Opinion: Beyonce’s country era is invitation for all of us to explore genre

My mother wanted to be a country music singer.

Her signature song was “Cotton Fields,” a tune recorded in the 1940s by Huddie Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly. The song later would be covered by a number of country artists, including Johnny Cash and Buck Owens, but my mom’s rendition was closer to the original.

Her only accompaniment was an autoharp (she had two), a string instrument that’s in the zither family and was popular in folk and country music.

She was also known, on occasion, to belt out Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” More than a decade after the song was released, my entire family gathered around the television in our Chicago home to watch the autobiographical movie of the same name.

My grandfather was not a coal miner from Kentucky, but everything else about that song resonated with my mom — a woman raised in small town Louisiana, a daughter who doted on her parents, someone who dreamed of country music stardom. When she describes her love of country music, she always says it’s about the stories.

She taught me to listen to those lyrics about love and loss, heartache and hardscrabble living. I rarely thought about who was singing them.

But, when Beyonce topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart last week with “Texas Hold ‘Em,” some fans seemed to care more about who was doing the singing rather than what was being sung.

A number of so-called country music purists are casting Beyonce’s second slide into the genre as an attack on the autonomy of country music. They see it as an effort by the Texan to wrest control away from the country music community through the power of her fan base.

Just so you know, I’m not a big Beyonce fan. Still, Beyonce has earned the right as a musician to do as she pleases, as my friend and former AJC colleague Melissa Ruggieri, a music writer for USA Today, recently said.

In 2016, Beyonce’s performance of her country-esque song “Daddy Lessons,” with the Chicks, renewed debate about what should be considered country music. That debate surfaced again in 2019, when Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” hit the top of the charts. And it is the same debate that has been raging since the commercial country music industry began evolving in the 1920s.

Prior to that moment, country music was multicultural — a blend of sounds and traditions from Europe, Africa and American Indigenous communities. Musicians from the South and Southwest collaborated, borrowed and outright stole music from each other. Country music once reflected a diversity that is hard to imagine today.

But the moment the music became commercial, money-grabbing record executives separated that sound into two different genres, “hillbilly” music for white audiences and “race records” for Black audiences, with the assumption that people would only buy records based on their race.

With that, country music was promptly rebranded as the soundtrack of rural white Americans rather than music created for anyone who could relate to the struggles, successes, sorrows and joys of life that the songs captured.

We’ve been duped, y’all.

Some music experts have argued that country music underwent another significant shift after 9/11, becoming more jingoistic than ever and, therefore, more isolating to anyone who didn’t fit certain stereotypes. A line was drawn between Toby Keith’s amped up patriotism and the Chicks, who were famously booted from the country music scene in 2003 for anti-war comments during a concert.

My attachment to country music had already faded by then. But I’m happy to say Beyonce’s ascension to the top of the country charts has prodded me to reconnect with the genre, if only because it sent me on a mission to seek out and listen to the music of all the Black women who ever charted in country music.

I found Linda Martell, the first Black woman to gain a measure of commercial success in country music when she made it to the Top 20 of Billboard’s country charts in 1969. She was the first Black woman to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. But, by the 1970s, after a breaking with her label, Plantation Records, over the name, Martell found herself on the outs with the country music establishment.

At the other end of the spectrum, I discovered Tanner Adell, an indie country pop artist who began releasing music in 2021. While she has yet to produce a chart-topper, she has had some success on social media platforms. A former Mormon, Adell has cited a range of musical influences (including Beyonce) that led her to the brand of glam country for which she is currently known.

Between these two artists are other Black female country singers whose music I want to explore more deeply: Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Miko Marks, Rhiannon Giddens and others.

When Beyonce releases her full country album next month, I hope it will continue to steer attention to the rising ranks of Black women in country music, as well those lost to history.

I wish my mother had come of age during a time when her dream of becoming a country music singer wouldn’t have seemed so far-fetched. Women that look like her had been largely written out of the script. But the songstresses I’ve recently discovered also have stories to tell. Just like Loretta. And I’m ready to listen again.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.