meta-scriptA Brief History Of Black Country Music: 11 Important Tracks From DeFord Bailey, Kane Brown & More | GRAMMY.com
Kane Brown performing in 2023
Kane Brown performing at the 2023 iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas.

Photo: Denise Truscello/Getty Images for iHeartRadio

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A Brief History Of Black Country Music: 11 Important Tracks From DeFord Bailey, Kane Brown & More

While the world anticipates the arrival of Beyoncé's 'Act II: COWBOY CARTER' on March 29, revisit these 11 songs by influential Black country musicians throughout history, from a Charley Pride classic to a Mickey Guyton statement piece.

GRAMMYs/Mar 22, 2024 - 10:24 pm

In February, Beyoncé added to her record-breaking legacy by becoming the first Black woman to top Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart with her single "TEXAS HOLD 'EM."

"I feel honored," she shared on Instagram in a countdown post to her RENAISSANCE sequel, Act II: COWBOY CARTER, out March 29. "My hope is that years from now, the mention of an artist's race, as it relates to releasing genres of music, will be irrelevant."

Since she first dabbled in country music with "Daddy Lessons" in 2016, the icon has received consistent backlash about whether she belongs in the genre. That same year, audiences campaigned for a boycott against the Country Music Awards for her performance of the track alongside The Chicks, later resulting in its erasure from promotional advertisements. And eight years later, the conversation returns as radio listeners question if her music should air on country stations.

Ironically, if you look back through music history, you will quickly discover that Beyoncé isn't the first (and certainly not the last) Black musician doing country music. 

In fact, the genre plants its sonic roots in negro spirituals and field songs, written on slave plantations. African American Vernacular English continues to influence contemporary chart-topper's lyricism and vocal twang. The banjo, which descends from the West African akonting lute, remains one of the quintessential instruments of the genre. Whether Beyoncé or the many artists who came before her, nothing sits at the heart of country music more than Black art.

To understand the full scope of Black creatives' impact in country, GRAMMY.com examines some of the influential tracks and moments of those who have made their mark on the genre and the music industry — from DeFord Bailey's Grand Ole Opry debut in 1927, to Darius Rucker's post-Hootie & The Blowfish country foray in 2008, to Breland's 2021 fusion of country and hip-hop.

DeFord Bailey — "Pan American Blues" (1927)

Before there was Mickey Guyton, Darius Rucker, or even Charley Pride, there was DeFord Bailey, the "harmonica wizard" from Tennessee.

After performing locally, another musician introduced Bailey to Nashville powerhouse radio station WSM's manager, George D. Hay, who later invited him to join the Grand Ole Opry — making Bailey the first Black member. He quickly rose to become one of the program's highest-paid players at the time, largely thanks to his iconic instrumental tune, "Pan American Blues," which imitated the sounds he heard from the railroad during his childhood.

As of press time, the only other Black inductees in the Grand Ole Opry are Rucker and Pride.

Lead Belly — "In The Pines" (1944)

"My girl, my girl, don't lie to me/ Tell me, where did you sleep last night?/ In the pines, in the pines/ Whether the sun don't ever shine/ I would shiver the whole night through," Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter questions in the Appalachian folk song, "In the Pines."

Though Lead Belly isn't the original writer of the song, his chilling vibrato on the recording inspired singers for years to come, including Kurt Cobain, who later covered the track in Nirvana's 1993 MTV Unplugged performance under the title "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" and named the '40s country blues legend his "favorite performer."

Linda Martell — "Color Him Father" (1969)

In "Color Him Father," Linda Martell narrates the heartfelt tale of a stepdad who embraces his new paternal role to a widowed mother and her seven children. It's also the song that propelled her to stardom, landing her a historic performance as the first Black woman on the Grand Ole Opry stage and later opening the door for debut album, Color Me Country.

After the project was released, Martell stepped away from the limelight, but her impact lived on. She was the inspiration for contemporary luminaries like Mickey Guyton: "The fact that she was there was groundbreaking ... She gave me the courage to be here," Guyton told Rolling Stone in 2020.

Charley Pride — "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'" (1971)

Through his nearly seven decades-spanning career, Charley Pride became a certified hitmaker and one of the most renowned pioneers of his time. By 1987, he amassed more than 50 Top 10 hits on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, with 30 peaking at No. 1 — including his most notable single, "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'."

After Pride passed away from COVID-19 complications in 2020, the response to his death highlighted the magnitude of his legacy, receiving condolences from Dolly Parton, Billy Ray Cyrus, and perhaps the most personal from Darius Rucker.

"I couldn't have done what I do, I don't think, if there hadn't been Charley before me," Rucker said in an essay for Billboard. Pride served not only as an icon but also as a mentor to Rucker, and his kindness ultimately gave Rucker the courage to do the same for the next generation.

Cleve Francis — "You Do My Heart Good" (1992)

As a cardiologist and songwriter, Dr. Cleve Francis certainly knew a "good heart."

