For Black country artists in Georgia, Beyoncé offers hope for the future

Georgia producers who worked on ‘Cowboy Carter’ hope album will create new opportunity for Black country music
Beyoncé's sensational new country album “Cowboy Carter” features songwriting and other contributions from producers based in Georgia, which is shining a spotlight on how the South is becoming more influential in popular music, while also shaping a trend in which more Black artists are trying to make a mark in country music, which has traditionally been less open to diversity. Photo by Chris Pizzello / AP

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Beyoncé's sensational new country album “Cowboy Carter” features songwriting and other contributions from producers based in Georgia, which is shining a spotlight on how the South is becoming more influential in popular music, while also shaping a trend in which more Black artists are trying to make a mark in country music, which has traditionally been less open to diversity. Photo by Chris Pizzello / AP

When thinking about the approach for creating Beyoncé's “16 Carriages,” Atia “Ink” Boggs thought about capturing the trajectory of the Beyoncé she grew up watching as a child in Columbus. For her, Beyoncé was the artist who inspired her to play her guitar on the streets of Atlanta while attending Clark Atlanta University, just waiting for her big break. Today, Boggs has written for superstars like Jennifer Lopez and Chris Brown.

Boggs also wrote songs (”Alien Superstar,” “Thique,” “Summer Renaissance”) for Beyoncé's 2022 opus “Renaissance,” the first of the superstar’s musical trilogy. But Boggs said “16 Carriages” was the first song she wrote for Beyoncé (“Cowboy Carter” was intended to be released before “Renaissance”). The song’s tale of the sacrifices of life and career on the road rides a sublime folksy groove into a glorious crescendo.

“I felt like it was a story that I had already been prepared to tell,” Boggs said about the song. “I saw her perspective of being from the South. I was from the South. ... I just watched her career bloom and blossom, from Destiny’s Child to all of that, to the acting and everything. I got to see it from just a perspective of a regular consumer from the South.”

She also has production and songwriting credits on the tracks “Ameriican Requiem” and “Blackbiird.” Other Georgia-based and/or -bred producers on the album include The-Dream — who by now should be considered as Beyoncé's work husband who’s heavily shaped her sound — along with Dixson, Nova Wav and Colin Leonard. On the country-inspired, 27-track behemoth, Beyoncé weaves Americana, folk, R&B, rap and honky-tonk into a rodeo showdown like none other.

For local Black artists and others within the state’s country scene, “Cowboy Carter” provides an opportunity to bring more awareness to their work. They hope it will continue to grow long after Beyoncé moves to her next musical act.

More than any other Southern state, Boggs sees Georgia as a prime location for that to happen.

“Georgia is the dirt. We represent the South in a way that no other place does. We got the big city here, but everywhere else outside of it is just so rural and Black. It’s a special place — from Otis Redding to James Brown to Ma Rainey..... It’s always been where it’s at.”

‘Just a lil bit of country’

“Cowboy Carter” falls in the rich tradition of Georgia artists bringing more attention to Black people’s rightful claim to country music. In 1962, Ray Charles briefly pivoted from his signature balmy blues to offer the landmark chart-topping Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” Thomson native Millie Jackson turned her brash confidence and sex appeal into a Western tale on her 1981 album “Just a Lil’ Bit Country.” And who can forget about Lil Nas X’s 2019 record-breaking trap country smash “Old Town Road,” which featured Billy Ray Cyrus?

The connection between Georgia’s Black artists and country music is lush, though often overlooked. Tony Evans Jr., a budding country artist from Decatur, hopes to be a part of that history. The 26-year-old remembers listening to George Strait as a child and became fascinated at how country music was a source for some of the best storytelling. However, he didn’t hear a lot of stories from Black people being told. He vividly recalls his family telling him that he’d be a country singer. But Evans wasn’t convinced.

“There wasn’t that representation there for me to say, ‘Oh, country music is cool’,” said Evans, who started making music at age 10. “The more we get this representation in the genre, and the more people can relate to it, and we sing country music that’s authentic to us, the more it’s going to be inviting for people like us.”

