7 Things You Need to Know About Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’


“Nothin’ really ends / For things to stay the same they have to change again,” Beyoncé sings in “Act ll: Cowboy Carter,” the opening lines of the opening track, “American Requiem.”

“The big ideas, yeah, are buried here / Amen.”

In some ways, it is a mission statement for the epic 78-minute, 27-track release — or at the very least, functions like a film’s title card to introduce yet another blockbuster album.

In the days leading up to “Cowboy Carter,” the superstar said this “ain’t a Country album” but “a ‘Beyoncé’ album” — positioning herself in opposition to country music’s rigid power structures and emphasizing her ability to work with the style with her latest genre-defying opus.

A capital-C country album it is not — and of course, it isn’t. Beyoncé is an eclecticist, known for her elastic vocal performances: in a moment, choosing to belt close to godliness and, in another, moves with marked ease into a fractured run, inheriting histories through the vowels she stresses, the handclaps she introduces and the genres she utilizes. (That’s evident in the instruments as well, which range from washboard, pedal steel, banjo, mandolin, Vibraslap, bass ukulele, and mandolin, to name a few.)

If the album, five years in the making, was inspired by the racist backlash she faced after performing at the 2016 CMAs with The Chicks, as many fans have theorized, she’s eclipsed it and then some. Tell Beyoncé she isn’t welcome in your space; she’ll carve out a bigger one.

“Ameriican Requiem” bleeds into a reimagination of a Beatles ’ classic, “Blackbiird.” It was originally written by Paul McCartney about desegregation in American schools with particular emphasis on the Little Rock Nine, the first group of Black students to desegregate an Arkansas high school in 1957. In Beyoncé’s rendition, harmonies are stacked. She’s joined by Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, and Tiera Kennedy — some of the most exciting voices in contemporary country — who are also Black women.

They aren’t the only next generation highlighted on “Cowboy Carter”: Willie Jones’ rich Louisiana tone turns “Just for Fun,” into trail-riding gospel country. Shaboozey’s country rap marks a pivot in the album’s trajectory on “Spaghettii,” setting the listener up for the singular listening experience of the Patsy Cline-channeling “Sweet Honey Buckiin’,” with its Jersey club beats.

Country veterans, too, appear: Willie Nelson is a rough-around-the-edges radio DJ on the fictional station KNTRY — the resulting effect is an alternative America where terrestrial country radio does not overwhelmingly prefer playing white performers; snippets of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Down by the River Side,” Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and Roy Hamilton’s 1957 “Don’t Let Go” bled into Nelson’s smoky voice.

The ’50s cuts are an inspired choice; Beyoncé has chosen to reference the decade in which format-based radio emerged and, as a result, country music’s racial lines were all but codified. The effects are still felt. One frequently referenced study, conducted by University of Ottawa professor Jada Watson, examined over 11,000 songs played on country radio from 2002 to 2020 and found that artists of color made up only 3% of all airplay, two-thirds of which were men. In even her interludes, Beyoncé has taken her listeners to school.

“Jolene” is a reimagined take on the 1973 Dolly Parton original; it’s preceded by “Dolly P,” a spoken-word interlude from Parton. “Remember that hussy with the good hair you sang about?” she says, referencing “Becky with the good hair” from “Sorry” off 2016’s “Lemonade.” “Reminded me of someone I knew back when except she has flaming locks of auburn hair. Bless her heart! Just a hair of a different color, but it hurts just the same.”

Beyoncé’s version, of course, is very Beyoncé — there’s no shrinking and begging for this woman to step off; it’s a warning.

Perhaps Beyoncé’s clearest predecessor on this album is Linda Martell, the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry. Martell’s 1970 landmark record “Color Me Country” should be considered country canon; she offered Black women rare visibility in a genre stereotypically associated with whiteness.

She also appears twice on “Cowboy Carter,” first providing clarity on the complicated origins of the country in “Spaghettii.”

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” she says, laughing. “In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.”

Shared histories and families are abundant in Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter”: “Protector” begins with Beyoncé’s daughter Rumi Carter asking for “the lullaby, please,” leading into a tear-jerker of an acoustic ballad centering motherhood.

