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A roundtable about genre and Beyoncé with OA editors and contributors

COWBOY CARTER cover artwork. Photo by Blair Caldwell © Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia Records

For three decades, the Oxford American has worked to uncover seams within the bedrock of Southern culture, clandestine underpinnings that inform what appears in contemporary cultural context as wholly uninfluenced manifestations. This work mirrors the way in which the South so often serves as an undisclosed source of what is read as American. The magazine’s annual music issue has taken specific, sonic pathways toward uncovering these foundations. Produced since 1997, the popular (and often contested) editions trace the aural landscape of states, genres, barrooms, migratory paths, scenes and cities—mapping lineages and points of relation across time and regional borders. 

So too has Beyoncé set as her project revealing underexplored connections between disparate American musical styles and her own aural taste as a millennial Black woman born and raised along the Gulf Coast, in Houston’s Third Ward.

On her latest album, COWBOY CARTER, Beyoncé takes up a remarkable range of American roots music, entwining the old sounds with those of Sixties singer-songwriters and a more contemporary r&b, hip-hop sensibility. Beyoncé uses her original vantage as a Southern black woman to mine the archives of American music, selecting relics and riffing off of them through the prism of a pop superstar. For the discerning listener, Beyoncé offers newly fashioned understandings of the contemporary musical landscape, knowing now how the terrain on which they stand came to be.

When she debuted the project’s first two singles, we put together a living document that collects writing on Black country music from across the Oxford American archive. Now that the full album is living in the world, and to further examine how Beyoncé’s preservationist work synergizes with our own, we called on a handful of OA editors, contributors, and interns to discuss the record, including their highlights and lowlights, and whether or not the work occasions a reckoning with country music. The conversation questions whether this album actually instigates a culture war or, rather, invites listeners to rethink assumptions genre places on musical output.

Frederick McKindra, associate editor

What were your first impressions of COWBOY CARTER? Was it what you’d expected? At a very basic level, do you like it? 

Francesca T. Royster, contributor: The Friday that COWBOY CARTER dropped, I had family in town for Easter weekend and my daughter’s birthday, and I kept stealing moments to listen in bits and pieces: “JOLENE” on the way to the grocery store; “YA YA” while cooking. I couldn’t get the sense of it as a whole until a few days later. But listening all the way through, with earphones—where I could hear every whispered lyric, the layered voices of children and elders, the Hunhs! and Whoohs, the whispered confession in “DAUGHTER,” the sounds of horse’s hooves and the jokes and sly historic and sonic references from the last two centuries of music—was a revelation. I loved and was surprised by the quieter moments on the album, like the tenderness of “PROTECTOR,” or dreamy wandering of “II HANDS II HEAVEN” (and I especially delighted in the ways that song is continuing the house legacy of Renaissance). 

She fulfilled her promise, her claim that “This is not a country album; this is a Beyoncé album”—in ways I didn’t expect. This was neither a country nor an anti-country album. But it engaged in some of the history of Black country music and other genres in ways that were unexpected and surprising. 

Gaby Wilson, contributor: I find COWBOY CARTER most exciting when Beyoncé uses country, the genre, as a stand-in for the country itself. The two are invariably linked, one the product of the other, and on this album, she sees them both engaged in a dance with change. 

COWBOY CARTER is, as she describes, a Beyoncé album, and the lens of Beyoncé’s specific experience captures not only the colorful, variegated sounds of her Gulf Coast upbringing, but the calcified mechanisms of a music industry that invokes rules and categories discriminately. Her inquiry into the history of country music, which she hints was guided by the racist backlash to her 2016 performance at the Country Music Awards, both in person and online, shakes loose uncomfortable truths and myths central to American identity, just by referencing the banjo or Linda Martell or covering The Beatles.

Colm Simmons, editorial intern: This album changed my standards for music and expanded my understanding of genres. I am not a huge fan of country, so I thought the genre would limit my capacity to enjoy the album, but COWBOY CARTER is a Beyoncé album at the end of the day, ensuring a peak level of quality and care. By the end of its one hour and nineteen-minute runtime I had lived twenty-seven lifetimes.

