Cowboy Carter is a Unique Listening Experience

Robbie Fulks talks being too-country-for-country-radio, the business of selling music, and Beyoncé.

The appearance of Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter in the last days of March has uncorked the Dam of Tediously Familiar Questions. There’s the question of quality: how good is it? That question is non-litigable but easy. (If you’re in a hurry, skip 12 paragraphs down for the answer.) People are also talking about how country it is. Does it legitimately land in that box, or is it pop or urban music posing opportunistically as music in the hallowed lineage of Hank Williams? This question is trickier. But mainly it’s dumb. Let’s explore…

If you’re a student of the history of the hallowed stuff and its Nashville-centered industry, the anxiety about lineage and authenticity is familiar indeed. About the time that Roy Acuff set up his publishing concern in that town, in 1942, Eddy Arnold was emerging as an early nationwide superstar. With his warmly avuncular vocal delivery and silky-smooth production, Arnold was the cashbox-ringing, forward-facing man of the hour. Acuff himself, though only in his late 30s, was already a staunch emblem of the old school — his couture straight from the cottonpatch, his repertoire favoring dusty tunes about trains and tragedies, his singing and fiddling exhibiting more emotion than intonation. In the 80-plus years since, Nashville’s music, as the historian Paul Kingsbury observed, has swung repeatedly between those poles, today’s markets versus yesterday’s memories (at least its mythic, sentimentalized ones).

Partisans have gathered around each pole. The market-friendly group says that country music is a form properly adaptable to the lives of all of us, right now; it’s not some stuck-in-amber hillbilly fantasia, and would swiftly wither away if it were. The other side avers that the genre, though flexible, is by now well-defined across the span of its recorded history, with high points that are beautiful, worthy of preservation, and widely agreed on even outside the base. Why, you’d have to be un-American not to recognize and celebrate the majesty of Dolly and Willie — as Beyoncé does, by the by. Though my heart is largely with the traditionalists, I’ve landed on both sides of the argument over the years, having vulgarly derided the art-averse industry in song as well as laid out a lusty pro-Shania case, at excruciating length, in this publication.

It’s curious to think that, because the Black influence is so heavy in almost every commercial genre outside country, opening the music wider to commercialism and modernity almost necessarily means making it Blacker. How much Black influence is already reflected in the music can be seen in two sharply conflicting ways. Because poor Southern whites in the Jim Crow era had on average much more intimate daily experience than northern whites did with African-Americans, the latter’s influence on country was wide but subtle, transmitted largely second-hand, like Ouija whisperings — Rufus Payne via Hank Williams, Lesley Riddle via A.P. Carter, Black juke joints via Moon Mullican and a thousand other emulators. There’s also the two-way influence of white and Black styles of country fiddling, as well as the blunt fact of the banjo’s African ancestry. 

Against the riverine intercourse of peoples in close habitation, however, there’s the brute fact of country music as a business with a physically embodied and factually embedded past: a pile of shellac, a sheaf of sales charts, and a line of work embracing pickers, singers, producers, engineers, A&R reps, DJs, and so on. How many Black country recording artists can you name? I could list five, off the top of my head, and the sad truth is that, excepting Charley Pride, you could write a perfectly well-rounded history of country without mentioning the names of the other four. (OK, a one-volume history of less than 400 pages.) Millions of living people know Linda Martell’s name — since last March. As of February, I doubt whether one thousand did. When you reflect very deeply on so many people — and these are people of rural American origin, too — being almost totally shut out of the music for so many years, through a genteelly enforced, super-ambient bigotry, you might toggle between an unsurprised bemusement and simply feeling… so lonesome you could cry. 

The most tedious questions of all are the ones swirling around celebrity, money, and status, those fatuous preoccupations of the dim-witted. In his pan of Cowboy Carter in the Washington Post, a gentleman with the motel-adultery name of Chris Richards digs into these, after judging the record “cosmetic.” An apparently fragile sort of person, Richards finds himself barely “able to process the intrinsic corniness.” Beyoncé, he reminds readers, is a very famous multimillionaire. As such, her lyrics about poverty and the power of faith to move mountains are clichés that fall Antoinette-ishly flat, delivered as they are from her queenly perch to the worker-bee multitudes. Her whining about being snubbed at a CMA Awards show, Richards says, is absurd, and her politics, as much as one can make them out, appear strategically non-specific, cautiously hedged. She’s posing as socially engaged while — hold onto your Stetson here — trying to make even more money for herself.

