Beyoncé, Country Music, and Race: Conversation Starter or Career Suicide?

With "Daddy Lessons," Beyoncé wades into a morass of history and politics.

One of the issues with Beyoncé Knowles’s last two releases is that her decisions to release visual albums emphasize the corporal aesthetics of her brand over the musical ones. Specifically, conversations about Knowles’s thought-provoking and impressive film for Lemonade have overshadowed the musical diversity on the accompanying album, her sixth solo effort. Prior to Lemonade’s release last month, Beyoncé produced catchy, evocative tracks that — outside of the occasional nod to millennial-friendly black feminist pronouncements — gained more attention for how they benefitted from her shrewd marketing prowess. Her songs were often dismissed by die-hard rockists, who questioned how a woman who had 15 writers credited for the Caribbean flavored “Hold Up” could be seen as a legitimate musician.

Another, less-noted criticism of Lemonade was directed at Knowles’ decision to delve into the realm of country music. Album track “Daddy Lessons” is introduced by a mashup of horns pulled straight from a first-line New Orleans parade, along with steely, short acoustic guitar riffs that acknowledge both Beyoncé’s mother’s Creole roots and her upbringing in Houston. Its lyrics follow a songwriting formula that’s a constant among female country artists: a discussion of fraught interpersonal relationships that offers a moral narrative, or a warning to other women. A tight, catchy and relatively straightforward mainstream track, it’s one of the best tracks on Lemonade, and while it hasn’t been officially released as a single from the album, it’s already getting high rotation on country music stations. Established country artists like Blake Shelton are singing its praises.

But is it really “country?” Country music’s foundational aspects — its signature rhythm, its guitar figures, the aforementioned lyrics — all play prominent parts, and there’s an aside about gun use and even a few “yee haw’s” peppered in for flavor. Still, the fact that the song is performed by a successful pop artist who happens to be an extremely rich black woman means that its country status is being questioned.

In the mainstream music press, some have referred to the song as “Texas Blues,” which based on the origins of country music, is somewhat correct, even though the song has more in common with pop-country singers like Kacy Musgraves than with Smokey Hogg. Rolling Stone label it “Americana,” inferring that the song is a mix of folk, R&B and soul — the latter two being black-centric genres. (It should be noted that the latter description comes from the same publication that labeled African-American country/roots artist Valerie June as a “blues singer.”)

Specialist country music publications have been similarly ambivalent. Kyle Coroneos from Saving Country Music refers to Beyoncé as a “female hip hop” artist, and alternates between whether the song provides the authenticity that ardent country music fans demand from their music, or whether it’s just another mainstream pop/country crossover. Lauren Cowing from One Country and Alison Bonaguro from Country Music Television make the curious argument that because there were no Nashville songwriters involved and the song was not recorded in Nashville, it was not an authentic country song. Petty much?

In 1940, Woody Guthrie was writing openly socialist lyrics and playing a guitar emblazoned with the slogan “This machine kills fascists”; by 1969, Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”… was directing its middle finger towards “hippie liberals” opposed to the Vietnam War draft.

Controversial trio The Dixie Chicks covered the song during a concert in England, and while their exact reason for doing so is something that only they know, Vanity Fair suggested recently that their excellent rendition was an attempt to help legitimize Knowles’s song. However well-intentioned their gesture may have been, it carries on an unfortunate trend of white performers reinterpreting the tracks of black artists to make them more palatable, such as aspiring UK singer Samantha Harvey’s cover of Rihanna’s hit single, “Work,” for content clarification.

Journalists are also scratching their heads because music created within communities marginalized along class, social and/or racial lines, the choice of instrumentation and songwriting traditions are just as important as the music itself. There is often an emphasis placed founding artists who serve as a musical and philosophical canon, providing a musical and lyrical template for younger generations of artists. Despite its shared origins with the blues, country music’s canon has become progressively less friendly to black musicians as the years have passed.

In particular, country music’s concept of American patriotism, always something of a staple in the genre’s lyrics, has taken on an innate conservatism and disdain for “political correctness.” Country’s shift toward conservatism was rapid and dramatic. In 1940, Woody Guthrie was writing openly socialist lyrics and playing a guitar emblazoned with the slogan “This machine kills fascists”; by 1969, Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” one of the first mainstream crossover country hits, was directing its middle finger towards “hippie liberals” opposed to the Vietnam War draft.

These days, country music is the preferred genre of the GOP and white nationalists alike. During the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Republican hopeful Ted Cruz used one of singer Aaron Tippin’s patriotic songs, “Where the Stars and the Stripes and the Eagle Fly.” When asked about the usage, Tippin said, “I’m not endorsing anyone, but I hope that my song will help get folks out there and do their patriotic duty.” Contemporary country singers are perhaps not as overt as the likes of David Allan Coe, whose ‘80s albums contained blatantly offensive country songs  such as “Nigger Lover” and “Finger Fucking Sally” and made him as a hero among the sort of “outlaw” country fans whose interpretation of the First Amendment is chiefly concerned with enabling over racism, but many are still using their platform to support right-wing politicians.

