Opinion: ‘How I changed my tune on ‘Cowboy Carter’

Editor’s Note: Victor Blackwell is a CNN anchor and correspondent. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN. CNN FlashDocs examines the debate about what defines country music in the new film ”Call Me Country: Beyoncé & Nashville’s Renaissance.” It’s available to stream in the US on Friday, April 26 on Max.

After its celebrated release, “Cowboy Carter” broke a number of records, so it may not be news to read that it’s one of my favorite Beyoncé albums. But the reason why I feel that way might surprise you.

Some context: I’m a Beyoncé fan. My closest friends are Beyoncé fans. We review her music together. We’re in a standing presale concert ticket alliance: first one to qualify to buy tickets buys for the group.

We’ve sung with her and tens of thousands of members of the BeyHive until I was hoarse at every one of her tours over the last decade. Every concert day, we pregame with the same cocktails. We take the same mode of transportation to the stadium. We tell the same story about the time we lucked out on tickets so good during Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “On the Run” tour that we could touch the stage.

From the announcement of a new tour to the post-concert kickback, Beyoncé offers us 40-somethings an excitement akin to kids on Christmas morning. As our lives have grown and changed, it’s something we’ve come to rely upon.

So when she capped a 90-second Verizon Super Bowl commercial with, “Ok, they ready. Drop the new music,” you would’ve thought we had won the Powerball or something.

“New music!?!”

A few of us immediately rummaged for our phones and rushed to the Apple Music app. It took a few minutes for “Texas Hold ‘Em” to post, but when we heard it for the first time, we stood still.

There was no beat to bob our heads to. This was toe-tapping music.

Country. Legit country.

There had been rumors that it was coming, but I wasn’t ready.

We finished the song — but we didn’t play it again that night. We all went home before the game ended.

These new songs didn’t put me in a chokehold like “Formation.” They weren’t cultural markers like “Single Lades.” They weren’t going to get me to learn dance steps, as I did after hearing “Get Me Bodied.” I resigned myself to skipping Queen Bey’s impending country music tour, the first time in a long time that I’d be passing up a chance to see her onstage.

That was my initial reaction as a devoted fan. It was only after the ugly tone of rejection by some others that I came to view “Cowboy Carter” through a different prism.

Everyone is entitled to like or dislike any music. But in a February TV interview, actor and country artist John Schneider bemoaned Beyoncé’s venture into the genre and compared her to a dog peeing on a tree.

“They’ve got to make their mark, just like a dog in a dog walk park. You know, every dog has to mark every tree, right? So that’s what’s going on here,” Schneider said.

He expressed his opposition in response to a question about “lefties in the entertainment industry” who “won’t leave any area alone.” While Beyoncé has publicly supported Democratic candidates in the past, so have country legends Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks and Faith Hill — and there’s no resistance to their claim to country music.

Schneider insisted that his comments were not race-based, saying that his reference to a dog marking a tree was “an expression I’ve used my whole life.” He also noted that in the original interview, “You’ll see the first thing I said about Beyoncé was that I think Beyoncé is the greatest female vocalist since Whitney Houston.”

Nevertheless, the country music industry has historically been hostile to Black women artists.

According to data cited in a recent study by music scholar Jada Watson, of 12,718 unique country songs played between 2002 and 2022, only 0.3% were by Black female artists. In 2016, Beyoncé performed at the Country Music Awards with the then-Dixie Chicks (they changed their name to The Chicks in 2020), prompting a now-notorious backlash.

Long before that, Linda Martell, the first Black woman to achieve commercial success in the genre, was excoriated for daring to transition from gospel and R&B to country. Martell is featured twice on “Cowboy Carter,” including her intro to “Spaghettii,” asking rhetorically, “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? Yes they are.”

When Beyoncé Giselle Knowles, age 7, won her first talent show singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” reigning atop Billboard’s Hot Country Singles and Country Albums chart was unfathomable, especially because no other Black woman had, until now.

Back then, Billboard was still only ranking R&B and burgeoning hip hop on its Hot Black Singles chart. It was years before the first of the three Black solo female artists to date (Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill) had been awarded the Grammy for Album of the Year. And it was nearly three decades before Beyoncé herself broke the record for most Grammy wins ever.

Billboard has since renamed its ‘Black’ chart. The Recording Academy has expanded its Grammy categories, but it might all be too little, too late. A growing number of established artists are successfully challenging the rules of yesteryear that used race and radio play to dictate genre. And the ways in which we buy and consume music, via playlists, social media and algorithms, lend themselves to line-blurring and genre-crossing. If a song is omnipresent on TikTok, does it need the validation of a Grammy?

When I first heard “Texas Hold ‘Em,” I was disappointed because it didn’t meet my expectations — or put another way, it fell short of my preconceived notions about Beyoncé’s music. In hindsight, that disruption is exactly what I should have expected. Beyoncé has always stretched herself creatively and has transcended the restraints of musical genres. Her versatility ranges from the R&B of her Destiny’s Child years to the hip hop, dance, Latin and now country of her solo career. More than genre-defying, Beyoncé’s studio albums since 2016’s “Lemonade” have been culturally relevant and historically conscious. This, her eighth studio album and the second in a planned trilogy that began with 2022’s “Renaissance,” fulfills that expectation.

When I listened to “Cowboy Carter” in full, I found a lot that I really enjoy: “Tyrant,” “II Most Wanted,” “Riiverdance,” “Sweet Honey Buckin’” are my kind of carryin’ on! There’s more than enough to get me to the concert. I even bought a hat.

In the weeks since its release, my appreciation for “Cowboy Carter” has only grown — and not because I love every track. (Only “B’Day” holds that distinction, for me.)

I love “Cowboy Carter” instead for Beyoncé ’s distance traveled. In her climb to the highest echelon of the entertainment industry, she’s increasingly used her platform to highlight other artists. This album honors the Black artists who were scraped and bruised trying to scale the walls around country music and it lifts the young Black country artists who are seeking a foothold.

As Beyoncé sings to four young Black women artists in “Blackbiird,” “you were only waiting for this moment to arise.” And every time I hear it, it’s a better feeling than a beat I can bob my head to.

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