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The Empresario

Beyoncé should make a country album.

The cover of Beyonce's new album, 'Cowboy Carter.' (Photo: Courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia)

Let’s get this part out of the way first: Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter fails as a country album. But then again, so do most country albums. 

Beyoncé talks a lot about Texas on her new album, which isn’t an album of country music but an album about country music, one that has a lot more in common with ambitious Baroque-pop cycles such as Odessey and Oracle or Village Green Preservation Society than it does anything from the universe of Waylon Jennings. The first single opens with the declaration: “This ain’t Texas.” 

And, for sure, it ain’t. 

Texas is never really Texas, of course. Texas is a kind of totem, a big vague American idea, a dreamtime arena where Americans go to work out their indigestible Americanness against a vista that must have been heroic once, offering plenty of those “wide-open spaces” that Susan Gibson wrote about before they were filled in with Arby’s and Dollar Generals and Targets, which is what you’ll find if you visit the actual Texas. There isn’t anything particularly mythopoetic about the moribund shopping malls and littered parking lots of the DFW metroplex or the repetitious exurbanity you can observe for 15 hours and nearly a thousand miles driving from South Padre Island to Texline or the slightly shorter east-west route from Orange to El Paso. It is homogeneously banal, though there sure is a lot of it. 

But all that real estate is not what Beyoncé talks about when she talks about Texas any more than country music is what she’s talking about when she talks about “country music.” She’s talking about the idea of the thing. Beyoncé is doing what Teddy Roosevelt of New York and Ronald Reagan of Illinois and Marion Morrison of Iowa did: You put on the Stetson and you get on a horse and you put yourself into a big heart-filling story about the West, about real and metaphorical frontiers and lost highways and whiskey and gunfights. And Beyoncé is ready for the gunfight: One of the songs on Cowboy Carter is titled “Desert Eagle,” which, as Ray Wylie Hubbard will tell you, is “one great big ol’ pistol—I mean .50-caliber, made by badass Hebrews.” (The formerly Israeli-made semiautomatic is now made in Minnesota.) 

Beyoncé is splendidly rich, adored, celebrated as a serious artist, in possession of everything that can be had by means of money or celebrity or status. But she apparently feels that she’s missing something needful: a heroic role in that Stetsons-and-horses story. James Michener surely would have included Beyoncé in Texas alongside Coronado and Sam Houston and the empresarios if he’d written it a few decades later. Tough timing. But Beyoncé is more than capable of writing her own chapter. 

You’d think that the world’s most famous Texan would be a little less defensive about all that than Beyoncé is. Cowboy Carter is going to sell a gazillion units, make a heap of money, and be praised to the very heavens, but it is in part a concept album premised on its own presumptive rejection by the country-music powers that be—by the shadowy Nashville establishment that, like the shadowy Washington establishment, doesn’t actually quite exist. 

A diva is not without honor, except in her hometown, among her own people. 

The thing about Beyoncé’s hometown of Houston is that it is in the South, which isn’t true for all of Texas. Culturally speaking, Amarillo faces Denver, El Paso faces Los Angeles, San Antonio faces Monterrey (Mexico, not California), Texarkana faces the Ozarks, and Houston faces Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as do the other most distinctly Delta-connected parts of Texas, such as Port Arthur and Beaumont. In Alpine, you’re in the West, but in Houston, you’re in the South, as much as if you were in Memphis or Birmingham. Beyoncé, whose parents hail from Louisiana and Alabama, grew up with very Southern coordinates. 

Everybody knows that line from The Blues Brothers in which a venue proprietor explains, “We have both kinds of music—country and western.” Western music as such (Bob Wills’ swing, Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, etc.) has faded and is today a distinctly niche enthusiasm. Like bluegrass, its influence is just barely felt in modern country music, which owes more to 1970s FM radio than it does to anything you could plausibly ride a horse to. But the South endures. Cowboy Carter, which is a self-conscious exploration of genre and genre conventions, is a very Southern album in many ways. And as a country album—which it isn’t except when it is—it comes from a musical world whose western edge is I-35, a world in which the Appalachian mountains have been sunk in the bayous. She may name-check Clovis (the one in New Mexico, not the king of the Franks) but Cowboy Carter’s country sensibility comes mainly from swamp music, not desert music. When she substitutes “Alligator Tears” for the proverbial ones from the crocodile, you get the feeling she knows what she’s doing. 