In his 1992 track, "You Do My Heart Good," Francis sings about a budding love that shows him how to see life in a beautiful light. The song eventually became the second single from his Liberty Records debut LP, Tourist in Paradise.

Francis later founded the now-defunct Black Country Music Association in 1995 to foster an inclusive environment in the Nashville music scene and provide resources to aspiring singers. Under his advisory, the BCMA, with the help of Warner Bros., produced From Where I Stand, a record book of Black artists' contributions to the genre.

Darius Rucker — "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" (2008)

Before 2008, many knew Darius Rucker better as Hootie, thanks to his remarkable '90s run as frontman of jangle pop band Hootie & the Blowfish. But with his second album as a solo act, 2008's Learn to Live, the world met Darius Rucker, the country artist.

Fittingly, he chose a heartbreaking ballad for his first country single — "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," a heartbreaking ballad about a man who wonders what could have been in a previous relationship. The choice resonated with country listeners:  "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, making Rucker the first Black country artist to have a chart-topper since Pride in 1983. 

Kane Brown — "Heaven" (2017)

Since his major label debut, Brown has possessed a unique boy-next-door charm, less "Western" than his peers. "Not laced up in a tight belt and buckle hat," but proof that "you can be who you want to be, and you can still listen to country music," his manager, Martha Earls, told Variety in 2018.

Take "Heaven," a romantic ballad with the Southern drawl and instrumentation of a classic country tune. But when you add Brown's R&B influence and natural swagger, the track invites audiences both in and outside of country.

Though Brown now has 12 No. 1 songs on the Country Airplay chart, "Heaven" is undoubtedly the country star's biggest song to date thanks to its crossover qualities and romantic resonance. And just last year, "Heaven" became only the seventh country artist in history to receive a diamond certification from the RIAA; Brown is the second Black country artist to achieve the feat, as Rucker's anthemic cover of "Wagon Wheel" reached diamond status in 2022.

Mickey Guyton — "Black Like Me" (2020)

In a 2020 interview with Rolling Stone, Mickey Guyton recalled that she wrote "Black Like Me" at a writer's retreat in 2019, thinking, "There is no way that anybody is going to accept this." But at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, there was no doubt that it was what the industry, especially the country genre, needed to hear.

"It's a hard life on easy street/ Just white painted picket fences far as you can see/ If you think we live in the land of the free/ You should try to be Black like me," she croons on the chorus.

The single made Guyton the first-ever Black woman nominated for Best Country Solo Performance at the 2021 GRAMMYs, and also helped her earn nominations for New Female Artist Of The Year and New Artist Of The Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards, respectively, in 2021..

Guyton continues to use her voice for advocacy, from speaking out on racial issues to chronicling the Black experience on her 2021 album, Remember Her Name

Breland — "Throw It Back" (2021)

Since making his debut with "My Truck" in 2019, Breland has been praised for his innovative fusion of country, gospel, hip-hop, and R&B. But beyond his sonic landscape, he's also inviting some unlikely choreography into the genre: twerking.

"If she got a shot of whiskey, she know how to throw it back/ She turn up for Elvis Presley, told the DJ, 'Throw it back,'" Breland cheers in the chorus of the trap-infused track.  "If you sexy and you know it, make it clap."

"Throw It Back" features Keith Urban, whoappreciates Breland for his confidence to go beyond the mold of country music's expectations. "He's one of the only artists I've ever met that does not care at all what something sounds like or what box it fits. If he likes it, if it catches his ear, he wants to be a part of it in some way," Urban explained to Taste of Country in 2021.

The War and Treaty — "Blank Page" (2022)

The War and Treaty are making the most of their "Blank Page."

The husband-and-wife pair — Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter — began their musical journey together in 2016.  Seven years later, thanks to their first major label EP, 2022's Blank Page, they also started making history. The War and Treaty became the first Black duo to receive a nomination for Duo Of The Year at the 2023 Academy of Country Music Awards, where they also delivered a stirring performance of the EP's title track, a heartfelt song about a new slate in love. 

Six months later, they made history again as the first Black pair nominated for Duo Of The Year at the 2023 Country Music Association Awards; they took the stage there as well, performing"That's How Love Is Made" from their 2023 album, Lover's Game

They added to their growing legacy at the 2024 GRAMMYs as well,  receiving their first GRAMMY nominations. "Blank Page" earned the duo a nod for Best American Roots Song, and they also were up for the coveted Best New Artist.

Tanner Adell — "Buckle Bunny" (2023)

When Beyoncé dropped "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" and "16 CARRIAGES" in February, country newcomer Tanner Adell readily tossed her cowgirl hat into the ring to become Queen Bey's next collaborator. "I hope Bey decides to sprinkle me with a dash of her magic," she pitched in a tweet that has now garnered more than four million views.

Adell's music is reminiscent of Beyoncé's own empowered narratives, particularly the 2023 single "Buckle Bunny," which even declares that she's "Lookin' like Beyoncé with a lasso." Like Breland, Adell brings a hip-hop flair to country music, exemplified by the thumping beats and rap-inspired singing of "Buckle Bunny."

