Cowboy Carter: Where To Start?


Beyonce dropped her latest album, “Cowboy Carter “ last week. And the term “dropped” is apt, as the monumental piece of work has crashed many previously held beliefs about country music, cowboy culture, and even the American flag, as it also breaks musical genres. 

When meeting with inevitable resistance about classifying it, Beyonce herself said “It’s not a country album, it’s a Beyonce album.”  And indeed, she’s schooling the music industry on opening barriers.

The album "redefines and rebuilds what is Country and Americana, and who gets to be included," said a press release from Parkwood Entertainment, her company.

Of course, CC is the second installment of Beyoncé’s “three-act project,” which began with 2022’s “Renaissance” album.



This post-rebirth birth was also “born of controversy,” as Queen Bey has put it. And although she never names names, (she said she felt “unwelcome”), she’s referring to the reprehensible way she was treated at the Country Music Awards in 2016, when she sang with the Chicks (formerly Dixie) and social media was flooded with outright racist backlash.

But on the business side of things, “Cowboy Carter “was also born of the Super Bowl in February, when the singer/songwriter made an unexpected appearance in a surprise Verizon commercial, promoting the LP that was then called Act II, which is now the first part of the album name. At that time, she vowed to “break the internet.”

Hours after, she did, releasing two singles off her CC LP: “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages.” 

As with most of the content, (each song comes with a video referring to a western cowboy movie) "Texas Hold 'Em" is a category buster, landing on nine different U.S. charts, including pop, adult alternative, country, rhythmic, urban and R&B.  As a pop-country crossover track, with rapid banjo riffs from Rhiannon Giddens and lyrics about whiskey and getting on the floor, the super-danceable song immediately shot to number one on Billboard’s country charts.

That made Beyoncé the first Black female artist ever to do so.

The album tells a story, starting with the first track, “American Requiem,” a reckoning about the historical appropriation of Black music, and the state of the country. From there, she goes to “Blackbirrd,” a gorgeous cover of the Beatles song and a track I have always loved. (The extra I stands for Act II, and appears in every song with an I.)

And somehow, I’ve lived all these years not knowing that it’s not about a literal bird. 

Instead, in an interview he gave GQ magazine in 2018, Paul McCartney said he wrote "Blackbird' in response to the civil rights movement that was exploding in 1968 in the U.S.,  and the suffering of Black women particularly. (“Bird” is British slang for “girl”). He particularly had in mind the young Black woman who needed National Guard protection to integrate a previously all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

The track sounds like his original. Beyonce harmonizes with four Black female history-making superstars, already in the arena of country music: Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy, Reyna Roberts and Brittney Spencer.

She collaborated with a long list of brilliant people on the album, and their careers are also on fire now as a result.

The “Renaissance” cover featured Beyonce as a lone figure atop a luminous, holographic horse, wearing a partly transparent beaded harness outfit. Some interpreted the image as an homage to a 19th century painting of Lady Godiva. Others pointed to press photos of Bianca Jagger entering Studio 54 on horseback.

On the cover of “Cowboy Carter” is a horse of another color, specifically white. White horses are mythological (Pegasus) and symbolize purity and strength. Military heroes like George Washington and Napoleon look even more imbued with power riding them in classic paintings, with man and horse becoming one. Beyonce’s more than waist-long silverish-white hair resembles her white horse’s tail mid-gallop.

And this time, there’s also a crosscurrent of race- and gender-bending messages, along with a twist on patriotic images. Bey is shown wearing a white cowboy hat and sporting a red, white and blue jumpsuit,

There’s a duality built in. She’s riding sidesaddle, a strength-sapping position women used in previous centuries to protect their modesty. But at the same time, she’s aggressively front-facing, like a rodeo queen, holding the reins in one hand and an American flag in the other.  The flag only shows the stars and stripes, red and white. The blue part, the union, stands for justice, and is omitted.

Then there’s the controversy over the “Cowboy Carter” name. It takes a traditionally male identity as a cowboy, yes. Many of her fans would prefer that she leave out any reference to husband Jay-Z. But her name is Beyonce Carter. Then again, it could also be a reference to the Carter family, a traditional white country music group, from which June Carter Cash emerged. Or it might refer to Hurricane Carter, a Black middleweight boxer who was wrongfully imprisoned for murder.

There’s so much in this album that it’s no wonder  it took Queen Bey five years to make. I can see it as the basis of many a Ph.D. thesis. Her brand of controversial, both-sides, feminist response to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” alone is worthy of an essay.

I’m just getting started on this brain-buster of an album.

I’m sure Beyonce is busily working on the third.


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