David Ramsey, contributing editor: I don’t know Beyoncé’s oeuvre all that well, but I was interested to check out COWBOY CARTER because of the heavy-duty hype around it being a country album: I love forays into country-soul or soul-country, and more generally I dig when artists try country—or country-ish seasoning—on a one-off song, album, or phase. And on that level, I find the album a little disappointing.

My wife said that she thought the more country-adjacent tracks sounded like the Country Trolls in Trolls World Tour. That’s not as much of a diss as it might sound like (we love the Trolls movies!), but for me it gets at the on-the-nose signaling and bombastic branding that I found distracting at times, despite some real highlights on the album. It was when the production and presentation was most insistent about being country that it descended, to my ears, into something cheesy and thirsty (qualities I’ve never before associated with Beyoncé). Sometimes the songs seem almost smothered by the concept, with the “country” adornments more invested in stage-setting (and over-explaining) a hit for the masses rather than letting the organic oddness of an unexpected musical impulse sneak in on its own turn.

Jalon Young, editorial intern: Initially, I listened to the album with naive expectations. I was raised on southern soul, so I prefer country music with funk and soul moods—like the country music of Tina Turner, who Beyoncé names as an inspiration. The first single, “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” promised this: the banjo, viola, and synth give it a groove akin to cookout music, a popular style of southern soul (at least here in Mississippi). Yet, the second single, “16 CARRIAGES,” caught me off guard. It had an elegance that reminded me of Beyoncé's earlier r&b-pop—soft, sensual, sometimes vulnerable. This was my first warning, but stubborn as I am, I still expected a Tina Turner–country soul redux. Any Beyoncé fan will say this is a mistake: You never come to a Beyoncé project expecting a single genre; you come expecting Beyoncé, and with her artistry being so complex, that in and of itself is a surprise. 

As I returned to the album, I realized that it’s pretty damn good. Is it country? Maybe not completely, and that’s the point. Beyoncé herself said it wasn’t, and I sense it’s a pop response to Americana. (Yes, I know pop and Americana are oxymoronic to diehard traditionalists.) The opening track “AMERIICAN REQUIEM” is Beyoncé’s claim to an American musical identity, and the entire album is Beyoncé being a musical chameleon: She darts to country, western, hip-hop, even gospel with hypnotic ease, creating something of a musical syllabus of American music.

What are highlights of the record for you? 

Royster: I loved the Joni Mitchelesque moments, the many Prince growls from “AMERICAN REQUIEM” on. And the smart ways that the album makes use of its star cameos. What a delight to hear Linda Martell’s voice, her wisdom and mischief in her little statement on genres in the leadup to “SPAGHETTII”

Simmons: “II HANDS II HEAVEN” has a special place in my heart. It has my favorite transition on the album; the flow from “RIIVERDANCE” is seamless. This song sat me down, reminded me of my mortality, and told me to cherish life. I need to stick my hands out a sunroof while driving down a winding road at dusk to this song. Love thy neighbor and yourself and Beyoncé.


  • Rhiannon Giddens’s groovy-spooky riff on “TEXAS HOLD ’EM.”

  • The sudden weird interlude of her mini-interpretation of Chuck Berry’s “Oh Louisiana,” a moment of psychedelic play that I wish she had let unfold for longer.

  • The duet with Miley Cyrus is a nice pop song of the sort you used to hear on Delilah’s late-night adult contemporary radio program. A pleasant Fleetwood Mac vibe. 

  • “YA YA” is perhaps a little overstuffed, but it’s probably the best song on the album. The hook from “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” feels organic and undeniable, and I love the cascade of unpredictable rhythms. Plus some vibrations from the Beach Boys because why not? The style of showmanship on this track, hammier than elsewhere on the album, evokes the Medicine Show energy that stirred the early musics that would conjure rock & roll and other pathways of popular music. That includes the influence of Black minstrel performers still on the traveling circuit in the early twentieth century and the earthy divas of Vaudeville Blues. Little Richard would have dug the vamping, carnival-barker adrenaline on display here.

  • “SWEET HONEY BUCKIN” is a solid modern R&B/hip-hop song. The homage to Patsy Cline feels natural and inevitable rather than tacked on; likewise, the reference to a “sweet country home.” And there is a synergy between these light touches and the foregrounding of Black majorette style that has the playful delight of discovery. The production team can’t help themselves so they overdo it with a mechanical bull and horse talk, natch, but this is just a hot song that cannot be weighed down by the thematic imperatives of the concept album.

