spectrum of sounds that she can bring together – the different ways she can use different storytelling traditions. So I think it’s consistent with fans who enjoyed the renaissance of house music in “Renaissance” or even the storytelling and discussion of Black women’s freedom struggles in “Lemonade.”

And it might still alienate people who want to keep country pure, whatever that means. Like whether it’s sonically and people who are uncomfortable with bringing together different sounds or with, you know, an African American pop idol who feels free to make music in the genre.

But ultimately she’s a star who has been able to show how she can use her platform to get us to think through music and also, you know, to enjoy ourselves. And I think these two songs speak to both of those things.

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