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My Country: Can Beyonce be Country?

March 25, 2024

Written by Hilary Hagen

I remember watching Beyoncé’s controversial performance of "Daddy Lessons" at the 50th Country Music Awards. I had never watched the CMA’s nor did I grow up listening to country music, so I had no notions or expectations prior. Country mainstream certainly did; complaining that her performance, couldn't be country. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road" was met with a similar outcry from mainstream country a few years later. Yet similarly hip-hop inspired country music from the likes of Florida Georgia Line or Sam Hunt passed with flying colors. So what’s the qualifier? Why can’t Beyoncé be country? She doesn’t fit the genre’s dominant identity: white and conservative.

The pioneers of the genre don’t necessarily fit that description either. Today’s country genre has its roots in what was known as “hillbilly” music which was an amalgamation of decades of influences from across the Southern US including Appalachian music, American folk music, Celtic music, and most notably traditional African American spirituals. The latter is incredibly poignant. Early hillbilly music was co-opted from black American musical tradition including slave spirituals, field songs, and religious hymnals.

These traditions themselves were also a result of many different cultural and musical influences from around the world (due to the transcultural nature of the Atlantic Slave Trade). Not just the chords and ballads, but the instruments in which these chords are performed. The most notable being the banjo which is a descendant of West African lutes introduced and later reimagined by enslaved Africans arriving in the American South.

Prior to the 1920s this hillbilly music was largely aracial. Hillbilly’s identity was anti-establishment and blue-collar. This changed as both hillbilly music and music in general became a profit oriented commercial product for an emerging music industry. Record labels began to define and curate different American genres. This once egalitarianistic musical tradition was swiftly divided into “hillbilly records” and “race records” (e.i., “white records” and “black records”).

The genre was rebranded as something by and for white America, effectively scrubbing any black musicians or their influence from both its heritage and future. Race records were also later renamed rhythm and blues (the precursor to jazz and blues). Renamed “country” music by the recording industry in the 1950s, the genre would later combine with western music becoming “country and western” music and eventually back to just “country”. Western was also once a distinct genre (and arguably still is!).

Western had roots in the hillbilly music of the southeast/south, but evolved as it traveled West. This music was composed by and about the cowboys and individuals who settled and worked throughout the Western United States, particularly along the Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau. The traditional ballads of Northern Mexico, Ranchera, and Tejano music also influenced the western sound greatly.

It is also important to note the makeup of this cowboy population and culture at the time. Post civil war freed blacks, once enslaved and brought to work on newly established cotton farms and cattle ranches, boasted a significant population in the new American Southwest. These newly emancipated blacks were incredibly skilled in herding cattle. Indeed this skill was in high demand as a lack of railroad infrastructure meant herds needed to be physically moved to shipping points east of the great plains. This necessity would foster the cowboy culture known and mythicized today. According to Smithsonian Magazine, many of these cowboys were these freed black men (an estimated ¼ of them).

Additionally, most of these cowboys weren’t actually “lone rangers”, but often worked in partnership with other cowboys. These cowboys relied on each other for survival, supporting each other physically and emotionally. These relationships were their only point of human connection and intimacy and often this intimacy would lend itself to a sexual nature. Male-male sexual relationships were relatively common. Although these individuals would not consider themselves queer in the way a 21st century lens might. Instead, homosexuality was seen as an act rather than an identity or something intrinsic. Regardless, there is no denying that cowboy culture and western music was black and queer.

So back to our original question: Why can’t Beyoncé be country? Or Lil Nas X, a queer black man? I assert that she can be. In fact, she already is. Despite common misconception, country music’s origins aren’t white, nor mainstream conservative. I use this term cautiously as its connotations and definition hasn’t been static and is contingent on time and place. They are anti-establishment, queer, black, mexican, and otherwise. The American South holds the highest concentration of black people in the U.S., with more than half (56%) of the country’s black population living there, according to Pew Research Center. Mainly in urban centers such as Atlanta, Dallas/Houston, and Miami.

I’m a white woman from the Pacific Northwest who has never stepped foot below the Mason-Dixon line. My image of country music and the American South can best be described as inherently “down-home, backwoods redneck” as Blake Shelton put it in his 2011 song “Kiss My Country Ass”. That is white, conservative, and predominantly rural. This demographic doesn’t have a monopoly on country music nor Southern culture: it never has.

Beyoncé (a Houston, Texas native) recently released two singles, "Texas Hold' Em" and "16 Carriages”, both from “Act II”, her anticipated country-themed album due to release in March. Act II is to be the second installment in a three-album series, which began with Renaissance in 2022. An album inspired by the black ball culture of the 70s and 80s that incorporates the disco and house music that originated in the black community. Beyoncé has said that she was introduced to this culture by her gay cousin, who helped raise her until his death during the AIDS epidemic and sought to emulate and celebrate it in Renaissance. Act II will serve a similar purpose. Both a nostalgic exploration of her upbringing in Houston and an homage to centuries of (often unacknowledged) black creativity and contribution to the cultural tapestry of America.

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