Danielle Amir Jackson, editor: I love when the album focuses most pointedly on Beyoncé’s ever-growing chops and inclination to experiment as a singer. Moments where she pushes beyond lyrics, as if words alone are insufficient for her ideas and her beauty. Where she’s just vocalizing aahs and oohs and luscious stacked lalalalalas, or filling in trills alongside the very funky bassline of “DESERT EAGLE” or giving us directions to shake, swim, jerk, twerk. This is an artist harnessing strengths honed over many years. I have long associated Beyoncé with a facility with rhythm and an ear for what sounds best connect with the inherently propulsive body. Moving us with kinetic vocal arrangements, singing from the most cavernous reaches of her core—these are characteristic of Beyoncé’s oeuvre, from “Jumpin’ Jumpin’” to “Check On It” to the uptempos on COWBOY CARTER. On this album, in these moments, she sounds the most free. When she transcends her own limitations, she allows us to do the same.

“When she transcends her own limitations, she allows us to do the same.”

Danielle Amir Jackson

What are lowlights? 

Ramsey: Before my wife had heard the album, I asked her what was the most obvious and corny thing Beyoncé could have done to stamp this as a country album. She immediately said “cover Jolene” with a pained look on her face.

And yes: The “JOLENE” cover and the embarrassing intro from Dolly are an atrocity. So many people have commented on this that I don’t want to belabor the point on the song itself. But perhaps certain aspects of the failure may speak to broader missteps that pop up in much milder form elsewhere on this record—a fixation on celebrity as root and branch of cultural folkways, questions of identity, and narratives of authenticity; a discomfort with unresolved vulnerability or weakness; an insistence on an anthemic mode stripped of humor or irony; a habit of reshelving genre tropes via the mass-produced and overfamiliar memes of chart-topping pop, so clichés are piled on cliché, neither spoof nor homage; and the obsessive control of highly manufactured production and taste-tested ideas.

Wille Nelson shows up (or phones in?), barely, happy to cash the check for a couple of gratuitous spoken-word snippets. I love Willie, but why is he here? It feels like some industry bigshot was like, “we need country vibes, get Willie’s agent on the horn.” For all of its nods to history, the album can seem more attuned to viral memes than bottom-up cultural folkways. Snippets of landmark songs play during one of Willie’s cameos, like a reading list or lecture notes as free-floating addendum.

On my first listen, I was grooving along with the opening track, only to be interrupted by a clunky thesis statement just before the four-minute mark. Is all of this conceptual latticework necessary to simply experience the songs? Does it need to be so didactic to unlock these grooves? Later, Linda Martell briefly turns up to say a few lines about genre in case you forgot. She doesn’t sing, alas. Post Malone does: merely drifting in and out, like the outline of an idea.

Forget country music for a moment, which has its own idiosyncratic history. If we are to look for musical foundations, COWBOY CARTER seems most energized by the crackling fusion of the Great Migration, lingering at the moments of Creation—or let’s call it the Big Bang—of the ultimate genre mish-mash, rock & roll. I kept wanting the old, weird Chicago as a lodestar; too often, I felt this was a production of Hollywood.

Jackson: I also hear COWBOY CARTER as a rock & roll album, a statement on what rock & roll is and was, and how it relates to county sounds, the South, and Beyoncé’s heritage. For me, “YA YA” is the core of the album. I read it as a cheat code for understanding what drove the artist, beyond the marketing and the hype. At its sweat-soaked, improvisational center, it sounds inspired by Ike & Tina Turner, artists born in Delta towns who met in East St. Louis, a river port populated by other migrants from the country, or from deeper South. They created a music of rapid motion, progress, of casting off generational burdens—informed, still, by the prior years’ struggle: placing rhythm alongside their blues. Beyoncé’s vocal dips and dives and lunges into her low register: she is in effect voicing both Ike’s and Tina’s parts. I’m reminded of Margo Jefferson; in her memoir Constructing a Nervous System, she confesses her own girlhood admiration of Ike’s cool and sound. She’d imitate the Revue’s stage act with playmates, always saving Ike’s parts for herself. There’s the Beach Boys interpolation, the Elvis impersonation (!), the map she draws, name-checking Gary, Indiana. Placing Elvis and the Beach Boys beside Ike and Tina and the Jackson 5 on a very traditional r&b song with country motifs, in which she sings history can’t be erased ? It all leads me to believe that she was interested in reclaiming country elements as critical parts of American rock & roll and rock & roll as fundamentally rhythm & blues. Just as much as she was interested in illuminating the Black roots of country. Those missions feel conjoined here. 