As artists like Adell, Breland, Kane Brown, and more continue to push the boundaries of the country genre, they'll also remind listeners of its rich lineage in Black culture — past, present, and future.

Why 2024 Is The Year Women In Country Music Will Finally Have Their Moment

Michael Sticka, President/CEO of the GRAMMY Museum, Lauryn Hill, and Jimmy Jam
(L-R): Michael Sticka, President/CEO of the GRAMMY Museum, Lauryn Hill, and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Sarah Morris/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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6 Key Highlights From The Inaugural GRAMMY Hall of Fame Gala Honoring Lauryn Hill, Donna Summer, Atlantic Records & Many More

The Recording Academy and GRAMMY Museum celebrated music's legacy with tributes to Charley Pride, Wanda Jackson, Buena Vista Social Club, and more, featuring performances by Andra Day, The War and Treaty, and other musical greats.

GRAMMYs/May 23, 2024 - 12:34 am

Many years ago, veteran CBS journalist Anthony Mason lost his entire record collection when it disappeared in transit as he moved from one place to another. Mason was inconsolable, and you could still hear a tinge of sadness in his voice when he recounted this painful story at the inaugural GRAMMY Hall of Fame Gala, held on May 21 at the Novo Theater in Los Angeles. The evening’s eloquent and entertaining host, Mason was making a point with his personal anecdote of lost records: music is priceless, one of our most treasured possessions — both as individuals and as a community. Preserving its legacy is essential.

It’s been over 50 years since the GRAMMY Hall of Fame was established by the Recording Academy's National Trustees to honor records of deep historical significance that are at least 25 years old. This year, the Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Museum paid tribute to 10 newly inducted recordings (four albums and six singles) by artists including De La Soul, Lauryn Hill, Buena Vista Social Club, Donna Summer, Guns 'N Roses, Charley Pride, Kid Ory’s Creole Orchestra, the Doobie Brothers, William Bell, Wanda Jackson, and Atlantic Records, the annual Gala's inaugural label honoree. 

The first Hall of Fame Gala was a dazzling event presented by City National Bank, complete with guest speakers and performances by Andra Day, The War and Treaty, William Bell, Elle King, and HANSON covering some of the inducted works. The event underscored the sumptuous variety that continues to define popular music, spanning the sounds of hip-hop, rock, country, R&B, disco, and even the venerable Cuban dance music of decades past.

Here are six takeaway points from an evening marked by celebration and transcendent musical memories.

Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” Has Lost None Of Its Edge

Studious music fans are well aware that “I Feel Love” — written by Donna Summer with visionary Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and British songwriter Pete Bellotte — is a shimmering disco gem, a futuristic precursor to the entire EDM genre. What was stunning about the Gala performance of the track by singer and actress Andra Day is how edgy and fresh the 1977 track still sounds today. Day’s ethereal reading was appropriately hypnotic, with live drums, nebulous synth textures and glorious, three-part vocal harmonies.

The Future Of American Music Is In Good Hands With The War and Treaty

Formed by husband and wife Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter, The War and Treaty were rightfully nominated for Best New Artist at the 2024 GRAMMYs earlier this year. The duo’s electrifying combination of Americana, gospel, and rock is especially effective on a live stage, and the pair delivered a memorable rendition of Charley Pride's inducted Hall Of Fame country hit, “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” recorded in 1971. The War and Treaty also received a standing ovation later in the evening for their performance of Ray Charles' classic, "What'd I Say," released in 1959.

26 Years Later, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill Is Still Ahead Of Its Time

Released in August 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone, and became the first hip-hop artist to win Album Of The Year at the 1999 GRAMMYs. At the Gala, Andra Day delighted the audience — including Lauryn Hill and her family — with a soulful version of hidden track “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” originally a Frankie Valli hit from 1967. Day's performance was marked by brassy accents and funky bass lines, creating an unapologetically lush rendition that mirrored the sonic richness of Hill's original take.

Read more: Revisiting 'The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill': Why The Multiple GRAMMY-Winning Record Is Still Everything 25 Years Later

Atlantic Records Transformed The Face Of Global Culture

Celebrating 75 years of inaugural label honoree Atlantic Records in the span of a few minutes loomed like an impossible task, but the Gala producers paid tribute to the legacy label well. Beginning with a short video, the event segment highlighted the miraculous roster assembled by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson that included Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, ABBA, Phil Collins, and Bruno Mars — to name just a few. But it was the actual performances that highlighted the label’s hold on pop culture: Ravyn Lenae’s breathy take on Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” made a case for considering the 1973 hit as one of the most vulnerable recordings of all time. On the other side of the dynamic spectrum, the epic rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” by alt-rock quartet Shinedown was appropriately intense.

