This February, a Verizon commercial came on during the Super Bowl. I leaned over to a friend and asked, “Is Beyoncé wearing a cowboy hat?”

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Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. Visit his ...

Growing up, country music was the only thing I listened to. Not only did I know every singer from the other side of the '90s, but I could name where each song peaked on the country charts and maybe how long it took to get there. I knew it well enough to understand how protective of a genre it was, and I participated in the gatekeeping myself. I was among the first in line to point to a song and declare, “That’s not country.” Anything that felt too much like pop immediately got my scorn.

In truth, country music has always redefined its sound, and where one stands on it is likely influenced by when they were born. What my grandfather considered real country was different than what I did. Likewise, I find what’s on the airwaves now suits me less than the Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Dean and Radney Foster that I grew up on. Change is inevitable, regardless of our opinions on it. Now, however, country music may be on the verge of its biggest reformation yet.

During the Super Bowl, Beyoncé released two country singles: “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages.” “Texas Hold ‘Em” debuted at number one on the country charts, and “16 Carriages” at number nine. By the time this column reaches print, her country album, Cowboy Carter, will have been released. Taylor Swift left country music to become a megastar, while Beyoncé is taking the opposite path. Alan Jackson’s 1994 hit, “Gone Country,” speaks truth yet again.

The release of “Texas Hold ‘Em” makes Queen Bey the first black woman to top the country charts. In addition to Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, she reached number one on six other hybrid charts, such as Hot Gospel Songs and Hot Latin Songs. She is also the only woman to top both the Hot Country Songs and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts. The achievement has garnered the respect of one of the biggest country legends ever. Dolly Parton said, “I’m a big fan of Beyoncé and very excited that she’s done a country album. So congratulations on your Billboard Hot Country number one single. Can’t wait to hear the full album!”


Many pundits of the music industry suggest that Beyoncé’s entry into country music isn’t as surprising as it might seem. Beyoncé grew up in Houston, Texas, and declared to be a fan of singers like Dolly. In 2016, her album Lemonade featured an unmistakably blue grass “holler” song called “Daddy Lessons,” which she played at the County Music Awards with The Chicks. More importantly, she comes from a long tradition of contributions to the genre by black artists and musicians, even if those roles have been historically underemphasized.

Some of the more astute fans of the genre will know Charlie Pride, the black American singer who had 30 number-one hits on the country charts and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, or maybe Linda Martell, the first black female to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. Most country singers, however, are white, despite a large black population in the South. Nonetheless, the origins of country music were more diverse. The banjo was created by slaves in the Caribbean who brought it to the U.S. with them. It is sometimes forgotten that during most of the “Wild West,” up to a quarter of cowboys were black and were responsible for many of the “cowboy songs” of the era. In fact, according to Francesca Royster’s book Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions, the songs that predated the official genre of country music were produced by both black and white singers, but in the 20th century, recording companies split them into “race records” produced by black artists and “hillbilly music” by white singers, which was renamed “country music” in the middle of the century. Record labels only invested in country music and allowed race records to die out.

Last year, the Black Music Action Coalition released a report critical of country music, claiming that it did not do enough to recognize the contributions of black artists nor address barriers they experience in the genre. They noted that there’s a growing audience of country listeners in the black American population, with a 33% increase from 2005 to 2018. They applauded the Country Music Association’s ban of the Confederate flag at its annual festival but asked the association to do more to support black artists in making inroads in the industry.

Whatever your views on country music may be, Beyoncé putting on a cowboy hat is a big deal. “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages” seem to be, at least in my opinion, both country music and Beyoncé at the same time, which is an interesting feat in itself. More importantly, her new releases have cast attention toward recognizing the black roots of country music, as well as starting a conversation on whether it is inclusive enough. Like it or not, country music is always going to change. The good news is … it might change into something even better.