I confess that I was too distracted by Beyoncé’s singing, the first several listens, to give much thought to the legitimacy of her grievances, infer a political philosophy, or imagine her asset portfolio. That’s what great singing does: disables rational thought. When an average singer sings her thoughts, your focus might wander anywhere. You’re as likely to home in on the words and their meanings as to look around at other listeners, imagine how much the singer is raking in, or pull out your iPhone and float away. When a great singer is flexing her pipes, though, you’re held tightly on track. You’re unscattered, as it were. You bliss out.

Still, it’s fair to think more skeptically once the spell is broken, and Richards’s point about the grossness of ultra-rich performers poor-mouthing and bellyaching is well-taken, to a point. In 2017, I went to the Grammys in Los Angeles, to lose mine. One of the performers there, as it happened, was a very pregnant Beyoncé. She wore a tight-fitting suit made out of gold doubloons or something, and a glowing tiara, and sang while leaning back so far in a chair I put my hand over my eyes. I was riveted by the act but nervous about the fetus. Across three hours, a raft of similarly lavishly-outfitted global celebs trotted across the platform. Many complained in pitched lyric about their careworn lives, and lectured us sternly on climate change, greed, racism, and other injustices being perpetuated by corporate elites.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the bodies I’d stepped over on the sidewalk on the way through security and into the building. My mind rambled because I was far away from the stage, squeezed into seating tighter than Bey’s bodice, and continually distracted by the sets being moved around by the crew, the harried camera people, and the chubby comedian host racing from spot to spot. Amid this high-stakes capitalistic ruckus, the performers’ social and personal messages hit me less as rank hypocrisies than as faintly pretty wallpaper from a distant room. Of course the messages weren’t aimed at us in the Staples Center, but at TV viewers elsewhere, happily unaware of the mostly brown and Black bodies strewn around the arena. Viewers like those are in an idealized relationship of love and identification with Adele and Maren Morris, as others of us are with Bob Dylan or Dolly Parton. When one of these great interpreters of song sings to you through a screen in close-up or via ear buds, rather than a PA at a quarter-mile’s distance, reason wilts.

Richards is of course right that all these people are much wealthier than almost any of their fans. But their success only increases the identificatory thrill: they’re gods, they’re beautiful, they’re rich, they’re loved, they’re me. Whatever Beyoncé’s sundry neuroses are, whatever her grievances and sufferings, they’re her private concern — until she sings them. Then her sorrows magically become ours. Her power and status effectively validate the sorrows and the messenger both. And, who knows, maybe her message inspires some listener toward an RAK that relieves another person’s suffering.

Earlier in the century, when my kids lived with me, the occasional Beyoncé hit shook the house. As of March, I recalled the flavor of that music, and having seen her at the Grammys; I also knew one song, “Irreplaceable,” by heart, from having performed it. And that’s all that I knew of her. Extraneously, I was aware that the record was attracting the ire of certain crabby old whites who like their country straight. Some were bitching on my Facebook feed, and a couple to me privately, in texts. The tedious questions were turned over and over in the official media, with little light shed. It’s “not country,” the WaPo headline declared; “it’s much worse.” Something about that baffled me. Does it make much sense to call something “much worse” than something else that’s very good? Does “these are much worse than Mother’s cream pies” scan? Maybe I’m hypersensitive, but I read “much worse” as a polite but confusing way of saying “even worse.”

Because I’m a country performer who loves the genre and knows its history decently well, I hoped I might try to cut through the online noise — all the fulsome praise, motel-pervert nitpicking, and geriatric bile — and shed some light for you Talkhouse readers. I’m a crabby old white myself, but I can keep my knee from jerking for many moments at a time. And my general ignorance on the music of Beyoncé carries, possibly, the upside of some objectivity.