The Wondrous Legacy Of Stax Records Should Not Be Underestimated

The home of such legendary artists as Otis Redding, The Staple Singers and Carla Thomas, Memphis-based Stax Records developed a rich, ragged sound with gospel, blues, R&B and luminous pop as its foundational pillars. Currently the subject of an HBO documentary series, "Stax: Soulsville USA," the record label defined American music during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Memphis singer/songwriter William Bell was one of its most prolific artists, and he regaled guests with a performance of his Hall of Fame inducted debut 1961 single, “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” At 84 years of age — and the winner of a Best Americana Album at the 2017 GRAMMYs — Bell was in rare form, and the band backed him up seamlessly, reproducing the sinuous organ lines of the original.

Read more: 1968: A Year Of Change For The World, Memphis & Stax Records

Future Editions Of The Gala Will Continue To Surprise And Delight

The inaugural GRAMMY Hall of Fame Gala set a high standard for future celebrations of iconic recordings. The event proved to be fertile ground for the creation of indelible music moments, showcasing the beauty and authority of music across genres and generations. Other honored Hall of Fame inducted recordings including De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, Guns’N’Roses Appetite For Destruction, the Buena Vista Social Club’s debut, Wanda Jackson’s “Let’s Have A Party,” Kid Ory’s Creole Orchestra’s “Ory’s Creole Trombone” and The Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes.”  

As we look ahead, the excitement for future Galas grows, with each event promising to honor more historic recordings, and uphold the tradition of celebrating excellence in music's rich legacy.

Explore The 2024 GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inducted Recordings: Lauryn Hill, Guns N' Roses, De La Soul, Donna Summer & Many More

Explore The 2024 GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inductees

Post Malone holds and acoustic guitar and looks at the crown during his Super Bowl LVIII performance
Post Malone performs during Super Bowl LVIII in February 2024.

Photo: Perry Knotts/Getty Images

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Post Malone's Country Roots: 8 Key Moments In Covers and Collaborations

Ahead of Posty's upcoming performance at the Stagecoach Festival, catch up on the many ways he's been dabbling in country music since the beginning of his career.

GRAMMYs/Apr 24, 2024 - 07:25 pm

Editor's Note: This article was updated on May 20, 2024 with information about Post Malone's collaboration with Morgan Wallen, "I Had Some Help."

Since Post Malone burst onto the mainstream nearly a decade ago, he has continued to flaunt his genre-defying brand of musical brilliance. For his latest venture, it’s time for gold grills and cowboy hats: Posty’s going country.

Though his musical origins are in rap, Malone has seamlessly traversed pop, R&B, and blues, always hinting at his deep-seated country roots along the way. In the last year, his long-standing affinity for country music has moved to the forefront, with appearances at the CMA Awards, a country-tinged Super Bowl LVIII performance, and a feature on Beyoncé’s COWBOY CARTER. Next up, he’ll make his debut at California's Stagecoach Festival alongside some of country music’s biggest names — and pay tribute to some of the genre greats.

While it’s unclear exactly what the Texas-raised hitmaker will be singing, his 45-minute set on Saturday, April 27 is labeled “Post Malone: Performs a special set of country covers.” After years of performing covers for and alongside country stars, the performance is arguably one of the most full-circle moments of his career thus far.

Ahead of his Stagecoach premiere, read on for some of Posty's biggest nods and contributions to the country music scene over the years — that could culminate in his own country album soon enough. 

A Slew Of Classic Country Music Covers

Malone has a history of channeling his musical heroes, often pulling on his boots to deliver heartfelt covers. He's paid tribute to country icons many times, including covers of Hank Williams Jr.'s classic, "There's A Tear In My Beer” in a 2018 fan-favorite video

During a 2022 Billy Strings tour stop at The Observatory in Los Angeles, Malone made a surprise appearance and used the moment to honor Johnny Cash alongside Strings. The pair delivered an acoustic duet of Cash's infamous murder ballad, "Cocaine Blues."

And just this year, Malone covered Hank Williams Sr. during a surprise performance at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. On April 3, he closed out the annual Bobby Bones' Million Dollar Show with a rendition of Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues." 

A Longtime Kinship With Dwight Yoakam

Malone has long collaborated with Dwight Yoakam, marking a friendship and professional partnership that spans his career. Yoakam is a GRAMMY-winning trailblazer known for his pioneering blend of honky tonk, rock and punk that shook up the country scene in the 80's with his blend of "cowpunk." 

The pair frequently joined forces on Yoakam's SiriusXM Radio spot "Greater Bakersfield," where one standout 2018 appearance features Malone covering Yoakam's own “Thousand Miles From Nowhere” as the two laugh, strum and belt out the lyrics together in perfect harmony. 

On April Fool's Day in 2021, they playfully teased fans with the prospect of a double country album release — which may not seem so far-fetched three years later.

It's fitting that Malone would find such deep inspiration in folks like Yoakam, a man who first rode onto the country scene with a new take on a traditional sound. Much like Yoakam bridged generations with his music, Malone brings a new yet familiar energy to the country scene, embodying the spirit of a modern cowboy in both style and sound.

A Country Tribute To Elvis

Malone teamed up with Keith Urban for a duet rendition of "Baby, What You Want Me to Do" during the "Elvis All-Star Tribute Special," which aired on NBC in 2019. Originally written and performed by blues musician and songwriter Jimmy Reed, "Baby, What You Want Me to Do" was famously covered by Presley and commemorated through Urban and Malone's unique blend of modern guitar-slapping country-rock charisma. 

