On ‘Cowboy Carter,’ Beyoncé Gallops Beyond Country Music for a Genre-Bending Exploration of Herself and America

A lot is happening in the world but it all comes to a halt whenever Beyoncé unleashes something new. There has been a particular level of anticipation around the megastar’s latest LP, “Cowboy Carter.” This sprawling, 80-minute assembly of 27 new tracks, drops trailing clouds of hype, and even controversy. When Beyoncé released the album’s first single on Super Bowl night, “Texas Hold ’Em,” praise and debates swirled around its hybrid use of country and pop. Should Beyoncé, who made her name as an R&B and pop titan, be on the country airwaves? Think pieces began appearing on the long history of Black Americans in country music as well as their exclusion from the genre. Now that “Cowboy Carter” is here, what it cements is Beyoncé’s ongoing exploration of various genres on a widescreen canvas. 

For Beyoncé, “Cowboy Carter” is certainly something personal, almost a passion project. Officially, it’s “Act II” of a cycle that began with her critically acclaimed 2022 album, “Renaissance.” Tracks are even spelled with two i’s to solidify the idea. She has written on Instagram about how the album has been “over five years in the making” and was “born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed.” Was this post a response to her 2016 performance of “Daddy Lessons” with the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Association Awards? The appearance sparked intense, right-wing backlash online at the time. On the track “Ameriican Requiem,” Beyoncé tells us, “can we stand for something? Now is the time to face the wind.” A native of Houston, Texas, Beyoncé clearly understands that she has as much right as anyone to tap into country music’s sounds and culture. In that same song, she also proclaims, “The grandbaby of a moonshine man / Gadsden, Alabama, got folk down in Galveston, rooted in Louisiana / used to say I spoke, ‘Too country’ / And the rejection came, said ‘I wasn’t country ‘nough’ / said I wouldn’t saddle up / but if that ain’t country, tell me what is.” This is “Beyoncé proudly announcing that she is strongly rooted in the South, and the country genre is part of her as an American artist.

In many ways, “Cowboy Carter” isn’t so much about country music as it is about American pop culture as a melting pot. Beyoncé pulls no punches with the album cover, where she sits atop a galloping white horse in full red, with and blue Western wear, waving an American flag. Multiple genres mesh with a lineup of guests that include Miley Cyrus (in “II Most Wanted,” produced by notable indie name Shawn Everett), Post Malone, Shaboozey and Willie Jones. Some real legends, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, also drop in, providing spoken word interludes. The most important of these cameos in terms of artistic statement is Linda Martell, the 82-year-old country singer who was the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. She too faced much racist backlash in her time and provides commentary celebrating Beyoncé’s genre-bending, saying “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? Yes, they are. In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” Other legends make appearances via snippets, including Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Son House. 

While much attention has already been given to the lively “Texas Hold ’Em” and grand “16 Carriages,” also notable is how Beyoncé covers some classics with her own touch. The Beatles’ “Blackbird” is performed with the backing of Black female country singers Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts and Tiera Kennedy. Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” gets revamped with new lyrics clearly alluding to Beyoncé’s own issues at home regarding fame and infidelity. This time, it’s not a pleading song but a warning to the vixens targeting her famous spouse. The track “Ya Ya” briefly nods at the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and samples Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.” The haunting song “Daughter” shows off Beyoncé’s range with a passage from “Caro Mio Ben,” an aria from 18th-century Italy. It is as if Beyoncé, who started her solo career by unleashing some era-defining pop and R&B anthems of the aughts and 2010s, is setting out to prove that there is always room for genre experimentation when making art, especially in a country that has been built on a global mix of backgrounds, nationalities and roots. Pop, R&B, hip-hop, country, folk and bits of soul, funk, rock, and even opera, all come together on “Cowboy Carter,” as they, and many other genres, now do in our evermore genreless age of music. 

Fans can still enjoy “Cowboy Carter” the old-fashioned way though, with physical deluxe editions. There is a red, white and blue vinyl edition that links visually with her outfit on the album cover. Beyoncé is a pop culture giant who can do as she pleases, especially coming out of a year when her “Renaissance Tour” sold $580 million in tickets before “Renaissance” won her a record-breaking 32nd Grammy Award. On top of that, she even released “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé.” Now, her “Cowboy Carter” album is a statement on that freedom to play with everything while commenting on herself and the nation she was born in. On “Ya Ya,” Beyoncé throws a line about America’s violent legacy with, “Whole lotta red in that white and blue / History can’t be erased,” while on her Post Malone collaboration, “Levii’s Jeans,” she playfully sings, “Come be my Nick at Nite / So we can run it back / It’ll be nostalgia-like.” The exploration of personal and pop culture come together on “Cowboy Carter,” going beyond debates about country music. Beyoncé wants to make a point about how, for her as an artist, there are no limits, and we as listeners should take the same message to heart for ourselves.

Cowboy Carter” releases March 29 on Apple Music.