The distance between Fort Worth and San Antonio is 268 miles, almost all interstate; the drive time between my gigs in those towns, the first week of last April, was about four hours. Cowboy Carter runs 78:21. Thus if you get on I-35 South at 1PM, click Cowboy Carter on Spotify and listen top to bottom, you have time to listen in full again, then text friends excitedly for an hour (furtively, because Texas cops partake of divine and satanic qualities, being both everywhere at once and assholes). Eventually you find yourself in the Mission City in a state of mutely dazzled surrender, observing traffic patterns with senses still tingling from your aural sauna. Darrell Scott, another greying guy in my line of work, was doing the Texas run with me; he was soundchecking as I arrived. “Have you heard much Beyoncé?” I asked him. “Sure, I guess so,” he said. “I’m not really closely familiar, but a song of mine did turn up on her last record.” “You’re buying dinner,” I said.

This record’s really something. Its omnivorous breadth recalls late 1960s Beatles records and not many records since. Not only is country given voice but soul, gospel, hip hop, funk, old-timey string band, opera (a surging, giallo-esque bridge in “Daughter”), and, oh yeah, the Beatles. Yet other musics, like flamenco, sunny California pop, and Irish, are alluded to. Acoustic guitar is upfront in a lot of the tunes. In fact, the guitar, that all-purpose musical tool of the cowboy and vaquero alike, and the voice — humanly plucked and projected, respectively — are the bright threads running through Cowboy Carter. That stitching, and the storyline emphasis on vulnerability and memory, get us closer to both humanity and country music. And they surely help guide a guitar picker like me, 61 years old and largely deaf to the charms of 21st century commercial entertainment (as well as largely deaf, period), toward the tender heart of the album.

I appreciate how it’s put together. In the artist’s delightful duo with Miley Cyrus (“II Most Wanted”), the women’s vocals aren’t tightly edited so that their phrasing is impeccably paired. Their rhythmic moves are independent and their consonantal endings are — not staggered, but thick, the sound of two mouths. It’s a welcome move, helping the singing to feel honestly performed. As with some of Taylor Swift’s records, the production doesn’t strive to fill every space with desperate gewgaws, like a manic theatrical trailer. Sarah Silverman once said that a lot of new music sounds like a computer is screaming at you. I hope that, despite the permanence and predominance of computers in our lives, music finds a way to slip loose of their death grip. In its methods and highlighted humanness, Cowboy Carter offers modest grounds for hope.

I don’t want to sound as cocksure as some others about the conceptual core of the album, or about the specific meaning of this line or that. The CMA snub, according to online chatter, is directly referenced in the opening track, “American Requiem”: “Then the rejection came/Said I wasn’t country ’nough.” (That song also says “There’s a lot of chatter in here,” and amen to that.) Cowboy Carter is clearer in its broader themes than in particular lines. It purposefully and querulously circles the subject of America — our country’s landscapes (especially the Gulf states), distressed history, romance with violence, compulsive optimism, religiosity, heterogeneity and resistance to generalization, and not least, its rainbow of music forms. Family is also a major theme. 

Requiem has two close but distinct meanings, being an address to the dead as well as an act of remembrance — speaking out loud to history while taking pains to hold it vividly in the mind’s eye. “American Requiem” introduces Beyoncé’s moonshiner grandfather and notes her Alabamian/Texan roots, as well as the irony of her having ping-ponged, down through the years, between criticisms of “too country” and “not country enough.” Nation, ancestry, hurt feelings: it’s a lot for one song to take on. Many of the songs are like giant frames around frames that are themselves quite large. As I left Fort Worth and the album began, one of my first thoughts was, Uh-oh, this is sounding awfully grandiose, very crammed with orchestral bombast and heavy nouns. But in the tracks that followed, the quietness, variety, and performance excellence won me over fast. The final song, “Amen,” has a well-wrought hard insight that redeems the wandering and makes good on the first track’s threat of Deep Thoughts. We’ll be the ones that purify our fathers’ sins, it says. I found this personalized recasting of Christian mythology — we who are here now are tasked with corrective work that has a meaningful aim, in terms of both the arc of justice and the betterment of future lives — affecting, pan-racial, and pretty convincing.