That wasn't Malone's only country collab that night, either. He also covered Presley's "Blue Suede Shoes" alongside Blake Shelton, Little Big Town and Mac Davis.

A Celebration Of Texas With Country Legends

In March 2021, Matthew McConaughey and his wife, Camila, hosted the "We’re Texas" virtual benefit concert, to help Texans coping with that year's disastrous winter storms during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Following performances by George Strait, Kacey Musgraves, Willie Nelson, and Miranda Lambert, Malone — who moved to Dallas when he was 10 — served as the night's final entertainer. He performed Brad Paisley's "I'm Gonna Miss Her" followed by Sturgill Simpson's "You Can Have The Crown" backed by Dwight Yoakam.

A Rousing Tribute At The 2023 CMA Awards

At the 2023 CMA Awards, Malone joined country stars Morgan Wallen and HARDY on stage to cover late icon Joe Diffie‘s “Pickup Man” and "John Deere Green." Malone's first-ever performance at the CMAs felt more like a reunion than a debut, with Malone right at home among his collaborators.

“I’ve manifested this for years," HARDY told Audacy's Katie Neal. "Slight flex here, but I started following [Post Malone] when he had like, 300k Instagram followers. I was on the 'White Iverson' terrain, like the first thing that he ever put out and I was like, ‘this is dope,’ and I've been with him ever since.” 

After the performance, Malone hinted to Access Hollywood that it might be the start of a new chapter. When asked if a forthcoming country album would be in the works, he answered, “I think so. Yes, ma'am.” (More on that later.)

A Countrified Appearance At Super Bowl LVIII

Before Beyoncé announced COWBOY CARTER in a Verizon Super Bowl ad, Malone offered Super Bowl Sunday's first country-themed clue at the top of the night with his tender rendition of "America The Beautiful." Sporting a bolo tie and brown suede, Malone delivered his patriotic performance with a characteristically country drawl while strumming along on acoustic guitar before Reba McIntire's star-spangled rendition of the national anthem. 

Malone's performance followed in the footsteps of a long line of country artists who have kicked off the national sporting event, which started with Charley Pride in 1974 and has included Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Garth Brooks

A Tip Of The Hat To Toby Keith

During a performance at the American Rodeo in Arlington, Texas, on March 9, Malone paid tribute to the late Toby Keith, who passed away in February. After pouring one out and taking a sip from a red solo cup (an homage to Keith's playful hit of the same name), Malone performed a cover of "As Good As I Once Was" for the Texas rodeo crowd.

His TikTok video of the performance quickly garnered over 4 million views, sparking enthusiasm among fans for more country music from him. "Sir. I'm now begging for a country album," wrote one user in a comment that has received over 11,000 hearts.

A (Potential) Full-On Country Album

His much-teased country album may not be too yonder. After confirming that a country album was in the works during a live Twitch stream on his channel, Malone has spent much of this year teasing forthcoming new work. There is no scheduled album release date as of press time, but Malone has shared snippets of new songs including “Missin’ You Like This” and dropped sneak peeks of collaborations with Morgan Wallen, HARDY, Ernest, and Luke Combs

In February, Malone posted a sample of a collaboration with Combs, "I Ain't Got A Guy For That," the first in a series of song snippets shared across his social channels. 

Malone and Wallen have been teasing a collaboration since the end of 2023. After building plenty of anticipation, they debuted “I Had Some Help” during Wallen's headlining set at Stagecoach in April. Officially releasing the track on May 10, the song didn't just prove to be a banger — it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and broke the record for most streams in a single week with 76.4 million official U.S. streams, according to Luminate and Billboard.

No matter when the album may come, Post Malone’s Stagecoach set will only up the anticipation for some original country music from the star — and from the looks of it, fans and genre stars alike are more than ready for it.

12 Must-See Acts At Stagecoach 2024: Tanner Adell, Charley Crockett & More

Beyoncé accepts the Innovator Award onstage during the 2024 iHeartRadio Music Awards at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on Monday, April 1.
Beyoncé accepts the Innovator Award onstage during the 2024 iHeartRadio Music Awards at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on Monday, April 1.

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartRadio

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Beyond Country: All The Genres Beyoncé Explores On 'Cowboy Carter'

On 'COWBOY CARTER,' Beyoncé is free. Her eighth studio album is an unbridled exploration of musical genres — from country to opera and R&B — that celebrates the fluidity of music and her Texas roots.

GRAMMYs/Apr 3, 2024 - 08:50 pm

"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."

With those words, spoken on "SPAGHETTII" by Linda Martell — the first commercially successful Black female artist in country music and the first to play the Grand Ole Opry solo — Beyoncé provides a proxy response to her original call on Instagram 10 days before COWBOY CARTER was released: "This ain’t a Country album. This is a “Beyoncé” album." 

