How Queen Bey Transformed Country Music’s Biggest Night

When word circulated that Beyoncé would headline the 50th annual Country Music Association Awards (CMAs) last Thursday, the announcement was a surprise for fans of the genre in and of itself. But when the cultural icon emerged with the Dixie Chicks in tow to wow Music City with her country-steeped “Daddy Lessons,” this year’s show became something else entirely.

Some online commentators took offense to Beyoncé’s inclusion in the lineup of country music’s big night, claiming the reigning queen of R&B didn’t belong on the Bridgestone Arena stage. Anger bubbled at the choice of song, whose horn-laced chords apparently did not qualify as “country.” This displeasure is misplaced. It’s unfounded, ignorant of history, and at times, just plain racist.

Let’s talk about the song itself. “Daddy Lessons,” from Beyoncé’s surprise 2016 album Lemonade, opens with a brass band reminiscent of a New Orleans dive bar before extending into a Dolly Parton-esque chorus.

Even its hip-hop elements, embedded throughout the rhythm, are ones with roots below the Mason-Dixon line: the song’s chopped-and-screwed division was popularized in Houston, which, not coincidentally, is Beyonce’s hometown. Though the song itself isn't Beyonce's most politically-charged, its video incorporates imagery of New Orleans and pays tribute to the city's musicality and resilience following Hurricane Katrina.

It’s true that even with its Americana roots, “Daddy Lessons” fails to fully capture the deep twang of George Strait. Yet, who’s to say that Beyoncé should be any less welcome than her past pop predecessors to grace the Music City stage?

This pop-country crossover is not new at the CMAs. Last year Justin Timberlake joined Chris Stapleton with absolutely none of the derision that Beyonce has endured. The reasons for this observed discrepancy are up for debate, but the explanations don’t look great any way you swing them.

Accusations of racism, sexism, and ideological intolerance should not be taken lightly—especially in a genre still recovering from last year’s scandal in which radio DJs were revealed to be actively discriminating against female artists.

News flash: this isn’t the Houston native’s first rodeo. Back in 2007, a much younger Bey took to the stage at the American Music Awards alongside lady duo Sugarland with an incredible country remix of “Irreplaceable.” Even though the ballad’s drum track definitely did not qualify as traditional country, the addition of an upright bass, ukulele, and Sugarland’s trademark Georgia twang made it one country fans would never forget.

That being said, “Daddy Lessons” takes a backseat in the larger context of the album on which it’s featured. We live in a world where activism is everywhere, from our Instagram feeds to the slogans on our tee-shirts. Our music is no different, and even the cut-off jeans and tailgate whistlin’ lyrics of country music have begun to shift. Far from an anomaly, Beyoncé’s performance of “Daddy Lessons” is actually reflective of the changing times.

Lemonade explores race relations in America, directly touching on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Add in the Dixie Chicks, and the political feast for which they are known within the country community, and it’s clear the conservative genre has evolved—and for the better.

In 2003, onstage comments from the Dixie Chicks’ lead vocalist Natalie Maines deriding the unpopular invasion of Iraq landed the group on radio blacklists, bringing their promising young career to a screeching halt. From Reba McEntire to Toby Keith, one after another of country’s royalty chimed in, sending the trio deeper into their musical grave with each comment.

A lot can change in a decade. Now, thirteen years later, the Dixie Chicks are once again in Nashville’s good graces, and are headlining a sold-out tour in front of a blown-up image of a bedeviled Donald Trump. The fact that politicized songs sung by polarizing musicians can emerge onstage in Nashville to challenge the status quo is significant. For country music, a genre that has long had problems with diversity, it is long-overdue.

Despite Tuesday’s election results, the American social arena is rapidly changing, and our music can’t help but reflect that. As different songs cross our paths and challenge our preconceived notions with their lyrics, it’s important to remember that expansion doesn’t have to mean substitution.

There’s room for multiplicity within both our musical genres and our nation as a whole. This country fan is proud that country music has finally begun to reflect the America that I know to be true. Although President-elect Trump may think otherwise, we are a nation of many that is acceptive of different people and sounds, from the nationalism of Kenny Chesney’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” to Beyonce’s candid “Daddy Lessons.”

Rachel Lang CM '17 is an International Relations major from the DC area. Love her points? Disagree? Shoot her an email at rlang17@cmc.edu.

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