Will Country Welcome Beyoncé? That’s the Wrong Question.

Will Country Welcome Beyoncé? That’s the Wrong Question.

With the release of “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé’s eighth solo album and the one that finds her exploring — and testing — the boundaries of country music, much of the early conversation has centered on whether the country music industry would rally around her. Beyoncé is one of the most commercially successful and creatively vibrant pop stars of the 21st century — certainly her arrival would be greeted with hurrahs, no?

Not quite.

Rather than being feted with a welcome party, Beyoncé has been met largely with shrugs. “Texas Hold ’Em” — one of the two singles she released in advance of the album — is a savvy blend of old and new. It displays a familiarity with the sonic principles of old-fashioned country, while maintaining the infectiousness of current pop. Nevertheless, it has received extremely modest attention at country radio. Beyoncé is Black, and a woman, two groups that contemporary Nashville has consistently marginalized and shortchanged. And no amount of built-in celebrity appears to be able to undo that.

Contemporary mainstream country music often feels like a closed loop of white male storytelling. Which is why whether or not Beyoncé and Nashville can find common cause is, in every way, a red herring. Neither is particularly interested in the other — the tradition-shaped country music business will accept certain kinds of outsiders but isn’t set up to accommodate a Black female star of Beyoncé’s stature, and she is focusing on country as art and inspiration and sociopolitical plaything, not industry. The spurn is mutual.

On Instagram last week, Beyoncé spelled it out plainly: “This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.” It was a statement that preemptively denied the country music industry the opportunity to stake a claim on her work while also indicating that she had found a creative path around the genre’s confines.

This is as close as she’s come to leveraging the expectation of the genre’s racism and exclusion as a means of promotion. Beyoncé instead made it personal, adding that her exploration of these musical themes was “born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed … and it was very clear that I wasn’t.” This is likely a reference to her appearance at the Country Music Association Awards in 2016, where she performed her song “Daddy Lessons” alongside the Dixie Chicks (now the Chicks), another act who intimately understand the experience of being held at arm’s length by the Nashville oligarchy.

That C.M.A.s performance was, of course, rollicking — a sliding-doors glimpse of a direction for the genre left largely not taken, or shunted to the margins. In its flamboyance, tension and elegance, it underscored what was, and often remains, missing from mainstream country.

So Beyoncé instead kept it for herself. On “Cowboy Carter,” she’s said that she deployed the frameworks, textures and tricks of country music as an extension of an ongoing musicology project that goes back at least as far as her genre-destabilizing Coachella performance in 2018, which, in addition to being an almost unimaginable feat of musical dexterity, choreography and endurance, was also one of the most stylistically and socioculturally rigorous statements made by a pop star made in recent memory.

Since then, Beyoncé has evolved from reliable hitmaker to reliable conversation starter, using her massive platform, and the fans who flock to it, to tell a parallel narrative about Black music present and past. Her albums are musical journeys, and they are also history lessons. Similarly themed LPs from lesser stars, or from pointed agitators, might be less effective at making the point Beyoncé is, which is that Black creativity fuels all corners of popular music.

On “Renaissance,” her previous album, she spotlighted queer Black communities in dance music. But country music still sidelines its Black roots while making it exceedingly difficult for contemporary Black performers — of which there are many — to gain opportunities to develop.

It’s not that country isn’t nimble and porous when it wants to be. Country often makes room for white performers to take on and off the trappings of the genre — the way Taylor Swift can slip easily in and out of this mode at will, or how Zach Bryan has been adopted, in some ways, by Nashville even though he has largely avoided self-identifying that way. Or consider the face-tattooed belter Jelly Roll, the biggest breakout country star of last year, who’d spent the better part of the prior two decades as a tough-talking white rapper.

In recent weeks, Post Malone has been dropping hints about his upcoming turn toward country. He’s been photographed alongside Morgan Wallen, and also Hardy and Ernest, members of the extended Wallen universe. Though still living under the shadow of the 2021 incident in which he was captured on video using a racial slur, Wallen remains the genre’s reigning superstar, his popularity largely undimmed. While Beyoncé and the Nashville firmament eye each other warily, Post Malone and Wallen’s crew are in a state of mutual embrace, both welcoming and reinforcing each other. (Country music has also been something of a soft-landing refuge for white stars from other genres — think Kid Rock, Aaron Lewis or Bon Jovi — looking to extend their careers. Even Lana Del Rey has indicated she’d be spending some time with the genre on her next album.)

That Beyoncé is making “Cowboy Carter” not to infiltrate country but rather as an artistic and political statement must come as something of a relief to those inside the genre interested in preserving its norms. (It’s worth asking, though, if a Beyoncé-equivalent white pop star were making overtures to country — say, Lady Gaga or Katy Perry at their peak — would the reception be less frosty?)

But increasingly, the genre is being tested from outside. Radio is ceding power to streaming, and there are myriad entry points for country artists looking to elide the usual gatekeepers. This has been a small boon for artists who aren’t white men, who have been finding their audiences more directly, often via social media, and then letting the country music major labels play catch-up.

That’s been the path of Tanner Adell, perhaps the most promising Black country artist currently working, and the one best placed to benefit from any spillover interest generated by Beyoncé owing to her intuitive blend of country, R&B and pop. Adell has more than 650,000 followers on TikTok, 480,000 on Instagram, a knack for viral catchphrases, and a healthy regard for country music signifiers as well as a canny understanding of when to disrupt them.

Perhaps more revealing, though, is the recent viral success of “Austin,” by Dasha — an essentially unknown white singer — a catchy, self-consciously “country” ditty that’s spurred a line-dancing trend on TikTok. A song “Austin” has quite a bit in common with? “Texas Hold ’Em.” Both deploy a banjo and wear their nods to country tradition very self-consciously. Often, contemporary mainstream country music bears little sonic resemblance to the genre’s roots, but these songs pointedly underscore that connection. (The words “Old Town Road” come to mind.)

The country music business doesn’t often seem terribly preoccupied with the most-familiar signifiers of country music: “Texas Hold ’Em” is currently topping Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, which accounts for genre-agnostic streaming activity, but it hasn’t gone very high on the Country Airplay chart, which tracks radio play, the real metric of genre embrace.

A scroll through Dasha’s back catalog suggests that country is a mode, if not a costume — barely any of her music before this year nods to it. And yet “Austin” has become in quick order one of the signature country songs of this year. Its breakout is still relatively new, and it’s likely to grow rapidly in attention. Will Dasha be welcomed as a country artist or shunned like an interloper? The answer, when it arrives, might not surprise you.

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