This isn’t sweet-tea Southern affectation. Beyoncé’s songwriting has taken an increasingly race-conscious turn in recent years. (Saturday Night Live had fun with a skit titled “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” with nice white liberals agonizing over the fact that somebody made something that wasn’t meant for them.) While God knows America has plenty of racial issues from sea to shining sea, there are many points in the historical country-music constellation where racial sensibilities are (and have been) radically different from what one experiences in Houston or in any other big, diverse city that rose up in the ruins of the Confederacy and that has a long history with the cotton trade. A Beyoncé who was from Santa Fe or Denver would be just as at home in the Stetson, but she would have experienced race in a way that would have been different—not necessarily more enlightened, but surely different—from what one gets within spitting distance of communities where they harvest rice and boil crawdads. 

Beyoncé’s supposed “rejection” by country music really consists of an anecdote: She did a song with the former Dixie Chicks at the 2016 Country Music Awards, and some people apparently didn’t like it. People—anonymous dopes on Twitter are “people,” of a sort—called for a boycott of the awards, some of them because of Beyoncé (critics complained that she was fresh off a tribute to the Black Panthers at the Super Bowl), but many of them because of the former Dixie Chicks, who are not exactly the most beloved figures in all of country music. One might reasonably read Beyoncé’s sense of preemptive alienation from country music as a minor constituent of the broader alienation that characterizes so much of black life in the South. The Grand Ole Opry isn’t the only room full of white people in which an ambitious African American might not feel entirely comfortable. Before there was Cowboy Carter, there was Carter Country, an ABC sitcom about a black police sergeant in the racist milieu of a small Southern town in the 1970s. 

(NB: The former Dixie Chicks are definitely not from the South: Natalie Maines comes from my very un-Southern hometown of Lubbock, Texas, and the group’s now-abandoned name was only indirectly a nod to the Confederacy. It references a Little Feat album called Dixie Chicken and, I assume, a college bar near the Texas A&M campus that bears the same name and boasts that it serves more beer per square foot than any other establishment in the country. Little Feat wasn’t particularly Southern, either—primary contributor Lowell George was the son of a Los Angeles chinchilla farmer and furrier to the stars. America is weird.) 

The superposition of Southern-ness over Western-ness in country music isn’t Beyoncé’s invention, of course, and it is very interesting how the contemporary Southern sensibility—including its right-populist politics and aggressive racial paranoia—has insinuated itself into country music that is not-infrequently made by Australians and Canadians and consumed by the mall-walking desperados of New Jersey and Ohio. (The real world of country music is very cosmopolitan: Howl all night about dirt roads and hometown pride, you radio-listening plebs, but if you want to meet Shania Twain, you’ll find her in Montreux.) 

I do wonder what something like Cowboy Carter would sound like if it were made by someone whose cultural coordinates were less Southern and more Western or Southwestern—say a Spanish-speaking woman of Mexican ancestry such as Beyoncé’s fellow Texan Selena Gomez, or maybe Zack de la Rocha, the California-born great-grandson of a Mexican revolutionary. On the other hand, it might have been interesting to see what Beyoncé herself would have come up with if she had tried to make a country record, maybe locked up in Malibu with Rick Rubin and Lloyd Maines and Ryan Bingham and a couple of ’51 Telecasters.

But what we have is Beyoncé, seated on a white charger (her hair matches the horse’s), sporting gaudy rodeo gear and holding aloft an American flag, coming together as a striking advertisement for … another Beyoncé record. Many pop singers and rock musicians over the years have become symbols: Sid Vicious, Keith Richards, Lemmy Kilmister. But I cannot think of one who so directly asked—demanded—to be treated as a symbol. 

So, what about the songs?

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the ol’ Lone Ranger and you don’t f——g rewrite “Jolene,” as Jim Croce never sang. Beyoncé’s version of the Dolly Parton classic is … fine. Parton gives it her blessing in a little audio snippet at the end, connecting Beyoncé’s infamous “Becky with the good hair” to her own antagonist with her “flaming locks of auburn hair.” Beyoncé, apparently dissatisfied with the vulnerable, pleading character of the original, reworks “Jolene” as the declaration of a confident, empowered woman who dismisses the would-be interloper as a pathetic, failed seductress who is only going to embarrass herself. 

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
I’m warnin’ you, woman, find you your own man.
Jolene, I know I’m a queen, Jolene
I’m still a Creole banjee bitch from Louisiane

Banjee” is a word I had not known. As for “Louisiane,” Beyoncé is Creole on her mother’s side and the granddaughter of one Lumis Albert Beyincé.

