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Why Beyoncé's foray into country music with 'Cowboy Carter' has been polarizing

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

By tonight, the beehive is getting a real-life boogie and a real-life hoedown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS HOLD 'EM")

BEYONCE: (Singing) This ain't Texas. Ain't no hold 'em. So lay your cards down, down, down, down.

FADEL: Beyonce will release what people are calling her country album. It's titled "Cowboy Carter." She teased her new two-stepping sound a few months ago with this song - "TEXAS HOLD 'EM." It's become a massive hit, but still, there's been an uproar, both from fans and from haters. Does a Black woman known for pop and R&B belong in country music? Francesca Royster is the author of "Black Country Music: Listening For Revolutions." She says this polarization has deep roots in the ways that country music has been marketed.

FRANCESCA ROYSTER: From its very beginnings, you know, as a commercial genre in the 1920s and '30s, there was really a segregation of music that reflected the segregation of other parts of our culture where country music was kind of claimed as music for white audiences and white musicians as hillbilly music - that was the original descriptor - and then other music for Black artists and for Black audiences was race music. It's really shaped our imagination. It's shaped who's visible as an artist and really kind of cemented this idea of the naturalness of country music as a white genre, and also as a genre that is nostalgic for a past of that racial segregation. So some of those ghosts are still with us.

FADEL: But the history of this music, is it white music for white audiences?

ROYSTER: Not at all. What's so beautiful about country music is that it's bringing together all these different American folk musics, including African American music, which is really an amazing part of it. The storytelling style, the style of the blues, the instruments like the banjo and even the fiddle are - have been places of Black creativity and ingenuity. The banjo kind of now famously being an instrument that has African roots. And Mexican ranchero music, Native American and Native Hawaiian musics, all of these different kinds of traditions are part of what we have received as country music together also with white ethnic musical styles. But I do think that because we have lived in a history that has separated our lives and our art and really credited white innovators, sometimes over the innovators of color, we get this picture of country music as this protected space of white cultural production, which is just not true.

FADEL: You talked about how white artists are visible, but let's talk about the maybe invisible to a lot of people. I mean, who are Black pioneers in country?

ROYSTER: Yes. Well, my mind goes immediately to Linda Martell, who, you know, isn't a country music artist who's that old. I mean, she's still alive. But in the late 1960s and early '70s, Linda Martell was the first Black woman artist to perform on the Grand Ole Opry stage. She cut an album, "Color Me Country," which spawned a couple of country music hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLOR HIM FATHER")

LINDA MARTELL: (Singing) I think I'll color him father. I think I'll color him love.

ROYSTER: Her career was really short lived because her label really didn't trust that she had the audience to be worth the investment. And so, in fact, they dropped her as an artist and she only made that one album. But that album has influenced several generations of other artists, especially Black women artists who see her as a way that country music can be used to tell stories about Black life and Black humor and wit and all these other things, as well.

FADEL: What about barriers that artists have faced specifically in this genre of music?

ROYSTER: Barriers really include the willingness of radio stations, of labels, to take a risk, to invest in them. Just getting a contract and then having that contract, you know, be carried out to distribute your music and kind of support you has been hard for a lot of Black country music artists, but there's also the ways that the cultural pressures and prejudices around the genre make it really difficult to make the music. There's a kind of burden of confronting racism that really is a weight. And Charley Pride even wrote about this, and I was so shocked to find his description of that kind of pressure of representing and really facing racism whenever he performed, because his image is so genial and so easygoing. But it was a really hard career for him to kind of carry out. And he also actually faced racial threats, you know, physical threats, as well, in his concerts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS ANYBODY GOIN' TO SAN ANTONE")

CHARLEY PRIDE: (Singing) Is anybody going to San Antone or Phoenix, Ariz.? Any place is alright as long as I can forget I've ever known her.

FADEL: How inclusive is country music today? I mean, there are quite a few Black artists working in this genre right now, right?

ROYSTER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is definitely a period of growth. Tanner Adell, Reyna Roberts, Mickey Guyton, yeah, a lot of new country music to listen to. And I also think that there's a change in terms of Black country music artists working together to support one another, just the kinds of collaborations that you saw when Mickey Guyton appeared on the CMAs and invited, you know, her friends to perform with her on her song "Love My Hair."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE 55TH ANNUAL COUNTRY MUSIC ASSOCIATION AWARDS")

MICKEY GUYTON, BRITTNEY SPENCER & MADELINE EDWARDS: (Singing) I used to think. What God gave me wasn't fair. I'd braid it all just to hide the curls up there.

ROYSTER: But I do think that there's still this other kind of pressure. There's almost like two different country music worlds - the country music world that is still protecting its boundaries and is really representing country as a space to protect an old version of white supremacy and a version of the South, but there's also this other space of creativity and diversity where country is trying to reinvent itself. So I do think that we're in a moment of possibility, and maybe Beyonce is part of that cultural change that is way past due.

FADEL: Francesca Royster is the author of "Black Country Music: Listening For Revolutions." Francesca, thank you for coming on the show and for all these insights.

ROYSTER: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE SONG, "TEXAS HOLD 'EM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams (she/her) is a temporary news assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. In May 2022, a month before joining Morning Edition, she earned a bachelor's degree in Multimedia Journalism at Oklahoma State University. During her undergraduate career, she interned at the Stillwater News Press (Okla.) and participated in NPR's Next Generation Radio. In 2020, she wrote about George Floyd's impact on Black Americans, and in the following years she covered transgender identity and unpopular Black history in the South. Adams was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.