The cover of "Cowboy Carter," with singer Beyoncé, dressed in country western clothing, sits on a white horse while holding an an American flag.

JoySauce reviews ‘Cowboy Carter’

As an Asian American from the South, writer Teresa Tran has big feelings about Beyoncé's new country album

The cover of the album, "Cowboy Carter."

Blair Caldwell

Words by Teresa Tran

Nowhere are the relationships and exchanges between Asian Americans and Black Americans the most politically and socially rich in American culture and history than in the South. Consider the Black and Chinese relations in the Mississippi Delta region during segregation and the effects of nationally excluding Chinese during the 1920s, or the complicated role Asian American migrants played in the country’s Black-white racial structure when it came to university education in Virginia in the 20th Century, or the parallel experiences with racism and white supremacy between Vietnamese Americans and Black Americans in Houston and post-Katrina New Orleans, or the close relationship between Hindu Americans and Black American leaders in Georgia that can be traced back to the civil rights era…I could go on. However, seldom have these ties between the two communities been depicted in media representations talking about the South. Which is why as an Asian American who grew up in the South, and as a long-time member of the Beyhive, I find Beyoncé’s new album Cowboy Carter’s musical themes and emotions about Southern racial anger, displacement, personal grievance, reclamation, and familial struggle to be validating in its relatability. While the album is very specific about the Black American Southern experience, I’d argue many Asian Americans, particularly those who grew up in the region known as the “Bible Belt,” can connect with what it means to be seen as “other” in the United States.

As the megastar’s ninth solo studio album, excluding her deluxe versions and live albums, Cowboy Carter is Act II of her Renaissance album trilogy. With Renaissance (2022) being an homage to house music and the Black queer dance scene, Cowboy Carter is a reclamation of country music for Black America. Or it aims to be. It mostly succeeds with strong creative intentions and technical prowess (as Beyoncé proves over and over again her singularity in singing, performing, and producing), such as the way the album is structured like a country radio station emceed by country stars like Willie Nelson and Linda Martell (the first Black woman to have sung at the Grand Ole Opry). Personal favorites include the hoedown rodeo single “Texas Hold ‘Em” and the square dancing romp “YA YA,” which are deliciously fun and feature one of the historical Black instrumental contributions to the genre: the banjo. Then there’s the genre-bending tracks, “Daughter” which excitingly stars Beyoncé renditioning dramatic Italian operatic vocals. And my favorite track on the album, “Spaghettii” featuring Martell and Shaboozey, which pulls a page from Renaissance’s musical motifs. Here Beyoncé bucks against the restraints of the country music genre. “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? … In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined,” declares Martell. “Spaghettii” serves as a transition track to the B-side of the album, where Beyoncé mixes in a bit of the rap that was seen on her previous songs like "Position” (2014), “Formation” (2016), and “Apes**t” (2018). “II Hands II Heaven” is a beautiful alt-pop homage to the ways one can lose and find oneself in the countryside and another person’s arms. In the same way country music labels refused to accept Black country artists, I really appreciate the way Cowboy Carter refuses easy definition as a quote-unquote “country album.”

Singer Beyoncé, with long white-blonde hair, stands in a white cowboy hat and top, and denim chaps, against a black background.

"Cowboy Carter" is Beyoncé's debut country album.

Blair Caldwell

But while the album aims to be revolutionary, its execution succumbs to the Hamilton Effect. In the same way the hit 2015 Broadway show distorted the country’s founders as immigrants of color to paint a more fashionable picture of this country's origins and erase their owning of slaves, Cowboy Carter replaces the quintessential image of a white woman with platinum blonde hair, waving the American flag atop a horse, with a Black woman in its stead. During a time when the image of the American flag and its imperialist and nationalist implications have never been more politically criticized both within the country’s borders and abroad, this image doesn’t have the same representational euphoria that it might have had if this album had been released during the Obama presidential era. In the same breath, the album co-opts a common theme of country music, one about working-class struggle, and sings it through the mouthpiece of a near billionaire.

It’s true that the country music genre has historically excluded Black people and other communities of color from its image, radio, and biggest star-making accolades, yet has continued to profit off sounds that can be traced back to Black communities. Cowboy Carter is not only Beyoncé’s spin on making country music’s Black roots known, I’d argue it’s also her grab at financially benefiting from country music being one of last year’s fastest growing streaming genres. The timing couldn’t be more perfect to maximally capitalize on country music’s fast rise to the top of the charts. And in today’s modern music business, we’re seeing more and more artists master the art of the pivot. Just see rapper and one of Cowboy Carter’s featured collaborating artists Post Malone announce his entrance into country. This then raises the question: is Beyoncé truly interested in uplifting the Black country artists who have shaped the genre long before she entered the scene, or is Cowboy Carter just another notch on her long, successful personal branding and musical legacy project as the American singer of all time?

Singers Beyoncé in a gold dress, and The Chicks, dressed in black, perform onstage.

Beyoncé performs with The Chicks at the 2016 Country Music Awards.

Image Group LA/ABC

Boasting 27 tracks, this album is 11 tracks longer than Renaissance, with Cowboy Carter meant to be released first. We can already see how she’s lining up the three albums that will make up her Renaissance musical trilogy, judging by the way the last track “Amen” seamlessly transitions into the first house music notes of the opener of Act I’s “I’m That Girl.” Interestingly, Cowboy Carter’s first song “Ameriican Requiem” has whispers of a rock ballad in between the choral notes, hinting at the possibility of Act III being a rock album. House, country, and rock. Three genres with indisputable Black foundations and inspirations, yet have largely rejected Black artists. And it’s clear Beyoncé has taken that rejection personally. “Used to say I spoke too country / And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ’nough.” These lyrics from “Ameriican Requiem” likely refer to the racist backlash she received from her performance with the Chicks (then known as the Dixie Chicks) at the 2016 Country Music Awards. I clearly remember the pans to the audience and seeing the confusion and polite disdain upon the other country artists’ faces at a Black woman publicly claiming the stage at an awards show largely celebrating white country music. It makes sense why this album feels less like a reclamation of country music for Black people in general, and more of a display of personal agency over an industry that Beyoncé has long wanted to break into.