Is it too much for a song to carry? I don’t revisit the songs from COWBOY CARTER as much as I did the music from Renaissance, which moved so effortlessly from mood to mood. This record feels more expository, while that record was all about sensuality and flow. 

And about “JOLENE”: Dolly petitioned Beyoncé for a cover a la Whitney Houston and The Bodyguard. I expected it to happen. I don’t love the results; I don’t think the rendition adds much to the album or to the canon of “Jolene” covers. But in her review for The New Yorker, Doreen St. Felix called Beyoncé’s rendition a “Blaxploitation remake,” which made me chuckle and reminded me to read the song as camp. 

Is it meaningful that Beyoncé released a country album? How so? 

Royster: It is very meaningful that Beyoncé released a country album, and on her own terms. The flex of following her own creative vision is such an important response to the ways that country radio and other gatekeepers have kept creativity and experimentation at bay (or bey) especially for Black artists. 

Simmons: I remember watching Beyoncé perform “Daddy Lessons” with the Dixie Chicks at the 2016 CMAs. The backlash she faced from white country fans attempting to assert their ownership over the genre needed to be checked. The success of the album is a reminder that music is an art form and artists should have the freedom to explore a variety of genres. COWBOY CARTER is a history lesson that spotlights the Black and brown contributors who helped pioneer the country genre.

Jackson: It is meaningful that this album has driven streams up for Linda Martell and gotten us talking about Esley Riddle and DeFord Bailey. A totalizing, obliterating fiction went hand in hand with the commercialization of American music and rendered people like them, and the Bohee Brothers, and an assortment of Black jug bands, unimportant and invisible. It was white supremacist trickery. I think of Beyoncé’s genre play as her moment to trick it back—she’s literally trick riding on the cover of the album, sitting sidesaddle, showing us her skill, strength, humor. She’s a trickster signifying on country’s conventions like the master of her language, music, that she is. 

I also hear in the record a lot of meaningful cross-generational collaboration, and Beyoncé’s attempts to reckon, sonically, with the upheavals of the twentieth century. Both of our parents lived through them; she and I were born just sixteen years after the passage of the Voting Rights act. The Civil Rights movement was bloody and explosive and fought here, in our region. Many institutions tried to hold on to the old ways. Blood was shed, children died, lost limbs, eyes. These were the years in which our parents came of age. Playing their music is an education in how they survived. 

Ramsey: I think the appropriate lens is more capitalism than country. It’s a marketing maneuver by a near-billionaire super-duper star (and more power to her!). And I admit I feel a little cynical—the discourse that followed seems manufactured and predictable. The pop station and the country station in your town are owned by the same conglomerate. The politics of Music Row and the corporate music industry more broadly is just to move units and make money; culture war stuff is of interest to the suits only so long as it serves that end.

You could imagine an alternate universe where Beyoncé came up with an imaginative way to cover Stoney Edwards, or collaborated on a new song with Linda Martell, or went all in on genre with a capital-C country song like the Pointer Sisters’ “Fairytale,” or unlocked a deeply country sound in a soul song as Little Richard did with his alternate version of “In the Name,” or blended tradition with new sonic possibilities as Ray Charles did with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Or taken inspiration from the defiant creativity of the Outlaws, say, or the hard-bitten ferocity of women like Kitty Wells and Jean Shepard, who reclaimed the honky-tonk angel as their own. Or re-cast the pedal steel as an r&b curveball.