Tony Evans Jr. is a 26-year-old country artist from Decatur who started making music when he was 10 years old, and still regularly travels to Nashville to record. Handout photo

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

But, for Black artists, breaking through country music’s rigid standards continues to be an uphill battle. Out of 411 acts signed to major country labels between 2002-2020, only 1% of those acts were Black, according to a 2021 report from SongData. Additionally, of the more than 2,100 country artists played on the radio during that period, only 1.5% of them were Black, and for Black women, that number is even more abysmal. Black female country artists only received 0.3% of radio airplay during that time.

With “Texas Hold ‘Em,” Beyoncé became the first Black woman to top Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. That’s why most Black country artists have found more support via social media. Snellville girl group The BoykinZ have gone viral for their covers of popular country songs. Evans was recently featured on The Shade Room as a new country artist. For him, that was a big goal.

He credits “Cowboy Carter” with giving him the visibility he wants. Although Evans hasn’t dropped an official album yet, he’s using his platform to build a connection with fans. He regularly travels to Nashville to record new music. His new single “Yours” drops on Friday, April 5.

“It’s the only reason that you’re talking to me right now,” Evans, an independent artist, told me. “I was sitting up in a bedroom — no fans, no attention. Nobody cared about me. I took it into my hands and made videos until something happened. Everything I build is off of social media.”

Social media alone won’t make your career, though, Evans said. “It’s a lot of hard work outside of it as well, obviously, because you got to be good, but social media gives artists the opportunity to stand up and walk on their own without necessarily needing a label.”

Evans is one of the artists that Karl Washington plays on his internet radio station, Onyx. Washington, who’s also Evans’ lawyer, launched Onyx Country Radio in 2022 to promote the music of Black country artists and other artists of color. An Atlanta native, Washington attended Nashville’s Belmont University, where he formed his love for country music. It was there that Washington understood how country radio, more than other genres, still remains influential for an artist’s success.

“You can find some really good stuff on (playlists), but not radio. There’s not a place where you can go in and just hear artists. Radio has a different personality,” Washington said. “With Onyx, we try to express their personality through random shows that cater to new artist spotlights, having shows that cater to legacy artists.”

“When I heard she was considering putting out a country record, I was like ‘This is gonna be really, really good or really, really bad’,” he said.

The album has been greeted by near-universal critical acclaim, and Washington loves the music of “Cowboy Carter,” but he wonders what its success means for Black country artists. “What are we going to do afterwards? Like, when the news cycle dies down, what’s going to happen?”

That’s why he encourages people to support Black country artists, even when it’s not trendy to do so. It’s a sentiment that goes beyond the music.

Krystal Hargrove, along with her husband Justin, own a horseback riding company in Locust Grove. South Side Riders launched in 2011. Hargrove, who’s from College Park, didn’t grow up on a farm or around horses. However, after her husband gifted her a horseback ride for her birthday while they dated in high school, she fell in love with it. Today, the company hosts trail rides, lessons and even offers private parties for celebrities.

Krystal Hargrove and her husband Justin created their trail riding service, South Side Riders, in 2011. They are based in Locust Grove. Photo courtesy of Krystal Hargrove

Credit: Photo courtesy of Krystal Hargrove

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Krystal Hargrove

They have 10 horses and ponies. Hargrove said the work of being Black trail riders can be challenging because not many people know that they even exist. But she finds her work rewarding. She loves teaching the next generation of trail riders to build more representation.

“People are like, ‘Wow I didn’t know we did that type of thing.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we actually originated this’,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know that cowboys was a derogatory term for Black people. It was white people who were (considered) cattlemen, and Black people were cowboys, so it goes way far back than what people realize. I like to bring that up to let people know that we’re in this space, too.”

For Boggs, “Cowboy Carter,” is so inspiring that it’s given her a renewed energy for her own music. During our conversation, she was preparing for a trip to Nashville to work on her new album — which will be a mix of country and folk music.

“The doors are kicked down now, just like it was with the previous artists that were doing what she’s doing now. I think it’s wide open.”