Beyoncé’s Country Accent in ‘Cowboy Carter’

Cowboy Carter honors the hybrid space that is Southern culture. 

Beyoncé at the 2024 iHeartRadio Music Awards held at the Dolby Theatre on April 1, 2024, in Los Angeles. (Michael Buckner / Billboard via Getty Images)

Used to say I spoke too country

And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country enough…

In one of the earliest critiques in feminist pop music studies on Beyoncé, cultural critic Daphne Brooks suggested that the beloved pop star was angry. Speaking to the innovative production and demanding lyrics throughout Beyoncé’s sophomore album B’Day (2006), released in the aftermath of post-Katrina disaster, Brooks labeled the Houston native’s voice as one of discontent: “Crafting a voice of Black female discontent … [is], however, a slippery slope if one aims to avoid the caricature of ‘the angry Black woman,”’ Brooks argued. 

If Beyoncé managed to sidestep the angry Black woman trope for much of her career, she let her mask slip just a little to finally address post-Katrina racial injustice in the Gulf Coast region, set against the lively discourse of the Black Lives Matter movement back in 2016. Indeed, it was this forceful voice, as captured in her “Formation” music video and performance at that year’s Super Bowl halftime show, which kindled the call to “boycott Beyoncé” because she was perceived as being “anti-police.” This, plus her close affiliation with the Obamas, contributed to the chilly reception she had received at the Country Music Awards Show later that year when she had performed with the equally controversial The Chicks (then-Dixie Chicks). 

Occupying space as a powerful and beautiful Black woman with progressive politics, it is no wonder Beyoncé has stated that she felt “unwelcome.” This event sparked her creative juices to embark on a “deeper dive” into the origins of country music, to essentially reclaim her space within a genre that seemed to reject her presence. 

Beyoncé’s voice of discontent resonates strongly, as does her once-considered “too country” accent, on Cowboy Carter. This, her eighth studio solo album, is a brilliant and genre-bending album rooted in country music that transcends the genre through its audacious, boundary-pushing and aggressive remixes and interpolations that have honored the hybrid space that is Southern culture. 

Beyoncé’s very Creolization does more than pay homage to the race-mixing (often done violently during slavery and Jim Crow segregation) of her ancestral roots. She mixes disparate genres and their distinct beats, melodies, instruments and vocal layers across the 27 tracks that comprise this album. We thus have a massive work of art that could easily become unwieldy, but somehow Beyoncé finds a steady balance in which this amalgamated work holds together effortlessly and majestically. 

Beyoncé’s voice of discontent resonates strongly, as does her once-considered ‘too country’ accent, on Cowboy Carter.

The opening track, “American Requiem,” encapsulates the sonic spaces needed to amplify her discontented voice. Beginning with a stack of vocals, we are reminded of the harmonizing mastery she and her fellow bandmates from Destiny’s Child had made popular during her early days in music. The harmonic sounds also suggest “church,” which is also captured in the “requiem” title. The melding of organ and electric guitars recalls both gospel and blues, elements that birthed the country music genre in addition to the folk ballad. The lyrics also craft a ballad mourning the “death” of an American past, hence the reliance on American country and rock standards to deliver this poignant message. 

“American Requiem” especially harkens back to that psychedelic funk era of the late 60s—the height of American discontent expressed through Civil Rights, women’s liberation and anti-war protests. The bass interpolates Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” while the lyrics allude to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”—“hello, my old friend”—and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”—“Now is the time to face the wind.”

The vocal arrangement further evokes the Black female vocality of legends like Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, while the background sounds of her primal screams, grunts, and hollers recall the likes of Black rock-and-roll legends like Little Richard, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and even Prince. Beyoncé has done her musical homework here.

This revisitation of the sixties continues into the second track, a cover of The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” a lovely ballad that Paul McCartney disclosed was a tribute to Black women struggling during the Civil Rights era, such as those in the Little Rock Nine who were trying to desegregate schools in the South. Here, Beyoncé enlists the vocal assistance of four Black women country music artists – Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts – in a gesture not just to highlight other Black country artists marginalized and segregated in the genre but to also remind us of how Black women’s voices were the foundation used to build up many of the classic rock and mainstream white male bands and stars, as illuminated in the documentary film 20 Feet from Stardom. 

The third track, “16 Carriages,” a country ballad released as a single earlier this year, narrates Beyoncé’s own journey as the bass and guitars recreate the work-song motif rooted in spirituals and early blues. Its pairing with “Protector,” the “lullaby” she sings for her younger daughter, Rumi – as well as the subsequent “My Rose” – captures the pop star’s vulnerability as well as her softer maternal side, which jars against the tough, often gun-wielding woman that characterizes her “Cowboy Carter” persona. Indeed, the “protector” role is often associated with fatherhood, so we see how Beyoncé also swaps and remixes gender roles here. 

Not only does she pay homage to the next generation, through her children and current country artists, she also honors her elders, as she does by inviting country music legend and fellow Texas native Willie Nelson, who reprises his early role as a radio DJ, to introduce her chart-topping single “Texas Hold ‘Em,” an old-style country music anthem that opens with the skilled banjo-playing of MacArthur Genius and Pulitzer-Prize-winning folk artist Rhiannon Giddens, someone who has educated the public on the instrument’s African roots. This is work Beyoncé also engages in the “Smoke Hour” interlude that not only recalls Willie Nelson’s radio days but also samples early recordings of Black artists like cross-dresser Charles Anderson, gospel pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and rock pioneer Chuck Berry through her recreation of radio-station surfing.  