Over the last two decades, only 3.2 percent of the artists signed to the three major Nashville labels have been BIPOC artistsonly 0.9 percent being women. This statistic is largely due to barriers such as lack of or limitation in airplay on radio stations, which then affect how labels sign, support, and deny opportunities to BIPOC artists. These BIPOC artists are effectively redlined, reinforcing the barriers that prevent BIPOC artists, particularly women, from entering and thriving in the country music industry. For Beyoncé to then craft Cowboy Carter around the concept of creating her own Black country radio station with featured Black collaborators throughout the album’s vocals, production, and lyrics is a genius subversion of this reality. Yet Beyoncé still marginalizes Black female country artists on her own album. Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts, four Black female country artists, sing alongside Beyoncé on the second track of the album, “Blackbiird,” a cover of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Why are they all relegated to one track, while white artists like Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, and Post Malone each get their own individual features? If Cowboy Carter is modeled after the concept of a Black radio station, why give space to white artists on an album that is supposedly meant to highlight country music’s Black origins? On one hand, Beyonce working with some of the premier white artists from the country music industry and highlighting a few Black country artists allows her to create a bridge between the racial groups in the genre. By bringing both groups along for the ride, she’s able to uplift the Black fans of the genre, while reaching a wider audience with her music, namely white fans, and educate them on country music’s Black history.  It’s both a smart creative choice and an astute business decision. On the other hand, an artist I would’ve liked to see her collaborate with on this album is Lil Nas X. As the most recent and well-known example of a mainstream Black artist being left off of country streaming and Billboard’s lists with his number one hit “Old Town Road” back in 2019, it would’ve been extremely revolutionary to see Beyoncé embrace him on her “Black country radio station” concept of an album over the white artists that did get featured.

Throughout history, Black Americans’ fight and struggle for more civil rights has opened more opportunities for Asian Americans to gain similar civil rights and paved the way for many movements to follow. In this case, I credit the many Black country artists who have chipped and toiled over the many decades in the country genre that has not been given their due recognition, which has then created more room for both Black and even AANH&PI artists to venture into the country music industry. This moment also calls for music fans who still view country music as purely white to not only question why the country music industry remains one of the least diverse industries in the music business, but also to start highlighting the diversity in the space that has always existed in the margins for decades. Simply read this essay by an Asian American fan of country music and her lament at the lack of diversity in the genre. There is still much more progress that needs to be made. With a global superstar like Beyoncé shining her light on Black country artists and country music’s Black origins, the conversation around diversity and representation in country music is being amplified more than ever before. But we must always be wary of mega-celebrities and their intentions, particularly those of a billionaire.

To quote from Martell, “country music is really all about remembering, knowing what has been, and what is, and what can be.” Cowboy Carter lays this out in the way Beyoncé makes multiple references to her Texan upbringing and her Louisiana and Alabama family history. Yet it’s also well documented the way the country music industry weaponizes nostalgia to maintain white supremacy as a stronghold in the South and the country at large. Which is why Cowboy Carter only succeeds as Beyoncé’s desire for assimilation into the white country mainstream, and fails at fully disrupting the country space to reclaim it for the Black community. Look no further than the lyrics on “Sweet Honey Buckiin’” where Beyoncé reveals her crave for music industry-wide recognition: “AOTY, I ain’t win / I ain’t stuntin’ bout them / Take that shit on the chin / Come back and fuck up the pen.” Here she points out the irony behind being the most decorated artist in Grammy history, yet still having never won its top award, Album of the Year. While a valid hypocrisy, it’s still confusing as to why Beyoncé continues to look to these white institutions for validation. If she’s looking to position herself as a hallmark example of what it means to innovate and create your own lane for yourself and your community despite lack of recognition, why not ignore the Grammys completely? Why not create her own award show? It’s frustrating to see the diversity conversation still be contingent on recognition from white industry gatekeepers. What will happen when she finally does win Album of the Year, hell with Cowboy Carter? Tokenization of the one BIPOC artist in a space doesn’t typically lead to more doors opening for similar artists to follow. That’s why collectives like The Black Opry, which is a home, record label, and community for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk, and Americana music, feel like a breath of fresh air. Dare I say, real empowerment and validation in the country music industry won’t come from superstar billionaires like Beyoncé who are more motivated by self-interests, or from the white country music mainstream who are intent on maintaining their hegemony. It’ll be from queer, BIPOC, female country artists continuing to make their country music their way and celebrating each other despite what outsiders say. Forget about wanting a seat at the table. Create your own table.

Singer Beyoncé at the 2023 GRAMMYs, in a gold dress and long black gloves, stands at a microphone while holding a GRAMMY award.

Singer Beyoncé at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

Kevin Winter

Published on April 8, 2024

Words by Teresa Tran

Teresa Tran (she/her) is an American-born Vietnamese writer and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia, with a background in theater and community organizing. She has a B.A. in English and Women’s Studies and a B.S.Ed in English Education from the University of Georgia and studied British Literature at the University of Oxford. She is currently writing and directing her own short films and working on her debut novel. You can find her on Twitter at @teresatran__.