Family and memory are also in the spotlight in “16 Carriages,” a two-chord song lamenting the lost innocence of a 15-year-old girl, unburdened of all her “tender problems” for an encounter with death and induction into the low-wage labor force (“I might cook, clean but still won’t fold” — clever line). “Daughter” evokes sadistic fantasy (“I ripped your dress and you’re all black and blue”) and genetic determinism (“If you cross me, I’m just like my father”). One line makes me especially happy: “Cleanse me, Holy Trinity, from the marijuana smoke smell in my hair.” Amen again. I endorse the opinion of that skunky odor as a filth antithetical to godliness, and I dig the unembarrassed use of that prim, unfashionably FBI-agent term, “marijuana.” In the song’s operatic section she hits a very high A. In “Texas Hold ‘Em” there’s a D note below it by two octaves and two-and-a-half steps. The range, from male tenor to mezzosoprano, is impressive in itself, but it’s the force and traffic-stopping clarity of the notes across the range that’s really extraordinary.

For someone like me who thinks of certain songwriters of his own generation, plus one generation down and a couple up, as having set global standards in lyrical matters like focus, development, diction, and economy, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at some of these lines. “On a long black road all the tears I fight… While I watch them ride with my dreams away,” “We headin’ to the dive bar we always thought was nice,” “I would give him everything, my thunderstorm and second chances.” The album is dotted with thoughts that on their face are weak and first-drafty. Words are placed awkwardly to make a rhyme happen; there are songs whose cores are unstable and elusive. “Ya Ya,” for instance, covers sex, poverty, and social injustice, and also has some guns in it. Those are all evergreen themes in country music, independent of each other, but I can’t think of any song that drifts “Ya Ya”-style across the waterfront. One might think back to the first recorded generation, when verses were quickly and semi-improvisationally mashed together out of public domain pieces to make a fresh, copyrightable whole. The verses of Jimmie Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel #2” jump around like a dog on a dance floor, from betrayal to jail to horniness to police violence, without bothering to make the slightest coherent story connection.

“Blue Yodel #2” is probably so far removed from the referential range of Beyoncé Knowles as to be irrelevant. Irrelevance is the final destination for all of us, and, because that’s hard to swallow, it takes some effort to remind myself that the craftsmanship principles that steered Carole King, Otis Blackwell, Harlan Howard, Bob Dylan, Stephen Sondheim, and Paul Simon, though inspiring to me, are date-stamped over the long run. The idea of a song as intellectual property and artistic ideal form, floating free of any one performer, may itself prove a relic of the post-copyright pre-internet era. The present day is as distant from that diverse crowd, Carole King et al, as theirs was from Victor Herbert and Will Marion Cook. What constitutes good lyric-writing changes over time.


Back to “Is it country,” a question that, at first glance, looks too narrow to entertain very seriously. Listeners who don’t work in music marketing needn’t think much about genre names; if they do, they’re probably thinking too shallowly. Ginned-up descriptors like “country” (a shortening of country-and-western, the term invented and used in the early record business to describe the string-band music of rural whites and to segregate it from music made by and sold to Blacks) are functionally important to marketers and salespeople who, naturally, have a strong interest in pinpointing subgroups most likely to buy. For anyone else, the descriptors don’t go far in describing. Sure, they’re useful as a work-saving shorthand, like when I called myself a country performer a few paragraphs back. But to know what I’m really up to in my music, you’d have to hear it. “My musical identity can’t be fairly summed up in a word, nor can it be fully described in any set of words; simply listen, please.” There aren’t many sentences that could be honestly stated by any good musician working in any kind of music, but that’s one. 

Whether Cowboy Carter lands on country radio or any other format, and which industry awards it’s eligible for by virtue of its categorization, is obviously of strong concern to the artist and her team. A Grammy for Best Country Record would be an amazing bit of publicity to trumpet. But we don’t want to live in a world where listeners are consciously consuming according to market category, always thinking, Is this the thing that I know from the label I like? Or perhaps I should say that we don’t want to make our world even more like that than it already is. Consumer and artist behavior tend to make a feedback loop in a free market, and bad things happen when artists are very conscious of that pretentious, Gallic-sounding word “genre” (the etymology’s actually Greek) amid the brain-off-leash process of creation. Genre-centered thinking makes for shitty or second-rate music, and helps solidify the barriers of cultural segregation. Safe to say Beyoncé feels the same, since she includes in her 78-minute tour of America a clip of Linda Martell patiently explaining to her audience, “This particular tune stretches across a range of genres, and that’s what makes it” — now slow-walking the words as if speaking to imbeciles — “a unique listening experience.”