Of course, this would not be a true country music homage without the legendary Dolly Parton co-signing Beyoncé’s cover of her classic song “Jolene” with her clever introduction referencing “that hussy with the good hair” Beyoncé sang about in her Lemonade-era song “Sorry.” Unsurprisingly, some country music aficionados disapproved of Beyoncé reworking the lyrics so that the narrator is a “Creole banjee bitch from Louisiana” warning off Jolene from her man, rather than pleading with her in the ladylike manner Dolly Parton offers in the original version. 

This disapproval also speaks to the musical expectation of relying on Black women’s power vocals in service to the nation (and the coins of many a songwriter, producer, and label), as with Whitney Houston’s on her unmatched rendition of the national anthem during the Super Bowl in the wake of the Persian Gulf War and her iconic cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard soundtrack. It’s quite intentional that Dolly Parton’s introduction of “Jolene” follows a country ditty titled “Bodyguard.” 

Beyoncé is not the one to simply engage in a vocal rearrangement of power vocals on a classic song. Like Whitney, she too will make the song hers, but not just as a cover and with the coins that come with new lyrics, a new bridge and a whole chorus shoring up her narrator who defends love, family, and community – including legendary legends like Stevie Wonder who plays harmonica on this version, as we all learned during Stevie’s presentation of the iHeart Radio Innovator Award to Beyoncé earlier this week. Interestingly, we hear Dolly Parton again on the introduction of the track “Tyrant,” with innuendos of mistresses and “side chicks” serving as the “hangman” taking men away from their families. “Jolene” could thus be that metaphorical and historical “Karen” whose lies sent many a Black man to the lynching tree. 

Beyoncé demonstrates her power by delivering warning shots and figuratively commits murder on the subsequent track, “Daughter,” which resembles the Ennio Morricone movie score of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, with a little taste of the Baroque Italian aria “Mio Caro Ben” thrown in just to show off her musical skill (and the “cold as Titanic water” characterization of the narrator who demonstrates her vocal mastery as she waits for a rival to die). This is a continuous signifying of country western – from music to movies – but from the perspective of a Black woman who delivers incredible octaves alongside rhyming bars that she spits on the trill rap “Spaghetti,” which is introduced by a spoken-word sample of Black country music legend Linda Martell who challenges that the confinement of musical genres must be resisted. 

Beyoncé suggests ‘country’ is more than “rodeo” patriotism and flag-waving. It is all of us coming together, melding our voices, our dance styles, our musical cultures together, rooted in an African American rebel spirit that has fought tooth and nail for our inclusion in this wider project of American nationhood. 

Beyoncé disrupts these genres, not just through samplings and interpolations, but vocally to deliver the sonic power of assemblage. Some of her track titles – “Flamenco” and “Riverdance” – also suggest her recognition of the throughline that exists across different dance and music styles. As such, she includes duets with various Black and white male and female guest artists on different tracks to demonstrate her versatility: from country artist Willie Jones, on “Just for Fun,” to pop artist Miley Cyrus on “II Most Wanted” (a gorgeous interpolation of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”), to pop act Post Malone on the fun “Levi’s Jeans,” to country hip-hop artist Shaboozey on “Spaghetti” and “Sweet Honey Buckin’.” 

The throughline of country across these different ballads and bops, both pop and hip-hop, illuminates the musical resistance that Beyoncé advocates through Linda Martell’s voice. This message is again reiterated in the track “The Linda Martell Show,” which precedes another visitation to that era of sixties music in “Ya Ya”: including samplings of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the brief interpolation of “lover boy” from Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” (a callback to the musicality of Sylvia Robinson, the godmother of hip-hop herself). This track especially recalls the blues-rock roots of her idol Tina Turner and her iconic “Proud Mary,” rerouted from Nutbush to the Gulf Coast as suggested in the subsequent sped-up cover of Chuck Berry’s “Oh Louisiana,” as well as the funk captured in “Desert Eagle,” whose opening evokes Chaka Khan and the Rufus’s “Tell Me Something Good.” 

By the time we reach the latter sequence of songs on the album—“Riverdance,” “II Hands II Heaven,” and “Tyrant,” as well as the penultimate “Sweet Honey Buckin’”—we feel ourselves transitioning from the country past to the dance music future – the sound that came to define Renaissance. Beyoncé admits that Cowboy Carter was initially planned for Act I, but after the pandemic, she rightly recognized that the world was ready to dance again, hence her releasing Renaissance first. We certainly feel the buildup from Cowboy Carter to Renaissance but also appreciate her artistry being flexible enough to reverse her projects based on the needs of the public. 

As its own project, Cowboy Carter is full and impressive. As an Act II, it places us in the space for contemplation about what it means to be and represent “country.” Beyoncé’s version suggests it is more than “rodeo” patriotism and flag-waving. It is all of us coming together, melding our voices, our dance styles, our musical cultures together, rooted in an African American rebel spirit that has fought tooth and nail (accompanied by banjoes, percussions, and gospel voices) for our inclusion in this wider project of American nationhood. 

In her finale track, “Amen,” Beyoncé again recalls the protest tradition by repeating “Mercy on Me,” an allusion to Marvin Gaye’s protest song “Mercy Me,” but she specifically interpolates her opening track “American Requiem,” suggesting that she (and her listeners) is prepared to confront the “big ideas” from the opening song that are now “old ideas” in this closing track, ideas that we need to bury in order to move forward. There is a reason why this album dropped on Good Friday! 

In this “requiem,” Beyoncé moves us to reject “lies of stone” and to “be the ones to purify our fathers’ sins.” The techno climax following the final note of “Amen” is an invitation to a future that will “resurrect” into a new America. 

Beyoncé implores us, on these bookended tracks and throughout the album, to hear her voice and all the flavors of her versatile country accent. We hear it loud and clear. 

You may also like: Janell Hobson also appeared on NPR to discuss the significance of the American flag on the cover of Cowboy Carter. You can listen to the interview here, or below.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.