10 takeaways from Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’

Turns out country music isn’t the only sound you’ll hear at the Beyoncé rodeo. The singer’s new album, “Cowboy Carter,” dropped Friday at midnight, and it’s a big one: 27 tracks, more than 79 minutes, tons of guest stars and even Beatles and Dolly Parton covers. The record, teased with two new twangy singles after the Super Bowl, was hyped as the R&B and pop star’s first “country” full-length. It ain’t, she would later clarify: “This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.” Undoubtedly. But it’s also a lot of album. Here’s what we’re hearing on it.

So if it’s not a “country” album …

I knew enough about disco, house and queer club culture to know that on 2022′s “Act I: Renaissance,” Beyoncé had done her homework, mastering the genres to which she was paying homage. I didn’t go into “Cowboy Carter” with enough country music knowledge to judge whether Beyoncé was making a good country album. As it turned out, that didn’t matter. By the time I got to “Bodyguard,” with its shades of Fleetwood Mac and Carole King, it was clear Beyoncé was hopping across stylistic borders. At the beginning of the 12th track of “Cowboy Carter,” country music legend Linda Martell says, “Genres are a funny little concept aren’t they? Yes they are.” The track is called “Spaghettii” — a reference, maybe, to Spaghetti Westerns. But I found myself thinking, “That’s what she’s doing: Throwing spaghetti at the wall!”

So what kind of album is it? It’s a journey. On “Smoke Hour * Willie Nelson,” you can hear the turning dial of a terrestrial radio. The album ends up feeling like a late-night road trip, where you’re tuning in to whatever station has the strongest signal. You get your country, you get your adult contemporary, you hear a Beatles song and some snippets of talk radio. And occasionally you land on a college radio station and you can’t tell if you’re misunderstanding the lyrics or if the song is just weird. Did she just say “Struds in my mouth?” Why does she keep saying “Look at that horse” over and over again? It might not be “country,” but it does nod to something quintessentially American. You take what you have, you make the most of it and you sing along. Sometimes it’s beautiful and sometimes it’s a woman saying “Look at that horse” over and over again. — S.O.

‘Blackbiird’ gives a boost to female Black country artists

One question that has come up in the country music industry: Could “Cowboy Carter” bring more attention to other Black country artists who have been working to break through in the genre? Since the release of “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages” after the Super Bowl, multiple Black singer-songwriters in Nashville reported that they have received a boost in streams and social media followers due to Beyoncé’s influence. Beyoncé came through with the answer in the second track, a cover of the Beatles ballad “Blackbird” (stylized as “Blackbiird”) that features four up-and-coming Black country singers: Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts. They have all been working for years in the genre — all deemed “Next Women of Country” by CMT — and were all thrilled to be included on the album. Both the song and the collaborations are significant because of the backstory: Paul McCartney has explained he was inspired to write a song during the civil rights movement of the 1960s that could bring people a sense of comfort — and that in England, a “bird” refers to a girl, so he was specifically thinking about Black women. — E.Y.

The ‘Renaissance’ continues

“Cowboy Carter” spans not only the sands of time but the strictures of genre. So after exploring country and related traditions — and relying on the stomp-clap percussion of the last decade’s folk implosion — the pull of the dance floors Beyoncé staked out on “Renaissance” gets more intense: a hint of rave synths at the end of “Texas Hold ‘Em,” sleazy basslines on “Bodyguard” and “Desert Eagle.”

Then, for the album’s last act, she brings the beat back from “Renaissance.” “Riiverdance” connects Irish dancing to Appalachian traditions to house music a la Crystal Waters, while “II Hands II Heaven” sets Western imagery — running stallions, moonlight dancing — to a galloping beat that references, improbably, Underworld’s rave favorite “Born Slippy.” — C.K.

Dad shows up

Beyoncé has daddy issues, okay? Not all bad ones, necessarily, but she’s laid them bare repeatedly throughout her work. In fact, fans might have Beyoncé's father, Mathew Knowles, to thank for “Cowboy Carter,” in an indirect way. When she officially announced the album on March 19, the singer explained its genesis. “It was born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed …” Though she didn’t go into further details, Beyoncé watchers believe she was referencing her 2016 performance of her zydeco-infused, country-ish song “Daddy Lessons” at the Country Music Association Awards, which was met with racist vitriol from some. That was a song about being raised tough — about how her papa taught her not to take no mess. On “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé continues to explore her paternal lineage with lines like this one from the album’s sweeping opener “Ameriican Requiem”: “I am the one to cleanse me of my father’s sins.” Later, in “Daughter,” close to the album’s halfway mark, Beyoncé sings a murder ballad about a superstar pushed to her brink. “They keep saying that I ain’t nothing like my father … if you cross me I’m just like my father.” What to make of all this pater chatter? Legacies — musical ones, family ones — have been a theme of Beyoncé's music. Sometimes she’s correcting artistic history and blending genres. Sometimes she’s inserting her children into her art. One way or another, she’s always tugging at roots. — H.A.