Clearly, when we talk about conservatism in country music, we’re talking about a very specific type of country, and a very specific type of fan. “Country music occupies a privileged place in the pantheon of American musical badness, a place reserved for (white) trash,” writes ethnomusicologist Aaron Fox in “White Trash Alchemies of the Abject Sublime: Country as “Bad Music,” who teaches a course on country music at New York’s Columbia University. Similar to heavy metal and hip-hop, country music is often considered as “bad” music, a term in which Fox argues serves as an iconic status to its listeners, favored because outsiders don’t favor it. Some of the badness (what he calls ‘bad whiteness’) also has clear racial connotations, and as a result, country fans are often (unfairly) perceived by outsiders as the same people whose idea of a fun social outing includes shooting squirrels, drinking Schlitz beer while wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt and if the occasion arises, erecting and burning a wooden cross on someone’s lawn.

In this respect, country fans suffer from the same stereotyping that designates all hip-hop fans as “inner-city” “thugs”. The reality, of course, is that country’s audience is far more diverse than simple stereotyping. Still, the conservative strain in the music is very real, as its identification with nationalism. It’s hard to think of another genre that is so tied up in patriotism. “To listen to a country and western song is to hear the story of America set to music,” writes theorist Geoff Mann in a piece entitled “Why does country music sound white? Race and the voice of nostalgia.” “It is a story of patriotism and hard work, a story of faith, opportunity, and achievement. Most of all, it is the story of a people whose love of freedom is equalled only by their love of life itself. … Country music is honest, good-natured music played with style and spirit. Like a favorite pair of faded blue jeans, it fits the way we live.”

 Although some of the current crop of country music artists seem determined to attract a more diverse listening demographic to be competitive within the music industry… this outreach rarely seems to extend to black audiences

If that’s so, though, what does that say about who “we” are? Country has always valued the idea of authenticity: like the early days of rap music, the music and accompanying culture was squarely positioned within a space in which if you weren’t livin’ it, you couldn’t really understand it. Listeners who were attracted to the original forms of music didn’t necessarily have to have experience the situations that the songwriters have, but they could live vicariously though the themes.

When the very experience you’re talking about is tied up in notions of nationalism, though, it becomes a recipe for exclusion. Although some of the current crop of country music artists seem determined to attract a more diverse listening demographic to be competitive within the music industry — this being why, no doubt, they’re often dismissed by purists as “commercial country” — this outreach rarely seems to extend to black audiences. If country is meant to be about being American, it’s clear that this becomes complicated and fraught when it’s wrapped up in notions that exclude people whose ties to American nationalism are complicated because of their ethnicity and/or gender.

It’s into this morass of politics and history that Beyoncé has waded with “Daddy Lessons.” Country music journalists are not the only ones who might be giving Knowles the side-eye for her foray into the genre; online, Bey Stans have often dismissed the song as “that country song,” a curiosity best forgotten. This is something familiar to black fans of country, heavy metal and punk, who often have a difficult time among their black peers — they’re often accused of “wanting to be white” because of their music preference.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, singer and Love and Basketball star K. Michelle talked about previous struggles she experienced in trying to perform the music she was raised on. Her latest album, More Issues than Vogue, contains the nu-country song, “If It Ain’t Love.” She reveals that she toyed with the idea of releasing the song without her name on it: “[But] we did sit at the table, look at this record, and say, ‘This is a great record,’ If you were white, it would be right. It would be a smash. If this was Taylor Swift, it would be a smash.”

According to country singer Rissi Palmer, being a black woman performing white-centric music has also been a struggle. “In a lot of ways, my label tried to use my race to do marketing to varying degrees of success,” she told Popdust. “In some ways, a lot of the media attention that I got initially in 2007 [with her self-titled debut] was because of the fact I was the first [country-singing] black woman to chart in 20 years. That’s a nice accolade, I suppose, but in a lot of ways, it overshadowed the fact that I am also a songwriter and singer and a personality. All these other things are bigger than just the fact that I’m a black person.”

Knowles’s decision to add a country track to Lemonade might just be a creative introduction to the closer, “Formation,” where she notes that her family’s cultural background has heavily contributed to who she is as a wife, mother, sister and, most importantly, a woman outside of the shiny veneer of pop stardom. Many have speculated that “Daddy Lessons” is a literal take on the reportedly fraught relationship she has with her Texan father — but given how savvy a marketer its creator is, chances are that the song was created to spark a conversation. And that it has.