If listeners position “Act ll: Cowboy Carter” next to “Act l: Renaissance,” they might view the record as a continued dialogue in the Beyoncé mythos: “Lemonade” established Beyoncé’s dedication to Black empowerment. “Renaissance” reclaimed House music for its Black progenitors in a sprawling release that placed techno, Chicago and Detroit house, New Orleans bounce, Afrobeats, queer dance culture, and beyond on the same dance floor — and highlighted the frequent invisibility of Black performance in music history books. “Cowboy Carter” does something similar with country music — and, in true Beyoncé fashion, extends well beyond it, as vessel, captain, and crew on this journey.

“Bodyguard” borders on soft rock; “Ya Ya” interpolates Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” and The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”; “Riverdance” and “II Hands II Heaven” bring back the electronica of “Renaissance.” “ll Most Wanted” features the raspy-rich Miley Cyrus, and interpolates Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” “Levii’s Jeans” modernizes the timeless combination of R&B and country ballads, amplified by a surprising collaborator in a crooning Post Malone — lest we forget he also hails from Texas.

“Oh Louisiana” is helium-injected blues and funk; the classic guitars on “Daughter” lead into Beyoncé singing the famous Italian aria “Caro Mio Ben” in the original language. If you’ve been waiting for her opera moment, here it is.

When she’s back to English in the refrain, she declares, “If you cross me, I’m just like my father / I am colder than Titanic water,” reminiscent of outlaw country’s murder ballads and a successor to Bey’s first-ever country song, “Daddy Lessons” from “Lemonade.”

Effortlessly — and momentously — “Cowboy Carter” weaves canonized classics into the same breath as Beyoncé's country music evolutions and Black music history preservations. If the Beatles and the Beach Boys are unimpeachable, so is Martell, so is Beyoncé, and Adell, and so on.

The magic here, of course, is Beyoncé’s mastery of art and message. And at the center of everything is her larger-than-life performance — serious and jubilant, like when she plays her nails as percussion, an ode to Parton doing the same on “9 to 5.” (That’s on “Riiverdance,” a club song that also references the country’s Celtic folk origins.)

On “Cowboy Carter,” historical course-correcting and evolution go down with honey. Lessons are learned on the dance floor, on the radio, at the imagined honky-tonk, in headphones.

It’s a massive album that will require close examination for full enjoyment — but Beyoncé fans have long learned to be great students.

The curtain has finally risen for Beyoncé’s next act. 

Cowboy Carter is an album that pays respects to the country, blues, and gospel legends of old, while also shining a spotlight on a new generation of artists in the space. Across the 27-song tracklist, there are appearances from country legends like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, as well as newer country stars like Shaboozy, Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, and Willie Jones.

"This album took over five years," Beyoncé explains in her press release. "It's been really great to have the time and the grace to be able to take my time with it. I was initially going to put Cowboy Carter out first, but with the pandemic, there was too much heaviness in the world. We wanted to dance. We deserved to dance. But I had to trust God's timing." 

As the name implies, Cowboy Carter leans heavily into the sounds of country music, but there are also shades of R&B, pop, house, and even Jersey club layered throughout the album. Songs like “My Rose,” and “Protector” sound like they could have lived on a Destiny’s Child album, and the Shaboozey-assisted “Spaghettii” is essentially a rap song with country inflections. Beyoncé does all of that and still leaves space to pay homage to country classics like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” 

These choices help make Cowboy Carter feel accessible to people who don’t often listen to country music, while also welcoming longtime fans of the genre who have an affinity for oldies. 

With Beyoncé’s new era finally underway, here are seven takeaways from Cowboy Carter, including why I believe Cowboy Carter is the perfect way to get more people into country music (myself included).

Beyoncé pays homage to Black artists who never received their proper flowers


The beginning of “Smoke Hour Willie Nelson” flicks through old songs from Black artists like Son House, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Roy Hamilton, and more in a way that feels like you’re listening to a Texas radio station. These were all prominent gospel, blues, rock, and country singers in the ’40s and ’50s who influenced popular artists like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash but never received proper recognition for their contributions to the country or rock genres. Beyoncé pays them respect here while showing where some of her influences come from.

Each song is a reimagined Western film


Beyoncé took inspiration from Western films while making Cowboy Carter, including Five Fingers For Marseilles, Urban Cowboy, The Hateful Eight, Space Cowboys, The Harder They Fall, and Killers of the Flower Moon. She played these movies in the background as she crafted the album, and an official press release says that “each song is its own version of a reimagined Western film.” In the Beyoncé cinematic universe, the titular “Cowboy Carter” character was created as a way to pay homage to the Black cowboys of the late 19th century in the American West. 