Those reworked lyrics are a better fit for Beyoncé’s persona, to be sure. I think if Luke Combs had reworked Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to better fit with the life story of a white guy who dropped out of Appalachian State University, there would have been a binding UN resolution protesting the outrage. But Beyoncé can do whatever she wants, and she knows that she can do whatever she wants, which is one of the things that makes her poor-pitiful-me attitude toward country music so entirely unpersuasive. Beyoncé has sold more than 200 million records worldwide, a number equivalent to about 25 years’ worth of total county-music album sales—from a certain perspective, she is bigger than country music. 

But bigger isn’t always better. 

Let’s go ahead and stipulate that almost every word of praise that ever has been lavished on Beyoncé is true (or at least plausible) and that I am not the target audience for Cowboy Carter, all that—this is, to my ear, a largely lifeless record. Beyoncé’s ambitions are large, and she has every right to those large ambitions at this point in her career, but she also gets lost in them. There are too many layers, too much clever arranging, too much digital processing, too much muchness. Beyoncé doesn’t just rewrite “Jolene” to suit her own persona—she piles on a whole separate coda with a choir and much else. She nods to Buffalo Springfield and quotes extensively from the Beach Boys (specifically, from “Good Vibrations”) adds in everything from operatic classical vocals (her own) to, unless my ears deceive me, a tanpura (that four-stringed drone instrument you hear in classical Indian music), and, at times, she gets lost in it. 

It is a weird thing for a singer’s voice to be lost in her own voice, but if you pile enough layers on top of each other, that is the perverse outcome. Think about the textbook overambitious record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The moments that stand out on that record are the ones where the psychedelic fog parts and out emerges “A Little Help from My Friends,” “When I’m 64,” or the ripping guitar that opens the title track. Beyoncé’s latest is more like “Within You and Without You,” more mood than melody. 

Fusion-y fun with country-ish music is nothing new. Back in the 1960s, Chet Atkins was producing records such as Tennessee Firebird, vibraphone innovator Gary Burton’s collaboration with Nashville fiddler Buddy Spicher and jazz saxophonist Steve Marcus, with Atkins himself on guitar. Terry Allen has made some crazy country music over the years, from the Southeast Asian-inflected Amerasia to the high school marching band on “The Great Joe Bob (A Regional Tragedy).” Modern country and hip-hop have been merrily cross-pollinating one another for years. Country-ish groups cover obscure 1980s metal anthems. Music gets around. The problem with Cowboy Carter isn’t that it isn’t country enough but that it is too much of everything else on top. 

Beyoncé has an excellent ear for a melody, but she finds it difficult to stick with one, and so most of the songs on Cowboy Carter lack a very strong theme. The album is at its best when it is at its most conventional, as on “Protector,” a sweet and stirring meditation on motherhood (she is joined by her daughter on the song) or “Levii’s Jeans,” a silly but sly duet with Post Malone. (Those two ii’s in “Levii’s” are intentional: This is the second album in a three-album cycle, and Roman numeral II’s are scattered throughout the titles.) Beyoncé is so good on those songs—and so overwhelmed at times on the more complex arrangements—that one might wonder what it is she is hiding from. One might also wonder why she didn’t pick the American musical genre to which her taste and talent for complex vocal arrangements seems most suited and write a Broadway musical. (If she isn’t thinking about it, she should.) 

Beyoncé’s voice is as fine as ever, though it has deepened some with age (there are U.S. senators younger than Beyoncé) and so there is a good deal less contrast between her voice and Post Malone’s than you might expect in their duet. It would be interesting to hear her in the company of a voice that could stand up against hers, say an Iris DeMent or Steve Earle. But Beyoncé is doing very well, and all of her points of reference are top-shelf: Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, etc. She might have been better off reaching lower for inspiration, to something a little more raw—someone who is not already in the hall of fame, like Anthony Oliver or Sierra Ferrell or someone else from the Western AF world.

That rarefied range of reference doesn’t necessarily serve her musical goals, whatever it does for her personal ambitions. Beyoncé is going to get her Kennedy Center Honors—be sure of it. She doesn’t need to get Dolly Parton’s seal of approval, or Willie Nelson’s, or anybody else’s, at this point. She has universal recognition, widespread admiration, has been rich and famous since she was a teenager, and if she isn’t a billionaire in her own right yet, she can’t be far from it. (Her husband is a billionaire at least twice over, and is estimated to be the wealthiest person in the world who made his money from music.) As for the acceptance of the country-music establishment: I cannot imagine that she actually cares very much what some white country-music DJ making $52,000 a year in Harris County thinks about her songs, her voice, her album, her persona, her œuvre

But, if she does, why does she? 

