Can Beyoncé’s Foray into Country Music Change the Genre’s Conservative Views?

International listeners crave music by diverse artists with diverse politics.

Beyoncé performs “Daddy Lessons” onstage with Martie Maguire of the Chicks at the 50th annual CMA Awards on Nov. 2, 2016, in Nashville. (Rick Diamond / Getty Images)

Beyoncé released the cover art for the album, Cowboy Carter, on Instagram on March 19, with the album itself scheduled to drop on March 29. Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ‘Em,” has surged up the Billboard charts, making her the first Black woman artist to appear atop the Hot Country Songs chart within days of its release. Within a week, it became the first country song by a Black woman artist to emerge atop the overall Billboard Hot 100 chart. Beyoncé’s immense success in country music is a clear signal that there is a huge audience for country music around the world, but that audience won’t settle for the music’s often conservative conventions. 

In that Instagram post, she describes the backlash she has faced for her forays into the country genre—notably, the slow uptake “Texas Hold ‘Em” initially encountered on notoriously conservative country radio, and the infamously lukewarm reception her collaboration with the Chicks, performing her song, “Daddy Lessons,” received at the 2016 Country Music Awards—as a major motivating factor.

“The criticism I faced when I first entered this genre,” she writes, “forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.”

Ironically, Beyoncé’s story of persistence in the face of a glacially conservative country music establishment—including the Country Music Association, the Nashville-based trade organization that hosted her at its award show in 2016—is both commonplace, and crucial to the music’s future. Like Beyoncé, Black artists with unquestionable country music bona fides like Charley Pride and Darius Rucker have spoken publicly about their uphill battle with the industry. Billboard famously yanked Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from its Hot Country charts in 2019 for not being country enough. Mickey Gutyon has a whole song about this kind of alienation, “Black Like Me,” from her 2021 album, Remember Her Name. 

Black Influence in Country Music

While country radio retains a powerful hold on the direction of the industry—its commitment to heavily favoring white male artists continues unabated—there is a growing recognition in the industry that, if country music is going to thrive, it needs to shed its conservative past and embrace a broader and more diverse pool of artists.

However, it should be noted that country music has never been universally conservative—or even conservative in the main, at least in terms of songs artists sing, if not with respect to radio programming policy. The genre is replete with songs associated with all manner of political movements—whether Johnny Cash’s 1961 recording of Peter La Farge’s ode to Indigenous and veterans rights, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” or the coded white nationalist language in 1920s songs by country scion Fiddlin’ John Carson like “There Ain’t No Bugs On Me,” signifying on his longtime involvement with the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.

In spite of a century-long legacy of anti-Black racism, country music has an equally long history of astonishing Black artistic contribution—from interracial musical collaboration in rural Appalachia in the early 20th century, to the ubiquity of song structures from Black music like the blues, to more contemporary Grand Ol Opry icons like harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey, Charley Pride and Darius Rucker.

Black music and musicians are at the heart of country music, and recognition of Black women’s music on this scale is long overdue.

Beyoncé’s International Influence

As is often the case in U.S. conversations about American music, commentators at home haven’t paid much attention to Beyoncé’s huge international success with “Texas Hold ‘Em.” The song took over the number one spot on the U.K. charts on Feb. 23, making it her first U.K. no. 1 since her 2010 collaboration with Lady Gaga, “Telephone.” It’s not unusual for U.S. artists to have this kind of success in the U.K.—Jack Harlow, Taylor Swift, Doja Cat, Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish and Miley Cyrus all had no. 1’s in 2023—but it’s the first time a country song has topped the U.K. charts since Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” in 2019. Before that, you have to go back to 2005 for Nelly’s collaboration with Tim McGraw, “Over and Over.” Not coincidentally, these were both genre-crossing songs showcasing Black artists.

This is a big deal for country music. Outside of the U.S., there are very few places around the world where the genre gets this kind of commercial traction—Canada and Australia being noteworthy exceptions. The CMA, with its mission to “heighten the awareness of country music and support its ongoing growth, both domestically and internationally,” has a whole team working on opening new global markets for the music. CMA’s international relations and development office partners with global promoters, record labels, radio and television broadcasters, among other parts of the industry, to carve out new audiences for country music and new opportunities for country artists.

Beyoncé doesn’t need country music. … But, if it’s going get the global traction the CMA and other parts of the industry desire, country music needs artists like Beyoncé.

A major focal point in the U.K. is the CMA’s partnership with the Country 2 Country festival, organized by concert promoters, AEG Europe and SJM Concerts. The festival, which this year ran from March 8 to 10, brings top U.S. country acts to leading U.K. and European venues, including the O2 in London, OVO Hydro in Glasgow, and SSE Arena in Belfast. Not coincidentally, many of the C2C headliners and other featured artists over the years have been Black, including Rucker, Brittney Spencer, War & Treaty, Chapel Hart, Angel White and Kane Brown.

Brown, who headlined the 2023 festival, told the free London newspaper, The Evening Standard, that he anticipated playing “a way different set list than when I play in the U.S.” Throughout his set in Belfast, he wove his own stories about his experience as a Black person fighting industry conservatism through his performances of a string of his no. 1 Billboard hits, including “Like I Love Country Music,” “Thank God” and “Bury Me in Georgia.”

Audiences around the world are ready to celebrate stories like Brown’s and Beyoncé’s, of overcoming oppressive industry norms. And clearly, they can’t get enough of the music: As the VP of that international relations and development team, Milly Olykan, told MusicWeek magazine in advance of the 2023 Country 2 Country festival last spring, “There is a lot of intention to be more accessible as a genre to a diverse range of artists, and there is progress. It’s slow, but it’s happening.”

Beyoncé doesn’t need country music, and she knows it. At the end of the Instagram post, she writes, “This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé album.” But, if it’s going get the global traction the CMA and other parts of the industry desire, country music needs artists like Beyoncé.

Maybe Cowboy Carter, along with Rucker, Brown, Guyton and so many other brilliant artists in the storied lineage of Black country music, will finally tip the scales, persuading industry gatekeepers that clinging to conservative whiteness is starkly at odds with the best interests of the genre—ethically, artistically and financially.

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Mark Laver is a saxophonist, ethnomusicologist, and associate professor of music at Grinnell College, where he directs the jazz band and teaches classes on jazz and popular music. His first book, Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning (Routledge 2015), explores the use of jazz music in advertising, marketing and branding.