So Beyoncé cut a country record.
Or not. The arbiters of country music in Nashville can’t quite agree if Daddy Lessons, a song from her recent hit album Lemonade, should serve as her country christening. If so, is the R&B superstar’s debut at the historic Ryman auditorium next?
No doubt something like that would be a milestone in country history. But really, the curiosity factor involving Beyoncé and country music has more to do with her star power. She is a global pop phenomenon, so her decision to “go country” is news, just as it might be if she recorded Latin music or decided to do a cover record of down-home blues.
Because simply crossing into country waters is not new. For artists outside the genre, country music has always been a welcoming place. When Bob Dylan felt artistically adrift, he found himself in Nashville getting to know Johnny Cash and recording with the Nashville Cats, a group of studio musicians who defined the country rock sound. The result was Blonde on Blonde, his double-record masterpiece in 1966. Dylan would return repeatedly to Nashville to record more albums; the Nashville Cats would inspire other artists including the Byrds, Joan Baez, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen.
Country music also has a deeply ingrained association with black artists. The identity politics of country music as strictly white is rooted in how record companies first marketed early string-based music, choosing to segregate tunes for white listeners as “hillbilly” and those for black listeners as “race”. The segregation remains a potent one today, despite the influence and involvement of African Americans over decades. Artists such as Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, Mississippi John Hurt, Arnold Schultz and DeFord Bailey, among others, played songs and developed playing styles that would filter into the country idiom. Later, Ray Charles and Charley Pride broke ground by redefining the music’s identity. The album that swept away the tallest barriers was Charles’s 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which featured country standards performed as rhythm and blues. It would become the first country album to sell a million copies.
But in recent years, country music has become an unexpected refuge for established artists due to radio formatting shifts that favor young musicians singing electronic pop or R&B and not heritage rock artists or traditional singer-songwriters. Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Don Henley, Cyndi Lauper, Justin Timberlake, and even Steven Tyler of Aerosmith have all had their Nashville moments. Without country music, Darius Rucker might be playing the oldies circuit with his former band Hootie and the Blowfish; today, he is enjoying the career he has built as a country headliner.
Of the many reasons why country music has become the crossover genre of choice, the most obvious one may be because that’s where the adults are. According to Country Music Association data, country music is the number one format among adults 18-54, and it remains the dominant radio format, with more than 3,000 stations across the US. Growth in the genre is coming from the coveted millennial generation (18-34), as well as those represented by Generation X (35-49) – two groups that listen to country radio the most compared to other genres.
So while Beyoncé appears not to be investing too much in a country career, Daddy Lessons is at least a wink to its fans for safekeeping. The song, cowritten by her and three other songwriters, is heavy on novelty, with Dixieland horns, a harmonica and lyrics referencing her home state of Texas, swearing on the Bible, whiskey and guns. In many ways, the feisty lyrics and broad appeal make it slot right in next to the work of Kacey Musgraves or Miranda Lambert.
Nielsen Music reports that while the song debuted at No 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the song has gotten some airplay on country radio. Bobby Bones, a Nashville syndicated country radio host, is playing the song, telling Billboard it fits because “it’s not just an acoustic guitar and a cowboy hat … With country music, it’s all about the message, how you are able to present it, and the authenticity,” he said. “I think the Beyoncé song fits that mold.” While critics at CMT.com and other sites have blasted the song as having little to do with the genre, some country stars, including Blake Shelton and Little Big Town, are coming to its defense. Videos of the Dixie Chicks covering it during their current tour are circulating online.
Despite Beyoncé’s peers embracing Daddy Lessons, the song is still largely absent from wider country playlists. Which is a surprise considering the fragmented nature of contemporary country radio. Younger artists like Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Thomas Rhett are fresh faces whose influences appear to be musicians like Coldplay or Beyoncé herself rather than traditional country. While the stylistic broadening of country music since the 1990s has its share of critics, others say it is that very pliability that has helped make the genre so adaptable for each new younger generation of fans.
“It’s such a huge umbrella,” country star Dierks Bentley told the Guardian. “There are so many types of country music – country rock, country hip-hop, country pop, country traditional. People always ask me, ‘Do you think you’ll cross over one day?’ Why would I ever cross over? I have all genres within our genre.”
Indeed, the effort to locate a common thread under that fast-spinning umbrella may be a fool’s game. As production choices and song styles heard on country radio become less distinguishable from those of the pop world, what makes a country song country may soon only be the storytelling.
The narrative strength of country songs remains the genre’s greatest legacy and strongest asset. The great irony is that, amid a field of songs this summer consumed with drinking beer on the beach, Beyoncé’s strangely ominous song about a father giving his daughter advice from the grave could be the most traditional country song on the dial.
This article was written by Mark Guarino, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 1st June 2016 20.38 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010