The release of Cowboy Carter came with a kind of cultural preemptive strike—you know: All those Donald Trump-voting goons out there in the unfashionable parts of the country are really going to hate this! 

I guess some of them do hate it, but I cannot help but also suspect that the sudden vogue for country-ish stuff in the hip-hop and R&B-adjacent world (Pharrell Williams, recently named creative director at Louis Vuitton, has taken to dressing like a rodeo clown) comes after the thundering success of Lil Nas X and his “Old Town Road,” a catchy little song based on a piece of mass-produced music he bought for $30 and then turned into millions and millions of dollars—a nice return on investment. Beyoncé isn’t exactly old news, but she already had had a major-label release before Lil Nas X was born. And if you think that the country music sensibility can’t make room for a pretty, confident black woman, then check out Lil Nas over there in his gold-plate-mail bustier and makeup and Vegas-showgirl feathered headpiece—black, just as gay as a fellow can be, flamboyant, and on the radio with Billy Ray Cyrus, of all people. (Billy Ray’s famous daughter is on Cowboy Carter, contributing her flat vocal fry to the instantly forgettable “II Most Wanted.”) Sure, there are people who hate Nas—and the former Dixie Chicks, and others, just as there were people who hated the Beatles (“the crowned heads of anti-music,” William F. Buckley Jr. called them) and a different class of people who hate Ted Nugent and Kid Rock. (Whom do I hate? Lee F’n’ Greenwood. But I suppose I should thank him for giving me a sensation I’d never had before: the urge to burn a Bible.) Haters go with the fame and the fortune—you buy a Rolls Royce, there’s a hater in the trunk next to the spare tire: It’s standard equipment. 

But they serve a purpose. What is mere glory when there’s hard-won glory to be had?

The news last week was punctuated by a couple of stories about the actress Zooey Deschanel, who objected to being lumped in among the “nepo babies” of the world. Her father is a famous cinematographer, her mother an actress. Zooey Deschanel insists that nobody ever gave her a role because her father is a director of photography. I don’t doubt her. But her father isn’t just a run-of-the-mill Hollywood working stiff: He is a six-time Academy Award nominee, having shot some movies you may have heard of: The Right Stuff, Fly Away Home, The Passion of the Christ, The Patriot, The Natural, etc. He worked on The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Lion King, Titanic, etc. Of course, nobody just called up Zooey Deschanel and said, “Hey, we like your dad, please star in our movie.” That isn’t how nepotism works. It works by putting young people in the way of opportunities made possible by one’s social and professional connections: Zooey Deschanel’s high-school classmates included Kate Hudson and Jake Gyllenhaal—talented and hard-working people, to be sure, but not exactly people who showed up in Hollywood after getting off the bus from Tulsa with $16 in their pockets and big dreams. What’s that? Coincidence? 

You see this kind of thing all the time. Julia Louis-Dreyfus wants you to know that it’s a myth that she grew up the coddled daughter of a billionaire, and that’s true: Gérard Louis-Dreyfus didn’t become a billionaire until a little later in life, and probably had only a few hundred million when the actress was a youngster. Carrie Brownstein is one of those radicals who found her radicalism at the prep school her corporate-lawyer father sent her to. Back in Texas, Molly Ivins was a lefty populist who spent her high school weekends entertaining friends on the family yacht. It isn’t enough to win—the profoundly avaricious among us have to have one of those things that money cannot buy, such as the joy of having overcome long odds. It doesn’t matter if the story is true; the sentiment is real.

Beyoncé didn’t grow up next to the River Oaks mansion that Molly Ivins lived in. But she had married parents (they divorced in 2011), a father with a college degree (in economics), went to good schools (including Houston’s public performing arts magnet), etc. No doubt there were tough times and disappointments, and her home life apparently was far from perfect, but she also had a lot of success from a very young age and a supportive family. And, for most of her career, she has been widely admired, praised in most of the circles that count and positively loved in many of them. 

On Cowboy Carter, she sings about how much she has had to overcome.

But one suspects that she could have made a country album and presented it in a way that would have been celebrated by the so-called establishment, whose rejection is such a big, weird part of the album’s conception and marketing—if she had wanted to. Who doesn’t want to invite Beyoncé to the party? It is true that controversy sells and that money is nice to have, but by this point Beyoncé is probably above investing so much emotionally in a phony controversy strictly as a gimmick to goose sales. She means it. That resentment is real. I still think she should start writing for Broadway, but, as it turns out, there is an art form perfectly suited to giving voice to that kind of resentment, insecurity, and anger—which gives me a crazy idea:

Beyoncé should make a country album.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.