COWBOY CARTER is a melange of American music, rooted in the old tangle of Southern folkways and inspired by proto-rock & roll and early r&b. That’s a fabric threaded in and with country music, but the country genre or the peculiarities of what might be called country culture just doesn’t seem to be Beyoncé’s primary interest. Making her into an avatar of Black rebellion against country gatekeeping seems to under-consider the songs on their own terms and oversimplify the tale of Black country music and its trailblazers past and present.

Not wanting to be hemmed in by genre constraints is a worthy goal, but it’s also a shopworn cliché at this point. I sense no radicalism in the genre elements of the album—it has fun with tropes but seems ultimately too distant from country’s sonic, narrative, or thematic worldbuilding to either embrace or complicate “country music” writ large. And I don’t detect much in which the artistry on display here upsets our expectations or reconstitutes the boundaries of the genre or the mythos around the country identity. “This ain’t a Country album,” as she said. “This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.” As it should be.

“Not wanting to be hemmed in by genre constraints is a worthy goal, but it’s also a shopworn cliché at this point.”

David Ramsey

Where does COWBOY CARTER fit into Beyoncé’s oeuvre? 

Wilson: In many ways, COWBOY CARTER feels like an expansion of Lemonade. The boundless relationship to genre, the meticulous sampling, the mingling of personal and cultural history—Lemonade demonstrates that Beyoncé’s grip on these practices was already virtuosic in 2016. “Daddy Lessons” is the obvious bridge between the two albums, but another song that’s worth revisiting is “Don't Hurt Yourself,” a fire-breathing rock diatribe against her cheating husband, the soundtrack to “Anger” in her eleven chapters of grief. The record borrows its ominous thumping drum line from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” which itself is a reworking of a country blues song written in the wake of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. With this one sample, Beyoncé situates her private struggles in lineage with a ballad for broken Black American homes and the aggressive braggadocio of British “cock rock.” What’s more, she makes it her own, transforming its meaning through her interpretation. Rather than submit to despair or rancor, she affirms her worth, stands in her power, and extends a second chance. 

Simmons: The three-part project that Beyoncé started with Renaissance and continued with COWBOY CARTER is a perfect example of her artistry and have their own special place in her discography. These albums are the result of cultivating her craft over her three-decade-long career. This is the natural progression as time and time again Beyoncé has shown her love of pushing boundaries and surpassing expectations. I have no idea what Act iii will sound like, but this rollout of albums exists outside the restraints of our universe.

Jackson: Formally, COWBOY CARTER is yet another chapter of Beyoncé’s years-long fascination with archives, which we saw in albums like Lemonade and Renaissance but also in her homage to HBCUs at Coachella and her ode to African kingdoms in 2020’s Black Is King. Other musicians such as Corinne Bailey Rae and Talibah Safiya are similarly taking an “archival turn” in their music, and artists in other mediums, too, such as film, visual art, and literature. The result is many palimpsestic works of art; the impulse, I think, is a hunger to understand how we’ve got to where we are socially and politically in this nation. 

For this record, who or what are her main influences? How does the album employ, reflect, adapt those influences?

Royster: She seems animated by the spirit of Ray Charles on this album, in terms of “overstanding” and really deconstructing country music’s roots of Black innovation. You hear Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and understand how important the rhythms and the swing that Ray lends it to the songs he picks, and it helps us understand how that funkiness had been smoothed out. 

And Tina Turner’s fierceness, rooted in her wedding of countryness and urban cool, is a really important influence here. And in terms of the power to reinterpret, while making the music her own, I definitely think of Betty Lavette as I listen to COWBOY CARTER.

Ramsey: I’ll suggest Prince as a central inspiration. He had this particular magic: It felt like he had consumed and synthesized all of American popular music, and then cast it back out with a new electric charge. (And I am happy to insist that way deep down in its bones, “Nothing Compares 2 U” was a country song.) He also had a penchant for both expressions of domination and deep prickliness about artistic freedom, a posture that feels like the credo behind COWBOY CARTER. The Prince comp is there in the album’s ecstatic highs, but also clarifies to me what I found to be a bit of a letdown: There was something so weird and so jarringly fresh about his music, even at his most infectious. He was uncategorizable not because he rebelled against genre, but because genre was simply inapplicable to the scope of his vision. The fusion in his work was flushed through his singular oddity, whereas I too often found COWBOY CARTER delivering historical reference as details atop the bulldozed path of pop domination.