In its essence, what is country, whether as a real-world, not-for-profit tradition or a bunch of recordings for sale? If you put Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell, Linda Martell (neat rhyming pair there), Moe Bandy, Loretta Lynn, Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, and every blind grey-headed front-porch troubadour in Kentucky in a bucket, what would the shared qualities be? A few come right to mind. Storylines that are easily understood — no 75-cent words, please — and speak to the everyday troubles and joys of common people. Songs that were composed on a five-string banjo, four-string fiddle, or, most commonly, a six-string guitar. Songs with not many chords in them, three-and-the-truth being the cliché. On record at least, good — no, great, super-skilled, extraordinary — singing is the expectation. Ernest Tubb and Johnny Cash are the wobbly exceptions proving the rule; raspy one-octave singing is standard in “Americana” but unwelcome in “country.” Another commonality: some sense of humor or lightness leavening all the teardrops and trainwrecks. Intense performances with a real good pocket. Mostly major keys. The sense that the performers and writers were formed as humans not in privilege but in privation — this wants to be conveyed in performance, somehow. Some steel guitar or fiddle. Both, ideally.

By these criteria, Cowboy Carter is a country record. Actually, by some of them, it goes a step beyond, on certain songs: two steel guitars, not one; two chords, not three. It has banjo on it, for Christ’s sake! Beyoncé’s background may not be quite as rough as some country ladies (a small sample of distaff privations and wounds: Jean Shepard didn’t eat meat until her teens, Jan Howard was raped at 9 and married at 14, and even high-sheen Shania was working barrooms at age 8 to make money for her family) but let’s say that she’s in the ballpark of psychic injury. Meanwhile, little on country radio playlists these last 35 years has featured a banjo, and almost none has met a very strict traditionalist definition of the music. Why suddenly throw up a double-standard that excludes the internationally admired Texan? 

Program directors don’t care about history or idiomatic purity, don’t give a rat’s ass about whether a new product sounds continuous with what they were selling a few years ago. They just don’t want people to change the station. The business is much more cowardly than it is racist — but the outcome can be indistinguishable. What exactly is the thinking of a PD who fears that if he allows “Texas Hold ‘Em” to follow Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” listeners will object, or flee? What’s the thinking of the listener who does? Speaking of rats, I seem to smell one. Let’s not hold up a Brad Paisley yardstick to Beyoncé Knowles, folks. It might really start to look like we don’t want to share our comfy cafeteria with Black people.

The story of crazy-talented performers frustratedly fighting a cowardly, short-sighted industry: now there’s a tedious and familiar tale. The too-country-for-country-radio list of names is too long to recite. Among the not-country-enough: Bob Wills in 1944, facing down the opposition of Grand Ole Opry management to bring drums onto the broadcast for the first time; Ray Price in 1968 battling the watchdogs to get “For The Good Times,” his string-drenched countrypolitan ballad, onto the airwaves; Ms. Twain, whose 1995 breakout album met with initial label rejection followed by unkind and sometimes misogynistic reviews. These are just the innovators whose fights became well-known because they won them. But innovative artists usually lose.

Lucky for our heroine, there’s really no more “on top” for her to aspire to. Commercial country, by and large, is, to borrow a phrase, much worse than she is. I appreciate her, even if inadvertently, shining a light on some crabby codgers and on the hypocrisy and cowardice that dominates the business of selling music. But I already knew about that. What I didn’t know was how crazy I was about her artistry. Now I know it, and in the spirit of requiem, won’t forget.

Robbie Fulks is a musician — country, but also strongly attracted to jazz, bluegrass, gospel, experimental musics — living in Los Angeles. His latest record is Bluegrass Vacation. His 2017 release, Upland Stories, was a multiple Grammy nominee. His website is here.