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Beyoncé's 'Cowboy Carter'



Cowboy Carter (Sony)


SO THIS IS Beyoncé’s country album? Nah, small beer. This is Beyoncé’s America album – all of it. Because of course it is.

Cowboy Carter is more country than Kylie Minogue’s brilliant and supposed “country” album, Golden - a pop record called country by the kind of people who don’t listen to him but think Keith Urban makes country albums. That is undeniable.

Among other things, Cowboy Carter has Dolly and Willie (in spoken word cameos) and features the voice of Linda Martell (the first successful African-American woman in the country charts) and a duet with Willie Jones (a contemporary African-American country singer). Beyonce sings Jolene and references I Fall To Pieces, leans in on acoustic guitars – picked and strummed – and a bit of banjo. And, yes, she is sporting a white cowboy hat and uses cowboy in the title.

As someone’s mama surely said while shelling peas or milking cows, country is as country does and I ain’t arguing with nobody’s mama.

Or indeed arguing with Beyoncé. Certainly not the Beyoncé singing Jolene, here introduced by Dolly Parton linking Beyoncé’s celebrated bete noire, Becky (or “that hussy with the good hair” as “Dolly P” describes her to “Miss Honey B”) with another temptress, one with “flaming locks of auburn hair, bless her heart”.

Even with an intermittent sampled male voice, in its clip-clop rhythm and acoustic guitar playing the famous riff, this Jolene remains pretty faithful to the feel of the original. However, new lines (including how she’s raised her man’s children and knows him better than he knows himself), the hook now declaring inter alia “I’m warning you, don’t come for my man”, and a firmer sense from “I know I’m a queen Jolene” but “I’m still a Creole banjee bitch from Louisiane – don’t try me” that Beyoncé doesn’t beg, combine to take this version away from vulnerable Dolly territory towards Loretta Lynn’s take no prisoners Fist City. Hey, it’s still country though!

But country is but one strand of Beyoncé’s story here, That’s the story of how Black Americans are intrinsically bound into the foundations and the current realisations of all the music – really all the culture – of an America that can’t only be defined by historic white gatekeepers. . (It flows both ways of course: there’s something in the comment this week from Julian Hamilton of The Presets that electronic duo Underworld might look for a writing credit for the heartbeat-pulse soul track, II Hands II Heaven.)

As a bonus for her, the story comes with an addendum, showing how Beyoncé sits at the centre of it now too, a woman once mocked for her southern accent and pretensions to getting beyond an R&B corridor, who today owns her shit, your shit and any shit she’d like to have, thank you.

Yes, in that everything-is-connected idea she’s building on and benefiting from the work of people like musicologist and songwriter Rhiannon Giddens, who Beyoncé was smart enough to tap for banjo on Texas Hold ‘Em. The multi-instrumentalist and singer Giddens, from her early work with the string band revivalists Carolina Chocolate Drops to her solo albums and trans-Atlantic collaborations, has been making the same point for some years, tracing instruments, sounds and styles back to roots in the African diaspora and forwards to the crossover with the European migrant waves.

But peel back Cowboy Carter a bit more and you’ll find alongside country there’s rock’n’roll, soul, hip hop, jazz, the church and the bar, the police cell and the ballot box, the dancefloor and the protest march. (No wonder there are 27 tracks across 78 minutes!)

You hear it in the suggestion of Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth in the opening, American Requiem, and the rock-powered gospel of 16 Carriages. You get it in the flurry of styles and artists referred/alluded to/quoted/namechecked in Ya Ya, a list which includes but is not confined to These Boots Are Made For Walking, the Stax label’s brassy bustle, Good Vibrations, Outkast, the Jacksons, Corb Lund and Bon Jovi.

You most definitely know it in a relatively straightforward, vocal harmony group take on Paul McCartney’s Blackbird (here, in a motif repeated across the album, spelt Blackbiird) and in the preaching-from-the-choir-stalls Amen, which appropriately closes the record with a sense of message delivered, and a reference to American Requiem, setting you up for an immediate return to the beginning of the album.

Spaghettii, with Linda Martell explaining the futility of genres before Beyoncé drops a tensile rap over scratchy electronica and Shaboozey working hard to keep his end up, Alligator Tears, where a looped beat blends into low skies acoustic guitars for her languid sweet pop delivery, and II Most Wanted, where Miley Cyrus vocally criss-crosses Beyoncé like they are a two-person Chicks for a song that curls rock balladry and soulful country together, are brazenly easy with their melanges.

Likewise, the lust-packed Levii’s Jeans, visited by a smoothly lubricious Post Malone, is how you imagine BoyZ II Men might have sounded if they had grown up listening to Miley, her aunt Dolly and Luther Vandross simultaneously, while Tyrant is a sloping hip-hop pulse, tricksed-up vocal layers and twisty fiddle territory claim that casually steps up into the skippity propulsion, dry southern hip hop and the I Fall To Pieces nod of Sweet Honey Buckiin’. Like it was always meant to. Like it always did.

In one of the interstitial sketches that dot the album, before the spry rhythm-and-hoedown of Texas Hold ‘Em (which strikes me as a distant cousin of a third Texan, Lyle Lovett’s, That’s Right You’re Not From Texas), Willie Nelson appears in the guise of a radio announcer. After a bit of dial turning that flicks us through Son House, Chuck Berry, Roy Hamilton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, he tells us to “sit back, inhale, and go back to that good place your mind likes to wander off to”. But “if you don’t want to go, go find yourself a jukebox”.

Cowboy Carter is offering a service that reclaims that radio station and that jukebox. It’s good, sometimes brilliant. It goes anywhere it likes. It’s all America, and it belongs to everyone. But especially to her.


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