She delivered on that promise with intent. Through a mix of homage and innovation, Beyoncé's latest is a 27-track testament to her boundless musicality and draws  from a rich aural palette. In addition to its country leanings, COWBOY CARTER includes everything from the soulful depths of gospel to the intricate layers of opera. 

Beyoncé's stance is clear: she's not here to fit into a box. From the heartfelt tribute in "BLACKBIIRD" to the genre-blurring tracks like "YA YA," Beyoncé uses her platform to elevate the conversation around genre, culture, and history. She doesn't claim country music; she illuminates its roots and wings, celebrating the Black artists who've shaped its essence.

The collective album proves no genre was created or remains in isolation. It's a concept stoked in the words of the opening track, "AMERIICAN REQUIEM" when Beyonce reflects, "Nothing really ends / For things to stay the same they have to change again." For country, and all popular genres of music to exist they have to evolve. No sound ever stays the same.

COWBOY CARTER's narrative arc, from "AMERICAN REQUIEM" to "AMEN," is a journey through American music's heart and soul, paying tribute to its origins while charting a path forward. This album isn't just an exploration of musical heritage; it's an act of freedom and a declaration of the multifaceted influence of Black culture on American pop culture.

Here's a closer look at some of some of the musical genres touched on in act ii, the second release of an anticipated trilogy by Beyoncé, the most GRAMMY-winning artist of all-time: 

Country 

Before COWBOY CARTER was even released, Beyoncé sparked critical discussion over the role of herself and all Black artists in country music. Yet COWBOY CARTER doesn't stake a claim on country music. Rather, it spotlights the genre through collaborations with legends and modern icons, while championing the message that country music, like all popular American music and culture, has always been built on the labor and love of Black lives. 

It's a reckoning acknowledged not only by Beyoncé's personal connection to country music growing up in Texas, but the role Black artists have played in country music rooted in gospel, blues, and folk music. 

Enter The World Of Beyoncé

Country legends, Dolly Parton ("DOLLY P", "JOLENE," and "TYRANT"), Willie Nelson ("SMOKE HOUR" and "SMOKE HOUR II"), and Martell ("SPAGHETTII and "THE LINDA MARTELL SHOW") serve mainly as spoken-word collaborators, becoming MCs for Queen Bey. Some of the most prolific country music legends receiving her in a space where she has been made to feel unwelcome in music (most notably with the racism surrounding her 2016 CMA performance of "Daddy Lessons" with the Dixie Chicks) provides a prolific release of industry levies. Martell, a woman who trod the dark country road before Bey, finally getting her much-deserved dues appears as an almost pre-ordained and poetic act of justice. 

"BLACKBIIRD," a version of the Beatles' civil rights era song of encouragement and hope for the struggle of Black women is led softly by Beyoncé, backed by a quartet of Black female contemporary country songbirds: Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts. 

Beyoncé holds space for others, using the power of her star to shine a light on those around her. These inclusions rebuke nay-sayers who quipped pre-release that she was stealing attention from other Black country artists. It also flies in the faces that shunned and discriminated against her, serving as an example of how to do better. The reality that Beyoncé wasn't stealing a spotlight, but building a stage for fellow artists, is a case study in how success for one begets success for others. 

Read more: 8 Country Crossover Artists You Should Know: Ray Charles, The Beastie Boys, Cyndi Lauper & More

Gospel, Blues, & Folk (American Roots)

As is Beyoncé's way, she mounts a case for country music with evidence to back up her testimony. She meanders a course through a sequence of styles that serve as the genre's foundation: gospel, blues, and folk music.

"AMERIICAN REQUIEM" and "AMEN" bookend the album with gospel-inspired lyrics and choir vocals. The opener sets up a reflective sermon buoyed by  the sounds of a reverberating church organ, while the closer, with its introspective lyrics, pleads for mercy and redemption. The main verse on "AMEN", "This house was built with blood and bone/ The statues they made were beautiful/ But they were lies of stone," is complemented by a blend of piano, and choral harmonies. 

Hymnal references are interlaced throughout the album, particularly in songs like "II HANDS II HEAVEN" and in the lyrical nuances on "JUST FOR FUN." In the later track, Beyoncé's voice soars with gratitude in a powerful delivery of the lines, "Time heals everything / I don't need anything / Hallelujah, I pray to her." 

The gospel-inspired, blues-based "16 CARRIAGES" reflects the rich history of country songs borrowing from the blues while simultaneously calling back to songs sung by field laborers in the colonial American South. "Sixteen dollars, workin' all day/ Ain't got time to waste, I got art to make" serves as the exhausted plea of an artist working tirelessly long hours in dedication to a better life. 

Rhiannon Giddens, a celebrated musician-scholar, two-time GRAMMY winner, and Pulitzer Prize recipient, infuses "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" with her profound understanding of American folk, country, and blues. She plays the viola and banjo, the latter tracing its origins to Sub-Saharan West Africa and the lutes of ancient Egypt. Through her skilled plucking and bending of the strings, Giddens bridges the rich musical heritage of Africa and the South with the soul of country, blues, and folk music.