She still has smoke for “Becky with the good hair”


It seems Beyoncé still has smoke for “Becky with the good hair,” which many believe is a reference to the woman who Jay-Z allegedly cheated on her with. On Cowboy Carter, Dolly Parton explained that the title of the original “Jolene” was inspired by a young fan who wanted a song named after her, but Beyoncé flips the fictional tale that Parton crafted in the OG version and uses it to her advantage to send more shots at the “Becky” she was talking about on Lemonade’s “Sorry.” 

“Hey, Ms. Honey Bee, It’s Dolly P,” Parton says on the “Dolly Parton” interlude that comes right before the “Jolene” cover: “You know that hussy with the good hair you sang about? It reminded me of someone I knew back when, except she has flaming locks of auburn hair, bless her heart. Just a hair of a different color, but it hurts all the same.”

Beyoncé then unloads her country clip in a clever and unique reimagining of the classic “Jolene,” singing with authority, “There are a thousand girls in every room that act as desperate as you do/ You a bird, go on and sing your tune, Jolene/I had to have this talk with you, ‘cause I’d hate to have to act a fool/Your peace depends on how you move, Jolene.” 

The song is so good because of the way Beyoncé can rework such a recognizable hook and make it relevant to herself, as she sings, “Jolene, I know that I’m a Queen, Jolene,” while still paying proper homage to the original song. This moment highlights just how far their relationship with Jay-Z has come when she sings lyrics like, “We have been deep in love for 20 years/ I raised that man, I raised his kids/ I know my man better than he knows himself/ I can easily understand why you’re attracted to my man/ But you don’t want this smoke, so shoot your shot with someone else.”

It’s more than a country album

Beyoncé found a way to make country club bangers


Before Cowboy Carter dropped, I was having a difficult time imagining how a Beyoncé country album would play in bars and clubs—that is until I went to a dive bar in midtown Manhattan and saw people’s unified excitement when “Texas Hold ‘Em” came on. One of Beyoncé’s superpowers is her ability to make anthems in any genre and get people to dance, and Cowboy Carter is packed with songs I could see ringing off in clubs across the country. “Spaghettii” could pass as both a country and rap song, “Ya Ya” will get the club moving with that call-and-response hook, and “Sweet Honey Buckin” mixes a contagious six-beat pattern of Jersey Club with country acoustics for a Jersey Country hybrid that will undoubtedly have clubs on both sides of the Mason Dixon line turns. 

Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus are perfect country dance partners


A Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus country collab was not on my 2024 bingo board, but the two riffs off each other amazingly on “II Most Wanted.” Miley has more experience in the country space than Beyoncé (and Beyoncé is a stronger vocalist than Miley) but they each fill in where the other lacks to create a very balanced track. Miley Cyrus has been on a run lately, including a Grammy win for “Flowers,” and now this proves that she can hang on the same track as Beyoncé, which is an impressive feat to add to an already lengthy resume.

Beyoncé used “very old” instruments (including her nails)


This is a Beyoncé album we’re talking about, so of course it’s going to be mixed and mastered to perfection, but I’m blown away by how great it sounds. The project is full of accordions, harmonicas, washboards, acoustic guitars, bass ukuleles, pedal steel guitars, a Vibra-Slap, mandolins, and Beyoncé even pays homage to Dolly Parton by using her nails as an instrument on “Riiverdance.”

“With artificial intelligence and digital filters and programming, I wanted to go back to real instruments, and I used very old ones,” Beyoncé explained in a press release. “I didn't want some layers of instruments like strings, especially guitars, and organs perfectly in tune. I kept some songs raw and leaned into folk. All the sounds were so organic and human, everyday things like the wind, snaps, and even the sound of birds and chickens, the sounds of nature.”

Her cover of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” sounds even better than the remastered version that was released in 2009, in my opinion, and the strums of acoustic guitar on “Protector” come through so clear that, if you close your eyes, you might just see Beyoncé flicking the strings in a hushed saloon somewhere in Houston.

'Cowboy Carter' will be a gateway for R&B and rap heads to get into country music

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