Some of the material uses the Bro Country template, which is fine, just not for me. But I can’t detect the influence of any country vocalist in particular, Black or white.

I do hear the very strong influence of Ike and Tina, some Little Milton, Chuck Berry, maybe whatever Fontella Bass was up to away from the Chess studio. The album feels most energized when it takes a hyper-modern and breezily commercialized spin on an East St. Louis juke joint in say 1960 or so—hustlers and teens and a brand-new sound across the river, until the cops show up. To my ears, modern production techniques dampen some of the raw physicality of that vibe, but it’s a fertile creative space for Beyoncé, and it’s where you most catch her enthusiasm and spirit.

Also some of the madcap, retro, omnivorous-chameleon, costume-party, genre showcase (if not quite the zany Vaudeville spirit) of the early Pointer Sisters. Or the unbound, try-anything funk (if not the psychedelic whimsy) of Funkadelic or Sly and the Family Stone. 

It doesn’t always go all the way in this direction, but Ruth Pointer’s description of the Sisters’ second album (which featured the very country “Fairytale”) could perhaps have been on the moodboard during the making of COWBOY CARTER: “jazz-baby élan/schmaltzy/high-camp” and “nostalgia razzamatazz.”

How does it fit into a country canon? 

Ramsey: The hype around COWBOY CARTER fits in the long tradition of crossover. The country charts have always included pop stars and pop hopefuls who decided to go country to sell more records or expand their audience—and of course lots of country hits and artists have crossed over to pop. And country music has always had anxiety about being swallowed up by pop (google “John Denver at the 1975 CMA awards”). In the early 1960s, singers like Skeeter Davis and Patsy Cline scored big hits on both charts, just as Taylor Swift would four decades later. Ray Charles innovated, Jerry Lee Lewis masterfully embraced the genre as it was. Elvis and Linda Ronstadt crossed back and forth, Ringo Starr and Lionel Richie dabbled, Darius Rucker completely remade himself as a country music superstar. Olivia Newton-John succeeded with a common formula, sanding off the edges of country with a pop/easy-listening vibe, and wound up a figure of frankly hilarious controversy: When she won the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974, the old-school stars were so pissed that they formed a rival organization, with members including Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff, Conway Twitty, Porter Wagoner, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and various other legends “to preserve the identity of country music.” Drama at awards shows, same as it ever was.

At a certain point, it can be hard to untangle the music from the promotion. I think COWBOY CARTER is probably more about the latter, but that’s okay. Linda Martell’s move to country was at least in part a Shelby Singleton marketing gimmick, but it still produced one of best songs in any genre of the 1970s.

Country music itself, of course, is a form of popular music; we’re not talking about field recordings of oral traditions. Will any of the songs on COWBOY CARTER become country standards? Ten years from now, will the album feel like an essential part of a country music pantheon? I don’t think so. The country vibes just seem too tangential or surface level. More gestural than musical.

One interesting feature of the record, perhaps, is that it’s devoid of loneliness.

The world does not need genre cops, and there are no hard and fast rules to enforce. But sometimes I wonder how much of this is a conflation between “Southern” and “country.” On COWBOY CARTER, I hear much deeper and more fully realized connections with Southern soul, early Black rock & roll, electric blues, Pentecostal gospel, 1950s r&b, funk, vaudeville blues. Obviously there is all sorts of overlap between this stuff and country music, with no clear borders, but it obfuscates more than it illuminates to collapse the distinctions altogether.

Jackson: I wonder what the record would have sounded like had Beyoncé not set out to prove her country bonafides, if the racism of the “Daddy Lessons” moment was less foregrounded than her obvious love of Earth and of home. “SWEET HONEY BUCKIN’,” with its mashup of Patsy Cline and house rhythms, where she sings about cornfed booties doing body rolls at the rodeo and going back to her sweet country home feels like a sparkling dispatch from a genreless future that is self-loving, body-positive, reverential of the land, and so much fun. In the song’s second movement, she beckons us to this future: Come with me to new life.

Further Reading

Black Country: A Love Letter and Living Archive

see more

Oxford American

From the editors of the Oxford American.