Pop, Funk, Soul & Rock 'n' Roll 

All in, Beyoncé is a pop star who is wrestling with labels placed on her 27-year career in COWBOY CARTER. Fittingly, she brings in two other pop artists known for swimming in the brackish water between country and pop, Miley Cyrus and Post Malone. Her intentional inclusion of two artists who have blurred genres without much cross-examination begs the question, Why should Beyoncé's sound be segregated to a different realm? 

On "YA YA" Linda Martell returns as the listener's sonic sentinel, introducing the track like a lesson plan: "This particular tune stretches across a range of genres. And that’s what makes it a unique listening experience." The tune sinks into the strummed chords of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" before leaping into a fiery dance track that features reimagined lyrics from the Beach Boys, with soulful vocal flourishes and breaks that show the throughline connection between '60s era rock, funk, and pop music.

Robert Randolph lends his hands on "16 CARRIAGES" with a funk-infused grapple on his pedal-steel guitar. It's a style he honed through his early years touring and recording with his family band and later in his career as an in-demand collaborator working with names including the Allman Brothers, and Norah Jones

The lesson is solidified as the album transitions into an interlude on "OH LOUISIANA," featuring a sped-up sample of a classic track by Chuck Berry. This moment emphasizes the pop superstar's nod to civil rights era music history, spotlighting a controversial artist celebrated for his pioneering contributions to rock 'n' roll. (It's a part of music history Beyoncé knows well, after starring as Etta James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, a veiled biopic of the legendary Chicago label Chess Records.)

Classical & Opera

Opera was missing from many listeners' Beyoncé Bingo card, but didn't surprise those that know her background. Beyoncé was trained for over a decade starting at an early age by her voice teacher David Lee Brewer, a retired opera singer who once lived with the Knowles family. 

COWBOY CARTER gives sing-along fans a 101 opera class with "DAUGHTER." In Italian, Beyoncé sings passages from the 1783 Italian opera "Caro Mio Ben," composed by Giuseppe Tommaso Giovanni Giordani. The aria is a classic piece of vocal training that fittingly shows off her full range — taking us back to the earliest days of her vocal teachings.

Hip-Hop & R&B

Midway through the album on "SPAGHETTII" Beyoncé announces, "I ain't no regular singer, now come get everythin' you came for," landing right where expectations have confined her: in the throes of a romping beat, experimenting with sounds that blend hip-hop with R&B and soul. The track notably highlights the talent of Nigerian American singer/rapper Shaboozey, who also shows up to the rodeo on "SWEET HONEY BUCKIN'" brandishing his unique mix of hip-hop, folk-pop, and country music. 

Beyoncé worked with longtime collaborator Raphael Saadiq on this album, a career legend in the R&B industry, who lends his mark to several tracks on which he wrote, produced, and played multiple instruments. Beyoncé also utilizes the Louisiana songwriter Willie Jones on "JUST FOR FUN," an artist who draws on a contemporary blend of country, Southern rap, and R&B in the hymnal ballad. 

The violin-heavy "TYRANT" and "SPAGHETTII" both underscore hip-hop's long love affair with the classical string instrument (See: Common's "Be," and Wu Tang Clan's "Reunited" as the tip of that particular iceberg) with a blend of soulful R&B lyrics paired with beat-based instrumentalization. 

In a world quick to draw lines and label sounds, Beyoncé's COWBOY CARTER stands as a vibrant mosaic of musical influence and innovation. Ultimately, Beyoncé's COWBOY CARTER isn't seeking anyone's acceptance. As a Texan once told she didn't belong, her critical response claps back at this exclusion.  It's also a reminder that in the hands of a true artist, music is limitless.

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Beyoncé Is The Genre-Bending Queen On 'Cowboy Carter': 5 Takeaways From Her New Album

On 'act ii' of her three-part album trilogy, Beyoncé explores the world of country and beyond — and makes a statement with every track.

GRAMMYs/Mar 29, 2024 - 09:12 pm

When Beyoncé released RENAISSANCE in July 2022, she revealed that the album would be part of a "three-act project." One year and eight months later, she delivered on her promise in a big, bold way with act ii: COWBOY CARTER.

The expansive 27-track project finds the star experimenting with country, folk and Americana, pushing the boundaries of genre in a way she never has before — and, in classic Bey fashion, serving up a poignant response to naysayers.

"It 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," she shared in an Instagram post the week before the album's release. "But, because of that experience, I did a deeper dive into the history of Country music and studied our rich musical archive."

From thoughtful cameos to old-school instrumentation, COWBOY CARTER is the culmination of everything that makes Beyoncé one of the most influential artists of her time, flexing her knack for statement pieces as well as her versatility. 

Here are five key takeaways from Beyoncé's long-awaited new album, COWBOY CARTER.

It's Not Country, It's KNTRY

Beyoncé revealed the COWBOY CARTER track listing in a rodeo-inspired concert flyer posted to Instagram on March 27. The artwork shared an important tag at the bottom: "Brought to you by KNTRY Radio Texas."