Linda Martell got several shout-outs

Martell made history in 1969 when she became the first Black female singer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Martell received multiple standing ovations that night, but her record label dropped her shortly after the release of her debut album - she has spoken out through the years about the racism she endured as she toured the country. Although she left the music industry, her influence has never been forgotten, and Beyoncé features Martell on two tracks: “Spaghettii,” in which Martell’s voice-over kicks things off with a message to anyone fretting about whether you can blend country music with other kinds of music. “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? Yes they are. In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand,” Martell says. “But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” And in the aptly titled interlude “The Linda Martell Show,” Martell introduces the next track, “Ya Ya,” advising listeners that it “stretches across a range of genres - and that’s what makes it a unique listening experience.” - E.Y.

Speaking of blending genres …

Beyoncé also made sure to include Willie Jones (“Just for Fun”) and Shaboozey (“Spaghettii,” “Sweet * Honey * Buckiin’”), who have both earned lots of fans in Nashville as they mix country and hip-hop. - E.Y.

It could have used some editing

For its five-year gestation, nearly 80-minute runtime and history-making ambitions, “Cowboy Carter” still feels somewhat undercooked. Why not have Willie Nelson light up and DJ KNTRY Radio Texas all night long? Songs like “Spaghettii” and “Just for Fun” don’t commit to their featured guests and their outlaw lyrics, while “Alligator Tears” and “Flamenco” fail to develop. And while “Levii’s Jeans” ably takes “Blow” from the roller rink to the hoedown, what does Post Malone — another country-come-lately — bring to the proceedings, other than a case of Bud Light and some Gen Z clout? - C.K.

She covers ‘Jolene’

Back in 2022, Dolly Parton explained on “The Daily Show” why she wanted Beyoncé to cover her 1973 single, “Jolene.” “I would just love to hear ‘Jolene’ done in just a big way, kind of like how Whitney [Houston] did my ‘I Will Always Love You.’ Someone that could take my little songs and make ‘em like powerhouses.” Asked and answered. Beyoncé’s cover — introduced here by Dolly herself — turns Parton’s classic on its head. Instead of begging the titular hussy not to take her man, the Queen Bey’s song is a warbling warning. “Don’t take the chance because you think you can,” she sings, before letting Ms. Jolene know in no uncertain terms that Mrs. Carter is not the one: “So you don’t want no heat from me.” Whether a song about a jezebel bogeywoman feels empowering or reductive is a worthy argument to have when Beyoncé, who began dipping her toes into feminism more than a decade ago with 2013′s “***Flawless,” is at the center of the rewrite. If anything, “Jolene” feels like a long-awaited cleanup of the pile of skeletons left by 2016′s “Lemonade.” That’s when fans were first introduced to Beyoncé's own personal Jolene, “Becky with the good hair,” a homewrecker of the highest order. Eight years later, Beyoncé and Jay-Z are happy, to go by her rewritten “Jolene” lyrics: “I know my man’s gon’ stand by me.” — H. A.

She’s thinking about her legacy

Beyoncé once sang that she wanted to leave her footprints “on the sands of time.” On “Cowboy Carter,” she’s acutely aware of whose footsteps she’s following. A radio dial time travels from Son House and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Chuck Berry and Roy Hamilton. Living legends like Nelson and Martell testify to her bona fides. On “Ya Ya,” she reworks Nancy Sinatra and the Beach Boys by walking in Betty Davis’s boots.

When, in the great tradition of country music, Beyoncé covers others’ songs, she makes them into her own image, sometimes too obviously. “Blackbiird” doubles down on McCartney’s ode to the civil rights struggle, turning the leading lights of Black girl country — Spencer, Roberts and Kennedy — into Destiny’s Children (Adell, who wished upon X for a sprinkle of magic, gets her own verse). Parton connects the dots between “Becky with the good hair” and “Jolene,” but whereas her original was sung from vulnerability, Beyoncé dismisses her rival as another desperate peon. It’s the reimagining of “Landslide” as a Bonnie-and-Clyde anthem, “II Most Wanted,” that most deftly melds the past and the present. Miley Cyrus and her whiskey rasp hold their own as two pop chameleon’s ponder a day when they won’t be young. — C.K.

The album is cyclical

The final note of “Cowboy Carter” loops seamlessly back into the first track, which begins “Nothing really ends.” Like James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” “Cowboy Carter” was written to be an eternal loop. The album begins with a warning about the demise of America, telling us that “now is the time to face the wind.” By the end, the wind she’s singing about is the breeze in a convertible and Beyoncé (or the persona she’s inhabiting) is begging for mercy as she watches her world crumble. It’s unclear if she gets the absolution she’s asking for, since she ultimately ends up right where she began. Oof. - S.O.