KNTRY Radio is a fantasy station with a wide open format created for COWBOY CARTER, and hosted by Willie Nelson in two short "SMOKE HOUR" interludes. Throughout the album, you'll hear samples of old songs by Chuck Berry and other classic artists. 

As Beyoncé stated in another pre-release Instagram post, COWBOY CARTER isn't a country album. Instead, popular styles are blended together in surprising ways to create a new sound that's purely Beyoncé. (There's even a moment, on "DAUGHTER," where she sings a verse from a famous Italian opera called "Caro Mio Ben.")

Whether through an intro, an interlude or a powerful verse, it's clear that Beyoncé and her guests are trying to open minds musically with these songs. "If there's one thing you can take away from our set today, let it be this," Nelson said in the second of his two "SMOKE HOUR" radio-style interludes on the album. "Sometimes you don't know what you like and someone you trust turns you on to some real good s—. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I'm here."

It's A Unique Continuation Of Her Mission

COWBOY CARTER begins the same way as it ends, with Beyoncé proclaiming, "Them big ideas are buried here, Amen," in the intro of opener "AMERICAN REQUIEM," and then "Them old ideas are buried here, Amen" in the last line of closer "AMEN."

Those statements reflect exactly what Beyoncé set out to do with COWBOY CARTER: celebrate the Black community's roots within the country space, while addressing the lack of cultural acceptance of it. The album celebrates Blackness in the way she's always done, but in a way that feels even more revolutionary.

This is perhaps best exhibited in the trap-infused track "SPAGHETTII." "Genres are a funny little concept, aren't they?" asks Linda Martell — who was the first Black woman soloist to appear at the Grand Ole Opry — on the song's intro. "In theory, they have a simple definition that's easy to understand/ But in practice, well, some may feel confined."

As Beyoncé adds in the first verse, "Now we on a mission, tried to turn me to the opposition/ I'm appalled 'bout the proposition/ Y'all been played by the plagiaristic, ain't gonna give no clout addiction my attention."

Beyoncé has long been at the forefront of honoring Black culture, and COWBOY CARTER is her most boundary-pushing addition to the conversation yet — and she hopes to change the "old ideas" into "big ideas."

It Takes Her Cinematic Love To The Next Level

It's no secret that Beyoncé loves her visuals. Though COWBOY CARTER isn't a visual album like some of her previous releases, a press release revealed that each of the songs on the album are inspired by Western films. In a statement, Beyoncé named five specific films as primary influences: The Harder They Fall, Killers of the Flower Moon, Urban Cowboy, The Hateful Eight, and Five Fingers For Marseilles

Several of the COWBOY CARTER visuals have elements of Western films, from the desert and mountainous landscapes of "AMERIICAN REQUIEM" and "OH LOUISIANA" to the rainy ashtray in "AMEN." And it's likely not a coincidence that a track called "SPAGHETTII" ended up on an album inspired by Westerns. 

Beyoncé even made a new catchphrase out of the most famous Western movie actor of all time on "BODYGUARD," where she declares she'll "John Wayne that ass."

It's Her Most Organic Sound Yet

Pivoting from the electronic landscape of RENAISSANCE, Beyoncé favors analog instruments over digital sounds on COWBOY CARTER. As "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" foreshadowed, there's plenty of banjo, boot-stomping beats and guitar plucks — and even Beyoncé's fingernails as percussion — across the album.

Raw instrumentation is also sprinkled throughout, particularly on "FLAMENCO" and her stunning cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird" (whose title is given an act ii twist as "BLACKBIIRD"). And if anything sounds a little unpolished, Beyoncé wants you to know it was completely intentional.

"With artificial intelligence and digital filters and programming, I wanted to go back to real instruments, and I used very old ones," Beyoncé explained in a press statement. "I didn't want some layers of instruments like strings, especially guitars, and organs perfectly in tune. I kept some songs raw and leaned into folk. All the sounds were so organic and human, everyday things like the wind, snaps and even the sound of birds and chickens, the sounds of nature."

It's Another Family Affair

Now that Beyoncé's first-born daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, has played a prominent role in her mom's career — winning a GRAMMY in 2021 for her part in "Brown Skin Girl" and famously dancing on the RENAISSANCE World Tour — it was time for her little sister to shine.

Six-year-old Rumi Carter contributes an intro on "PROTECTOR," by asking Bey if she can "hear the lullaby." Though Rumi isn't featured in the rest of the track, hearing her voice at the beginning makes the song's sweet sentiment all the more impactful: "And I will lead you down that road if you lose your way/ Born to be a protector," Beyoncé sings on the chorus.

With so much to uncover in COWBOY CARTER, Beyoncé already has the anticipation high for the final part of her album trilogy. Will act iii feature Rumi's twin brother, Sir Carter? Will the rumors of Beyoncé exploring her rock side be true? We'll hopefully find out soon enough, but for now, get lost in the world of COWBOY CARTER — a testament to Beyoncé's prowess as an ever-evolving trailblazer. 

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